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Published September 10, 2021

There are some events which become cultural turning points, separating the world into Before and After. They are the kind of events where, even decades later, everyone old enough to remember knows exactly where they were when it happened.

September the 11th, 2001, was one of those days.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

For millions of people around the world, the tragedy of 9/11 began when a commercial airliner hit the side of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. However, the events of that day actually began a lot earlier.

The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were completed in 1972 and 1973, and quickly became an integral part of the Manhattan skyline. If a TV show or movie was set in New York, all the director had to do was throw in a shot of those iconic towers, and everyone would know. There were also five other buildings in the WTC complex, including the 22 storey Marriott hotel and the 47 storey, red granite faced No. 7.

Their design was innovative, using a strong core, including the elevators and stairwells, at the centre, to support 60 per cent of the building’s weight, while the outer walls supported the remaining 40 per cent. This allowed for large open spaces, and about an acre of square footage, on every floor, using 75 percent of the tower’s footprint for occupancy. Obviously, in the heart of Manhattan, this was very valuable.

They were also designed to be as safe as possible. Leslie Robertson was one of the engineers who worked on their structural design, and he claimed in 1993 that they had been built to withstand the impact of a 707. That was the largest airplane in operation at the time they were built. However, as he would say after the tragedy;

“The 767 that actually hit the WTC was quite another matter again. First of all it was a bit heavier than the 707, not very much heavier, but a bit heavier. But mostly it was flying a lot faster. And the energy that it put into the building is proportional to its square of the velocity, as you double the velocity, four times the energy. Triple the velocity, eight times the energy and so forth.

And then of course with the 707 to the best of my knowledge the fuel load was not considered in the design, and indeed I don’t know how it could have been considered. But, and with the 767 the fuel load was enormous compared to that of the 707, it was a fully fuelled airplane compared to the 707 which was a landing aircraft. Just absolutely no comparison between the two.”

And there were flaws with the World Trade Center, flaws which would become deadly under the circumstances.

Because they were constructed from steel, it was necessary to apply fire-resistant coatings to the steel to ensure that it would retain its strength in the event of a fire. Steel begins to elongate between approximately 800°F and 1,000°F – approximately 426°C – 537°C – temperatures which are easily reached in a standard domestic or commercial fire. Elongation can reduce the strength of the steel, and shift the weight distribution; if the weight shifts to supports which cannot bear it, a collapse will ensue.

According to an article on Fire Engineering, there were four types of fireproofing used in the Twin Towers. Structural steel in the lower part of the North Tower was fireproofed with a material which included 20% asbestos, 60% mineral wool, gypsum and Portland cement, later withdrawn and replaced with a similar, but asbestos-free, type which was applied to the rest of the North Tower, and to the structural steel in the South Tower.

A lightweight gypsum plaster was sprayed onto surfaces including the inside face of the exterior walls and columns.

Finally, a formula with 80% asbestos in a mix of Portland cement was used over the other fireproofing in areas where vibration or air erosion might affect it, including the elevator shafts.

At the time of construction, warnings were beginning to be issued over the dangers of asbestos, and although it was not banned in the USA, asbestos-free options were gaining popularity. However, the rush to get them into production meant that some early asbestos-free options were simply not as effective. This included the fireproofing in the towers, on the floors which would be affected on 9/11.

There were also no tests in place when the WTC was constructed to ensure that the fireproofing was applied correctly. Later inspections found that there were areas which were inadequately covered or which had not been fireproofed at all. In 1994, it was found that one particular central column had fireproofing which had fallen off in a sheet several stories high, because the steel had been allowed to rust prior to application, so it hadn’t stuck properly. Fireproofing in elevator shafts had been knocked off, and that on joint-to-wall connections was severely inadequate. This was never corrected. 

The fireproofing was supposed to protect the steel for some time- the joints, for example, should have been protected for four hours – but since it wasn’t applied properly, it didn’t have that protection – and could therefore not withstand a fire as long as it should.

The towers had been the target of a terrorist attack before, in 1993, when Ramzi Yousef and several co-conspirators parked a truck bomb in the underground parking garage, hoping to collapse the North Tower into the South Tower. It didn’t, but it did open a hole 100 feet (30 metres) wide, kill six people and injure over a thousand, with smoke rising as far as the 93rd floors. 

Yousef was arrested two years later; as he was flown over New York in a helicopter after his extradition from Pakistan, an FBI operative lifted Yousef’s blindfold and pointed at the World Trade Center.

“Look down there. They’re still standing.”

Yousef replied, “They wouldn’t be if I had enough money and explosives.”

Yousef, of course, was not the only extremist set on attacking the structures of American society. His uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, shared similar views, and Yousef also had connections to the “Blind Sheikh”, Omar Abdel Rahman.

In the time between the truck bombing and his arrest, Yousef had worked with Sheikh Mohammed on a plot called “Bojinka”, in which twelve commercial planes would be bombed simultaneously. A test bombing, using only a tenth of the explosives planned for the final attack, killed one Japanese man on Philippine Airlines Flight 434 in 1994.

Although Yousef was arrested before the Bojinka plot could be carried out, Sheikh Mohammed was not; and in 1996 he had a meeting with Osama bin Laden.

Born in 1957, bin Laden was the son of a wealthy Saudi Arabian businessman. He studied at university until 1979, then joined Mujahideen forces fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. 

Although the Mujahideen benefited from American funding in this war, afterwards bin Laden came to view them as the primary enemy of Islam, due to a range of American foreign policies including support of Israel, sanctions against Iraq and the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia. This became the focus of his new group, al Qaeda, formed in around 1988.

In 1998, he was one of five signatories to a fatwa issued under the name of “World Islamic Front”, in which it was stated that “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.”

It’s important to note that a fatwa is usually issued by a respected Islamic authority with training in Islamic jurisprudence, as an interpretation of Islamic law; none of the signatories had such a qualification. While Bin Laden was known for an interest in religion whilst at university, he actually studied economics and business administration.

Additionally, many experts on the Quran point out that it says believers may fight in self-defence, but “remember that no hostility is allowed except against the aggressors.” – Chapter 2, verse 194. This is generally taken to mean that collateral damage or action against non-combatants is unacceptable.

During their meeting in 1996, Sheikh Mohammed presented bin Laden with an idea that had evolved from the earlier Bojinka plot; instead of bombing the planes, he now proposed hijacking ten planes and flying them into prominent American targets.

Bin Laden was not immediately on board, considering the plan too complex, but later reconsidered. In 1998 or 1999, he gave Sheikh Mohammed the go-ahead to proceed with a scaled-back version, with just four targets. It was known as the “Planes operation”.

Even though it was always intended to be a suicide operation, bin Laden had plenty of men willing to carry it out for him; men from various different countries and with a range of backgrounds.

As the tactical leader of the plot, he chose Mohamed Atta, an Egyptian with a degree in architecture who had become radicalised whilst studying in Hamburg, Germany. Several of the other attackers also had connections with Hamburg, attending the radical al-Quds Mosque there; they would later be known as the Hamburg cell. They were an important part of the operation, as their experience living in Germany gave them a familiarity with Western culture and better language skills. Three of them – Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah – would train as pilots in order to be able to fly the hijacked planes to their targets. 

The majority of the hijackers would be Saudi Arabian nationals; this was perhaps a deliberate choice, as that country had close relations with America, which would make it easier for the hijackers to gain entry. In addition, there were two from the United Arab Emirates, including al-Shehhi, and Jarrah, who came from Lebanon. At least two others, from Yemen, are thought to have been selected for the plot, but were unable to obtain visas to enter America.

Two of the hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, were long-standing associates of bin Laden, having fought with the mujahideen and alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. They also underwent pilot training, but didn’t do well; instead the fourth pilot-hijacker would be Saudi national Hani Hanjour.

So, after months of training and planning, nineteen men woke up on the morning of September the 11th, 2001, ready to die – and take as many as they could with them.

Early on that morning, Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari boarded a flight from Portland, Maine to Boston’s Logan International Airport. Atta was selected for special security measures by the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS, however this meant only that his checked bags were not loaded onto the plane until it was confirmed that he was onboard.

At Boston, Atta and Omari checked in to another flight; this time it was American Airlines Flight 11. Three others, Satam al Suqami, Wail al Shehri and Waleed al Shehri, also boarded this flight. CAPPS picked out three of the five for screening, but again this only meant that their bags were held until they were on board. The Shehri brothers were in first class, at the very front of the plane, while Atta, Omari and Suqami were seated in business class, just behind.

At another terminal of the same airport, five more Al Qaeda operatives checked in for United Airlines Flight 175. They were Marwan al Shehhi, Fayez Banihammad, Mohand al Shehri, Ahmed al Ghamdi and Hamza al Ghamdi. The ticket agent checking them in would later recall that a couple of them had trouble understanding the security questions; she patiently went over them until she got the answers she needed.

Fayez Banihammad and Mohand al Shehri took seats in business class, while Marwan al Shehhi and the al Ghamdis sat in first class.

At Dulles International Airport, serving the Washington DC area, another five men boarded American Airlines Flight 77. All went through extra security; Hani Hanjour, Khalid al Midhar and Majed Moqed because they had been flagged by CAPPS, and Nawaf al Hazmi and Salem al Hazmi because the check-in agent thought them suspicious. Once again, this only meant that their luggage was held. Hanjour and the al Hazmis were seated in first class, the other two in coach.

And, at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, four men checked in for United Airlines Flight 93. Ziad Jarrah, Ahmed al Nami, Ahmed al Haznawi and Saeed al Ghamdi were all seated in first class; Haznawi had been screened by CAPPS, but like the others this made no difference to his boarding.

It is thought that Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi Arabian, was supposed to fill out this team, but he had been refused entry to America in August, under the suspicion that he was attempting to immigrate illegally. 

All four flights were bound for Los Angeles, on the other side of America, and scheduled to leave between 7:45 and 8:10 am. This tight schedule was important to their plans.

We know something of what happened on each of these flights because, in all four cases, at least one person was able to make a phone call from the plane and speak to somebody on the ground.

From American Airlines Flight 11, flight attendant Betty Ong called an American Airlines reservation desk, telling them:

“The cockpit’s not answering. Somebody’s stabbed in business class and—I think there’s mace—that we can’t breathe. I don’t know, I think we’re getting hijacked… I think the guys are up there. They might have gone there—jammed the way up there, or something. Nobody can call the cockpit. We can’t even get inside.”

By this time, the plane’s transponder had been turned off, and the flight was dramatically off course. It made a sharp left turn, and was heading towards New York. 

At 8:24, Air Traffic Control heard two broadcasts from the cockpit that appeared to be intended for the passengers:

“We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you’ll be O.K. We are returning to the airport.”

“Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.”

A further broadcast was heard at 8:33:

 “Nobody move, please. We are going back to the airport. Don’t try to make any stupid moves.”

At 8:46, American Airlines 11 crashed into the north face of the North Tower, World Trade Center 1, hitting between floors 93 and 99. 

Similar events occurred on United 175; it’s thought that the hijacking occurred between 8:42 and 8:46. Flight attendant Robert Fangman spoke to a United Airlines maintenance office, reporting that both pilots were dead and an attendant had been stabbed. Passengers also made calls; Peter Hanson spoke to his father at 9am. 

“It’s getting bad, Dad. A stewardess was stabbed. They seem to have knives and Mace. They said they have a bomb. It’s getting very bad on the plane. Passengers are throwing up and getting sick. The plane is making jerky movements. I don’t think the pilot is flying the plane. I think we are going down. I think they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building. Don’t worry, Dad. If it happens, it’ll be very fast … Oh my God … oh my God, oh my God.”

At 9:03, the plane crashed into the south face of the South Tower, World Trade Center 2, striking between floors 77 and 85.

Flight 77 had departed at 8:20; it was hijacked between 8:50 and 8:54. The plane’s transponder was switched off, and the plane made a complete turn to return towards Washington DC. Again, calls were made; flight attendant Renee May spoke to her mother, who relayed details to American Airlines, and passenger Barbara Olsen spoke to her husband, United States Solicitor General Theodore Olsen. The details were similar to the other calls; the hijackers had boxcutters or knives – which were permitted on airplanes at the time, so long as the blade was less than four inches long – and had moved everyone to the back of the plane. 

At 9:37, this plane flew into the side of the Pentagon building.

Events transpired slightly differently on United Flight 93. It had been delayed on the ground, and thus didn’t depart until 8:42. The hijackers didn’t take action until 9:28, by which time both of the World Trade Center towers were burning and Flight 77 was less than ten minutes from its impact with the Pentagon. 

When flight attendants and passengers made contact with people on the ground, they learned of the events in New York, and then of the crash at the Pentagon, and had time to understand the intentions of the hijackers. At 9:57, with the words, “Let’s roll” uttered by passenger Todd Beamer, the passengers and crew initiated a fight against the attackers. Audio later retrieved from the cockpit voice recorder indicates that they were able to reach the cockpit, but they were unable to regain control. At 10:03, Flight 93 crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Just a few minutes earlier, at 9:59, the South Tower of the World Trade Center had collapsed. The North Tower would follow suit at 10:29. Later, at 5:20 pm, World Trade Center 7 would also collapse, due to fires that had been burning unattended all day. These were the first three steel high-rise buildings to collapse due to fire, ever.

All told, the casualties from these events number 2,977 – plus the 19 hijackers themselves. This number included the crew and passengers of all four flights, workers in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and more than four hundred first responders. It also includes people who died some years after the attack, as a result of illnesses directly caused by exposure to the dust cloud from the collapsing towers.

Responsibility for air defense at the time lay with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

However, neither were prepared for this kind of attack. It had been years since any American plane had last been hijacked, and policies for dealing with such events all assumed that the hijackers merely intended to hold the plane and passengers for ransom, or divert it for a safe landing at their chosen destination. 

FAA guidance to controllers dealing with a hijack assumed that they would be notified by pilots, either by radio or by “squawking” a special code on their transponder; they would then inform a supervisor, who would inform management. On confirming a hijack, a special hijack coordinator at FAA headquarters would contact the Pentagon’s National Military Command Centre (NMCC) to request a military escort to follow the flight; the NMCC would request approval from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and if approval was given, orders would be transmitted through the chain of command at NORAD.

All of this would take time that simply wasn’t available on September the 11th.

The first sign that there was something wrong came at 8:14, when American 11 failed to respond to instructions given by Air Traffic Control at Boston Control Center. The controller tried to call them repeatedly, on both standard and emergency frequencies.

At 8:21, American 11’s transponder was turned off. The transponder provides the data shown on the controller’s radar; the flight’s ID, and their flight level. Without this signal, controllers can only track the flight as a blip on their primary radar. At this point the controller informed his supervisor that something was wrong, but they had no reason to think it was a hijacking. Following standard procedures for an unresponsive flight, the controller asked the airline if they could establish communications.

It was at 8:24, when the first two broadcasts were made by Atta from the cockpit of American 11, that the controller realised it was a hijacking. However, he didn’t at first catch the specific phrase “We have some planes”, indicating that the problem extended beyond this flight. The manager at Boston Control Center asked for the tape to be replayed by their quality assurance specialist, to establish what had been said.

Information started moving up the chain of command, and at 8:28 the Command Center of the FAA was informed that American 11 was believed to be hijacked and heading towards New York; they then established a teleconference between the Boston, New York and Cleveland control centers.

Instead of following the lengthy procedure for contacting the military, somebody at Boston Control Center took the initiative to notify them directly, reaching NEADS – the Northeast Air Defense Sector – at 8:37.

“FAA: Hi. Boston Center TMU, we have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out.

NEADS: Is this real-world or exercise?

FAA: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.”

By coincidence, NEADS had been preparing to run an exercise which would have involved deploying fighter aircraft to Alaska and Northern Canada. This exercise was promptly cancelled, and two F-15 alert aircraft stationed at Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts were ordered to battle stations.

Battle Commander Colonel Robert Marr phoned Major General Larry Arnold for authorisation to actually scramble the fighters; Arnold would later recall giving the instruction to:

“Go ahead and scramble them, and we’ll get authorities later.”

The fighters were scrambled at 8:46 – just as American 11 hit the North Tower. However, even at that point, they didn’t know where they were scrambling the fighters to. NEADS personnel were scouring their radars for the primary return of a flight that no longer existed until, at 8:50, they received word of the strike on the World Trade Center. It was 8:53 when the Otis fighters actually took to the air; with no target, they were sent to military-controlled airspace off Long Island and put into a holding pattern.

The 9/11 commission report would later state:

“NEADS received notice of the hijacking nine minutes before it struck the North Tower. That nine minutes’ notice before impact was the most the military would receive of any of the four hijackings.”

Meanwhile, of course, the other hijackings were beginning.

The last transmission from United 175 was to New York Control Center at 8:42, just after entering their airspace. The pilot called to inform them of a suspicious transmission they had heard as they left Boston – this was the transmission Atta made from American 11.

Just minutes later, the plane made an unauthorised turn to the southwest, and at 8:47 the code on their transponder changed twice. However, this was not noticed at the time, because the controller assigned to United 175 was also dealing with American 11, and he was still searching for that flight.

At 8:48, a New York center manager informed the teleconference that “we’re watching the airplane”, relaying the information provided by Betty Ong. They didn’t know it had already crashed.

At 8:51, the controller noticed the transponder changes on United 175, and began to try and raise them on the radio; at 8:53 he told another controller “we may have a hijack.” A manager was informed at 8:55; they tried to notify regional managers only to be told they were not to be disturbed – because they were discussing a hijacked aircraft.

At around this time, another commercial aircraft in the area called in to tell them that there were reports of a commuter plane hitting the World Trade Center; many early reports of the crash of American 11 made this mistake.  

Between 9:01 and 9:02, a New York manager told the Command Center:

“We have several situations going on here. It’s escalating big, big time. We need to get the military involved with us… We’re, we’re involved with something else, we have other aircraft that may have a similar situation going on here.”

This appears to be the only notification received by FAA headquarters or Herndon Command Center about United 175 prior to its impact at 9:03 – and it wasn’t exactly clear.

The Boston quality assurance specialist reported that he heard the phrase “We have some planes” – plural – at about the same time as the second crash occurred. 

Boston Center now announced that all departures would be stopped from airports under its control; New York Center shortly afterwards declared “ATC zero” meaning no departures, arrivals, or travel through its airspace would be permitted.

NEADS learned about United 175 at essentially the same time that the plane hit the South Tower. At 9:08, the Mission Crew Commander ordered the fighters out of their holding pattern:

“We need to take those fighters, put ‘em over Manhattan. That’s best thing, that’s the best play right now. So coordinate with the FAA. Tell ‘em if there’s more out there, which we don’t know, let’s get ‘em over Manhattan. At least we got some kind of play.”

The FAA cleared the airspace, and the fighters arrived over New York at 9:25, establishing a combat air patrol over the city. 

Unfortunately, the terrorists were done with New York.

American 77 was under the control of Indianapolis Center when, at 8:54, it began to deviate from its flight plan. It then disappeared from radar. The controller saw this happen, and began searching unsuccessfully for the flight’s primary radar return. He knew nothing of the situation in New York, so assumed in-flight failure, rather than hijacking. Shortly after 9am, Indianapolis Center started notifying other agencies that they had a flight missing, possibly crashed. They contacted Langley Air Force Base at 9:08 to ask their Search and Rescue to look for a downed aircraft.

The news that this flight was missing didn’t reach FAA headquarters until 9:24. 

It was later established that, although FAA radar equipment had in fact tracked the flight’s primary radar return when its transponder was turned off, this information was not displayed to controllers at Indianapolis Center for a little over 8 minutes; during this time, they had no idea where the flight was.When it reappeared at 9:05, the controllers were looking in the wrong place, as they were searching along the planned flight path when it had in fact turned back east. 

At 9:25, the Command Center ordered a nationwide ground stop, meaning that no flights were to depart from any airport in America until further notice. 

At 9:32, controllers at Dulles terminal control facility “observed a primary radar target tracking eastbound at a high rate of speed.” They notified Reagan National Airport, and FAA personnel at both Reagan and Dulles notified the Secret Service.

An unarmed National Guard cargo plane, which had just taken off to go to Minnesota, was redirected to identify and follow this unknown target. The pilot was able to identify it as a Boeing 757, and then reported, “looks like that aircraft crashed into the Pentagon, sir.”

NEADS, meanwhile, were still looking for American 11 and unaware of American 77. At 9:21, a call between the FAA and NEADS recorded the confusion.

“FAA: Military, Boston Center. I just had a report that American 11 is still in the air, and it’s on its way towards – heading towards Washington.

NEADS: Okay. American 11 is still in the air?

FAA: Yes.

NEADS: On its way towards Washington?

FAA: That was another – it was evidently another aircraft that hit the tower. That’s the latest report we have.

NEADS: Okay

FAA: I’m going to try and confirm an ID for you, but I would assume he’s somewhere over, uh, either New Jersey or somewhere further south.

NEADS: Okay. So American 11 isn’t the hijack at all then, right?

FAA: No, he is a hijack.

NEADS: He – American 11 is a hijack?

FAA: Yes.

NEADS: And he’s heading into Washington?

FAA: Yes. This could be a third aircraft.”

Following this call, fighters were scrambled from Langley Air Force Base at 9:23. They were airborne at 9:30, and orders were given to send them to the Baltimore area – the intent being to put them between the non-existent American 11 and the capital. 

A chance mention on a call at 9:34 was the first time anyone at NEADS became aware that American 77 was missing; two minutes later, they learned of the unidentified aircraft closing in on Washington. The mission crew commander immediately ordered the Langley fighters to move in, saying “Run them to the White House”.

Unfortunately, he then discovered that they hadn’t been directed to Baltimore, but had instead flown east, over the ocean – their generic flight plan told them to go east for 60 miles. They were now ordered to get to Washington as fast as possible, with the commander stating, “I don’t care how many windows you break.”

They were still about 150 miles away when American 77 struck the Pentagon.

Further confusion ensued, with a Delta Airlines flight being identified as another potential hijack at 9:41 and consuming operators’ attention. 

Meanwhile, United Airlines flight dispatcher Ed Ballinger had begun issuing warnings to flights under his control, using a text-based system called ACARS. At 9:23 he sent a message to United 93:

“Beware any cockpit intrusion – two a/c hit World Trade Center”

The pilot responded at 9:26: “Ed, confirm latest msg plz – Jason”

The hijack is believed to have happened about two minutes later.

Cleveland controllers and pilots in the area heard “a radio transmission of unintelligible sounds of possible screaming or a struggle from an unknown origin.” It’s thought that the pilot, warned by the message, keyed his microphone as they were attacked in order to alert ATC.

The controller tried to raise United 93 on the radio, and asked other pilots if they had heard the transmission. Then, at 9:32, fears were confirmed as Jarrah made the same mistake Atta had with the microphone.

“Keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board.”

Notice of this hijacking reached FAA headquarters at 9:34. Cleveland Command Center specifically asked if military aircraft had been requested; they were told that this was a decision that had to made higher up the chain of command, and it was in progress.

The transponder signal from United 93 was lost at 9:41; controllers continued to track it on primary radar. At 9:42, the Command Center’s national operations manager, Ben Sliney, ordered all aircraft to be landed at the nearest airport, effectively clearing the sky. It would take until 12:16 for about 4,500 aircraft to be landed, but it was handled without incident.

The problems with the response to the attack were highlighted by a conversation between FAA headquarters and Command Center at 9:49:

“Command Center: Uh, do we want to think, uh, about scrambling aircraft?

FAA HQ: Oh, God, I don’t know.

Command Center: Uh, that’s a decision somebody’s gonna have to make probably in the next ten minutes.

FAA HQ: Uh, ya know everybody just left the room.”

Controllers lost track of United 93 over Pittsburgh, however it was spotted by other aircraft in the area. At 10:01, FAA HQ was advised that a pilot had seen 93 “waving his wings”.

This was, in fact, the hijackers’ attempt to defeat the passengers’ revolt. Two minutes later, the plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.. 

The same National Guard plane that had watched American 77 hit the Pentagon, having resumed its flight, now reported seeing “black smoke” in the last position of United 93.

The first NEADS heard about United 93 was a call at 10:07, giving their last known latitude and longitude, and unaware that they had already gone down.

The Langley fighters, now arriving over Washington, were informed at 10:10 that they had “negative – negative clearance to shoot” at suspect aircraft over the capital. It’s not clear what they were expected to do at that point, but fortunately, the attack was already over. 

Confusion was also rife in the upper echelons of American authority. The President, George W. Bush, was in Sarasota, Florida, visiting an elementary school, when news of the attack first broke. He was informed by aides that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, but at first was told that it was a small commuter plane. He went in to meet the students, and sat with them as they read a book called “My Pet Goat”. Meanwhile, his aides were receiving new information; they saw the second plane strike on a TV on board Air Force One. It fell to White House chief of staff, Andy Card, to deliver the news.

“I knew I was delivering a message that no president would want to hear. I decided to pass on two facts and an editorial comment. I didn’t want to invite a conversation because the president was sitting in front of the classroom. The teacher asked the students to take out their books, so I took that opportunity to approach the president. I whispered in his ear, “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.” I took a couple steps back so he couldn’t ask any questions.”

Students there that day, like Mariah Williams, would later recall that the president’s expression changed dramatically; “I remember him being all happy and joyful. Then his expression changing to very serious and concerned.”

However, in order to avoid alarming the children too much, he waited for them to finish the book. There was some debate among the president’s staff over whether he should leave immediately, or address the nation first. It was decided to make a statement there; children stood on the stage with him as he announced, “America is under attack.”

He also stated that he was going back to Washington DC; however this was not to be the case, at least not immediately. A motorcade rushed him back to Air Force One, which was already running ready to lift off. They left so quickly that they left behind a Secret Service agent who left the plane to move a van that was parked too close to the wing.

By the time they were airborne, just before 10am, American 77 had already crashed into the Pentagon. That made it clear that Washington DC was being targeted, and the president could not go there, however much he wanted to. Initially, they considered taking him to Camp David – however, United 93 was reported to be heading in that direction. They circled over the Gulf of Florida, before agreeing to head for an air force base where they could drop off non-essential personnel, refuel the plane, and assess the situation.

His vice president, Dick Cheney, and other officials such as Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, had been moved to the underground shelter at the White House as soon as the second plane struck the World Trade Center. However, not all White House staff were evacuated. Christine Limerick, a housekeeper, later recalled, “The look on the faces of the Secret Service agents who were told that they had to stay – I will never forget that because we had at least the opportunity to flee.”

In the bunker, at a facility known as the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, or PEOC, Cheney, Rice, and the rest of the staff got back to work. There, they were able to make contact with the President on Air Force One, and they watched on TV as the towers collapsed. 

Commander Anthony Barnes was liaising between operators handling calls from the Pentagon, and the conference room where the Vice President and others were working.

“The Pentagon thought there was another hijacked airplane, and they were asking for permission to shoot down an identified hijacked commercial aircraft. I asked the vice president that question and he answered it in the affirmative. I asked again to be sure. “Sir, I am confirming that you have given permission?” For me, being a military member and an aviator – understanding the absolute depth of what that question was and what that answer was – I wanted to make sure that there was no mistake whatsoever about what was being asked. Without hesitation, in the affirmative, he said any confirmed hijacked airplane may be engaged and shot down.”

Senior adviser Karl Rove was with Bush when this was discussed on the phone.

“He got a call from Cheney. He said “Yes,” then there was a pause as he listened. Then another “yes.” You had an unreal sense of time that whole day. I don’t know whether it was ten seconds or two minutes. Then he said, “You have my authorization.” Then he listened for a while longer. He closed off the conversation. He turned to us and said that he had just authorised the shoot-down of hijacked airliners.”

Card recalled an additional comment made by Bush; “I was an Air National Guard pilot – I’d be one of the people getting this order. I can’t imagine getting this order.”

Communications on board Air Force One were difficult. They used the same commercial systems as all the other air traffic, so they were saturated by air traffic control bringing planes down to the ground. They had to use military satellites, which are normally used only in time of war, and without satellite television, they were restricted in what they could receive, only getting broadcasts as they passed over cities – and were unaware of the criticism already being made as TV news anchors asked where the President was.

Although Bush still argued that he wanted to return to the White House, he was ultimately taken to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, landing there at approximately 11:45 Eastern Time.  

Rove recalled:

“This was the first point where he gets fully briefed. All three strikes were over, so we knew the extent of the damage. His first instinct was to bring together the leaders of government, but everyone had dispersed. It’s amazing how technology has changed. At the time the only way to get everyone together was to go to Offutt Air Force Base, the nearest facility that had multiple-site video teleconference. Now the president travels with a black Halliburton case that has a screen that can do it through any broadband outlet.”

Bush held a brief press conference, then got back on Air Force One, heading for Offutt in Nebraska. On the way, he spoke to Mike Morell, from the CIA. 

“He asked me, “Michael, who did this?” I explained that I didn’t have any actual intelligence, so what you’re going to get is my best guess… I said that there were two countries capable of carrying out an attack like this, Iran and Iraq. But I believed both would have everything to lose and nothing to gain from the attack. When all was said and done, the trail would lead to Osama bin Laden. I told him, “I’d bet my children’s future on that.”

Once at Offutt, the president and his staff were ushered into a secure command center.

Card recalled, “It was right out of a TV movie set – all these flat-screen TVs, all these military people, you could hear the fog of war, all these communications from the FAA and the military.”

A videoconference was held there that afternoon, and then – once it was reported that the last plane in the sky had landed – the President was finally able to return to Washington. He got back to the White House shortly after 7pm, and made an address to the nation at 8:30.

“Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts… These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people have been moved to defend a great nation.”

Many of those great people would be involved in the search for survivors at the World Trade Center site, which was at first known as the Pile or the Pit, and later as Ground Zero. 

The rescue and recovery operation began with New York’s surviving firefighters, police, EMTs and paramedics, but would expand to include many more. Iron workers, structural engineers, the National Guard, carpenters, riggers, truckers and teamsters – and around 400 trained dogs, the largest canine deployment in American history.

There were also retired firefighters who returned to help their former crews – including actor Steve Buscemi, a native New Yorker who had worked for FDNY Engine 55 for four years prior to his acting career. He worked the same 12 hour shifts as the other rescue workers, declining photographs and interviews to keep the focus on the search. Firefighting often runs in the family, so there were a number of those retirees who were there searching for their own lost children, brothers, or other family members. Firefighters from departments across the country volunteered, as did military officers and many others. Civilians rallied around them, setting up stalls to gather in and hand out bottled water, food, flashlights and other essentials, as well as gifts to show their appreciation. One firefighter commented that they couldn’t eat all the cookies they were given.

The work was hard, both physically and emotionally, for all involved, and there were many hazards. Aside from long drops into the rubble if a hole opened up, or if you took the wrong step navigating a precarious beam, there was a diesel tank seven stories below ground level, some 2,000 vehicles in the underground car park, and a third-floor vault in building six, owned by the United States Customs Service, which held over a million rounds of ammunition, all of which could – and many did – explode. 

Jim Goetz, a firefighter from Baltimore, told filmmakers what it was like during the rescue operation at the World Trade Center site.

“On the 15th, there was no easy place to walk, once you got in there. You had to climb over window frames to get outside. With that destruction, the likelihood of pulling someone out of there alive is gonna be slim. You never said that. You never said it to your friends, to your partners, to a civilian. You never said it.

There was a golden rule and we were told this before we entered the building. They said that if you find a New York firefighter or a New York police officer, you don’t touch the body. You don’t move it. You stay with the body, you call one of the command staff, they come over and the New York City firefighters will move their own. That’s the golden rule.”

This honour was not only extended to the human officers, but also to canine officer Sirius, from the Port Authority Police Department. Trained to detect explosives, Sirius and his human partner David Lim had been part of the security for the twin towers. Lim had left Sirius in his kennel in the basement of Tower Two after the first plane hit, while he went to offer assistance. On the 22nd January, 2002, Sirius’s remains were found; he was draped in an American flag and given a full honour guard as he was removed. 

There were only twenty people rescued alive from the rubble; many were found in the remains of the North Tower’s Stairwell B, which came to be known as the Survivor’s Staircase. One woman was found underneath rubble where a pedestrian bridge had once been; two PAPD officers, Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin, were found after 24 hours buried in the rubble, having been on the concourse between the towers when the first fell, and the last survivor was Genelle Guzman-McMillan, a Port Authority secretary who was buried for 27 hours before a rescue dog located her.

Work at the site, however, went on; even when there were no survivors to be found, it was important to locate and identify the remains of those killed. Very few of the victims were found intact, making this a difficult, extended and often traumatic job. 

Judy Melinek was working in the New York medical examiner’s office at the time; she described this process in her book, “Working Stiff”. The incident as a whole was designated DM01 – for Disaster, Manhattan, 2001, and they were told:

“When you receive a specimen larger than your thumb, it gets a DM number. If you get something smaller but still useful for identification – a fingertip with an intact print, for instance, or a tooth with a filling – you will also assign it a DM number… You will treat each specimen that fits the rule of thumb as though it were a body. We would rather assign multiple numbers to the multiple remains of one individual than fail to identify someone because we failed to investigate a unique specimen.”

Tents and refrigerated trucks were used to expand the ME’s office, giving them space to deal with the sheer scale of the tragedy, with the examiners working in shifts. The following details are gruesome, and some listeners may wish to skip forward a little.

“DM01 -000041 was a crushed head and torso. It was the first body from the World Trade Center attack I would handle. I was immediately overwhelmed.

I had never seen anything like it. The body was pulverised. Major organs were eviscerated, some still attached by blood vessels and connective tissues but others missing entirely. The limbs had all been amputated. The torso was transected below the navel. The remains were entirely black – burned and covered in soot. The head… the head wasn’t recognisable as a head, except that it had hair and was attached to the neck. The smell of jet fuel was so strong it made me dizzy.”

The second body part Melinek handled was a leg; she found part of a personal banking check and part of a Glock pistol grip embedded in it. Understanding the forces that could do that is very difficult. On one body, this time whole, she found an inscription on the wedding ring; it made her consider getting her own ring inscribed, just in case. That first shift, Melinek worked from eight in the morning of September 12th until three am the following morning; they would later work the same twelve hour shifts, day or night, as the firefighters and their colleagues at Ground Zero. 

The fires at the World Trade Center site continued to burn for 100 days; they smouldered in inaccessible parts of the rubble, occasionally breaking out anew as the recovery crews worked.

Teams of workers sifted through buckets of debris searching for human remains or any other identifiable personal effects. This process was initially conducted at the site, but then the decision was made to transfer the debris to a recently-closed landfill on Staten Island, with the unfortunate name of Fresh Kills. 1.8 million tons went through the site, with forensic recovery agents sifting through all of it with rakes and by hand; the Fresh Kills staff sifted through it again during the summer of 2002, to ensure that everything that could be identified was retrieved.

And so the job of identification would go on, and on; the Medical Examiner’s office maintained a department dedicated to identifying the victims in the following years, testing and retesting as technology improved in an attempt to give families some measure of closure. Three victims were identified in 2019, bringing the total of identified victims to 1,645. That left 40 percent of the victims still unidentified. 

The unidentified remains, as well as some which have not been claimed by relatives, were interred in a repository beneath the 9/11 memorial, in between the footprints of the two towers. It is not open to the public, but there is a reflection room for families of the victims.

Some of the metal from the towers was recycled into memorials; one of the most notable being the World Trade Center Cross, two steel beams which broke off in the proportions of the Christian cross, and were found like that in the rubble.It now resides in the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the site of Ground Zero. Another was made and donated by New York firefighters to the United 93 memorial at Shanksville.

In the aftermath of the attacks, a lot of things changed for many people. The airline industry naturally had to take action to make such hijackings more difficult; security measures were tightened, and short blades such as those the Al Qaeda attackers had carried were banned. Cockpit doors were reinforced, making it now practically impossible to enter a cockpit against the occupants’ wishes. This has, however, played a role in other tragedies, making the suicidal acts of the pilots on LAM Mozambique Airlines Flight 470 and Germanwings 9525 possible. 

It was also far from the last time that radicalised terrorists would board a plane with bad intentions; in the following years, there were plots to blow up planes with explosives hidden in shoes, underwear, and soft drinks. Fortunately, these plots were all foiled either by intelligence agencies or by alert passengers – but they did ensure that security restrictions and searches would be a routine part of travel in this century.

The most obvious effect of the September 11th attacks was, of course, the War on Terror. Far from convincing the American government to withdraw from the Middle East, the attack provoked them into waging war on countries believed to shelter al Qaeda – notably Iraq and Afghanistan – as well as involvement in civil wars in Yemen and Syria, which continue to this day.

It eventually led to a CIA-led raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in which United States Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden, as well as one of his adult sons, Khalid, his courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, and al-Kuwaiti’s brother and sister-in-law. Bin Laden’s body was buried at sea; according to US officials this was because no country would accept it, but it also meant that his grave could not become a shrine for his followers. Leadership of Al Qaeda passed to bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, while the War on Terror came to encompass other groups, such as the so-called Islamic State, known as ISIS or ISIL.

Twenty years on, even as the United States finally withdraws its military from Afghanistan, it seems like there will be no end to this conflict.

Following the attacks, and the War on Terror, conspiracy theories have been rife. Some even go so far as to claim that planes never hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which is patently absurd considering the huge number of eyewitnesses and video evidence.

The main thrust of these theories is generally that either the Bush government made the attacks happen, or they deliberately let them happen, in order to justify the war that followed.

Tellingly, both of these ideas give the American government far more control over the tragic events of that day than they actually had. Americans are used to being the most powerful country in the world; perhaps some would rather believe that their government would attack their own people than believe that their government didn’t have full control. 

Although various agencies had intelligence that indicated bin Laden was planning something, their failure to work together and share information meant that no agency had all the information in one place. In the words of the 9/11 Commission Report:

“The September 11 attacks fell into the void between the foreign and domestic threats. The foreign intelligence agencies were watching overseas, alert to foreign threats to US interests there. The domestic agencies were waiting for evidence of a domestic threat from sleeper cells within the United States. No one was looking for a foreign threat to domestic targets. The threat that was coming was not from sleeper cells. It was foreign – but from foreigners who had infiltrated into the United States.”

There were enough reports for most intelligence agents at that level to be sure that something was going to happen, but none of them had enough specifics on locations, targets, dates, or involved individuals to be able to act to stop it. Although domestic agencies, including the FAA, had been warned to be alert, they didn’t know what they were on the alert for, and were given no guidance from the government or intelligence agencies.

“In sum, the domestic agencies never mobilized in response to the threat. They did not have direction, and did not have a plan to institute. The borders were not hardened. Transportation systems were not fortified. Electronic surveillance was not targeted against a domestic threat. State and local law enforcement were not marshaled to augment the FBI’s efforts. The public were not warned.”

In addition to ascribing foul intentions to the US government, many conspiracy theorists maintain that rather than collapsing as a result of the impact of the planes and the resultant fires, the twin towers were actually brought down in controlled demolitions. However, no evidence of explosives was ever found in the rubble, and the amount of work required to plant explosives in the towers would be extensive, requiring a lot of workers and a lot of time. With 50,000 people working in the towers on a daily basis, and another 40,000 passing through, it would be impossible to conduct this work unnoticed.

A common claim made by these so-called “truthers” is that “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams”. However, the beams did  not need to be melted to cause the collapse, merely weakened to the point that they could no longer bear the weight of the floors above them. This is one of the reasons that the South Tower collapsed first, despite being the second hit; the impact zone was lower, so there was a lot more weight above the affected beams.

It is also frequently claimed that the collapse of World Trade Center 7 is similarly suspicious. This theory is frequently summarised as “Three buildings, two planes” – however it is patently obvious that buildings can collapse without having a plane crash into them, as many have done before. In this case, it had been burning all day, completely uncontrolled as all the surviving firefighters were focused on the search and rescue attempts in the rubble. This, combined with being so close to the collapse of the towers, which each registered on seismographs at around a magnitude of 2, in a city not built for earthquakes, meant it was bound to fall. Several other buildings around the World Trade Center complex were also demolished or damaged beyond repair. 

In short, these theories hold about as much water as a sieve.

Now, twenty years on, the World Trade Center site has been rebuilt, with the 104-storey, 1,776 feet (541.3m) tall One World Trade Center becoming the new central landmark. The footprints of the original Twin Towers remain, transformed into reflecting pools at the center of a lasting memorial to the victims, whose names are inscribed around them, and the adjacent museum records the history of that day, so that it might never be forgotten. As mentioned earlier, some of the victims’ remains are interred beneath.

The events of 9/11 highlighted two extremes of human nature; the devastation that can be caused by a few people with ill will in their hearts, and the spirit of courage, selflessness, and cooperation in those who are driven to help others when their need is greatest. Fred Rogers, the famous television host, once gave this advice to children confronted with disaster: look for the helpers. If there is one comfort we can take from September 11th, it is that we saw so many who were eager and willing to help.


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