This article, written by a historian, uses the sequential questioning technique to present a selected historical and statistical overview of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, including: the hijackings; the suicide attacks in New York, Washington, D C, and Pennsylvania; background on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda; rescue and recovery efforts; and a brief discussion of how the horrors of the day continue to affect the American people a year later. Especially sobering are the dollar costs of the attacks and the projected expenses of U.S. efforts to control the spread of international terrorism (estimated at $640 billion, just through fiscal year 2003). Throughout, the article draws on the experiences of the victims, the rescuers, and the survivors.
Key words: September 11 2001, terrorists, hijacking, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, World Trade Center, New York City, New York fire department, Pentagon, Washington D C, Shanksville Pennsylvania, Somerset County Pennsylvania, United Airlines Flight 93, American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 77
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: THEN AND NOWThis topical issue deals with the impact and aftermath of the events of a year ago on September 11, 2001, tragic events that destroyed and disrupted thousands of lives and threatened America's institutions. My article provides a selected historical and statistical overview of these events, including a brief introduction of the violent acts, a discussion of the activities at "ground zero" drawing on firsthand accounts, and a summary of how the repercussions from that fateful day continue to affect us. But first, a note on the method used and the frame of reference of the author.
Method: The Sequential Questioning Technique
Historians and others use a method called the sequential questioning technique when narrating and analyzing events. Practitioners of the technique ask first 1) what happened, then 2) how did it happen, 3) why did it happen, and, finally, 4) so what or the significance and consequences of the event(s). For the historian (and the detective, too) an important umbrella over the above four steps is chronology. The element of when things happened is especially important for it provides links to historical context and cause and effect. Obviously, the further one advances in the sequence (from what, to how, to why, to significance), the more the answers are affected by the particular viewpoint (or worldview) of the practitioner/author.
Frame of Reference: Author's Viewpoint
With yours truly, I'm a citizen of the U.S. and a historian of American history.
...it's really not possible, or desirable, to write so-called objective history since one's background influences the selection and interpretation of the facts.
Although one might quibble over exact departure and crash times, there is general agreement on the following. Between 8:00 a.m. and 8:42 a.m. on Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, four jet airliners departed from airports in Massachusetts, Washington D C, and New Jersey with west coast destinations, three bound for Los Angeles and one for San Francisco. In flight, the first violent acts of the unprecedented day occurred when 4-5 hijackers on each plane commandeered their aircraft, held passengers and crews hostage, and flew two jets into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and one into the Pentagon Building in Washington, D C; the fourth crashed in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania southeast of Pittsburgh.
Fully loaded with jet fuel for transcontinental flights, the hijackers converted the aircraft into highly flammable missiles of death and destruction. At 8:47 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston's Logan Field, a Boeing 767 carrying 92 passengers and crew and 20,000 gallons of jet fuel, crashed at just under 490 m.p.h. into floors 94 through 98 of the 110-story north tower of the World Trade Center (WTC). At 9:02 a.m., television and video cameras focusing on the north tower conflagration recorded the horror of United Airlines Flight 175, a Boeing 767 also out of Boston with 65 passengers and crew, as it slammed into floors 78-84 of the WTC's 110-story south tower at 590 m.p.h. At 9:50 a.m. the south tower collapsed 48 minutes after impact. At 10:28 a.m. the north tower, the first one hit, collapsed 101minutes after impact. Engineers explained that the faster speed of United Flight 175 and its impact nearer the middle of the south tower contributed to the structure's more rapid collapse. When the jet fuel heated the steel support beams, it caused them to buckle under the immense weight. On the other hand, the slower speed of Flight 11, its higher point of impact, and the fact that the north tower had recently had its fireproofing upgraded accounted for it standing twice as long before its collapse Meanwhile, American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 out of Washington's Dulles International, had flown west over southeast Ohio before turning 180 degrees and returning to the nation's capital. At 9:41 a.m. with 64 passengers and crew it crashed into the west side of the Pentagon. The fourth hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 out of Newark, New Jersey bound for San Francisco with 44 passengers and crew, flew westward over northeast Ohio, where it turned and headed over Pennsylvania, crashing at 10:00 a.m. in a field near Shanksville, 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. A total of 265 people perished on the four planes: 232 passengers (including the 19 hijackers, who boarded as passengers), 25 flight attendants, and 8 pilots. September 11, 2001, timelines are available on the web as listed under this article's references (CNN.com, 2001; ABC News, 2002).
Final Moments Aboard Suicide Jets
Remarkably, although no one survived the crashes, we can reconstruct the hijackers' modus operandi and some of the final moments aboard each aircraft because passengers and crew, using in-flight and cellular phones, were able to contact family and others on the ground. From various accounts, we know that the hijackers traveled in first or business class and for weapons used box cutters or small knives (permitted before September 11), the threat of bombs strapped to their bodies, and mace or some other disabling spray to control the hostages. On American Airlines Flight 11, which would crash into the WTC's north tower, the cockpit radio was inadvertently switched on, allowing traffic controllers in Boston to hear one of the hijackers saying to the passengers:
Just stay quiet and you will be OK. We are returning to the airport. Nobody move, everything will be OK. If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet. Don't do anything foolish. You are not going to get hurt (Bernstein, 2002, p. 181).
On the same flight, Madeline Sweeney of Acton, Massachusetts, a flight attendant, made two calls from the in-flight phone in the galley to her husband and to Logan Field. In a calm voice she gave descriptions of the hijackers (including their seat locations, which helped with identification), and related how they had attacked two attendants and killed a passenger. Noting that the jet was flying at a low altitude, she commented that she could see the Hudson River, then the twin towers. As Flight 11 approached the north tower, Sweeney's last words were "Oh, my God" (Sullivan, 2001, p. 120). On United Airlines flight 175, which crashed into the south tower, passenger Peter Hanson, traveling with his wife and young daughter, called his parents. Peter related how the hijackers, to force the crew to open the cockpit doors, had stabbed flight attendants. Just before impact, he told his parents, "I think we're going down, but don't worry," he assured them, "it's going to be quick" (Bernstein, 2002, p. 7). On American Airlines flight 77, Barbara K. Olson, called her husband, Theodore Olson, Solicitor General of the U.S., to tell him of the hijacking and that the hijackers had grouped the hostages in the rear of the plane. Twenty minutes later it crashed into the Pentagon. (For a thorough, and chilling, description of the hijackers' modus operandi, see Bernstein, 2002, pp.197-198.)
United Airlines Flight 93
On the first three flights, the passengers and crews found out too late that the hijackers had no intention of landing the aircraft and then negotiating their demands (a practice followed in previous hijackings). But on United Airlines flight 93, some of the hostages knew that the paradigm had changed drastically. With its takeoff delayed 45 minutes and in the air 78 minutes (the longest in the air of the four flights), several had time to place telephone calls and learned of the fates of the other jets. Surmising that the hijackers probably had a similar plan for their plane, they attempted to take control of the jet, causing it to crash in Pennsylvania. The heroics probably saved more lives since Flight 93's hijackers more than likely intended to strike a high profile target in Washington D.C.--perhaps the White House or the Capitol (Longman, 2002).
Osama bin Laden and TerrorismA year later, we still don't know the objective of United Flight 93, but what was clear, was that the nightmare that began on a beautiful Indian summer morning was not a coincidence.
A year later, we still don't know the objective of United Flight 93, but what was clear, was that the nightmare that began on a beautiful Indian summer morning was not a coincidence.
American officials have indirectly linked bin Laden to the car bombing at the World Trade Center in 1993 and directly linked him to the two embassy bombings in Africa in 1998 and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. A 1999 U.S. government report warned, "Because he has dared to stand up to two superpowers, bin Laden has become an almost mythic figure in the Islamic world. . . . thousands of Arabs and Muslims, seeing him as a hero under attack by the Great Satan, have volunteered their service." The report further predicted that "bin Laden will most likely retaliate in a spectacular way for the cruise missile attack against his Afghan camp in August 1998" and that "al-Qaeda's Martyrdom Battalion could crash land an aircraft . . .into the Pentagon," a gruesome prophecy fulfilled four-fold on September 11 (Hudson, 1999, pp.15-16, 168, 170-176). In a videotape after that date, bin Laden expressed his support for the attacks and the sacrifice of the hijackers:
Here is America struck by Almighty God in one of its vital organs so that its greatest buildings are destroyed. . . . God has used a group of vanguard Muslims, the forefront of Islam, to destroy America. May God bless them and allot them a supreme place in heaven, for He is the only one capable and entitled to do so (quoted in Bernstein, 2002, pp.252-253).
A Nation ParalyzedPresident George W. Bush first learned of the attacks shortly after 9:00 a.m. in Florida, where he was in a grade school classroom. At 9:45 a.m., five minutes after American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, the White House and the Capitol were evacuated. As a security measure, Vice President Cheney was whisked away to an undisclosed location. At 9:50 a.m., the Federal Aviation Agency shut down all airports in the United States, ordering all planes in the air to land at nearby fields -- further unprecedented actions. With rumors circulating that the president's Air Force One might be a target, President Bush was flown with fighter jet escort to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, a random choice. Also by chance, one of my sons was visiting the base, and noticed a vulnerable Air Force One stopped at the end of the runway waiting to obtain clearance for takeoff. He took a photograph with his digital camera, and afterwards thought how easy it would have been for a terrorist to fire on the president's plane on the ground. Presumably, no terrorists could have known the president was in Louisiana, but September 11 was a day full of unprecedented horrors and surprises, and anything seemed possible. By the end of the day, President Bush returned to the nation's capital, where he addressed the country (and the world) in a televised speech (Bush, 2001). "Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror," the president said. "Terrorist attacks can shake the foundation 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" (Bush, 2001).
Terrorism's Target: World Trade Center
Technology (cellular phones, digital cameras, and video camcorders) provide vignettes of the horror, heroic acts, and the role of fate experienced by those caught in the WTC complex and the Pentagon. But we have something else as well: the words of thousands of survivors, quite a few of which can be accessed on the Wikipedia website www.wikipedia.org. This information can be accessed by searching the website using the phrase "September 11th." The Wikipedia website also includes information about the victims, which can be accessed and updated. One victim was Steve Cafiero, whose office was on the 92nd floor of the south tower. After Flight 11 hit the north tower, he called his mother and described the American Airlines fuselage sticking out of the structure and people jumping to their deaths. Suddenly, he started screaming and dropped the phone. His mother stayed on the line for thirty minutes, but her son never got back on. She is convinced that Steve saw Flight 175 as it crashed into the south tower (Tyrangel et al., 2001). John Labriola, a technical services consultant, was at work on the 71st floor of the north tower when the jet crashed above him. As he joined the thousands of others leaving the structure in an orderly manner down the stairwells, he photographed the winding procession. People were polite, did not shove, and assisted those less fortunate, e.g., two men helped a man on crutches; and when a woman couldn't go any further, another man carried her down the stairs. He observed, "People were covering their mouths against the smoke. It was very hot. We were slipping on the sweat of those who had gone before." His photographs also documented exhausted firefighters trudging up the stairs (Sullivan, 2001, pp. 40-45).
Fate and luck often determined whether one lived or died on September 11. Cantor Fitzgerald, a firm that had its offices in the north tower at the point of the crash impact and in the floors above, did not have a single survivor among those trapped in the inferno. The fates, however, intervened on behalf of two Cantor Fitzgerald employees in the tower that day. Christopher Pepe, 36, a salesman, received a call at 8:20 a.m. to meet a client on Broad Street, and left the building. David Kravette, 40, managing director, was in the lobby greeting guests when the plane hit at 8:45 a.m. Because his assistant was seven months pregnant, he had volunteered so she wouldn't have to take the long trek to the bottom floor. Kravette and Pepe both knew that if they had been at their desks, they, too, would have died. Kravette and many others that day have had to deal with the "survivor guilt" of "why me?" when colleagues' lives were taken and theirs were spared (Sullivan, 2001).
The lives of people in the streets below and in adjacent offices to the WTC also were in danger. When American Flight 11 hit the north tower, Lauren Manning was walking toward the entrance on West Street. She was hit by cascading aviation fuel and received burns over 90% of her body. Nearby, Jennieann Maffeo was standing at a bus stop and was likewise saturated by the burning fuel. Maffeo fought for life for 41 days in a burn ward before she succumbed. Manning, demonstrating the resilience of the flesh and the spirit, has survived against overwhelming odds, although she faces years of surgery and therapy (Bernstein, 2002). Father Mychal Judge, 68, a Franciscan priest and chaplain of the New York Fire Department, removed his helmet in the street to administer last rites to firefighter Daniel T. Suhr, when debris struck Judge in the head, killing him instantly. Compounding the tragedy, Suhr's death had been caused by a falling body. At least 60 people jumped or fell, virtually all from the north tower, the first one hit. (Bernstein, 2002; Sullivan, 2001).
New York Fire Department
The New York Fire Department suffered especially heavy casualties at the World Trade Center Complex.
Carrying over 100 pounds of equipment, it took almost a minute for each firefighter to climb the stairs on each floor; to reach the point of impact in the north tower.
From Rescue to Recovery
When 110-story skyscrapers can be reduced to 5-story piles of rubble, the chances of finding anyone alive are remote. In fact, after Tuesday, only five people were rescued from the devastation of Ground Zero. Soon, what had begun as rescue operations turned to efforts to recover the remains of those who had died and to remove the debris from the site.
The destruction at Ground Zero resembled a bombed out war zone. For days a black, oily smoke covered lower Manhattan and the rest of the city like a pall. In the 16 acres comprising the World Trade Center, five structures completely collapsed (including St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church), four structures partially collapsed, and there was substantial damage to six others. In addition, six more structures in the general area had facade damage. In the first month alone of the cleanup, dump trucks hauled off 291,879 tons (Sullivan, 2001).
Terrorism's Target: The Pentagon
American Flight 77 actually overflew the Pentagon at 8,000 feet on its first passage, then circled into Virginia and began its approach. It slammed into the building at a height of 50 feet and a speed of 500 m.p.h, penetrating three of the five rings on the southwest side of the building. Even though traffic controllers knew the plane was headed towards Washington, and the Pentagon staff members were aware of what had happened in New York, inexplicably no evacuation orders were given. Fortunately, some of the area hit was under renovation, or the casualty figures would have been much higher (Bernstein, 2002).
Richard Hatchett, a physician on duty Tuesday morning, September 11 at the emergency room of the Sloan-Kettering hospital in Manhattan, saw the second plane hit the south tower. "We stood there gaping for a few minutes in total disbelief. Nobody knew what the numbers would be. I thought we'd see a lot of victims. But as the day wore on, we realized there weren't going to be a lot of survivors." Michael Karch, an orthopedic surgeon from the Georgetown University Medical Center near Washington, D C had a similar experience. "When the news came that the Pentagon was hit, we scrambled to set up with expected ER admissions in the hundreds. Only one patient actually came with severe third degree burns and smelling of jet fuel. Nothing, of course, came afterwards because most of the victims died." Frustrated and wishing to help, Karch boarded a train to New York City. He first worked 20 blocks from Ground Zero at Chelsea Piers, the site of a combined clinic for the "walking wounded" and a morgue, which consisted of an ice skating rink. With little activity at the clinic, Karch spent most of his time laying out body bags on the rink. When a call came for volunteers at Ground Zero, Karch was off. Because the road had been destroyed, he had to walk the last two blocks. His firsthand, graphic description of Ground Zero's first 96 hours immerses the reader in the depths of the disaster.
"To get to Ground Zero," he writes, "one has to walk through a maze of 6-12 inches of ash, paper, twisted iron, mud, junk. It looked like a tornado had hit the city." Through "the backdrop of smoke one could see outside the front wall of the North Tower, which was now only about five stories high atop a huge pile of burning rubble and leaning 45 degrees." At Ground Zero itself, he "was immediately struck by the immensity of destruction and the fact that it wasn't just the Twin Towers. It was a two block radius of decimation." Permeating the air was the "smell of rotting flesh and [nearby there was] another body flattened on the ground who had apparently jumped."
Karch continues, "Body bags were being brought in empty and being returned only half full. . . . Out of the 17 that we carried out, only one was a complete body. In fact, one bag was so light that when we picked it up, we thought it was empty and cast it aside, only to find out that it had only half of an ankle and foot inside. There was no more" (ABC News, 2001).
Grim StatisticsAt the World Trade Center, 2,823 people have been confirmed dead.
Ever since the 1993 car bombing in the WTC's basement parking garage... an evacuation plan had been prepared and the buildings' residents regularly practiced evacuation drills.
For many of the dead, the impact of the crashes, the intense heat, and the tremendous weight of the collapsing structures vaporized, burned, or pulverized blood and tissue, and literally nothing was left or was mangled beyond recognition. Significantly, the identities of only ten victims were confirmed by visual identification alone. The rest required dental records, fingerprints, or DNA testing. But without a corpse or a fragment of the remains for DNA identification, there can be no identification, no proof that a loved one was indeed killed. At WTC, the task is enormous for several thousand body parts have been recovered from Ground Zero. It will take months of DNA analysis before matches can be made, if ever, and the 98 missing at the WTC may never be identified (Kugler, 2002). Additional information can be found on the Wikipedia website www.wikipedia.org by searching on the phrase "September 11th." Retired firefighter and best selling author Dennis Smith tells the story of the Ielpis family's experience dealing with such a devastating uncertainty. Lee, the father, and his two sons, Brendan and Jonathan, were all firefighters in the Vigilant Hook and Ladder Company. Jonathan was among those missing at the WTC. For three months Lee and Brendan, father and surviving son, searched through the rubble of the south tower for Jonathan's body. Finally, on December 12, the 93rd day, his remains were found; the funeral was held later that month. At least for the Ielpi family, there was closure. For the friends and families of the others missing, closure will be more difficult. "That will be the saddest day," Lee Ielpi told Dennis Smith, "when the [WTC] site is cleared and the last stone is turned, and we have to tell all those families that there is nothing more to find" (Smith, 2002, p. 365).
The $$$ Cost of September 11's TerrorismOsama bin Laden estimated that the economic impact on the U.S. of the strikes of September 11 would exceed $1 trillion for that day alone, an amount far in excess of actual figures. Nevertheless, the total estimated impact of the September 11 strikes through 2003 is a staggering $640 billion, including the following selected items: $6.1 billion lost earnings of the 3,000+ who died (based on 20 or more working years at $100,000 each year); $7 billion payout by the federal government (September 11 Victims' Compensation Fund) to the families of victims who agreed not to file lawsuits against airlines and others (average payout is $1.85 million); $14 billion for computers, office furniture and machines, and inventory destroyed; $29 billion to rebuild the WTC complex ($15 billion for WTC and $14 billion for surrounding buildings); $520 million for Operation Phoenix, the 24-hour, 7-days a week project to rebuild the Pentagon; $8 billion for damage to lower Manhattan businesses; $750 million for the final cleanup of the WTC (one-tenth of original estimate); $44 billion for anti-terrorism military actions, including Afghanistan and related operations through fiscal year 2003; $37 billion for homeland defense, including $11 billion more for border security and $5.9 billion for anti-bioterrorism efforts; $300 billion in federal deficits over the next three years because of the rising cost of the war on terrorism and an economic recession; $15 billion for federal bailout of commercial airlines. In addition, there were priceless artifacts destroyed in the WTC, including Helen Keller's papers, Jacque Lowe's photographic archives (including 40,000 negatives of John Kennedy's presidency), and artifacts from the African Burial Ground. Compare the above costs with the total documented expenses of the 19 hijackers: $303,761 (Cost of Terrorism, 2002).
How Our Lives Have Changed Since 9/11Since the attacks came out of the blue, obviously commercial jet travel and airport security would be affected. Air marshals on some flights and increased security screening (with longer lines and waits) are just two of the changes. Most willingly submit to random screenings when asked to unbuckle belts and remove shoes, but others have refused to fly. Although Congress passed legislation to assist financially troubled airlines, in the summer of 2002 both American Airlines and United Airlines, the two largest carriers and the two involved in the hijackings, announced layoffs of thousands of employees to avoid bankruptcy. From July 2001 to July 2002 airlines reported a 6% to10% decline in traffic. Some of this is due to an economic recession. Nevertheless, a recent Associated Press poll found that 29% of Americans, when asked about their greatest fears regarding flying and terrorist attacks, were most concerned about flying in commercial airliners. Second, at 14%, was fear of being in a large crowd at a public event (Schwartz, 2002).
Yet Americans are also concerned that the domestic war against terrorism could infringe on our freedoms.
Furthermore, libraries and bookstores must give the FBI records of individuals' reading habits, which some citizens associate with the repression of the McCarthy era in the 1950s.
Despite such misgivings, 50% in the AP poll felt that the U.S. "has changed for the better" because of the attacks of September 11; only 15% considered that it had changed for the worse (Schwartz, 2002).
Compare this optimistic outlook with the despair of some couples in the Cold War years who decided not to bring children into a world on the brink of nuclear annihilation.
Many Americans reacted to the assaults with a renewed and aggressive patriotism, which included displaying the flag, but with deeper manifestations as well. Remember Michael Karch, the itinerant physician we met earlier, who had gone four days without sleeping while assisting with the recovery efforts at the World Trade Center? He finally returned from lower Manhattan to Georgetown on Friday, September 14, so exhausted that he fell asleep for three hours on his front lawn. When he awoke, he wrote down the lessons he had learned:
First and foremost, we are [an] incredible people and an incredible nation. I do believe the hearts of the firemen, iron workers, and cops are in all of us. It is for this reason . . . that many people in the world . . . are jealous of what we have. These people are highly intelligent and highly motivated and if we foolishly think that the Twin Towers/Pentagon situation is the last of this we are sadly mistaken.
He concluded, "Hopefully, we will never have to do this again. But based on what I saw over the past few days, I sadly doubt that fact. Our way of life is too good to lose and is worth fighting for" (ABC News, 2001). An August 7 editorial in the Chillicothe (Ohio) Star summed up what September 11 meant. It was "the day that America discovered itself -- how strong and united a great people can be when confronted with great evil, and put to the ultimate test of survival" (Schwartz, 2002). Americans had expressed a similar resolve sixty years earlier when faced with another enemy's attack on U.S. soil on December 7, 1941.
John R. Jameson, PhD
John Jameson received his B.A. from Austin College (Texas) in 1967, his M.A. from Texas A&M-Commerce in 1970, and his Ph.D. from the University of Toledo in 1974. He is currently Professor and Chair, Department of History, Kent State University. His teaching and research emphases are in 20th Century U.S., American environmental and public history. His most recent book is The Story of Big Bend National Park, Austin: University of Texas Press (1996).
Article published September 30, 2002
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Irvine, M. (2002, May 29). Hospitals, doctors expecting post-September 11 baby boom. Retrieved September 23, 2002, from http://www.ap.org/ (see "Viewing AP Articles" below)
Kugler, S. (2002, July 12). For city's top forensic scientist, World Trade Center effort may still come to an imperfect ending. Retrieved September 23, 2002, from http://www.ap.org/ (see "Viewing AP Articles" below)
Longman, J. (2002). Among the heroes: United flight 93 & the passengers & crew who fought back. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Smith, D. (2002). Report from Ground Zero. New York: Viking Penguin.
Schwartz, J. (2002, September 5). Some still pick up the pieces, some still move on. Retrieved September 23, 2002, from http://www.ap.org/ (see "Viewing AP Articles" below)
Sullivan, R. (Ed.). (2001). Life's one nation: America remembers September 11, 2001. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Tyrangel, J., Cloud, J., Poniewozik, J., Orecklin, M., Morse, J., Ripley, A., Martens, E. (2001).Facing the end. Retrieved September 19, 2002, from www.time.com/time/covers/1101010924/vignettes.html
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