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Special Section

REMEMBERING 9-11: The Attacks on September 11, 2011

REMEMBERING 9-11: The Attacks on September 11, 2011
View of lower Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001. Photograph by David Monderer. Collection of the New-York Historical Society

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September 7, 2011
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On September 11, 2001, 19 militants

associated with the Islamist extremist

group al Qaeda hijacked four airliners

and carried out suicide attacks against

targets in the United States. Two of the

planes were flown into the Twin Towers of

the World Trade Center in New York City, a

third plane hit the Pentagon just outside

Washington, D.C., and the fourth plane

was crashed into a field near Shanksville

Pennsylvania. Often referred to simply

as 9/11, the attacks resulted in extensive

death and destruction, triggering major

U.S. initiatives to combat terrorism. Nearly

3,000 people were killed during the attacks,

including more than 400 police officers

and firefighters and 246 passengers and

crew on the four planes. This was the most

deadly terrorist attack in U.S. history.

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


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 afterleaving 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. Although the Taliban was initially removed

from power, fighting in Afghanistan continues. 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.

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