SARASOTA, Fla. – Tyler Radkey and other second-graders at Emma E. Booker Elementary School didn't know what to think when an aide leaned in and whispered something to President Bush on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
"His face just started to turn red," said Tyler, now 13 and in seventh grade. "I thought, personally, he had to go to the bathroom."
For a puzzling seven minutes, the youngsters read aloud from the story "The Pet Goat" while the shaken president followed along in front of the class, trying to come to grips with what he had been told — that a second plane had just hit the World Trade Center and the nation was under terrorist attack.
"He looked like he was going to cry," said Natalia Jones-Pinkney, now 12.
Millions of Americans have a story of where they were on 9/11. But the kids of Booker Elementary are unique. Five years ago, they were part of history, sitting alongside a president in the midst of a monumental crisis.
"All of us shared an experience," said Michael Alexander, now 15. "No one else can say that."
Bush chose the school in one of Sarasota's poorest neighborhoods to launch a national reading campaign. He knew a plane had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center when he arrived, but the terror plot was still unfolding when he sat down in a classroom to listen to children read what they had been practicing for days.
Tyler, his hair neatly braided, is in the lower left-hand corner of the now-famous Associated Press photo of Chief of Staff Andrew Card whispering news of the second plane and the words, "America is under attack."
The president's decision to continue sitting there has been bitterly criticized. Filmmaker Michael Moore used the classroom video to embarrass Bush in the scathing documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11."
"You can't judge a man on seven minutes," said 15-year-old Stevenson Tose'-Rigell, who was then a fifth-grader and was with Bush in the school library later that day. "What he did is what he could do."
Bush soon left the classroom and, after a briefing from aides, strode into the library where other pupils were awaiting an appearance by Bush and Education Secretary Rod Paige. The children were unaware of what was unfolding as Bush made a brief statement to the nation about the attacks.
In the news footage, Michael can be seen standing next to the president. He is so stunned he neglects to lower his head for the moment of silence.
"There I am, right there," said Michael, pointing to a boy on the television screen. "I'm trying to figure out what's happening."
Suddenly, the morning returned to the script. Paige spoke to the stunned room of the importance of reading.
"It was so surreal," Sarasota schools spokeswoman Sheila Weiss said. "Everyone in there wanted to get out and find out what was going on, but we couldn't leave."
After the VIPs left, the Pentagon burned and the twin towers fell. Flight 93 plunged into a Pennsylvania field.
"I learned a lot," said Byron Mitchell, another fifth-grader who was in the library. "I learned anything can happen at any given moment."
He added: "That was the biggest day of my life. I wouldn't say I was in the middle of it. But I was part of it."