More than eight years before the terrible events of 9/11, in February 1993, a 1,500lb bomb exploded underneath New York’s Twin Towers. It had been planted by Al Qaeda.
Six people were killed and more than 1,000 injured, but the World Trade Centre did not fall. Al Qaeda concluded that only a more ingenious attack would bring down the iconic towers.
In 1996, from his base in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Al Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden and his right-hand man, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, began planning ‘the Planes Operation’. Four teams, each with a pilot and a group of ‘muscle men’, would hijack airliners and fly them into the Twin Towers and other symbolically significant American targets.
In 2001, news of the plot leaked: a CIA intelligence report warned that something ‘very, very, very, very’ big was imminent. As the CIA boss George Tenet said later: ‘The system was blinking red.’
They knew something terrible was about to happen — but they didn’t know how to stop it.
4am: American Airlines Flight attendant Amy Sweeney is getting ready to go to work with a heavy heart. She’s spent the summer with her two children and today is the first day she won’t be putting her daughter, Anna, onto the bus for her kindergarten.
In Room 308 of the Milner Hotel, Boston, Egyptian-born Mohamed Atta is preparing to check out. He also has a plane to catch. In his luggage he puts his copy of the Koran, a folding knife, pepper spray and a videotape on how to fly Boeing jets.
6.30am: 1,000 miles away in Florida, President George W. Bush is having an early morning run in the dark around a golf course followed by his team of Secret Service agents. This morning he is due to meet children and parents at a nearby elementary school.
In Britain, the President’s friend and ally Tony Blair is on a train to Brighton with his press secretary, Alastair Campbell, putting the finishing touches to his speech to the TUC conference. It tackles the economy, Europe and the issue of asylum-seekers.
6.45am: At Boston’s Logan International Airport, Mohamed Atta and four Saudi nationals are checking in for Flight 11 bound for Los Angeles. Atta has been personally selected by Bin Laden to be the mission’s commander, but he is nervous.
The check-in clerk notices he is sweating profusely — ‘his forehead was drenched’. Because of their nationality and travel movements, three of the men are identified by the computer as potentially suspect and their bags X-rayed, but nothing suspicious is found.
6.50am: Nearby, United Airlines representative Gail Jawahir is repeating the standard security questions about luggage to two nervous UAE nationals, as they are having trouble understanding her. They are part of a five-man Al Qaeda unit all with tickets for Los Angeles Flight 175.
In New York, lawyer Edie Lutnick receives a call from a client cancelling their 8.30am meeting. She goes back to sleep — now she won’t have to go to her office at the World Trade Centre.
7.00am: The tall figure of Stephen Mulderry makes his way through the New York streets on his way to the World Trade Centre where he works as an equity trader. On any given day, 50,000 workers occupy the building’s famous Twin Towers which soar a quarter of a mile into the sky.
In 1968, opponents of the proposed buildings released an advert showing a passenger jet flying into the North Tower. Outraged structural engineers claimed each tower was built to withstand a direct hit by a Boeing 707.
7.15am: At Logan Airport, Flight 11 is being loaded with fuel and baggage, so Amy Sweeney takes the opportunity to call her husband Mike to say how sorry she is not to have seen their daughter off to kindergarten. He reassures her saying there’ll be plenty of other opportunities. In the first class cabin, Lynn Angell and her husband, David, the creator and producer of TV hit comedy series Frasier, take their seats next to Mohamed Atta.
7.30am: Four hundred miles away at Washington Dulles Airport, Saudi brothers Nawaf and Salem al Hazmi run into the terminal, late to catch American Airlines Flight 77. The men have only one small bag and Salem is behaving strangely. ‘He was grinning, he was smiling, and he was dancing back and forth,’ recalled check-in clerk Vaughn Allex.
Nawaf sets off two metal detectors, so a security guard checks him with a hand-wand, but it picks up nothing suspicious.
7.40am: A few moments before Flight 11 is due to leave the gate, American Airlines manager Michael Woodward comes aboard for a final check. Mohamed Atta stares at him and a chill passes through Woodward; something about the man doesn’t feel right, but that’s no reason to stop the flight.
8.14am: Just 15 minutes into Flight 11’s journey, the hijack begins when Atta and the other terrorists spray mace into the first-class cabin. They claim they have a bomb, to force the passengers to the rear of the plane.
Passenger Daniel Lewin, a former Israeli commando, tries to intervene but has his throat cut by one of the terrorists. They then force their way into the cockpit, kill or disable the two pilots and Atta takes over the controls.
8.19am: At the Pentagon in Washington, headquarters of the U.S. military, fire-fighter and Vietnam veteran Alan Wallace is enjoying the early morning sunshine as he works on his fire truck. At midday President Bush will return from Florida and he wants to make sure everything is in order.
At the rear of Flight 11, attendant Betty Ong uses a seatback Airfone to call the American Airlines office; it is the first eye-witness account of the terror of 9/11. She says calmly: ‘The cockpit’s not answering. Somebody’s stabbed in business class and I think there’s mace . . . we can’t breathe. I think we’re getting hijacked.’ Betty tells them two flight attendants have also been stabbed.
8.24am: Mohamed Atta tries to pacify the passengers over the cockpit intercom but doesn’t know how to operate it, so only Boston Air Traffic Control hears him.
The first part of his message is unclear, but then he says: ‘Nobody move. Everything will be OK. If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.’
At the rear of the plane, flight attendant Amy Sweeney is discreetly on the phone to manager Michael Woodward, who 45 minutes earlier had been on the plane for final checks. She tells him the seat numbers of the hijackers and says the plane is ‘flying erratically’. Boston Air Traffic Control watch the Boeing 767 turn suddenly south towards New York City.
8.42am: At Newark airport, United Airlines Flight 93 takes off for San Francisco. On board are five attendants, 32 passengers, three Saudi terrorists and their Lebanese leader, Ziad Jarrah. He is in seat 1B, closest to the cockpit. The terrorists are a man short as one was refused entry in August by a suspicious immigration inspector.
8.45am: On United Airlines Flight 175, the seatbelt light goes off and the hijackers leap up, stab a flight attendant, storm the cockpit and kill the pilots.
Meanwhile, Flight 11 is approaching New York at high speed. Amy Sweeney tells manager Michael Woodward on the ground: ‘Something is wrong. We are in a rapid descent. We are all over the place.’ He asks her to look out the window to find out where they are. ‘I see water. I see buildings. We are flying very, very low.’ After a pause, she says quietly: ‘Oh, my God. We are way too low!’
Travelling at over 460 mph, Flight 11 crashes into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre. 10,000 gallons of fuel explode in a fireball, causing the building to lean then right itself, and a fireball shoots down the elevators and explodes. Hundreds are killed by the impact and more than 1,300 workers are trapped on the floors above.
Bond trader Michael Wittenstein is on a call to a client and hangs up when the building is hit. Always polite, he calls the client back to apologise: ‘I believe there was an explosion in the boiler room.’ Michael is due to be married on October 20; he doesn’t survive.
8.49am: On news channel CNN an advert for a money-lending company is interrupted and live images of the burning North Tower appear on the screen, a massive hole in its upper floors.
The presenter says: ‘This just in, you’re obviously looking at some very disturbing live shots . . . clearly something devastating happening there.’ Within minutes BBC, ITN and Sky take the coverage.
8.50am: On Flight 77, the terrorists use box cutters to get into the cockpit and knives to kill and stab the crew. Their target is the Pentagon.
People on the upper floors of the North Tower start jumping from the windows to escape the flames. One man holds on to his briefcase, a woman holds down her skirt for modesty, some hold hands.
8.52am: Flight 175 is heading for New York City. Peter Hanson, who is travelling with his wife and their two-year-old daughter, calls his father, Lee, and tells him the plane is flying erratically, people have been stabbed and to call United Airlines.
Before hanging up, Peter tells his father all the passengers are crowded in the rear of the plane. ‘It’s very tight here, Dad.’ Lee can’t get through to the airline so he calls the local police. An officer says: ‘Gee, Mr Hanson, a plane has hit the World Trade Tower. You should turn the television on.’
8.54am: Floors 101 to 105 of the North Tower are occupied by the investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald. Employees are on their ‘squawk’ boxes talking to colleagues in their London office to find out what is going on.
UK Managing director Shaun Lynn recalled: ‘They knew a plane had gone in below them, but there was confusion and they were asking us for clarity. Our London brokers described the smoke billowing from the North Tower they were seeing on their TV.’
8.55am: In Washington, the U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson is watching the coverage on the television in his office. His wife, Barbara, left this morning for Los Angeles. Ted does some quick calculations to work out if the plane that hit the World Trade Centre could be Barbara’s. He’s relieved to work out her flight could not have got to New York by then.
8.56am: Six men are trapped 500ft up in a North Tower elevator. Smoke is seeping into the car, so to prise the doors open they use the wooden handle of a squeegee belonging to window cleaner Jan Demczur. But facing them is a wall — they are stuck between floors. Jan taps the wall and, because he used to be a builder, he knows it can be cut open with a knife.
The only sharp object he has is the metal edge of his squeegee, so they take it in turns to scratch it up and down the wall. But when they are almost through, Jan drops the squeegee down the elevator shaft, so the six men resort to using their fists and the squeegee handle to break through. Finally they reach the tiles of a bathroom on the 50th floor. They’re free.
8.57am: More than 230 firefighters are on their way to the scene. Many off-duty firefighters are going straight from their homes. It is the largest rescue in the city’s history. Fire Chief Peter Hayden recalled: ‘We had a very strong sense that we would lose firefighters and that we were in deep trouble.’
8.59am: Equity trader Stephen Mulderry is at his desk in the South Tower. His brother, Peter, has seen the news and calls him to ask if he’s all right. ‘Yeah, I was just over by the window, but, by God, I don’t know if people were falling or jumping, but I saw people falling to their death.’
Stephen is unware of the seriousness of the situation. ‘I gotta go, the lights are ringing and the market is going to open.’
On CNN the presenter speculates that a navigational error may have caused the crash. Hundreds of women’s shoes litter the ground around the base of the towers, kicked off as they fled.
9.00am: Boston Air Traffic control listen back to the first transmission from Mohamed Atta which had been hard to understand. They are stunned to hear him say: ‘We have some planes . . .’ There must be other hijackings.
In New York, lawyer Edie Lutnick, who had gone back to sleep after her meeting at the World Trade Centre was cancelled, answers the phone. A friend tells her to turn on the television. Smoke is pouring from the top of the North Tower where her two brothers, Gary and Howard, work.
Her phone rings again — it’s Gary. ‘Thank God you’re not there!’ she says. ‘But Edie, I am here,’ he replies. Gary explains calmly that he is in his office with the door closed. He tells Edie he loves her and says he is calling to say goodbye. She stays on the line until there is silence. Edie’s other brother, Howard, is safe.
9.03am: Lee Hanson gets another call from son Peter on Flight 175: ‘I think we are going down. I think they intend to go to Chicago or some place and fly into a building. Don’t worry, Dad. If it happens, it’ll be very fast.’
Lee hears a woman scream and his son say: ‘My God! My God!’ Peter’s mother said: ‘We heard his first cries and his last cries.’
On the 81st floor of the South Tower, Fuji Bank executive Stan Praimnath is eating a bagel. A colleague from their Chicago office calls him on the phone and yells: ‘Get out!’ Stan has no idea what she is talking about until he looks out of the window and sees the giant grey shape of United Flight 175 coming straight for him.
He dives under his desk as the plane slices into the building. Lee Hanson looks at the television and sees his son’s plane disintegrate. The right engine pierces the entire tower and lands five blocks away. A huge chunk of a wing embeds itself in a wall just 20ft from Stan Praimnath. By a miracle, he makes it out alive.
9.03am: In London, Cantor Fitzgerald brokers are on their squawk boxes shouting to their U.S. colleagues. ‘Another plane has gone into the South Tower! You need to get out!’
A hundred and one floors below Cantor Fitzgerald, firefighters begin climbing the North Tower stairs, laden with heavy protective clothing, breathing apparatus, hoses and tools.
Some stairways below the impact are crowded but just big enough to handle the numbers of people evacuating, despite the smoke. The firefighters are impressed by the lack of panic. As they climb higher, their radios are becoming less effective.
9.08am: At the Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, President Bush is reading to a class of children, watched by reporters. White House Chief of Staff Andy Card whispers in his ear: ‘America is under attack.’ Bush decides to stay put; he said later: ‘If I stormed out hastily, it would scare the children and send ripples of panic throughout the country.’
Press Secretary Ari Fleischer stands in front of the media and holds up a sign saying: ‘Don’t say anything yet.’ The President sits for seven minutes as the children read out loud: ‘The girl had a pet goat. She liked to go running with her pet goat . . .’
‘No . . . we’ve tried everything. We’re just going to wait for the firemen. But it’s a long way for them to come.’
Stephen then passes the phone to colleague Rick Thorpe, who calls his wife, Linda. But possibly because of the smoke he can’t speak. All she can hear are people coughing and a man screaming. A voice says: ‘It’s OK. It’ll be OK.’
9.15am: On Floor 78 of the South Tower, a wing of United Flight 175 has caused carnage to a large ‘sky lobby’ that links the upper and lower elevators. When the plane hit, there were already more than 200 people there waiting to evacuate.
Equities trader Welles Crowther, 24, appears, looking for a fire extinguisher, his mouth and nose covered by a red bandana. He’s carried one since childhood. He points to the stairs and shouts: ‘Anyone who can get up and walk, get up and walk now! Anyone who can help others, find someone who needs help and then head down . . .’
9.16am: In Washington a call is put through to Ted Olson, the solicitor general. It is his wife, Barbara, on board Flight 77 — he had thought she was safe. They say they love each other and Ted tells Barbara about the planes crashing into the World Trade Centre. She remains calm. Ted recalled: ‘I reassured her that everything was going to be OK. I was pretty sure that everything was not going to be OK.’
9.20am: At the Emma Booker Elementary School President Bush delivers a hastily written statement: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a difficult day for America. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Centre in an apparent attack on our country.’ The parents and community leaders present gasp. ‘Terrorism against our nation will not stand.’
9.24am: Melodie Homer is at home in New Jersey watching TV footage from New York. Concerned, she texts her husband LeRoy, the co-pilot on United 93, asking him if he’s all right.
Immediately after, LeRoy and the captain, Jason Dahl, receive a message from a United Airlines despatcher: ‘BEWARE ANY COCKPIT INTRUSION. TWO AIRCRAFT IN NY, HIT TRADE CENTRE BUILDS.’ Dahl asks him to confirm the message. LeRoy never gets a chance to reply to his wife.
9.25am: People are still jumping from the Towers. FBI agent Wesley Wong looks up and sees a man falling. ‘I saw a fellow spread-eagle, coming out of the sky. He had on navy-blue pants, a white shirt and a tie. Dark hair. I couldn’t believe what I saw.’
Firefighters Paul Conlon and Daniel Suhr begin a 200-yard dash to the command post at the base of the South Tower. Because there are people falling around them, Daniel says: ‘Let’s make this quick’. Halfway there, he is hit by a body. Daniel Suhr is the first firefighter to die.
9.28am: On Flight 93, all four hijackers storm the cockpit, and air traffic control can hear the sound of a struggle over the radio; LeRoy Homer shouts desperately: ‘Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!’ Then the radio goes quiet for 35 seconds, then another frantic transmission: ‘Hey! Get out of here! Get out of here! Get out of here!’
Tall buildings across New York and the United States are starting to be evacuated, including the Empire State Building, the Washington Monument and the Trans-america pyramid in San Francisco. Panic is spreading — what will be the next target?
- Jonathan Mayo is the author of Titanic: Minute By Minute (Short Books, £8.99).