On a clear, crisp September morning 15 years ago, the world stood still and watched as airplanes flew into buildings. To the astonishment of the watching world, the twin towers, a then shining beacon of the freedom, opportunity, and prosperity the USA represents, came crashing to the ground. 102 minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, the New York City skyline looked naked. Billowing, black smoke, in complete contrast to the day’s perfectly clear blue skies, took the place of the city’s two defining buildings.
American Airlines Flight 11, which had 92 people on board, was hijacked and crashed into the WTC’s North Tower at 8:46 am. United Airlines Flight 175, which had 65 people on board, was hijacked and crashed into the WTC’s South Tower at 9:03 am. The impacts instantly killed all people on board the planes and many more inside the buildings from the explosions they created.
During this time, US President George W. Bush was visiting an elementary school in Sarasota, Florida. President Bush retained his composure while his support staff worked in the background to deliver his presidential options. At 9:31 am, President Bush, speaking from the school, said that there’d been an “apparent terrorist attack on our country.”
Shortly thereafter, the President was escorted by his security detail to a nearby airport where he boarded Air Force One and assumed command of the country’s emergency and military response from its onboard mobile command center. Newly released notes from Air Force One on 9/11 give a glimpse into the chaos of the day. Bush said in a telephone call to Vice President Dick Cheney, “We’re going to get the bastards. We’re at war.”
American Airlines Flight 77, which had 64 people on board, was hijacked and crashed into the west side of the Pentagon at 9:37 am, killing everyone on the plane and 125 people inside the Pentagon.
The South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed first, at 9:59 am, despite being hit second. The North Tower collapsed at 10:28 am. Occupants were in the process of evacuating during both collapses. The Port Authority, who was in charge of the buildings, delayed evacuation orders that could have potentially saved many lives. The overwhelming confusion of the day led many agencies, such as the Port Authority, to make misguided decisions. Thankfully, thousands got out before it was too late, but thousands more never did.
The fires that burned as a result of the plane crashes, although not hot enough to directly melt the towers’ supporting structures, weakened the floors to the point of failure. From there, the floors continued to fall until each building was a destabilized frame. This caused the buildings to suffer catastrophic structural failure. Read more about what brought down the twin towers.
Debris from the twin towers landed on other buildings within the WTC, setting some on fire and even leading to the collapse of Seven World Trade Center. Seven World Trade Center burned from the morning of September 11, when it was struck by burning debris, until it collapsed from structural failure at 5:20 pm. Read more about what brought down Seven World Trade Center.
America lost something significant in that short period of time. In addition to the terrible number of dead and injured, the country lost its sense of security. Sure, there were scuffles on the streets in cities all across America since it was founded – but not like this. Nobody felt safe anymore.
But then something beautiful happened. People rose up. Neighbors and communities came together. Flags were flown in stark defiance of submission, fear, and the worst of humanity. In that period of darkness, the very best and bravest shone. Everybody gave something, some gave everything.
Let that be the defining and lasting memory of the 9/11 terrorist attacks: Community, humanity, love of country, and love of each other.
Why was the US Military Unable to React?
Back in 2001, military systems in place for spotting, tracking, and intercepting air threats were focused towards military targets coming from outside the US. There wasn’t much when it came to dealing with incidents within the US. The US military and FAA (the agency that controls US airspace) did not share radar data at the time. This meant that the military was blind to civilian traffic in many locations without the information being specifically shared. That process was time consuming and not fast enough to prevent the events of 9/11.
By the time any US fighter jets were in the sky, it was already too late to protect the twin towers. Additionally, US airspace was in a frantic state of panic. Nobody knew who was who. Reports of (believed) hijackings were coming in from across the country. The US military was not prepared to isolate and control the threats being reported.
“Is this real world or exercise?” – US Air force sgt powell
Another factor adding to the whirlpool of confusion was the fact that there was a major military exercise happening on September 11th, 2001. The various officials responsible for activating the wide array of military components involved in dispatching fighter planes and intercepting air threats were expecting a large scale exercise. They were caught off guard.
The rules of engagement were not clear for fighter pilots in the air. The military has strict rules for shooting down civilian aircraft, and the orders to do so must come from a person high on the chain of command. Although the orders were eventually given (by Vice President Dick Cheney), US Air Force specialists and commanders delivering them to the various command centers involved in protecting US airspace were slow and unclear. Unfortunately, because scrambling the fighters took so long, even if the rules of engagement were clearly defined, the situation would not have been different.
A twist of irony further highlights the lack of communication in the US government at the time. The CIA warned President Bush at least a month before 9/11 that Bin Laden was determined to attack the US.
What Motivated 9/11?
Osama bin Laden led the terrorist group al-Qaeda until his death in 2011. 9/11 wasn’t the first time al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center. On February 26, 1993, al-Qaeda detonated a car bomb in a parking garage under the North tower. 6 people died and more than a thousand were injured.
Al-Qaeda had mostly political motivations for attacking the US. US involvement in the Middle East was a key motivating factor. Bin Laden expressly stated that perceived US aggressions against Muslims was what motivated the attacks, as well as his preconceived hatred of the United States.
What about United Airlines Flight 93?
The story of Flight 93 is heroic and crushing at the same time. Hijackers intended to crash United 93 into the US Capitol or White House. United 93 was a Boeing 757-222 and there were 44 people on board, including 4 hijackers.
Unlike the other hijackings, the plane did not reach its intended target. The passengers of United Flight 93 were able to successfully overwhelm the hijackers and prevent them from achieving their objective of hitting critical US government infrastructure.
Forty six minutes into the flight, the hijackers overwhelmed the crew of the plane and took control. Immediately after, they redirected the plane towards the US capital of Washington, D.C.
After making phone calls, passengers on board United 93 learned that there was a series of coordinated attacks happening across the USA and then realized that they were a part of it. Without hesitation, they promptly confronted and then overwhelmed the hijackers. During the struggle, United 93 crashed into a Pennsylvania field that’s approximately 130 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.
On September 10th, 2015, the Flight 93 National Memorial was Completed. It opened to the public on September 11th, 2015.
9/11 Reactions from Around the World
On the night of 9/11, President George W. Bush sat at his desk in the oval office and spoke to a scared and anxious nation. In 4 minutes and 25 seconds, he delivered hope and reassurance to the world. He also paid tribute to all the lives lost. For all his missteps and antics, that speech was something he got right.
Former President Bush spoke with a composure and grace that’s worthy of the history books.
“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.” – former president George w. Bush
Bush’s leadership and confidence on camera during a time of such grave national emergency kept Americans together. It calmed those around the world concerned about what would come next. He also reaffirmed America’s strength and vowed to bring those responsible to justice.
On May 2, 2011, almost ten years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden was killed in a raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
In the years following the September 11th attacks, New York City rebuilt, but never forgot what was lost. Today, the defining feature of the city’s skyline is once again the World Trade Center – One World Trade Center, to be exact. The building took more than a decade to complete and is an architectural statement of America’s resilience.
The building is designed to handle the same kind of attack that brought down its predecessors. The hope is, however, that it will never need to.