Special Report: The Day of the Attack

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CHARLES KRUPA/AP

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

(9 of 11)

Across the country, houses of all kinds of worship filled with grieving Americans singing America the Beautiful, wiping away streams of tears. "Humanity came apart in lower Manhattan today, and each of us is wounded. We mourn the loss of our innocence," declared Rabbi Gary Gerson at Oak Park Temple, a Reform Jewish congregation outside Chicago. "Terror has struck us, but it will not destroy us. Now we are all Israelis," he added.

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Indeed, there were many Americans who refused to be intimidated by the tragedy, rightly or wrongly. They were reassuring, if not necessarily reasonable. The order to close the U.S. Courthouse in Little Rock, Ark., came shortly before 10 a.m., and it was promptly heeded by everyone except a solitary federal district judge. There sat Henry Woods, age 83, his lined face framed by a mane of white hair, beneath a replica of the seal of the U.S. Around him, at his insistence, a jury and lawyers carried on in a damage suit stemming from, of all things, a 1999 American Airlines crash. "This looks like an intelligent jury to me," Woods said, explaining his refusal to grant a mistrial to the defense after getting word of the disaster. "And I didn't want the judicial system interrupted by a terrorist act, no matter how horrible."

If people all over the country had a sense of being suddenly at war--chat boards on Yahoo filled up with people wanting to volunteer for military service--it was with an enemy they could not see and not easily touch.

Meanwhile the U.S. government reassembled and mobilized. Secretary of State Colin Powell cut short his trip to Latin America to return to the U.S. By midafternoon, members of Congress were calling on their leaders to summon a special session, to show the world the government was up and running. About half of the Senate convened in a conference room at the Capitol Hill Police Station to hear from their leaders--some to vent their outrage at President Bush. Both Democrats and Republicans wanted to know, Where is he? Why isn't he here? Why isn't he in New York? Why isn't he talking to the country? The answer: Bush had been told by the Secret Service, the military and the FBI that it was not yet safe to return to Washington. Only 24 hours later, after absorbing a wave of criticism for his delayed return, did aides claim there had been "credible evidence" that the White House and Air Force One were targets.

Some Republicans on the Hill wanted to know why Counsellor Karen Hughes was the highest government official anyone saw on television all day, other than Bush's brief, unsettling appearance in Louisiana. They wanted to see Bush stride across the South Lawn and show that this is not a country that can be sent into hiding by cowards. "He better have the speech of his life ready tonight," sighed one Republican strategist. Bush did return a few hours later, did stride across the South Lawn and did deliver a reasonably effective national address from the Oval Office. But it wasn't until the following day that he stepped up the intensity of his rhetoric and declared the attacks "acts of war."

Tucked inside the shock and fury was dismay at the performance of others whose job--perhaps impossible--was to prevent this from happening. There were quiet calls for the heads of CIA chief Tenet and FAA boss Jane Garvey for allowing so appalling a breach of security on their watch. And there was an equal determination to find those who were behind it.

Only God knows what kind of heroic acts took place at 25,000 feet as passengers and crews contended with four teams of highly trained enemy terrorists. But it is clear that the hunt for the culprits began way up in the sky, by the doomed passengers and crews themselves, minutes before the attacks took place. In their final goodbyes, on brief and haunting calls from their cell phones, the victims on board at least two of the four planes whispered the number and even some of the seat assignments of the terrorists. A flight attendant on board American Flight 11 called her airline's flight operations center in Dallas on a special airlink line and reported that passengers were being stabbed.

That gave investigators a heads-up that something had gone terribly wrong, but there were plenty of other clues. Even before the smoke had cleared, it was obvious that the culprits knew their way around a Boeing cockpit--and all the security weaknesses in the U.S. civil aviation system. The enemy had chosen the quietest day of the week for the operation, when there would be fewer passengers to subdue; they had boarded westbound transcontinental flights--planes fully loaded with fuel. They were armed with knives and box cutters, had gained access to the cockpits and herded everyone to the back of the plane. Once at the controls, they had turned off at least one of the aircraft's self-identifying beacons, known as transponders, a move that renders the planes somewhat less visible to air traffic controllers. And each aircraft had gone through dramatic but carefully executed course corrections, including a stunning last maneuver by Flight 77. The pilot of that plane came in low from south of the Pentagon, and pulled a 270[degree] turn before slamming into the west wall of the building.

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