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Thu, Sep 11, 2003

Remembering That Dark Day

Looking Back On Events That Shaped The War On Terror

Exactly two years ago, terrorists hijacked four American jetliners and forced them to crash. Two slammed into the World Trade Center towers. Another hit the Pentagon. The fourth hijacked plane crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania. In all, more than three thousand people lost their lives in the 9/11 suicide skyjackings. The attacks led to the war on terror, increased domestic security and the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

It began at 8:45 Eastern time that Tuesday morning, when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The Boeing 767 had 81 passengers and 11 crew members on board for the trip from Boston to Los Angeles. Five hijackers were among the passengers of Flight 11, including Mohammed Atta, the man American officials believe was the mastermind behind the attacks. He and another hijacker were photographed by security cameras as they rushed through security in Portland, Maine, after they arrived on a commuter flight. Two passengers on board their flight from Maine to Boston say the hijackers got on separately and kept to themselves. The Boston Globe reported at least two of the five hijackers were able to get on board Flight 11 wearing phony airline uniforms and fake IDs. The FAA says the hijackers had guns.

Eighteen minutes after Flight 11 crashed into the upper floors of the north tower, United Flight 175 slammed into the south tower. Like American Flight 11, United 175 took off from Boston that morning, on its way to Los Angeles with 56 passengers and nine crew members on board. The New York Times reported the cockpit crew of the United 757 told to air traffic controllers that they heard a suspicious radio transmission, supposedly from American Flight 11. The United pilot told his controller, quote, "Sounds like someone keyed the mike and said, 'Everyone stay in your seats.'"

Air traffic control tapes then indicate one of the hijackers on Flight 175 told the passengers, quote, "We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you will be OK. We are returning to the airport." One passenger on board the plane called his father on a cell phone and said two of the hijackers were stabbing crew members. According to the BBC, he said, "We're going down," just before Flight 175 crashed into the south tower. In all, 2,893 people were killed in the World Trade Center attacks. The New York Times says seven out of ten people who died were trapped on the twin towers' upper floors when the buildings collapsed.

The Death Of AAL 77

At about the same time as American Flight 11 slammed into the World Trade Center, another airliner, American Flight 77 veered sharply off course over Kentucky. The flight, from Washington to Los Angeles, had 58 passengers and a crew of six on board. Controllers lost contact with the flight shortly after sending a routine navigational instruction. The pilot reportedly filed a revised flight plan, telling controllers he wanted to turn back to Washington. The jetliner indeed turned back at 8:56, Eastern Time. The crew of an Air Force C-130 transport, Golf 06 was asked if they could see Flight 77. During its aggressive maneuvers, crew members say the American flight came within a mile or so of the transport. The tower at Reagan National Airport told the C-130 to follow the hijacked jet.

On board Flight 77 was Barbara Olson, wife of Solicitor General Ted Olson. She used an on board phone to call her husband and ask, "What can I tell the pilot? What can I do?" The conversation was cut-off in mid-sentence. Flight 77 had flown straight into the Pentagon, going as fast as 500 miles an hour. Ted Olson told the London Daily Telegraph that, as soon as he heard there'd been a crash at the Pentagon, he knew it was the plane his wife was aboard. CBS reported the Flight 77 attack on the Pentagon was the first successful military operation staged against the nation's capital since the War of 1812.

Cities In Chaos

New York and Washington were in chaos. Parts of Manhattan were evacuated. The White House was also evacuated. Those leaving the executive mansion were repeatedly told by Secret Service agents to "run." Warplanes were scrambled up and down the eastern seaboard. American Airlines, then United, grounded their fleets. Eventually, all non-military aircraft were ordered out of the sky.

The President Is Informed -- And Keeps His Cool

A few minutes after Flight 77 veered off course, President Bush was informed about the World Trade Center attacks. He was visiting an elementary school in Sarasota, Florida. The president said nothing about the attacks for almost 40 minutes, as details continued to pour in to his staff. At first, Bush told CBS News, he thought the World Trade Center attack must have been a terrible accident. But when Flight 175 hit the second tower, his chief-of-staff, Andy Card, said the president realized he would have to act as commander-in-chief. At around 9:40, President Bush announced from Florida that there had been a "national tragedy." He was then physically hustled by Secret Services agents to Air Force One.

Meanwhile, Back At The White House...

Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice headed for a bunker under the White House, where they continued to monitor and control the situation. When President Bush told Cheney he was headed back to the White House, CBS reported Rice told him, "That may not be wise."

The attack wasn't over.

"Get In The Air Now"

After the Pentagon was hit, F-16 fighters were ordered on alert. Suddenly, the squadron at Andrews Air Force Base got a frantic call from the Secret Service. The caller said, "Get in the air now!" The White House reportedly also called the squadron, declaring the area around the executive mansion a "free-fire" zone, authorizing the use of force to protect the District of Columbia. Fighter pilots were told to shoot down "anything flying" within 25-miles of the Washington area.

Flight 93: "Let's Roll"

In the meantime, family and friends of the 40 passengers and crew aboard United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco started getting phone calls from the airplane. They, too, had been hijacked. An air traffic control tape picked up one of the hijackers warning passengers of a bomb on board and saying the flight was going to head back to the airport. Passenger Todd Beamer was on his cell phone, talking to a GTE operator.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports Beamer and the other passengers vowed they wouldn't be the hijackers' pawns. He reportedly told the operator that there were three hijackers on board, armed with knives. One of them, said Beamer, appeared to have a bomb tied to his waist. Beamer said he and the other passengers planned to jump the hijacker with the bomb strapped to his body. He dropped the phone, leaving the line open. The last thing the operator heard was, "Let's roll."

Flight 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania field about 125 miles northwest of Washington. At cruise speed, the passenger jet could have been over the District of Columbia in less than 20 minutes. Just 17 miles away, another plane was in the air. It was a C-130 cargo plane -- the same one that had witnessed Flight 77's crash into the Pentagon.

Two years later, there are still questions about security all across the country. Earlier this week, the General Accounting Office reported to Congress its undercover agents can still buy phony drivers' licenses and social security numbers in at least eight states. The federal government now controls security screening at airports in the U.S. and is working on a new program to assign each passenger a color code -- green, yellow and red -- to indicate the threat that passenger might pose in the air. Civil libertarians say the government crackdown on domestic security and the restriction of some rights is illegal. Others say it's the only way to make sure 9/11 never happens again.

FMI: www.911digitalarchive.org

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