It was the first multiple hijacking in the United States, and the first in the world in more than thirty years. On September 11, 2001, nineteen terrorists boarded four commercial jetliners, all transcontinental flights, carrying a maximum load of 11,400 gallons of jet fuel. Their objective was to take control of the planes once they were airborne and turn them into flying weapons of destruction.
Four targets had been chosen, all iconic American buildings that would send a clear message of the depth of their hatred for the United States. All four planes crashed, killing all on board—terrorists, crew members, and passengers, along with hundreds who were killed inside the structures, on the ground, and the men and women who ran into collapsing buildings in an effort to try and save others.
Only one of the four planes did not find its target. Thanks to cellular phones, passengers heard of the other crashes and chose to sacrifice themselves rather than let another plane devastate a fourth target, killing even more innocent people.
What little is known of actual events on board the four flights comes from brief radio communications, observation by witnesses on the ground and phone calls made by crew and passengers. The scenario on all four flights seems to have been basically the same.
The Flights Depart
The flights departed from three air fields on the East Coast and were scheduled for takeoff within fifteen minutes of one another. The terrorists staggered their boarding times and seating, with an individual who had enough training to keep the plane in the air seated in first class. Sometime after take off, the terrorists took control of the plane. One or more forced their way into the cockpit and took over the controls, sometimes killing the captain and first officer in the process. The other terrorists would begin to herd the flight crew and passengers toward the back of the plane, usually with bomb threats.
It is a possibility that the terrorists might have used knives or the box cutters that one passenger reported to control the crew and passengers. In 2001, airline security was minimal and was the responsibility of the airline. Passengers were asked a few questions by ticket agents before they passed through check points with metal detectors that were calibrated to sound an alarm for anything larger than a small caliber handgun. If an alarm did sound, security at the check point would use a hand wand to scan the passenger again to determine what had set off the alarm. Bags were simply passed through an x ray machine. Getting box cutters or small knives on board would not have been difficult.
Both passengers and crew took the opportunity to call for help when they were able to use airphones or personal cellular phones. If the terrorists were aware of what was happening, they made no effort to stop it. One passenger commented to a family member that the terrorists didn’t seem to care that the passengers were making calls.
The North Tower
It was at 8:19AM that a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11 first advised the airline that a hijacking was taking place on one of their planes. Less than half an hour later, at 8:46:40, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. The entire crew, all eighty-one passengers and an unknown number of people inside the building were killed instantly.
Just as Flight 11 was taking off from Logan Field in Boston, Massachusetts, United Airlines Flight 175 was leaving the gate and preparing for take off from the same field. Flight 175 was destined to follow Flight 11 to the same target in New York City. News had already spread that a plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center. At 9:03:11AM, many were just turning on the nearest television to see smoke pouring from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Curiosity became confusion as a second plane flashed across the screen, and then shock and horror as it slammed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. All aboard, including fifty-six passengers, were killed. How many died inside the building on impact is unknown.
Ten minutes after Flight 11 took off from Logan Field, another American Airlines flight was leaving Dulles Field in Washington, DC. This time, the terrorists were bound for a much closer target. The Pentagon, named for the five sided shape of the structure, is located in Arlington, Virginia, and sits just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. At 9:37:46AM, the plane hit the Mall side of the Pentagon, killing the crew and all fifty-eight passengers, as well as civilians and military personnel inside the building.
United Airlines Flight 93
United Airlines Flight 93 is possibly the best known of the four suicide flights of 9/11. Because of a delay in take-off of forty-two minutes, passengers had time to learn of the fate of three other flights. Terrorists had already taken control of the plane that had left Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey, at 8:42AM. When passengers began making and receiving calls, the terrorists made no attempt to stop them. That was when they learned that they weren’t the only hijacked plane in the sky. Knowing that there was little chance for their own survival, passengers said goodbye to families and friends and rushed the terrorists. In an effort to throw off the people who were trying to pull him from the controls, the terrorist flying the plane rocked it back and forth, then gave up any attempt to reach his destination. He rolled the plane onto its back, screaming, “Mohammed is the greatest!” into the radio as the plane drove into the ground near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. All aboard were killed on impact, but there were no fatalities on the ground.
Speculation suggests that the White House in Washington, DC, was the terrorist target of Flight 93. If the objective was to the kill the President of the United States, it would have failed. On that fateful morning, George W. Bush was in Sarasota, Florida, preparing to enter a classroom at Emma E. Booker Elementary School when his advisor, Karl Rove approached him. Rove told the president and his Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, that it had been reported that a twin engine plane had hit the World Trade Center. Later, while still in the classroom, Card advised the president that a second plane had hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
The media had gathered in the back of the room, out of line of sight of the children. But the president watched as the indicator lights on pagers and cell phones began to flash. Bush later stated that he felt a need to project calm and strength during a crisis. He remained in the classroom for a few minutes longer before leaving to go to a holding room where he was briefed on what was happening and shown the TV coverage. In phone communications with the White House, where Vice President Dick Cheney had been escorted to a secure facility, along with other key members of the president’s staff, the president was urged not to return to Washington, DC.
Osama bin Laden
The first question was who would do such a thing. The second was why. Suspicion immediately fell on al Queda and their chief, Osama bin Laden. Initially, both denied any involvement. In 2004, they and bin Laden admitted to the terrorist act, citing sanctions against Iraq, the presence of troops in Saudi Arabia and US support for Israel as the reason.
The Saudi born son of a construction magnate, Osama Bin Laden had been involved for some time with al Queda, a group of Islamic extremists known as the “takfiri,” which means “those who define other Muslims as unbelievers.” The takfiri believe in the demonization and murder of anyone who disagrees with their beliefs. Bin Laden had come to Afghanistan in 1980 to join al Queda in the fight to oust Soviet forces. Rather than a fighter, he became known for providing funding to the “jihad,” or holy war. Bin Laden was a part of “the Golden Chain,” known for financing terrorist activities and moving their agents through world markets where they purchased arms and supplies.
The War on Terror
The United States government responded to 9/11 with what became known as “The War on Terror,” a united global opposition to oppose terrorism at legal, political, military and ideological levels. It included the invasion of Afghanistan, home to the Taliban. Congress passed the Homeland Security Act of 2002 which created the United States Department of Homeland Security and resulted in the largest restructuring of the government in US history. The USA Patriot Act was also passed to help detect and prosecute terrorism. And in November 2002, the National Commission Terrorism Attacks Upon The United States was formed.
The 9/11 Commission
The Commission proceeded, according to their own report, to investigate intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies, diplomacy, immigration issues and border control, flow of assets of terrorist groups, commercial aviation, congressional oversight and resource allocation, and anything deemed relevant to the events of September 11, 2001. They reviewed 2.5 million pages of documents, interviewed 1,200 people in ten countries, and heard testimony from 160 witnesses over a period of 19 days.
Better known as the 9/11 Commission, the group produced a final report of nearly six hundred pages detailing everything from the events of September 11 to response from private and public agencies to the reason that al Queda and Osama bin Laden were suspected of complicity. In the preface of the report, they stated, “We have listened to scores of overwhelming personal tragedies and astounding acts of bravery.” Of al Queda, they said, “Its purpose is to rid the world of political and religious pluralism, the plebiscite, and equal rights for women.”
After over a decade, the United States still mourns the people who died on September 11, 2001. The tremendous loss of human lives and the contributions they would have made to the world and the lives of others can never be quantified. But the statistics that resulted from the inquiry made by the 9/11 Commission and the actions of the people of the United States in the aftermath of the event does give some idea of how far reaching and how deep the shockwaves were felt by the American public and the world.
The site of the World Trade Center has become known as Ground Zero. All seven structures that were part of the complex were either destroyed or damaged, along with other buildings in the vicinity. A design for a memorial includes the names of every one of the victims set into the footprints of the two towers.
Those names number in the thousands. Inside the World Trade Center, 2,606 people died, along with 371 passengers and crew aboard American 11 and United 175. One hundred twenty five people died at the Pentagon when American 77 crashed into the building, killing the 59 innocent victims aboard. Forty people were killed as they turned on their attackers and prevented United 93 from reaching its target.
Emergency response from all over the city of New York responded and suffered their own loses in an effort to do what they saw as no more than their job–to save lives. The New York Fire Department lost 341 firefighters and two paramedics. The Port Authority of New York lost thirty-seven officers while the New York Police Department lost twenty-three. Eight more emergency medical technicians and paramedics from private emergency response services were also lost.
From across North America, emergency responders took leave of absence from their jobs while towns, cities and counties began to prepare their emergency response units for a road trip. They arrived in New York City, ready to help as family and friends of victims wandered the area posting photos and building small memorials or asking every passer-by, “Have you see this person?” as they held up a photo of an unaccounted for loved one. One witness described the subways and streets as being wallpapered with such posters and said that the city felt like a funeral.
The statistics do not include the terrorists. Nor is the man who became the face of terrorism and whose name will always be associated with that day. On May 2, 2011, Osama bin Laden was located and killed by a special operations unit in Pakistan. After taking the body to Afghanistan to confirm his identity, the body was buried at sea within 24 hours of his death, in keeping with Islamic custom.
Every year, on the anniversary of 9/11, a ceremony is held at Ground Zero. The names of each and every victim is read aloud, one by one, against a background of quiet that seems impossible for a city the size of New York. And yet, it somehow isn’t surprising. Across the entire United States, federal agencies and local organizations stop everything for a moment of silence at exactly 8:46 AM in remembrance of the victims of 9/11.