by Diane Rufino, September 11, 2022
21 years ago, on September 10, 246 people went to sleep in preparation for their morning flights. 2,606 people went to sleep in preparation for work in the morning. 343 firefighters went to sleep in preparation for their morning shift. 60 police officers went to sleep in preparation for morning patrol. 8 paramedics went to sleep in preparation for the morning shift. None of them lived to see 10:00 am the next day – Sept 11, 2001. In one single moment, life can change; it may never be the same. As you live and enjoy the breaths you take today and tonight before you go to sleep in preparation for your life tomorrow, kiss the ones you love, tell those you love how you feel about them, snuggle a little tighter, and never take one second of your life for granted.
Let’s Look Back at that Fateful Morning, 21 Years Ago when a series of horrifying events unfolded before the unbelieving eyes of the American people, involving American Airlines flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines flight 77, and United Airlines flight 93.
The attack on America known as 9/11 was comprised of four coordinated suicide terrorist attacks carried out by the militant Islamic extremist network known as al-Qaeda[ against the United States. On the morning of September 11, 2001, nineteen terrorists—directed by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden—hijacked four commercial airliners mid-flight while traveling from the northeastern U.S. to California. The attackers were organized into three groups of five members and one group of four, with each group including one designated flight-trained hijacker who took control of the aircraft. Their goal was to crash the planes into prominent American buildings, inflicting mass casualties and major structural damage. The hijackers successfully crashed the first two planes into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, and the third plane into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. The fourth plane was intended to hit a federal government building in Washington, D.C., but instead crashed down in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, following a passenger revolt that foiled the attack.
This is how the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 unfolded:
It was almost 8:40 am on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. It was a beautiful, clear, sunny morning. Both towers of the World Trade Center, in lower Manhattan, were slightly less than half full. Flight 11, heading from Boston to LA, had already been hijacked and had broken contact with air controllers. At about that time, Betty Ong, an attendant on Flight 11, called American Airlines Operations Center, to report that the plane had likely been hijacked. She reported that the first class attendant, the purser, and a first class passenger had been stabbed but no one really knew what was going on. Flight attendant Amy Sweeney also called American Airlines. She was scared. She said the plane was flying erratically and had all of a sudden made a rapid descent. She said: “I can see the water. I can see the buildings. The plane is flying so low.” The transcript shows that she then took a slow, deep breath and calmly said: “Oh my God!” The phone went dead for both Amy and Betty at 8:45. At 8:46 am, Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. The plane struck the 93rd through 99th floors of the 110-story building. No one above the crash line survived; approximately 1,360 people died. Below the crash line, approximately 72 died and more than 4,000 survived. 87 people perished onboard Flight 11. In addition to Betty and Amy, Sara Low was also a flight attendant who lost her life. Her father described her as being prone to silliness and having an infectious personality, one that could calm even the most nervous traveler. He said: “My life stopped when my daughter died.”
About the time of the crash, air controllers noticed that Flight 175 fell off the radar. And a few minutes later, they learned that Flight 77 had been hijacked. It was then that they then suspected that Flight 175 had also been hijacked. In fact, both pilots on board that plane had already been stabbed to death.
At 8:55 am, Karl Rove took President Bush aside and told him of the crash at the North Tower. They were headed to an elementary school in Sarasota, Florida. At first, they believed it was likely an accident, perhaps a pilot who had suffered a heart attack.
At 9:03 am, Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. Millions watched the crash live on television. The plane struck the 77th through 85th floors of the 110-story building. Approximately 100 people were killed or injured in the initial impact; and 600 people in the tower would eventually die. A woman on the 83rd floor made a last call to 9/11. She said: “The floor is completely engulfed in smoke. We’re on the floor and we can’t breathe…. I don’t see any more air. … I’m going to die, aren’t I?”
The death toll from the South Tower was far lower than in the North Tower because when the occupants learned of the attack on its neighbor, about 2/3 immediately evacuated the building.
The combined death toll from the two towers was estimated at 2,606. 60 people perished on board Flight 175. 343 first responders – firefighters and paramedics – would also perish. And 23 officers of the NYPD as well. Firefighter Terence Hatton — who earned 19 medals in 21 years — died before his wife even had the chance to tell him that she was pregnant.
At least 200 people fell or jumped to their deaths from the burning towers. We remember the footage of people gathered in groups at the windows in a last minute attempt to get some oxygen. We remember many of them jumping in order to avoid a fiery death. The reporters called them “jumpers.” We can’t imagine being faced with such a hopeless choice. Our hearts ached as we watched the footage.
NYC Mayor Rudy Guiliani, who arrived at the scene immediately, has been forever touched by what he witnessed that morning. He said: “As I looked up, my eyes caught on a man on the 100th floor of the North Tower near the top. I realized I was watching the man throwing himself out. I watched him go all the way down and hit… I just stood there and watched, frozen, because it was so incomprehensible. Over the course of time I saw several other people jumping, I can’t remember how many. Two of them were holding hands. Of the many memories that stick in your mind from that day, that’s the one I remember every single day.”
At the time the second plane struck the South Tower, President Bush was in a second grade classroom promoting his education policy and listening to the children read a story about a pet goat. At 9:06 am, Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, seized a pause in the reading exercise to whisper to him that a second plane had crashed into the Towers. President Bush continued briefly to listen to the children read their story so as not to relay any sense of alarm to them and in front of the cameras.
At 9:16 am, the FAA learned that Flight 93 might also have been hijacked but it could not get confirmation. At 9:20 CNN and Fox News commentator, Barbara Olson, a passenger on board Flight 77, called her husband, Ted Olson, Solicitor General at the Justice Department to tell him that the plane had been hijacked and that passengers were ordered to the back of the plane. The FAA then learned that Flight 77, originally en route from Dulles Airport to Los Angeles, had circled around and was heading towards Washington DC.
At 9:28 am, the hijackers on board Flight 93, which was flying across rural Pennsylvania, took out knives and stabbed pilots, flight attendants, and passengers. Then they relocated the remaining passengers to the back of the plane and threatened to detonate a bomb. Air control was able to hear Arab voices on the radio.
At 9:29, President Bush delivered his first address to the nation that day – from the elementary school, in front of about 200 children: He said: “Today we’ve had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.”
At 9:34 am, the FAA noticed that Flight 77 was missing. It had dropped from radar. At 9:36, it crashed into the first floor of the Pentagon, along the west wall. All 64 people on the plane perished and 124 people working in the building were killed. A further victim would die in a hospital several days later. Donald Rumsfeld ran from his office on the other side of the Pentagon and went immediately to the crash site. He helped carry victims on stretchers and helped medics set up IVs.
At 9:42 am, Mark Bingham, on board Flight 93, called his mother and said, “I’m on a flight from Newark to San Francisco and there are three guys who have taken over the plane and they say they have a bomb.” He didn’t stay on the phone long, but he repeated several times: “I love you Mom. I love you very much.” Fellow passenger, Todd Beamer, was able to make a call for 13 minutes, to a GTE customer service supervisor, who then immediately notified the FBI. He said that the plane was hijacked by 3 people and they killed the pilot and co-pilot. He said the hijackers had locked themselves in the cockpit and appeared not to know how to fly the plane. Whether they realized it or not at the time, Mark and Todd both attended the same high school – Los Gatos High. They were both athletes. Flight 93 was en route at that point for Washington DC. F-16 fighter jets were in the air, tracking it and poised to shoot it down.
At 9:57 am, it is believed that Flight 93 passengers, led by Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, and Jeremy Glick, took a food cart and used it as a battering ram and shield to storm the cockpit. As they rallied to take control of the plane, Todd recited the 23rd Psalm and ended with these words: “Are you ready guys. LET’S ROLL.”
At 9:59 am, eyewitnesses at Ground Zero heard a series of loud explosions and then the unimaginable happened… the South Tower collapsed.
At 10:06 am, Flight 93 began to break up in mid-air before it finally crashed into an empty field in a place called Shanksville, about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, and about 124 miles or 15 minutes from Washington, D.C. Debris was found very far away from the crash site and in fact, very little wreckage was found there. All 40 passengers were killed.
At 10:28 am, eyewitnesses at Ground Zero heard another huge explosion and then the North Tower collapsed. They said they could hear the sound of twisting and crushing metal. (If you close your eyes, I’m sure you can recall all these events as clearly as when they happened 10 years ago. I know I can)
Mayor Guiliani was asked how many had died and he answered: “The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear.”
2,606 people died in the towers or on the ground. The death toll could have been much worse. An estimated 15,000 people made it out of the World Trade Towers to safety after the first plane crash. 246 people on the four planes died. There were no survivors. The hijackers turned our beloved Twin Towers into slaughterhouses.
Shortly after the towers fell, Kevin Shea, an off-duty firefighter, was found on West Street, with a broken neck, severed thumb, internal injuries, and very little memory of what he had done as the buildings burned. He suffered slight amnesia but was keenly aware that 12 other firefighters from his fire company who raced to the World Trade Center never made it out alive. Firefighter Anthony Sanseviro was in tears, mourning the death of his longtime friend and fellow firefigher Danny Suhr, who was struck by a falling body and killed as they were running to the burning towers.
At 3:15 pm, President Bush had arrived back in DC. Condoleeza Rice greeted him with these words: “We’re at war, sir.” Bush asked CIA Director George Tenet who he thought was responsible for the day’s attacks and Tenet replied: “al-Qaeda. The whole operation looked, smelled, and tasted like bin Laden.” Tenet then told him that passenger manifests showed that three known al-Qaeda operatives were on board Flight 77.
At 8:30 pm, President Bush prepared to address the nation – to address 320 million Americans who had witnessed an unspeakable tragedy. He gave these words: “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes or in their offices: secretaries, business men and women, military and federal workers, moms and dads, friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror. The pictures of airplanes flying into buildings, fires burning, huge — huge structures collapsing have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger. 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 has been moved to defend a great nation. 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. America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America… with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could….
I have directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible for these evil acts and to bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”
Before going to bed that night, President Bush would write this in his diary: “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today.… We think it’s Osama bin Laden.”
It may have been the worst day we have ever seen, but it brought out the best in us, as Americans.
Those working at the scene hoping to find any survivors were horrified. There were places they walked where they saw body parts — parts of human bodies… hands, legs. Mayor Guiliani would later report: “We recovered about 19,000 body parts – a very small percentage of intact bodies. About half of the families got something they were able to bury and the other half got nothing.”
Today – 21 years later – we come together not as Men or Women, Young or Old, Rich or Poor, or members of any ethnic group. We do not stand here as laborers or professionals or housewives or public servants. Or as Christians or non-Christians. We are Americans. On the morning of 9/11, our enemies didn’t target any one group over another. They targeted Americans… American civilians. Not men and women in uniforms trained for military action.
Firefighters and other first responders risked their lives to save those dying and in danger. They didn’t see the scared and suffering in terms of race, religion, gender, or profession. They simply saw them as fellow Americans.
We especially recognize the unique value of first responders (firefighters, police, clergy) in such a tragedy as 9/11, just as we recognize their unselfish commitment to helping other human beings whenever and wherever they are in need and in danger. 343 firemen and paramedics lost their lives on that fateful morning. They crawled up fiery blackened, smoke-filled staircases to save complete strangers… And they willingly did so. We have such fondness and respect for our firefighters. They are a special breed. You see, the death card is one that every firefighter carries in his hand. He hopes he never has to play it, but it’s always there. Every time we hear a siren or a fire truck wail, we instantly know that a life will be saved. Sadly, we never know if the fireman’s life will be sacrificed.
Likewise, people look to clergy for comfort and empathy, and in fact, it was in this very capacity that Father Mychal Judge, chaplain of the NY Fire Department, lost his life at the site of the flaming Towers. He was in the lobby of the South Tower administering last rites when it collapsed. Debris flew everywhere, striking Father Mychal in the head. It was reported that at the time he was struck, he was praying out loud: “Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!” When I was in high school,Father Mychal served at St. Joseph’s parish in my hometown of East Rutherford, in north Jersey. I was in his youth group at the time.
We recognize the same valor in those civilians who selflessly went back into the burning buildings to help save lives. Heroes were born that day.
Simply put, the attacks on NYC and the Pentagon were the most savage and audacious acts of terror ever perpetrated. They were also supposed to include government buildings in Washington DC. We wonder why our country was the target of such a brutal attack. It’s because terrorism works. For us as Americans, we lost a lot of the freedom we had taken for granted on that day. We no longer feel safe within our borders, we spent years under “terrorist warnings,” we are harassed when we go on planes, we spent years not trusting anyone of middle-eastern decent. It was the most costly attack on American soil, even more costly than the attack on Pearl Harbor. The attack on Pearl Harbor by the forces of Imperial Japan killed 2,403 U.S. personnel, including 68 civilians, and destroyed or damaged 19 U.S. Navy ships, including 8 battleships. During the September 11 attacks, 2,977 people were killed and more than 25,000 others were injured. Of the 2,977 fatal victims, 2,753 were killed in the World Trade Center and the surrounding area, 184 at the Pentagon, and 40 in Pennsylvania. And then, of course, there were the 19 hijackers who committed suicide. Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto rightfully noted that they had “woken up a sleeping giant.” And 9/11 committed the United States to fight terrorism, wherever it originates and whenever it is used.
The spirit that the terrorists tried so hard to kill on September 11 has never been stronger. The attacks only solidified our commitment that America will survive and freedom will ring. The attacked forged a new generation of patriots. Men and women have been inspired in force to join the armed services. Over 3 million have volunteered. It was an unfortunate event that created national unity. We continue to need that national unity today.
Remembering 9/11 and honoring its innocent victims isn’t about government or politics or political correctness. It’s about love of country and a bond with our fellow Americans. It’s about respect and an unspoken duty to keep 9/11 from fading in significance. It’s about a solemn promise to fellow Americans to keep their spirit and sacrifice alive. As Scottish poet Thomas Campbell wrote: “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” 3000 unarmed, innocent Americans were targeted for death in NYC and Washington DC for no other reason except they were Americans. It could have easily been my husband or my child who was on one of those planes, or your husband, wife, or child.
It is said that the test of any religion, government, political system, or educational system is the type of man or person that it forms. Let us think about that as we reflect on the events of 9/11.
May all those who died on 9/11 rest in peace and may we continue to remember what happened on that horrible day… If on no other day than this day, the anniversary of that horrible and savage attack on our country, let us continue to come together not as Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, Christians or agnostics, but simply as Americans… as neighbors and members of our collective American society.
Even the smallest act of service, the simplest act of kindness, helping a stranger, a humble donation to law enforcement or the fire station, displaying our flag, or volunteering at church, is a way to honor those we lost, a way to reclaim that spirit of unity that followed 9/11.
Another fabulous article. I am amazed at how much detail you included, including some I never knew. The story of your former Priest was a wonderful personal touch.
Thank You for such a meaningful review of that tragic time.
– J Man