Remembering 9-11 (Part 7 - The Rest of the Day)
When I wrote the hub entitled Happenings,I mentioned that two of the historic happenings were the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As terrible as these events were, nothing – nothing -- could compare to the horrific events that took place in our country on the morning of September 11, 2001. We as a nation were caught so off guard that the events of the day literally brought us to our knees, and while there, I’m sure many prayers were said by people from all the different cultures that chose to live in the United States of America.
So much happened within that four-hour time period that it felt like a script from an epic disaster movie. Just think, on a normal day the news includes a few “death” stories, a couple of corruption or greed stories, and, of course, the ever present political finger pointing stories about who gets the credit or the blame on any given decision being made. But when American Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center all these stories were set aside and a total sense of disbelief took hold.
Even as the news media was sorting through what had just happened that morning at 8:46 a.m., and while they were still getting their vans, cameras and reporters in place to cover the story, they suddenly could hear voices in the background shouting, “Oh my God, here comes another plane.” As the cameras swung to focus on the incoming plane, no one really knew whose planes they were. (It would take several hours before both American and United released that information.) And even as the North Tower was burning, the second plane made a major turn and descended rapidly into the South Tower. It was like the building had eaten the plane. And if you could not believe what just happened, the media made sure you would finally get it by playing the tape OVER and OVER again! The magnitude of this tragedy was like nothing we had ever experienced.
Just as the reporters started covering the World Trade Center story, rumors began that another airplane had been hijacked and was in the Washington DC area. In Washington, Vice President Cheney and Transportation Secretary Mineta had already been evacuated to a safe underground area. So when American Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, it was only a matter of minutes before the order went out to close down the airways.
While this was happening, there was movement everywhere on the ground. Evacuations were going on simultaneously in New York and Washington: the UN, everything near the burning towers, the White House, the Capital and all other Federal buildings including the Pentagon. But don’t take a breath yet, because there was still more coming.
At this time Attorney General John Ashcroft, the overseer of the FBI, was enroute in a Cessna Citation jet to Milwaukee. When almost there, he received word of the attacks on the Towers in New York. When the order was given for all planes to land, Ashcroft gave his pilot instructions to return to Washington. The pilot informed him they needed to land and get more fuel. While refueling, his pilot was told they would not be allowed to take off due to the “ground stop” order. Ashcroft insisted that he be allowed to return to Washington defying FAA controllers and leaders several times. He eventually made it back to Washington Reagan Airport after hours of controversy which included scrambling fighter jets to escort the airplane and threats to shoot down the aircraft. The FAA did not want to sanction any sort of flight heading into the Washington area as it could not guarantee who the passenger was or if U.S. pilots were in control of the aircraft. But Ashcroft was insistent and eventually prevailed! This incident added to the tension and confusion, and distracted top FAA leadership from other important tasks. (Washington Post, 9/28/01)
As the fourth plane, United Flight 93, crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside at 10:03 a.m., the South Tower collapsed at 10:05 a.m. in New York. People in New York were running from the ash and debris which was spreading like a tsunami wave coming toward them. The North Tower was just 23 minutes away from doing the same. The screams of terror and people jumping from the buildings were filmed by the TV news crews, and the images and emotions of the events stamped an impression in our collective subconscious no matter how hard we tried to hold them back.
CNN reported that as the Towers collapsed, President Bush was still in the air over Florida in a holding pattern.
At 11:18 a.m. American Airlines announced that their two lost planes were Flight 11 (North Tower) and Flight 77 (Pentagon). At 11:26 a.m., United announced that Flight 93 had crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside, but they did not announce that it was their Flight 175 that went into the South Tower until 11:59 a.m. — over half an hour later. I wonder why there was such a delay, because Robert Fangman (a flight attendant on Flight 175) had earlier talked to Mark Policastro (a maintenance supervisor in San Francisco) for 75 seconds and told him that they had been hijacked and about all the dead crew members up front.
By noon Eastern Daylight Time, our nation was in a daze having been bombarded by one catastrophe after another. I am sure that many people were thinking “This is not happening; it can’t be real – not here in the US of A.”
As the airports were shutting down throughout the country, out in Los Angeles and San Francisco they were evacuating the airports. The LAX evacuation began at 12:04 p.m. (9:04 a.m. local time), and SFO started a few minutes later.
The poor passengers landing there in the early morning hours on their international flights from New Zealand, Australia, and Thailand, etc. were met with aggression, anxiety, and confusion. No kind words were said to these sleepy, jet lagged people. They were caught up in the situation as victims themselves. As they deplaned, there was no organized plan for them at the international wings of these airports. Instead, they were met with dogs, police with guns, and a frantic energy that probably made them feel like they had entered the “twilight zone.”
One young girl was coming from Australia to be an exchange student in Canada. She was supposed to connect with another flight in LA. With tears of fear and confusion, she struggled to figure what was happening in this unfamiliar place. I am sure stories like this went on all day across our land. Hundreds of thousands of people (including many flight crews) were being stranded short of their destinations. All the people wanted to do was to get themselves out of the airport and find their way to their final destinations. (LA Times, 9/12/01)
While the airports on the West Coast were being evacuated, President Bush landed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, LA. At 1:04 p.m., he spoke these words, “Make no mistake, the U.S. will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.” He then boarded the aircraft for a short trip to Offutt AFB in Nebraska. As he was flying, seven U.S. Navy ships (two aircraft carriers and five surface warships) from Norfolk, VA were leaving port headed north to protect the New York coastline.
As people all over the country were trying to find their way home via rental cars, buses, trains; Mayor Rudy Giuliani continued non-stop efforts to assure New Yorkers things were going to be OK, even in the face of new rumors that chemical and biological weapon might be in the vicinity. Giuliani remained a pillar of strength, displaying calm and confidence in the face of the escalating tragedy in NYC. To add to the complexity, Building 7 of the World Trade Center (a block away from the twin towers) collapsed. This was a 47 story, steel framed building that crumbled at 5:20 p.m. for reasons that are still unexplained.
President Bush finally arrived at Andrews AFB, outside of Washington DC, at 6:34 p.m. Prior to that he had spent time in Nebraska at Strategic Air Command Headquarters being briefed on the events of the day. Upon landing, he immediately boarded a helicopter for the White House. At 8:30 p.m. President Bush addressed the nation, saying in part, “Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil.” “These acts shattered steel but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.” Even as he is speaking, the Pentagon is still burning.
Attorney General Ashcroft ended his day by telling members of Congress that the authorities knew there were 3 to 5 hijackers on each aircraft, armed only with knives. I wonder why he said this so emphatically when one of the flight attendants on Flight 11, Amy Sweeney, had described to a supervisor that the hijackers showed her a bomb with green and red wires.
Six minutes before the horrible day ended, CNN Bureau Chief, Frank Sesno, reported that a government official said there was an open microphone on one of the flights and they could hear the conversations and duress in the cockpit. That would have been Flight 11 captained by John Orgonowski of American Airlines. Reportedly these words were recorded in a Nashua, NH control tower and were later taken by the FBI.
The whirlwind of events -- both real and rumored – on September 11, 2001 may have been the most watched and most horrific event ever witnessed in real time by a nation. Whether we will ever know all the stories and facts surrounding that day may never be known or certainly will not be known for many, many years to come.
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