Questions remain around Florida connections to the 9/11 terrorist attacks

ORLANDO, Fla. — As the 9/11 terror attacks were unfolding, then President George W. Bush was not in the White House.

He was with a group of second graders in Florida, a coincidence that wasn’t the only thing connecting the Sunshine State to one of America’s darkest days.

Investigative reporter Karla Ray explores Florida’s ties to 9/11, including terrorist training and ongoing questions about who else may have known what was being planned.

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20 years ago, people around the world were glued to the images out of New York.

Eventually, the television feeds also showed a glimpse inside a Sarasota second grade classroom.

A stoic President Bush received the news from his chief of staff that a second plane had hit the twin towers and America was under attack.

Former Secret Service agent Don Mihalek would eventually serve under both President Bush and President Obama’s teams; but on 9/11, he was in New York City.

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“For the agents that were with the president, they were working on limited information at the time about what happened what was going on,” Mihalek said. “Even aboard Air Force One, as has been reported, the internet was still new and not many people understood the magnitude of what was happening.”

Air Force One would fly some 45,000 feet above the Gulf of Mexico between Florida and Louisiana.

While in the air, another hijacked plane would hit the Pentagon, and a fourth would be grounded near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after passengers on board fought back against the terrorists who may have been diverting the flight toward the White House.

“Whether the terrorists knew or were sophisticated enough that he was in Florida and they could hit him in Florida is a question no one has been able to answer thus far,” Mihalek said.

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But those terrorists did have extensive knowledge of Florida.

The hijacker pilots aboard the planes that hit both towers, and the one who crashed into the Pennsylvania field, all did their training at flight schools in Venice, south of Sarasota.

“In Florida they were just able to go do their training, and no one took a second look,” said former FBI counterterrorism agent Richard Frankel.

Frankel said Florida’s diverse population attracted those terrorists, who spent more than a year here living seemingly normal lives while planning the attack.

“They actually split up. You had three here in Florida, and I think they did that just to make sure they had redundancy,” Frankel said.

The Florida connection to 9/11 even includes a bloodline to Osama bin Laden himself.

His brother, Khalil, owned a mansion just outside of Orlando for almost 20 years, but in the days following the terror attack, he and his family fled the area.

However, they weren’t the only family to get up and flee Florida.

The FBI investigated some Saudi families leaving the state and other places across the U.S in the days before and after 9/11, leading to questions still unanswered about whether there were others in the U.S. with knowledge of the planned attacks.

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Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.