Special Report: The Day of the Attack

  • Share
  • Read Later

The day after the attack, the sun rises over where the World Trade Towers stood in lower Manhattan

(4 of 11)

Meanwhile, in the room where Bush was scheduled to give his remarks, about 200 people, including local officials, school personnel and students, waited under the hot lights. Word of the crash began to circulate; reporters called their editors, but details were sparse--until someone remembered there was a TV in a nearby office. The President finally entered, about 35 minutes late, and made his brief comments. "This is a difficult time for America," he began. He ordered a massive investigation to "hunt down the folks who committed this act." Meanwhile the bomb dogs took a few extra passes through Air Force One, and an extra fighter escort was added. But the President too was going to have trouble getting home.

404 Not Found

404 Not Found

nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu)

Even as the President spoke, the second front opened. Having hit the country's financial and cultural heart, the killers went for its political and military muscles. David Marra, 23, an information-technology specialist, had turned his BMW off an I-395 exit to the highway just west of the Pentagon when he saw an American Airlines jet swooping in, its wings wobbly, looking like it was going to slam right into the Pentagon: "It was 50 ft. off the deck when he came in. It sounded like the pilot had the throttle completely floored. The plane rolled left and then rolled right. Then he caught an edge of his wing on the ground." There is a helicopter pad right in front of the side of the Pentagon. The wing touched there, then the plane cartwheeled into the building.

Two minutes later, a "credible threat" forced the evacuation of the White House, and eventually State and Justice and all the federal office buildings. Secret Service officers had automatic weapons drawn as they patrolled Lafayette Park, across from the White House. Police-car radios crackled with reports that rogue airplanes had been spotted over the White House. The planes turned out to be harmless civilian aircraft that air-traffic controllers at National Airport were scrambling to help land so they could clear the air space over the nation's capital.

But that was not all; there was a third front as well. At 9:58 the Westmoreland County emergency-operations center, 35 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, received a frantic cell-phone call from a man who said he was locked in the rest room aboard United Flight 93. Glenn Cramer, the dispatch supervisor, said the man was distraught and kept repeating, "We are being hijacked! We are being hijacked!" He also said this was not a hoax, and that the plane "was going down." Said Cramer: "He heard some sort of explosion and saw white smoke coming from the plane. Then we lost contact with him."

The flight had taken off at 8:01 from Newark, N.J., bound for San Francisco. But as it passed south of Cleveland, Ohio, it took a sudden, violent left turn and headed inexplicably back into Pennsylvania. As the 757 and its 38 passengers and seven crew members blew past Pittsburgh, air-traffic controllers tried frantically to raise the crew via radio. There was no response.

Forty miles further down the new flight path, in rural Somerset County, Terry Butler, 40, was pulling the radiator from a gray 1992 Dodge Caravan at the junkyard where he works. He had been watching the news and knew all flights were supposed to be grounded. He was stunned when he looked up in the sky and saw Flight 93 cutting through the lingering morning fog. "It was moving like you wouldn't believe," he said.

The rogue plane soared over woodland, cattle pastures and cornfields until it passed over Kelly Leverknight's home. She too was watching the news. Her husband, on his regular tour of duty with the Air National Guard's 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg, W.Va., had just called to reassure his wife that his base was still operating normally when she heard the plane rush by. "It was headed toward the school," she said, the school where her three children were.

Had Flight 93 stayed aloft a few seconds longer, it would have plowed into Shanksville-Stonycreek School and its 501 students, grades K through 12. Instead, at 10:06 a.m., the plane smashed into a reclaimed section of an old coal strip mine. The largest pieces of the plane still extant are barely bigger than a telephone book. "I just keep thinking--two miles," said elementary principal Rosemarie Tipton. "There but for the grace of God--two miles."

CIA Director George Tenet was having a leisurely breakfast with his mentor, former Senator David Boren, at the St. Regis Hotel, when he got the news. Their omelettes had just arrived when Tenet's security detail descended with a cell phone. "Give me the quick summary," Tenet said calmly into the phone. He listened a few moments, and then told Boren: "The World Trade Center has been hit. We're pretty sure it wasn't an accident. It looks like a terrorist act." He then got back to the phone, named a dozen people he wanted summoned to the CIA situation room. "Assemble them in 15 minutes," he said. "I should almost be there by then."

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9
  10. 10
  11. 11