Picture it. 8:45am. Tuesday 11th September 2001.
You sit at your desk on an average Tuesday morning, sipping your coffee and checking your emails. Though, it wasn’t your average Tuesday morning. All of a sudden you are knocked out of your seat from the sound of what feels like a sonic boom, and the entire building shakes from top to bottom. Glass, paper and debris can be seen falling from the windows, and you wonder what on earth is going on.
You start running down the fire escape, along with hundreds of others that want to make it to safety. A thick, black smoke starts filling your lungs, before you finally make it out of the building to see the destruction. Before you, stands one of the Twin Towers with a huge hole in the side of the building, with smoke and fire catching your eyes. You can see people with their heads out of the windows, gasping for air while they are trapped at the top. Some people jump.
September 11th 2001 was the biggest terrorist attack in history, when 19 Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger flights in order to crash into some of America’s most important buildings. Thousands of people died, including all passengers and flight attendants, thousands of employees in the buildings, as well as those in the emergency services, who died trying to save people when the buildings collapsed. This is the story of 9/11.
At 8:46am on Tuesday 11th September 2001, a passenger flight crashed into the World Trade Centre, in New York City. The World Trade Centre was made up of two buildings, famously known as the ‘Twin Towers’ – two buildings that were an icon of the city. The attacks came completely by surprise, and the world could do nothing but watch, trying to work out exactly what happened.
The flight in question was American Airlines Flight 11, a daily flight that would commute from Boston to Los Angeles every morning. The flight had been hijacked and crashed into the North Tower by 5 members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist group. All 92 people on board the flight died, as well as many more that were innocently working in the building of the World Trade Centre.
News channels were quick to start coverage of the attacks, with outlets such as CNN broadcasting the aftermath live to the world. Nobody knew what had happened in the initial moments, other than those that witnessed the plane crashing into the building; though there were others that saw the incident happen at the wrong angle and mistook the plane’s impact to be a bomb going off inside the building. American YouTuber, Casey Neistat, explained his perspective of the incident in a video titled ‘The scariest day of my life’ that he uploaded on the 2nd May 2015. In the video, he showed some shots that he had captured a 20-year old, aspiring filmmaker at the time, and said the following:
“I moved into a friend’s couch that was literally half a block from the Twin Towers. On the morning of September 11th, I remember a noise, a crushing noise. I stuck my head out of the window, and I just remember seeing paper falling. My roommate then came running out, he turned on the TV and there was no news, there was nothing. And then like ‘Tzz’, it came on, and it was the first shot of the building that was on fire. This was before terrorism was all that anybody would talk about – it wasn’t even in my scope of consideration.”
Around 10 minutes later, 17 minutes after the plane crashed into the North Tower; live footage captured a second plane crashing into the World Trade Centre at 9:03am, this time into the Southern Tower. Both buildings were now on fire, and the entire world had just witnessed a second plane explode, live. It was at this point that the reporters were questioning the reasons behind the attacks, though many news outlets were contradicting themselves. After Flight 11 had crashed, the reporters had focused on asking eyewitnesses about what they had seen, and what was currently happening, though the second plane had raised some different questions. Soon after; CNN started airing footage and reports courtesy of the WABC news outlet, where the reporter was quick to assume that an electrical or navigational failure was the cause of the accidents. Let’s take a look at this quotation from moments after the second plane had struck the South Tower:
“We are going to take a look at [a] video tape [from] just moments ago of a second plane hitting the World Trade Centre. Those are spectacular pictures. I don’t know if you could see the plane – and that too was a passenger plane – if perhaps some type of navigating system or some type of electronics would have put two planes into the World Trade Centre within – it looks like – about 18 minutes of each other. [Replay is shown] We have another copy, there is the second plane – another passenger plane hitting the World Trade Centre! These pictures are frightening indeed, these are just minutes between each other; so naturally, you will guess, speculate, and perhaps ask the question if some type of navigating equipment is awry so that two commuter planes would run into the World Trade Centres at the same time. You are looking at live pictures right now of the World Trade Centres; again, we now have two passenger planes within 18 minutes of each other, smashing into the World Trade Centres.”
It wasn’t until the second plane had struck the Twin Towers that terrorism started to become a talking point. CNN once again switched the coverage, this time courtesy of the WNYW news outlet. Interestingly, the news reporter from WNYW had a completely different take and were quick to point the blame at terrorism with the word ‘deliberately’. During the coverage, the reporter said the following:
“We saw clearly – we didn’t see the first one – but we saw clearly that a plane, uh, deliberately crashed into one of the upper floors of the World Trade Centre. That was the second plane; so, two planes crashed into the upper floors of each of the World Trade Centre towers.”
CNN returned to their own coverage after this, where they spoke to former NTSB spokesperson, Ira Furman, who was also convinced that this was an intentional attack:
Reporter: What can you make of what we have seen – particularly with this replay we have seen just moments ago?
Furman: That’s absolutely inexplicable. There shouldn’t be any aircraft in that area; much less something heading – what would look like – deliberately for the World Trade Centre tower.
Reporter: You don’t think there’s any way this could be any kind of an accident, no kind of navigational equipment failure?
Furman: No, you’ve got incredibly good visibility at this point and no pilot is going to be relying on navigational equipment in such a circumstance that would cause them to crash into the World Trade Centre.
Reporter: How far out of the way […] would a plane have to be to hit the World Trade Centre?
Furman: There are approaches that come off along the Hudson river, which is to the west of the World Trade Centre […], so you can come within a mile or two of the World Trade Centre; but it is such a visible object as you are approaching New York City that it’s just not possible for a pilot during the daytime to have taken a course that would put it right into the World Trade Centre. The second occurrence, within a few minutes, is beyond belief.
The second plane to crash was known as United Airlines Flight 175, which will be explained in more detail shortly. As Furman explained, neither plane had any business being as close as it was to the World Trade Centre. The reporter was still questioning whether equipment failure was the cause, but Furman insisted it wasn’t.
The next portion of this story will discuss the flights in more detail, including the other two planes involved in the 9/11 attacks – Flights 77 and 93.
American Airlines, Flight 11
American Airlines Flight 11 was the first of the planes to crash on the Tuesday morning, and was taken over by five Hijackers, including Mohamed Atta, who was the main pilot that caused the plane to crash into the North Twin Tower (Tower 1).
The hijackers were spread across several rows on the plane, and the predicted start of the hijacking occurred just 15 minutes into the flight. Betty Ong, a flight attendant on Flight 11, called the American Airlines emergency line and reported the stabbing of two employees, as well as the fatal stabbing of one passenger, claiming she was unable to reach business class, as well as not being able to get into the cockpit, according to a transcript released on the Billy Moyers Journal.
Lead hijacker, Atta, had attempted to make an announcement over the intercom to the passengers, but accidentally spoke to Air Traffic Control instead. In the clips, you can hear the 33-year old speaking, where he tells everyone in a calm, but rushed voice that everyone needs to stay seated and that they will be ‘returning to the airport’. Of course, the passengers didn’t receive this message as Atta had pressed the wrong button, but the Air Traffic Control officer was very confused with what he was hearing. Shortly after, Fighter jets took off in an attempt to prevent an attack, but permission for take-off was granted after Flight 11 had already crashed due to complications and delays.
The plane crashed at 8:46:40am local time, and there is only one known video of the plane striking the building, captured by a French film maker. Many witnesses saw the plane hit the building, but there were others that heard the explosion and didn’t understand what was going on. Many people just saw the building on fire and started running…
United Airlines, Flight 175
United Airlines Flight 175 was the second of the four planes to crash into the World Trade Centre, this time targeting the South Tower. The plane, much like Flight 11, was taken over by five hijackers, and almost made two mid-air collisions before the impact at 9:02:58am.
As we discussed earlier, the crash itself was televised on all news stations as the outlets were already focusing their coverage on the burning North Tower. The plane can be seen rapidly descending before making a last-minute left-hand turn in order to hit the tower. Flight 175 would have likely missed the building if it hadn’t made this turn.
Many of the passengers on Flight 175 actually made phone calls to their loved ones before the plane crashed into the South Tower. It was reported from within the plane that both pilots had been killed and that a flight attendant had been stabbed. The hijacking is believed to have taken place between 8:42am and 8:46am, just minutes before Flight 11 would crash into the North Tower; with Mohand al-Shehri believed to have been one of the five Al-Qaeda hijackers to enter the cockpit of the plane and fly the plane into the building.
Regarding the mid-air collisions, Dave Bottiglia was the Air Traffic Control officer that was in charge of the United Airlines flight but noticed that the plane had gone off route and was rapidly approaching Delta Air Lines Flight 2315. In a panic, Bottiglia instructed the pilots of Flight 2315 to “take any evasive action necessary,” in which the pilot was successfully able to avoid the hijacked plane.
According to the flight path study of Flight 175; the plane descended 24,000 feet in 5 minutes and 4 seconds; with an average rate of 5,000 feet per minute. However, Bottiglia explained that the final few moments saw the plane descend at a rate of 10,000 feet per minute, which is “unheard of,” according to a documentary on Flight 175.
American Airlines, Flight 77
American Airlines Flight 77 was the plane that crashed into the west side of the Pentagon at 9:37am, resulting in the deaths of all 59 passengers, 5 hijackers and 125 people in the Pentagon building. The supposed hijacking had occurred a lot longer into the flight, when compared to Flight 11 and Flight 175. The aircraft took off from Virginia at 8:10am for its journey to Los Angeles; but the hijacking would not commence until 8:50am, 4 minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower.
Passengers were reportedly sent to the back of the plane, including the pilots, as the hijackers were carrying utility knives on them. Utility knives of a restricted length were permitted on flights at this time, which the hijackers on other planes used as threats against the passengers and staff. Two phone calls were made during the flight without the knowledge of the hijackers, and it was reported that unlike the other two planes, the hijackers hadn’t threatened the passengers like the other planes had experienced.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)’s flight path study, this is the route the plane took in the final three minutes:
“At 9:34 AM, the aircraft was positioned about 3.5 miles west-southwest of the Pentagon, and started a right 330-degree descending turn to the right. At the end of the turn, the aircraft was about 2,000 feet altitude and 4 miles southwest of the Pentagon. Over the next 30 seconds, power was increased to near maximum and the nose was pitched down in response to control column movements. The airplane accelerated to approximately 460 knots (530 miles per hour) at impact with the Pentagon. The time of impact was 9:37:45 AM.”
United Airlines, Flight 93
American Airlines Flight 93 was the final plane involved in the September 11th attacks; but never made it to its intended target thanks to the bravery of the passengers. Flight 93 was a scheduled flight from New Jersey to California, but the passengers had received warning of hijackings on other flights from the news and other concerned relatives. The passengers on-board were forced to the back of the plane and made phone calls, with some of their family members claiming that they planned to try and prevent the hijackers from completing their ‘mission’.
According to SFGate, Deena Burnett – ex-flight attendant and husband to Tom Burnett – wrote a transcript of the conversation she had with her husband, who sadly died on the hijacked flight. She initially received a phone call from Tom where he said the following:
“Yes, yes, just listen. Our airplane has been hijacked. It’s United Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco. We are in the air. The hijackers have already knifed a guy, one of them has a gun, and they are telling us there is a bomb on board. Please call the authorities.”
Later on, in the conversation, Tom said “Oh my God, it’s a suicide mission. […] Don’t worry, we are going to do something,” before making a plan with the rest of the passengers to attack the hijackers. Cockpit recordings captured in the final 30 minutes were unclear whether the passengers were able to make it into the cockpit or not; but it was clear that there was a struggle towards the end of the flight.
According to the National Commission of Terrorist attacks upon the United States; the passengers began their attack on the hijackers at 9:57am. The lead pilot in the hijacking – Ziad Jarrah – responded to the attacks by violently shaking the plane to the left and the right to put the passengers off course, before changing axis and tipping the nose of the aircraft up and down. It is reported that the passengers had managed to attack one of the hijackers that was stood outside the cockpit. Another report also claimed that the passengers used the food cart to try and ram the door; though it isn’t clear whether this plan actually worked.
The hijackers turned the controls of the plane all the way to the right in preparation to crash the plane. Family members reported hearing some of the passenger’s voices in the final moments of the recording, but it isn’t known whether they were able to take control of the plane. The plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania at 563mph and everybody on-board was killed. However, the passengers that attempted to, and successfully prevented the hijackers plans to crash into another important building has been seen as an act of heroism, as it saved the lives of many other people.
The September 11th attacks have gone down in history as one of the worst acts of terrorism ever. 2,977 people died in the attacks, and many more would lose their lives from illnesses related to the cancer within the dust and debris-filled smoke that was inhaled when the Twin Towers collapsed. 9/11 has changed the world forever, as tighter airport restrictions such as no longer allowing knives on planes, locking the cockpit with bulletproof doors and a much less forgiving security system have helped prevent hijackings from claiming the lives of more people. The lives that were lost during 9/11 will never be forgotten, and the events from that day will remain an important part of American history, forever.