Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001

View of lower Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001. Photograph by David Monderer. Collection of the New York Historical Society.

On September 11, 2001, at 8:46 a.m. on a clear Tuesday morning, an American Airlines Boeing 767 loaded with jet fuel crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. The impact left a gaping, burning hole between floors 93-99 of the 110-story skyscraper, instantly killing hundreds of people and trapping hundreds more in higher floors. As the evacuation of the tower got underway, television cameras broadcasted live images of what initially appeared to be a freak accident. Then, 17 minutes after the first plane hit, a second Boeing 767–United Airlines Flight 175–appeared out of the sky, turned sharply toward the World Trade Center and sliced into floors 77-85 of the South Tower. The collision caused a massive explosion that showered burning debris over surrounding buildings and the streets below. America was under attack.

The attackers were Islamist extremist terrorists from Saudi Arabia and several other Arab nations. Reportedly financed by Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist organization, they were allegedly acting in retaliation for America’s support of Israel, its involvement in the Persian Gulf War and its continued military presence in the Middle East. They chose to attack the Pentagon and World Trade Center because they are powerful symbols of America – symbols that define the United States as an economic and military superpower.

Some of the terrorists had lived in the United States for more than a year and had taken flying lessons at American commercial flight schools. Others had slipped into the country in the months before September 11 and acted as the “muscle” in the operation.

American intelligence agencies like the CIA and FBI were on the lookout for terrorist activities, but had expected bomb attacks like those of the past, or perhaps biological or chemical attacks that cause widespread terror. They were unprepared for this kind of attack. (The 9/11 Commission Report on the attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management.)

The 19 terrorists easily smuggled knives through security at three East Coast airports and boarded four flights bound for California, chosen because the planes were loaded with fuel for the long transcontinental journey. Soon after takeoff, the terrorists commandeered the four planes and took the controls, transforming ordinary commuter jets into guided missiles.

As millions watched the events unfolding in New York, American Airlines Flight 77 circled over downtown Washington, D.C., and slammed into the west side of the Pentagon military headquarters at 9:37 a.m. Jet fuel from the Boeing 757 caused a devastating inferno that led to the structural collapse of a portion of the giant concrete building. 125 military personnel and civilians were killed in the Pentagon, along with all 59 passengers and crew aboard the airliner.

Twenty-two minutes after the terrorists struck the nerve center of the U.S. military, the horror in New York took a catastrophic turn for the worse when the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed in a massive cloud of dust and smoke. The structural steel of the skyscraper, built to withstand winds in excess of 120 miles per hour and a large conventional fire, could not withstand the tremendous heat generated by the burning jet fuel coupled with the structural damage caused by the plane crash. At 10:28 a.m., the North Tower collapsed. 2,753 people died in the World Trade Center and its vicinity, including a staggering 346 firefighters, 23 New York City police officers, and 37 Port Authority police officers who were struggling to complete an evacuation of the buildings and save the office workers trapped on higher floors. Thousands of others were treated for injuries, many severe.

Meanwhile, a fourth California-bound plane – United Airlines Flight 93,  a Boeing 757 – was hijacked about 40 minutes after leaving Newark International Airport in New Jersey. Because the plane had been delayed in taking off, passengers on board learned of events in New York and Washington via cell phone and airphone calls to the ground. Knowing that the aircraft was not returning to an airport as the hijackers claimed, a group of passengers and flight attendants planned an insurrection. One of the passengers, Thomas E. Burnett Jr., told his wife over the phone that , “They’re talking about crashing this plane into the ground. We have to do something. Another passenger, Todd Beamer, was heard saying, “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll” over an open line. Sandy Bradshaw, a flight attendant, called her husband and explained that she had slipped into a galley and was filling pitchers with boiling water. Her last words to him were “Everyone’s running to first class. I’ve got to go. Bye.”

Passengers fought the four hijackers and are thought to have attacked the cockpit. The plane then flipped over and sped toward the ground at upwards of 580 miles per hour, crashing in a rural field in western Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m. All 40 passengers and crew were killed. Its intended target is presumed to be the U.S. Capitol.

By 7 p.m., President George W. Bush, who had spent the day being shuttled around the country because of security concerns, returned to the White House. At 8:30 p.m., he delivered a televised address from the Oval Office, declaring, “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.” In a reference to the eventual U.S. military response he declared, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”

Operation Enduring Freedom, the American-led international effort to oust the Taliban Islamist regime in Afghanistan that supported al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network based there, began on October 7, 2001, less than a month after the terror attacks. Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011 in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan by a team of U.S. Navy SEALS. This brought some measure of justice to 9/11 victims and our country.