By June Woolerton via All About History
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The inside story of the terror attacks that changed America forever
The morning of 11 September 2001 was bright and calm across much of the East Coast of the United States of America. In New York, many city workers began their days as usual with a jog, running beneath a late summer’s blue sky. In Florida, Commander in Chief President George W Bush did exactly the same, enjoying an early morning run ahead of a routine visit to a school. Twelve hours later, many of those same workers would sit in front of their televisions watching him promise to protect their nation following the deadliest terrorist attacks the Western world had ever seen.
As the joggers got ready for work, two men spoke to each other by phone from two different departure lounges at Logan International Airport in Boston. Mohamed Atta and Marwan al Shehhi chatted for around three minutes. It would be their last conversation. For several years, they had been part of a terrorist cell preparing for a string of attacks on targets across the US. They planned to hijack planes laden with fuel and fly them into high-profile targets. Atta, along with three other hijackers, boarded American Airlines Flight 11 while al Shehhi and another four conspirators headed for AA Flight 175. The planes took off within 15 minutes of each other, both bound for Los Angeles. They would never arrive. Within an hour, both had been taken over by the terrorists and crashed deliberately into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York as the world watched.
Garrett M Graff is a leading historian of the attacks that soon became known as 9/11. He has spent years listening to the testimonies of those who experienced the attacks first-hand, their tales brought together afresh in his new book The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11. For him, much of what we know of the day has been established with hindsight.
Panicked onlookers run for their lives as the burning Wolrd Trade Center Collapses
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“The story that we teach of 9/11, the history that we tell, is a much neater and simpler and knowledgeable history of that day than the experience of anyone who was there,” he says. “We say there were four planes, the whole thing began at 8.46am with the first crash into the North Tower, the whole thing ended 102 minutes later at 10.28am with the collapse of the second tower, there were four strikes, two at the Twin Towers, one at the Pentagon, one at Shanksville, and slightly under 3,000 people died. Well, that’s not the day that anyone who lived 9/11 remembers. We didn’t know when the attacks began, we didn’t know when they were over, we had no idea of the scale of the tragedy and we had no idea of what came next.”
When Flight 11 flew into the North Tower, many people on the ground presumed it was an accident. But authorities already knew they were dealing with a terrorist incident. A quarter of an hour into its flight, the cockpit team had stopped acknowledging air control’s messages. A flight attendant, Betty Ong, had made contact with American Airlines Reservation Center in North Carolina, telling them: “I think we’re getting hijacked.” She reported that two flight attendants and a passenger in business class had been stabbed, and said she thought mace had been used and that people were struggling to breathe. Another attendant, Amy Sweeney, got through to the American Flight Services Office in Boston and told them she couldn’t contact the cockpit but there was a bomb in there. Her last words to them were: “We are way too low.” Within seconds, the plane had hit the North Tower between the 93rd and 99th floors. Everyone on the plane was killed instantly. So, too, were the people working on those floors. The jet fuel created a massive fireball on impact that burned through one bank of elevators.
An injured firefighter is lifted from the rubbly by his collegues
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For those in other parts of the North Tower, the noise and movement of the building was unusual but didn’t immediately signal an emergency. Bruno Dellinger was on the 47th floor. He later told the 9/11 Memorial and Museum that, “the building swung for maybe two or three minutes, we were used to the building swaying, of course, because of when it was a stormy day”. Emails and phone calls from people inside the building show them asking relatives to put on the TV to find out what had happened. Within minutes, media outlets across the US and then the world began to run images of the Twin Towers, smoke billowing from the North Tower.
Graff says that although there was concern, New York carried on pretty much as usual: “Peter Johanssen, who is New York commuter ferry captain that morning… talks about how he watched the first crash from New York harbour, comes in, docks at the Wall Street terminal in the shadow of the World Trade Center and every single passenger on his ferry gets off and walks into Lower Manhattan even as there is paper and debris raining down on them from the World Trade Center. Everyone is like, ‘Oh, this is a weird thing that happens in New York City’ and just goes about their day.”
Those workers would have heard sirens wailing as the emergency services mobilised. The New York Fire Department responded within seconds of the crash and its first contingent arrived six minutes after impact. As one ladder company climbed into the Tower to assess the situation, chiefs raced to work out their best plan of action, but they already knew the scale of the blaze meant their focus was rescue rather than firefighting. An emergency command post was set up in the lobby as authorities including the New York Police Department and the Port Authority came together to tackle the unfolding crisis.
A lone firefighter stops amid the debris following the collapse of the second tower at the World Trade Center
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However, as they discussed evacuating the South Tower over concerns about the flames caused by the crash of Flight 11, their contact centres had no new information about the emergency. They were deluged with calls, including many from inside the North Tower, and began by following protocols and telling people to stay where they were. However, as the increasing urgency of the situation became clear, some began to tell people to leave. Meanwhile, NYPD helicopters began reconnaissance flights to work out plans for possible rooftop rescues.
Inside, some still watched TV. They, like millions around the world, would see Flight 175 flown into the South Tower of the World Trade Center just 17 minutes after the North Tower was hit. One passenger on that second flight, Peter Hanson, had called his father just beforehand to tell him: “It’s getting bad, Dad, a stewardess was stabbed, they seem to have knives and mace, they say they have a bomb.” His last words were: “It if happens, it’ll be very fast, my God, my God.” The plane hit the Tower between the 77th and 85th floors, killing everyone on board instantly and hundreds more within the building.
In Sarasota, Florida, President Bush was just about to start reading to pupils when his Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, moved in to whisper to him: “A second plane hit the second tower, America is under attack.” The President moved to another classroom to take phone calls as officials made plans to rush him to safety.
Shocked and exhausted rescure workers take a brief rest as they search for survivors
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An evacuation of both towers was now underway as fires continued to spread. The thick smoke had forced many to keep moving upwards, and some on the highest floors had fallen or jumped as the heat and smoke overwhelmed them. Just 56 minutes after the second hijacked plane had crashed into it, the South Tower collapsed in on itself in just ten seconds. Everyone inside was killed, as were people in the immediate vicinity of the building. A huge cloud of debris spread through the neighbouring streets as onlookers ran for their lives. Hundreds more died when the North Tower collapsed just over half an hour later.
Mychal Judge, the Chaplain to the New York Fire Department, had rushed to the North Tower when he heard of the crash to offer his help. After the South Tower was struck, he was hit by debris and his body was found just a few minutes later. He became the first identified victim of the attacks in New York that would claim, in total, 2,753 lives.
Among the dead were 343 firefighters, 23 police officers and 37 Port Authority officers. “Part of what is important to understand about the men and women who responded that day from the Fire Department of New York, the NYPD, the Port Authority Police, the other agencies involved, is that these are very small families and fraternities. A lot of people who are responding to this are brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, nephews,” Graff explains. “They are sort of seeing family pass in the stairwells and lobbies of the World Trade Center, seeing family on the streets outside and then by that afternoon, you have family members tearing frantically into the rubble to find the people that they have lost.”
As the South Tower was hit, air authorities had begun grounding planes, but two more airliners targeted by the terrorists were already in the sky by then. As the world watched New York, American Airlines Flight 77 was hijacked on its way from Washington Dulles Airport to Los Angeles. Barbara Olson rang her husband to tell him that her plane had been hijacked and all the passengers had been forced to the back of the aircraft. Flight attendant Renee May called her parents to say the flight was under attack. The plane descended rapidly and crashed into the Pentagon, causing a massive fire. Everyone on board was killed along with dozens inside the building. In total, 184 people lost their lives in that attack.
The recovery operation at all four sites hit by the planes on 9/11 went on for months. The last piece of debris was symbolically removed from Ground Zero in May 2002
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During her last phone call, Olsen had been told about the crashes in New York. On Flight 93, the fourth plane targeted by hijackers, everyone on board was aware of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The plane had left Newark International Airport late and was on its way to San Francisco when the terrorists took control of it. There were just 33 passengers on board the flight and around a third of them phoned family or friends as the hijacking unfolded. They learned of the attacks on the Twin Towers and described similar circumstances on board, including violent attacks on cabin crew and reports of bombs on board. One passenger, Todd Beamer, made contact with an Airfone supervisor, Lisa Jefferson. In their brief conversation he explained that the passengers had decided to take on the hijackers. The two prayed together before Beamer was heard to say: “Are you ready? Okay, let’s roll.”
The plane’s voice data recorder would later reveal fighting in the cockpit as the passengers attacked the hijackers. The terrorists decided to crash the plane, which plunged into a field at Shanksville, Pennsylvania. All 33 passengers and seven crew were killed.
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“The actions of passengers and crew of Flight 93 is in many ways one of the proudest moments that the country has of that day,” Graff tells us. “It seems pretty clear from historical evidence that that plane was headed towards the US Capitol, and you can imagine the destruction of US Capitol as a visible gash in the nation’s psyche as extreme as the Twin Towers missing from the New York skyline.”
Around the time that Flight 93 crashed, President Bush took to the skies in Air Force One. He would be in the air for much of the day as part of the plan to keep him safe from attack. He could only communicate by phone while his Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was briefly missing from discussions as he rushed to help the injured at the Pentagon.
Air Force One was one of just a handful of planes in the sky as the morning of 11 September 2001 turned into afternoon. Before the Twin Towers had even collapsed, all civilian aircraft had been grounded. Graff describes the following hours as fearful: “Well into the early afternoon, 1, 2, 3 o’clock, the US government thought there still might be as many as a dozen more hijacked airliners still in the sky. That fear rippled out across the country, you saw skyscrapers evacuated in Boston, in Chicago, in Los Angeles. You saw the subway in Toronto closed. Well into that first day, well into that first night, people feared that the death toll might be 20, 30 thousand.”
As that first night fell, Bush returned to the White House, where he addressed the United States from the Oval Office. “A great people has been moved to defend a great nation,” he said. “Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”
Flags flew at half mast around the United States for weeks following the terror attacks
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In the following days, he would draw together a plan to strike at those held responsible for the attacks with al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, quickly identified. Congress passed the resolution ‘Authorisation for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists’ three days after the attacks and within a month the US had launched military strikes on Afghanistan, targeting al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which hadn’t expelled the terrorist group from the country.
Meanwhile, in New York, at the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania, recovery work continued to find the bodies of those killed. Some of the victims wouldn’t be identified for years. They are honoured in memorials around the United States while 11 September was renamed Patriot Day, a reminder of all that was lost on a late summer morning when the sun rose in a clear blue sky and the United States changed forever.
A TIMELINE OF THE DAY
Events as they happened on 11 September 2001
Flight 11 departs Logan International Airport with 11 crew and 81 passengers on board, bound for Los Angeles. Among the passengers are four hijackers
Flight 175 leaves Logan International bound for Los Angeles. Five hijackers, another 51 passengers and nine crew are on board
Flight 11 is hijacked over Massachusetts
Flight 77 departs Washington Dulles Airport, en route to Los Angeles, carrying six crew and 58 passengers, including five hijackers
Flight 93 takes off from Newark International Airport carrying seven crew and 37 passengers, among them four hijackers
Flight 175 is hijacked above New Jersey
Flight 11 is crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center
Flight 77 is hijacked above southern Ohio
Flight 175 is crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center
US President George W Bush is informed that America is under attack
Flight 93 is hijacked above northern Ohio
Flight 77 is crashed into the west side of the Pentagon
The Federal Aviation Authority grounds all civilian planes in US airspace and orders all airborne aircraft to land immediately
US airspace is shut down completely
US President George W Bush is flown to an undisclosed destination on Air Force One
Passengers on board Flight 93 begin to tackle the hijackers
The South Tower of the World Trade Center collapses
Flight 93 crashes into a field at Shanksville, Pennsylvania
The North Tower of the World Trade Center collapses
Five stories of the Pentagon collapse as fire continues to engulf part of the building
7 World Trade Center collapses after sustaining heavy damage from the collapse of the Twin Towers
President George W Bush addresses the United States from the Oval Office
THE WAR ON TERROR
The global aftermath that we continue to live with today
President Bush almost immediately began planning to strike at al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. He gathers his National Securty Council at Camp David to co-ordinate the response
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Less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, the US launched air strikes on Afghanistan. The ensuing conflict there, aimed at al-Qaeda and the Taliban, would become known as the War on Terror.
The four planes had been hijacked by a total of 19 terrorists. Four of them were involved in the ‘Hamburg Cell’, a group that met in the German city and began to plot against America. Among them was Mohamed Atta, the lead hijacker. A chance meeting on a train with a member of al-Qaeda led to them going to Afghanistan, where they would meet Osama bin Laden.
The al-Qaeda leader had, for several years, been focused on a plot to hijack planes and fly them into targets in the US. The idea came originally from militant Islamist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who met bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1996 and proposed the plan. A wide range of motives for the attacks has been suggested but all come back to a desire to damage America. The final stages of the plan saw four pilots chosen, among them Mohamed Atta. Others were recruited as ‘muscle hijackers’ with the task of overcoming any resistance from the crew and passengers.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 bin Laden denied any involvement in the plots. However, the US government soon concluded that al-Qaeda was responsible. The Taliban, then in control of around three quarters of Afghanistan, also came under suspicion for not removing bin Laden from the country. US air strikes began the War on Terror, which saw the Taliban surrender grip on Afghanistan by December 2001.
However, they remained and eventually staged a resurgence. As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approached, Afghanistan was taken over once more by the Taliban. On 15 August 2021 they took over the capital Kabul, once again seizing control of the country that had been the focal point of the War on Terror.