Cover Story

Morning terrors

Issue: "9/11," Sept. 22, 2001

If Dec. 7, 1941, is a day that will live in infamy, Sept. 11, 2001, is a day that will live in reruns. Like the attack on Pearl Harbor, death and destruction rained from the sky, catching a complacent nation utterly by surprise. But unlike that earlier attack, the mayhem this time was first broadcast live, then replayed endlessly on tape, burning itself deep into the national psyche.

A day that started normally enough may have forever changed the definition of "normal." Some 230 passengers in three cities boarded four different flights headed to California. They showed their photo IDs, answered the usual security questions, passed through the metal detectors, and pushed their bags through the X-ray machines. But despite the security precautions, none of the flights reached its intended destination.

American Airlines Flight 11 was the first to take off, leaving Boston at 8 a.m., bound for Los Angeles. Minutes into the flight, somewhere over Albany, N.Y., something went wrong. Radar images showed the plane veering off-course, dog-legging back to the southeast. A flight attendant on a cell phone reported that the plane had been hijacked and the crew stabbed. They were going down over New York, she said.

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Like the rest of America, the office workers arriving at the World Trade Center on a cool, clear Tuesday morning knew nothing of the terror above. Nearly 200 elevators whisked them to their offices in the famed twin towers, a vertical city of 50,000 residents stretching 1,360 feet toward the sky.

At 8:45 a.m., the city exploded. Broadcasting from just several miles away, the network morning shows quickly cut to live shots of the north tower in flames. Huge holes belched smoke from three sides of the building, perhaps 90 floors above the ground. Initial reports were predictably confused: A bomb? A missile? A small plane? This was, after all, the site of a deadly terrorist attack in 1993, though commentators hastened to add this was probably nothing more than a terrible accident.

And then, 18 minutes later, as circling helicopters provided live pictures, it happened again. The unmistakable profile of a large jetliner flew into view on the right-hand side of the screen. It disappeared, as if flying behind the skyscrapers, but never re-emerged. Instead, a split-second later the south tower erupted in a ball of orange flame, followed quickly by thick, black smoke.

For a moment, no one seemed quite sure what had happened. ABC's Diane Sawyer was momentarily speechless. A soft "Oh my God," was all she could muster. It was not the last time God's name would be invoked on that day.

With the upper floors of both towers in flames, office workers began choosing how they wanted to die. Witnesses estimated that perhaps two dozen people flung themselves from the 110-story funeral pyres, including a man and woman who jumped hand-in-hand. Arriving firefighters ran for cover as victims' bodies hit the ground with a puff of red vapor, according to onlookers.

As agonizing minutes ticked by, the facts began to emerge. The first, unseen strike had been none other than American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 with 81 people aboard. The televised crash was United Airlines Flight 175, a Los Angeles-bound Boeing 757.

The terrorists had chosen their weapons carefully. The 757 and 767 are the only passenger jets in the world to share a common cockpit, meaning that pilots trained on one type of aircraft could just as easily fly the other. Both planes are also big and heavy, with a transcontinental range that demands enormous fuel tanks. The 757, for instance, weighs 255,000 pounds, carries 11,276 gallons of fuel for a long flight, and cruises at a speed of Mach 0.80, or 530 mph.

Many people on the planes and in the buildings died instantly. The buildings themselves crumbled to the ground at 10:05 and 10:28 a.m. Some 200,000 tons of steel, 400,000 cubic yards of concrete, and 600,000 square feet of glass simply folded in on itself, falling to the streets below. With each collapse, a 40-foot tidal wave of dust and debris rushed through the cement canyons of lower Manhattan, burying everything in its path.

As New York was attacked, Washington, 400 miles to the south, at first went about business as usual. Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, opened a hearing with the vow that the attacks in New York would not keep Congress from its labors. Likewise, no one was attempting to leave the Pentagon when a low-flying American Airlines 757 smashed into the west side of the building at 9:43 a.m., collapsing one wing of the huge complex and setting off a fire that would hamper rescue efforts for nearly 24 hours.

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