By Bob Plunket
I got up just before dawn on Sept. 11, 2001, because I had a busy day ahead of me. I had a book review due at noon, then meetings at the office. But first of all, I had a date with President Bush.
He was in town to promote reading in the public schools, so there was an event planned at Booker Elementary. The press had been invited, along with a carefully selected group of educators, students and politicians. We were all there before 8 a.m., waiting patiently in the school library and marveling at all the trappings of power that had suddenly descended on Sarasota—the Secret Service, the White House staff, the famous reporters from the TV networks.
The presidential motorcade was still about five minutes away when a murmur started to spread in the back of the crowd. People were getting calls on their cell phones with the news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
Well, you all know what happened next. George W. Bush’s hour or so at Booker has become the most carefully scrutinized hour of his presidency. I wrote a story about it for Sarasota Magazine and was pleased when the White House called, wanting an extra 20 copies.
But I missed the real story. That came out later. True, the President was here at that historic moment, but the real news was that the hijackers had been here, too, right here in Sarasota and Venice, for the past year, learning how to fly and planning their mission.
I thought I knew Sarasota pretty well, but as more details emerged, I realized I didn’t know it at all. Oh, the surface, sure. The happy, affluent retirees with their parties and golf. The beautiful homes, the arts scene. But there was an invisible Sarasota that was darker and more confusing than even the most lurid novelist could imagine. And what a strange place it was, a toxic combination of Muslim religious fanatics, strippers from the Cheetah Lounge on U.S. 301, shady flight instructors down in Venice, a wealthy Middle Eastern family in Prestancia who would receive frequent visits from Mohammed Atta and his cohorts….
The story of the hijackers’ year of living among us has never been satisfactorily told. And it probably never will be. People are afraid to dig too deep. And as time goes by, the participants fade away and the murky details get murkier.
It remains Sarasota’s biggest mystery.
Contributing editor Robert Plunket is the author of two novels, Love Junkie and My Search for Warren Harding. You can read his story about 9/11, “Sept. 11, 2001, in Sarasota,” here.