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- September 24, 2001
- Vol. 56
- No. 13
Erupting on a Crisp September Morning, Terrorist Attacks Bring America to a Standstill—And Take An Unthinkable Human Toll
Indeed, as a result of what many world leaders described as no less than an act of war, the nation came to a virtual standstill. The President and his family were spirited away to safe havens. For the first time ever, all of the nation's airports were closed. The New York Stock Exchange suspended trading. Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., and Disney World in Florida were evacuated as a safety measure, and the Emmy Awards scheduled for Sept. 16 were postponed. Baseball and Broadway were both canceled until further notice.
The suicide attacks began when a single passenger plane, hijacked en route to Los Angeles, slammed into New York City's World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m. Within 20 minutes a second plane struck the towers. Another dove into the Pentagon and a fourth plummeted to the earth outside of Somerset, Pa. In the end, the Twin Towers of the Trade Center, the symbol of America's prosperity, had toppled, and the Pentagon, the seat of its military might, was smoldering, inviting the instant comparisons to Pearl Harbor.
But while World War II was a battle for national survival, the conflict against terrorism is something more subtle and limited—a struggle to preserve national values. Not that anyone was about to concede those, even in the wake of such a catastrophe. As President Bush, speaking from the Oval Office the night of the attacks, put it "Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America."
But there was no denying the enormity of what had happened. It looked to be days, if not longer, before the toll in deaths, injuries and property loss could be added up. At any given time, there are roughly 30,000 people working and visiting the Twin Towers. Many had escaped before the buildings collapsed, but it was clear that hundreds or thousands had not. Chilling images captured on video showed desperate employees leaping to their deaths from office windows. What's more, hundreds of emergency workers—fire, police and EMS technicians—had entered the buildings after the initial explosions to help with the rescue. As a result of their heroic efforts, at least 300 firefighters were lost, while the police said that more than 70 officers were missing. Early Wednesday morning New York area hospitals were reporting thousands injured. At the Pentagon, there were reports of 800 dead. And there were a total of 266 crew and passengers aboard the four airliners involved in the incidents. As of Tuesday night, conservative estimates said that more than 2,000 had lost their lives in the overall attack. Some government officials privately admitted that the number could ultimately exceed 10,000, a figure that did not seem excessive given the scope of the destruction.
Amid the grief, the attacks raised a host of vexing questions. How could a nation that spends $25 billion annually on intelligence gathering be caught so flat-footed, especially in the face of what had almost certainly been a long-gestating and logistically complex plan? How could the Pentagon especially appear so defenseless against a direct attack? How could four commercial jetliners be hijacked almost simultaneously? And what immediate steps could be taken to prevent the same thing from happening tomorrow? Or the next day? Or the day after that? The answers were far from encouraging. "It demonstrates that there's no such thing as total security," said Gen. Sir Michael Rose, the British officer who led the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. "They are ruthless; they are prepared to kill themselves to achieve their ends. Nowhere is safe."
It certainly did not seem that way early Tuesday morning. All along the East Coast the weather was beautiful—abundant sunshine and mild temperatures. At precisely 7:59 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 left Boston's Logan Airport for Los Angeles with 92 crew members and passengers aboard. Within minutes of takeoff, however, something strange happened. Instead of climbing to its cruising altitude and heading west, the Boeing 767 made a sharp left turn to the south. From there the aircraft bore down on Manhattan. At 8:45 a.m. the plane slammed into the top section of the 110-story north tower of the World Trade Center. A massive shudder ran through the entire structure. "It felt like an earthquake and it actually knocked you out of your seat," says Anthony Bellomo, who works at Garban-Intercapital, a brokerage firm located on the 25th and 26th floors of the building. "The building was shaking and all you saw was debris coming down. Everyone looked at each other and said, 'Go! Go! Go! Go!' "
A few floors down, sprinklers came on, drenching everything. Within minutes the stairwells, which were illuminated, were teeming with people making their way down. For the most part the procession was orderly, with little pushing or shoving. But it quickly became clear that the ordeal was not over yet. Eighteen minutes after the first crash, a second plane, this one United Flight 175, also originating in Boston and bound for Los Angeles, with 65 crew and passengers, came streaking into the south tower. The action was so deliberate that officials concluded that the hijackers had their own trained pilot aboard. By one account, the five hijackers who got on the planes in Boston started killing flight attendants in order to get the pilots out of the cockpit. The terrorists apparently had no guns, but used crude weapons—plastic handles mounted with razor blades—for their attack.
In any case, the tactics worked. "As soon as we got outside, that's when we heard the second plane coming in and hit 2 World Trade Center," says Bellomo. "People were on the ground, they were burnt, they were gone, they had no clothes on. You didn't know where to go. All you heard was the police saying, 'Don't look up! Don't look up!' Then you're looking up and you're seeing people jumping out of the buildings. I saw at least 15 people jumping." Witnesses later described seeing people on fire, including a man and a woman holding hands, plunging to their deaths.
As huge plumes of smoke filled the skyline of Lower Manhattan, the terrorists opened a new front in their assault. American Airlines Flight 77, scheduled to fly from Washington to Los Angeles with 64 people aboard, was apparently hijacked by men brandishing knives and box cutters moments after its takeoff at 8:10 a.m. from Dulles International Airport. Veering around, the aircraft took dead aim at the Pentagon just 26 miles away, crashing into the western facade of the structure at 9:45 a.m.
"When it hit the building, it just swallowed it up—there was absolutely nothing left," says Laura Hallock, director of operations for USA Hosts, an event destination company, who was driving past the Pentagon. "It just went over so fast, at top speed, straight into the building. I got out. Everyone was staring at the Pentagon. There weren't any screams. Everyone was like a zombie picking up cell phones. Deer-in-the-headlights silent."
Less than a half hour later, an emergency dispatcher in Pennsylvania's Westmoreland County, near Pittsburgh, received an extraordinary distress call from a man on a cell phone aboard United Airlines Flight 93 out of Newark and headed for San Francisco with 45 people, saying that the plane had been hijacked. The man, who was not identified, stayed on the line for about a minute until his phone was apparently out of range. Moments later the aircraft went down in a wooded field near Somerset, Pa. It was unclear what had happened, but by one account, another passenger, Tom Burnett, 38, a California businessman, phoned his wife, Deena, and said, "We're all going to die, but three of us are going to do something." He signed off with "I love you, honey." Authorities believed that the plane intended to double back and hit a target in Washington.
Meanwhile, in New York, pandemonium had gripped the financial district around the World Trade Center—the target in 1993 of terrorists who set off a bomb in the basement, causing more than $550 million in damages and killing six. Thousands of people were fleeing through the streets. A few citizens began directing traffic to maintain some order. But many were simply transfixed by the sight of the Twin Towers engulfed in smoke and flame. The massive 1,250-ft.-tall structures appeared at first to hold. Then at 9:50 a.m., the south tower suddenly began to collapse, one floor pancaking the one below. Forty minutes later, the second tower crumbled in a hail of debris and the cry of twisted metal.
With those awful crashes, the nation was truly sent reeling. For a time, a sense of quiet panic set in. There were false reports of a car bomb at the State Department. The White House was evacuated. Authorities immediately grounded the estimated 30,000 U.S. commercial airline flights that take off each day and diverted some incoming international flights to Canada. For a while even the whereabouts of the President were unclear. He had begun the morning in Sarasota, Fla., where he was to address a group of grade-schoolers about reading. In the wake of the attacks he was believed to be heading back to Washington to oversee the crisis. Then he turned up at Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La., where the military maintains a heavily protected facility with a secure link to the nation's armed forces and nuclear weapons. The First Lady, Laura Bush, who was on Capitol Hill, was taken to safety, and their twin daughters Jenna and Barbara were taken to secure locations at their schools.
Tightening national security in the hours after the attack, the Navy sent the aircraft carriers the USS John E Kennedy and the USS George Washington steaming toward the waters off New York City. In his remarks later in the evening from the Oval Office, President Bush vowed to bring those responsible to justice. "The search is under way for those who are behind these evil acts," he said. "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."
Given all the circumstances, the immediate assumption was that the attacks had a Middle East connection. While there were no immediate claims of responsibility, the roster of likely masterminds for such a complex operation—organizations or governments with the money, expertise and desire—was fairly small. Iran and Iraq were obvious possibilities, as were the militant groups Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. But in the opinion of many terrorism experts, as well as government officials, the prime suspect was Osama bin Laden, 44, the renegade Saudi millionaire who has already been indicted in this country on charges that he engineered the Aug. 7,1998, bombings that claimed 224 lives at two U.S. embassies in Africa.
Ever since that foray, bin Laden, on whose head the United States has already put a $5 million bounty, has played a game of cat and mouse with U.S. intelligence. Nearly two weeks after the embassy blasts in Africa, the United States attempted to kill bin Laden with a missile attack on his headquarters in southern Afghanistan. He survived and has remained at large. More recently, he was believed to have godfathered last year's suicide attack on the American destroyer Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 sailors. Through it all, bin Laden has maintained an implacable hatred of the United States. "Hostility toward America is a religious duty," he said in an interview with TIME two years ago. "I am confident Muslims will be able to end the legend of the so-called superpower that is America."
His continuing close ties with the Taliban, the extremist Muslim rulers of Afghanistan, has long been a source of irritation to Washington. On the night of the attacks in the United States, the Afghan capital of Kabul was the scene of a series of apparent explosions, but they were possibly the result of factional fighting rather than any retaliatory strike. Whatever the case, it seemed likely that sooner rather than later the U.S. military would attempt to punish those responsible.
Over the past decade the United States has been forced to grapple with increasing levels of terrorism. In light of the most recent attacks, the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, which at the time loomed as a huge event, seems like a relatively simple affair. The rented van that detonated 1,000 lbs. of homemade explosives in the parking garage jolted the south tower. But the building was quickly repaired and within a week police had broken the ring of Islamic fundamentalists behind the attack. Eventually six people were convicted in the bombing, including international terrorist Ramzi Ahmed Yousef. Even Timothy McVeigh's horrific bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which killed 168, could at least be ascribed to nothing more than the mad impulse of a disaffected loner.
The events of Black Tuesday are clearly something far more unsettling, a difference in kind as well as degree. "This is a psychic trauma to our nation. This is worse than the Oklahoma City bombing because it's on a much greater scale," says Dr. Stefan Pasternack, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, where he specializes in the impact of terrorism and murder. "It's one thing to think of a truck blowing up in front of a building. This involved the use of civilian aircraft—the imagery is much more frightening. What we see here is what terrorism is all about. The idea is to make people feel that they cannot feel protected by their government."
In that sense, the bombers achieved a large part of their aim. As wrenching as the scenes of the second hijacked aircraft hitting the south tower were, it was almost worse when cameras had a chance to survey New York's financial district around the Twin Towers. More than anything, the area resembled the bombed-out streets of the Middle East that have become so distressingly familiar on the evening news. Indeed, several hundred Palestinians on the West Bank turned out to hand out candy and gloat over the destruction being broadcast around the world. "This probably exceeded the terrorists' wildest expectations," says Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. "I'm sure they expected some of their plot to be foiled."
Aside from deterring any further attacks, the most pressing matter in both New York and Washington was saving any of the survivors still trapped in the rubble. There were reports that victims had made calls on their cell phones. Teams of doctors and rescuers converged on both the Trade Center and Pentagon sites in hopes of digging out some survivors. Inevitably, among the dead were some prominent victims. David Angell, 54, the executive producer of Frasier, and his wife, Lynn, 52, were on one of the ill-fated flights out of Boston. And television commentator Barbara Olson, 45, phoned her husband, Ted, the U.S. Solicitor General, shortly before the plane she boarded at Dulles International hit the Pentagon.
If there was any hint of salvation in the tragedy, it was in the response of those who reached out to help. In the suburbs of New York, residents quickly set up phone chains to ensure that schoolchildren whose parents might have both been in the city had a place to stay until they made their way home. The Red Cross reported that blood centers in the Northeast were filling with people eager to donate urgently needed blood. "Lots of people have even been driving down to New York and the Washington area," says spokesperson Renita Hosler.
But in the end, there was only so much that could be done. Nothing could alter the overwhelming sense of sadness and disbelief. Even Ivana McCoetter, who now lives in Florida but used to work in the World Trade Center on the 105th floor and survived the 1993 bombing, could not comprehend what she was seeing all day. "I got goose bumps all over," says McCoetter. "I'm waiting for someone to say, 'It's not true, it didn't happen.' "
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