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We Talk with a Former WGCU Reporter About Her Front Row Seat to History on 9/11

In this Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 file photo, White House chief of staff Andrew Card whispers into the ear of President George W. Bush to give him word of the plane crashes into the World Trade Center, during a visit to the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla. (AP Photo/Doug Mills, File)
Doug Mills/AP
In this Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 file photo, White House chief of staff Andrew Card whispers into the ear of President George W. Bush to give him word of the plane crashes into the World Trade Center, during a visit to the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla. (AP Photo/Doug Mills, File)

When she went out for her story that morning, former WGCU reporter Valerie Alker Cooper knew it was a big deal to cover a visit by

the President of the United States. But, there was no way she could have known she would have a front-row seat to history.

President George W. Bush was visiting Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota to meet students and staff and to talk about his plans for education reform — but the event was disrupted by the news of the day.

Mike Kiniry caught up with his former coworker to talk about that day.

🔊 Listen to the WGCU special September 11: Twenty Years Later SWFL Looks Back

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MK: So, tell us the story. Tell us that day. Was this the kind of thing you would have typically been covering as a reporter? Just kind of paint the picture of going up there and winding up in that room.

VAC: I was the reporter of the day at that point at WGCU. We had a pretty small staff. So we had a host or Morning Edition and a host for All Things Considered and I did most of the day-to-day reporting. And, also I live in Punta Gorda, so being closest to Sarasota, the honor was mine.

MK: So when you got up there, it was just normal day. You got checked by Secret Service. You went in just not really knowing anything big was happening, obviously.

VAC: Well, I got up at zero-dark-30. The President, I believe, was scheduled to enter the room at 9:00 a.m. And I knew the drill from previous presidential visits, you have to be there really early so the Secret Service can sweep you. They sweep everyone going into the building. So, I probably left my home in Punta Gorda at about 6:30, I think, so it was still dark. And drove to Sarasota and parked. And I was wearing high heels because it was a President, and they made us park quite a way away for security reasons. And so I hoofed it down there and got in line.

I was on a dais with a bunch of reporters from CNN and the networks, and because I was radio I could plug into the mult box but I didn't have the big camera tripod to take up all the room on the stand. So I was with the big guys. And I called the newsroom at about, I don't know, quarter 9:00, ten to 9:00, and Amy Tardif answered the phone and I said, "Well, Amy, I'm here." She was employed here at that time. "I'm here and I'm waiting for the President and everything's going according to plan." And I said, "Anything happening at home?" And she said, "Well, a plane just ran into one of the twin towers...a passenger plane." And I said, "Really?" And she said, "Yeah." And it was the first one.

And really, the shockwaves had not started to build at that time. So I hung up and I mentioned it to some of the people around me on the riser, and they said, "No, no, it cannot be passenger planes, that's prohibited airspace. It must have been a small private plane that went in by accident." So that was sort of brushed under the table.

And then I called again about two minutes after nine maybe. And Taylor Lewis, another employee at the time, answered the phone, and I was chatting with him, and he was watching the news. And he said, "Oh, my god, a second plane just hit the other tower!" and he hung up on me. So I was on the phone with Taylor and that happened. And then I turned to the reporters around me on the stand and said, "Hey," on the riser and said, "hey, you know, I just talked to my news room and another plane just hit the other tower." And at the same moment as I was making this announcement, everyone's cell phones and beepers started going off. And there was a general feeling of chaos in the room. Controlled chaos in the room I guess you'd say.

Everyone was gathering. We were in the media center at the elementary school, and everyone was gathering around. There were two TV sets, the old fashioned kind, the big things. Everyone was gathering around them and watching it and just sort of aghast and phones kept going off.

So we had at the school we had, of course, the education officials, because the purpose of the visit that day was to promote President Bush's education initiatives. And so Rod Paige, who at that time was a nation's Secretary of Education, and Frank Brogan, who was Florida's lieutenant governor who had also been a high school administrator from Florida, were in attendance at this event. So, that's what the focus had been on. But we also had all the Republican faithful, of course, of Sarasota County. It was a big deal. And all these little kids, all these little girls with their hair in braids and fancy ribbons and pretty dresses, all dressed up for the President. It was sad to see that because it wasn't going to happen, you know.

And then they started packing up their stuff. They crowded around the monitors and then packing up their stuff, but keeping one foot in the door because no one really knew what the President was going to do. Was he going to hop back on that plane and on Air Force One and go straight back to Washington or what, no one knew? And then it turned out he came out and he made a statement. And I'm sure you can pull audio of that from somewhere. He was very gracious. He said...you know he apologized to the people at the school for not being able to stay. But he said, you know, there's been a terrorist attack on our nation, and he came out and made that statement. And then he he left and the network reporters left en masse with him.

And I was there local, and I'm thinking, do we still need to be doing this education story?

MK: Right? Well, how did you and the news team respond then as this unfolded across the world, but here in Fort Myers?

VAC: Well, what I did was I called the newsroom after I got my sound, which was very hard to in those days. You can imagine it was a lot harder to transfer sound because we didn't have all the Wi-Fi we have now and so forth, and Bluetooth. So, no. But I was told to stop at the airport on my way back to the station. So that's what I did. I stopped at RSW because all the planes have been grounded following the third and fourth. So I went to RSW on my way back. By this time I was just worn out. But I didn't really interview anyone. No one wanted to talk. I saw several flight crews walking out of the airport and they wouldn't say a word, they were just stone faced. And passengers, they were just anxious. Everybody was scared. And then I came back to the newsroom, dumped my sound. And I think I was out of here by about 5:00.

However, we had another twist for a local coverage because the 9/11 pilots trained here in southwest Florida. So that's the story that we were really on in the upcoming days. There was a guy I can't remember his last name, Rudy Shores (it was Rudi Dekkers) or something, who had trained the 9/11 pilots. He was, I guess, a crop duster or something like that they learned on these little planes. So that's something that we handled a lot. And then, of course, there was also the tourists that were stuck here. You know there are many, many...everyone in every community could find something to hang a hat on regarding 9/11 for reporting.

MK: Do you always remember being there at that school when you are reminded of 9/11?

VAC: I certainly am. I'll never forget it as long as I live out. I was an eyewitness to history.

MK: Was it your most memorable reporting moment?

VAC: I would have to say probably, yes. Just because it's a memorable moment for so many of us. I had many great experiences. I met the great Dr. Sylvia Earle one time, I met many, many, many, many people.

MK: You used to have a picture of Jane Goodall and you on your office wall.

VAC: Yes, Jane Goodall. And the same day I met Sylvia Earl I met Mike Collins. You know, Apollo, what was it? The first one...actually he didn't walk on the moon, but stayed back on the ship. I met a lot of really great people and went to a lot of great places. But this one, of course, you can't forget.

MK: Well, thanks for coming in and sharing it with us.

VAC: Thank you for having me.