SARASOTA, Fla. (BP)–In the wake of the unfolding terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, 11 Florida Baptists found themselves at one of the epicenters of the burgeoning national crisis as President George W. Bush was visiting Sarasota for a scheduled appearance Sept. 11.
Members of Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon and Idlewild Baptist Church in Tampa were assisting the White House and United States Secret Service Service as a part of the president’s advance team for the Florida trip to discuss his education agenda.
Led by Bell Shoals member Jim Williams, these Florida Baptists were providing volunteer transportation services for senior executive branch staff members and the national news media. Williams, a federal and state appellate mediator and arbitrator, is a veteran of such advance work, having participated in more than 50 events since 1986.
When the motorcade arrived at Emma Booker Elementary School, events took a dramatic turn when regular security arrangements switched to “highest threat” condition, Williams told the Florida Baptist Witness.
All members of the team were in “shock and unbelief,” said Walt Schaffner, a fellow Bell Shoals member. “There seemed to be no distinction between staff, media or volunteers — all felt the same inability to verbalize their horror.”
“The United States Secret Service moved into their most active redundant precautions,” Williams said. “With uncertainty as to surrounding potential threats to the safety of the motorcade, every precaution was taken to assure the safety of the president.
“The event previously scheduled to last for an hour ended in 20 minutes followed by a high-speed and highly secured trip back to the airport” he added. Air Force One was waiting to whisk the president to a then-unknown location.”
Their task completed, the motorcade pulled away from the Boeing 747 to a safe distance where the unit members exited their vehicles and “did what other Christians all over the world were doing — they circled up, held hands and prayed for our nation,” Williams said.
The prayer scene was not lost on the hundreds of Secret Service, military and local law enforcement officials who observed.
“Staff that approached the [prayer] circle respected the prayer time,” Schaffner said, “and did not interrupt us until we concluded, standing next to the circle and listening to our petitions.”
He noted that among those for whom they offered prayer was a member of the news media who told Schaffner while in van to the airport that he was unable to contact a family member in New York.
Other advance team members reported to the Witness that they were asked to remain available for assistance in Sarasota until late in the afternoon when it became clear that the president’s plane would not return to Sarasota — an option they had been told was under consideration.
Meanwhile, Williams said he was the sole escort for Secretary of Education Rod Paige until he was able to leave Sarasota. After obtaining the assistance of two sheriff deputies, he drove the lead “mini-motorcade” taking the secretary back to the airport where the Secret Service took over.
In all of the more than 50 events he has worked as a volunteer, Williams said that he has “always prayed that if an ‘event’ were to take place that I would perform my duties in the best tradition of servanthood.”
Other members of the team included Bell Shoals members Mark Proctor, Dexter Barge, Pam Briest, Philip Georggi, Kim Pocchiari, Dennis Tea and Lisa Yob and Idlewild members Bill and Toni Bunkley.
“The return to Bell Shoals was very somber and quiet,” added Schaffner, principal of Burnett Middle School in Seffner, Fla.
Bill Bunkley told the Witness, “It will be a day we will all never forget.”