The Mouth of Hell
"The Mouth of Hell"
The morning of September 11 dawned cool and clear with the promise of a lovely fall day. On the East Coast, the sky was a shade of blue that airline pilots often call "severe clear" because of its seemingly infinite visibility. Just before 8:00 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11, a large Boeing 767, took off from Logan Airport in Boston. It was headed to Los Angeles with eighty-one passengers and crew members on board.
"He Wanted Us to Know Something Was Wrong"
The large aircraft had been traveling west for less than half an hour when suddenly it made a sharp left turn to head south, toward New York. Although no one knows exactly when, four terrorists had broken into the cockpit and seized control of the plane over Pennsylvania.
Ground controllers were aware that there was serious trouble aboard the aircraft very soon after terrorists took control. The pilot secretly depressed a special button on the airplane's steering mechanism. Called a "push-to-talk button," its function is to allow a pilot to keep both hands on the controls while still communicating with those on the ground. In this case, controllers were able to overhear some of what was being said in the cockpit.
"The button was being pushed intermittently most of the way to New York," said one official later. "He wanted us to know something was wrong. When he pushed the button and the terrorist spoke, we knew. There was this voice that was threatening the pilot, and it was clearly threatening."5
Investigators strongly suspect that the pilot believed this hijacking would be similar to others that had occurred over the years: that he would be told to land the plane—perhaps at either Kennedy or La Guardia Airport in New York—and the hijackers would make demands, using the passengers as hostages. During the overheard conversation, in fact, one of the terrorists told the pilot, "Don't do anything foolish. You're not going to get hurt."6
From the Back of the Plane
While the pilot was trying to keep the ground apprised of matters within the cockpit, one of the flight attendants used a cell phone to contact a supervisor back in Boston. The flight attendant, Madeline Amy Sweeney, hastily explained what was happening in the passenger sections. Later, investigators would give Sweeney credit for keeping her composure as she gave as much information as she could to the supervisor.
The terrorists, whom she described as Middle Eastern, had stabbed two of her fellow flight attendants and slit the throat of a passenger before storming the cockpit. The frightened passengers had been herded to the back of the plane, she said.
The Boston supervisor asked Sweeney if she had any idea of the new destination of the hijacked plane. She told him that it was clear the plane was dropping quickly, and said she was looking out a window at the time. She said, "I see water and buildings—Oh my God! Oh my God!"7 At that point, say investigators, the transmission broke off as the aircraft slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
An Easy Target
The World Trade Center, which was to be the target of the first two attacks on September 11, was a landmark—the most visible part of the New York skyline. Anyone who was lost momentarily could look up and get a sense of direction, since the towers were the easiest landmark to see. The Trade Center complex was made up of seven buildings, but the most well known were its giant twin towers—each 110 stories tall. Built in 1970, the World Trade Center had become a center of international finance and commerce.
Although the two towers were the tallest in New York City, the people of New York were less than enthusiastic about the World Trade towers. Many preferred the 1930s skyscrapers that had before made up New York City's impressive skyline—the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, for example. The World Trade Center, many thought, was just big, without much style. "No one loved it," wrote one New Yorker, "save children, who took to it because it was iconically simple, so tall and two. When a child tried to draw New York, he would draw the simplest available icons: two rectangles and an airplane going by them."8
The World Trade Center had been the target of terrorism before. In 1993, one thousand pounds of explosives were detonated in a van in an underground parking garage below the south tower. Six people were killed and over one thousand injured in that incident. However, the World Trade Center was quickly repaired, and with new security measures in place, the fifty thousand people who worked there each day felt that they were safe.
Too Horrible to Be Real
The impact of the aircraft hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center was sensed even before it was heard. Dogs lifted their heads, sensing danger. One man, fifteen blocks from the site, was startled by a huge flock of pigeons acting terrified for no apparent reason as they rose quickly into the air. This happened just a second or two before he himself heard the crash.
The same delay occurred in office buildings near the World Trade Center. Several people in offices across the street felt a tremendous jolt and were thrown out of their chairs before they knew what was happening. One man who was in his car saw a huge wheel—which he later understood was from the airplane—fall from the sky onto a truck in front of him. He remembers how unreal it seemed.
Even to observers who saw the plane hit, the event seemed too horrible to be real. One man who was standing with a group of people saw the plane before it hit. "We all looked up," he says. "We all thought it would be unusual for a plane to be flying so low over the city. It scooped down even lower over the South Village—almost like a missile—and then toward the north tower.… When it went into the building, we all screamed—we couldn't believe what we saw."9
Disbelief instantly turned to panic for those who were in the north tower. The plane entered the building about twenty-five floors from the top. Many, of course, died instantly as the jet fuel from the aircraft exploded into a massive fireball. For others, death would come more slowly.
"The World Trade Center"
Though the World Trade Center boasted the tallest towers on the New York skyline, many New Yorkers had disliked the building since it was completed in 1976, as poet David Lehman explains in his poem, "The World Trade Center," written after the bombing attempt in 1993. The poem was reprinted in "9.23.01: The Way We Live Now," in the New York Times Magazine, September 23, 2001.
I never liked the World Trade Center.
When it went up I talked it down
As did many other New Yorkers.
The twin towers were ugly monoliths
That lacked the details the ornament the character
Of the Empire State Building and especially
The Chrysler Building, everyone's favorite,
With its scalloped top, so noble.
The World Trade Center was an example of what was wrong
With American architecture.
And it stayed that way for twenty-five years
Until that Friday afternoon in February
When the bomb went off and the buildings became
A great symbol of America, like the Statue
Of Liberty at the end of Hitchcock's "Saboteur."
My whole attitude toward the World Trade Center
Changed overnight. I began to like the way
It comes into view as you reach Sixth Avenue
From any side street, the way the tops
Of the towers dissolve into white skies
In the east when you cross the Hudson
Into the city across the George Washington Bridge.
Those in the north tower below the crash floors quickly went to stairways to exit the building, which was rapidly becoming dark with smoke. Some were confused by the noise and bitter, greasy smoke that was laced with the strong fumes of jet fuel. Others who had been working at the World Trade Center in 1993 when it was bombed were quicker to react, and yelled instructions to coworkers, letting them know what to do.
Within a few minutes, the stairwells were filled with people making their way down. The building's electrical system quickly shut down, and those fleeing found themselves engulfed in total darkness. A few minutes later, automatic sprinklers came on, making the stairs slippery. One man who worked on the twentieth floor of the tower recalls urging on straggling coworkers who were having trouble breathing because of the smoke. Many of the women kicked off their shoes, realizing they could make better time without them.
However, even as people were groping through the dark stairways trying to get to safety, danger was imminent. The tower was groaning and rocking from the impact; steam pipes were bursting, and chunks of stone and plaster were raining down on those trying to flee. Many say that they were saying prayers as they moved down from one floor to another. "I never been to church since I was a kid," admitted one man, "but you should have heard the Hail Marys I was saying. My old priest would have been surprised I even knew the words."10
A Blizzard of Paper
Those lucky enough to emerge from the north tower's lower floors found themselves in what one observer called "the mouth of Hell."11 The scene outside was a flurry of ash and smoke. Broken glass was everywhere, and people were screaming and crying. Debris from above crashed on the sidewalks and streets below the tower. Subway passengers who had exited at the stop under the World Trade Center came up the stairs and into the daylight, "only to see plates of glass the size of store windows," writes one reporter, "and strips of metal larger than trucks flying out of buildings and plunging to the ground."12
One woman who had come down from the seventieth floor sobbed as she told of two coworkers who had been sucked out of their office window by gusts of wind, along with their desks and other furniture. And everywhere there was paper—a blizzard of work orders, memos, and spreadsheets from the various financial offices high above.
"I Got Lucky"
In the aftermath of the attacks, a number of stories were told of people who would almost certainly have died, were it not for some last-minute change in plans. This man, a janitor at the Trade Center, says it was a cup of coffee that saved him. This account was included in "Saving Grace," an article in People Weekly, September 24, 2001.
"My shift is 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. I'm always on time, but today I got lucky because I went on the 30th floor to get a cup of coffee. If I hadn't gotten that cup of coffee, I would have gotten blown up in the elevator. I was waiting by the elevator to go to the restrooms, and then there was a big bang, and the whole building shook. The elevator door flew open, and a guy stumbled out, and he was badly burned up. It seemed like he was smoldering, almost.
He was a delivery guy. The skin from his wrist was hanging down past his fingertips. He was screaming all sorts of things like, 'Bombing! Please get me out of here! I'm going to die!' I took him down the hallway right around the corner to my supervisor's office. Me and another janitor grabbed the man and took him outside, one on each arm. There was an EMS truck already outside, and those guys just grabbed him and pushed us aside. I wish I knew what happened to him, but I have no idea. He was burned up bad, but he was still alive. I really hope he survived."
Above the crash floors on the north tower, the scene was quite different. Although those working in offices near the top of the tower were unharmed, the aircraft had turned the floors below them into a superheated furnace, making escape impossible. Some remained confident, however, calling home on cell phones to reassure loved ones.
At 9:30 a.m., a man called home and left a message for his wife, Elizabeth. "Hi, hon. I'm OK. There was an explosion. I made it to the 78th floor. I'm helping people to get out; I'll see you soon." But as the minutes passed, the reality of their situation began to sink in. "My office is filled with smoke," a man on the 105th floor told his sister. "I can't see. Please tell the children I love them."13
The fire was spreading, closing in with flames and temperatures made much hotter because of the jet fuel. Many of the terrified workers held on to outside windows, trying to escape the heat and screaming for help as horrified spectators on the ground watched helplessly.
Of all the remembrances of that morning, many say that the most vivid are those people who chose to jump from the top floors rather than die from the fire. "We watched as people jumped from the 90th floor," says one man who was working at a nearby building. "We saw a man and woman embrace, then jump together. We knew they had no chance. But I guess they figured they were going to die either way. Watching them, our hands shook. Our knees turned to jelly. My foreman was practically in tears."14
One man who lives thirteen blocks from the World Trade Center climbed onto his roof for a view of what was happening. He was skeptical when neighbors told him people were jumping from a hundred floors up:
I looked with my binoculars, and what they were saying were people was clearly debris—sheets of metal, chairs, unidentifiable stuff, and then a … oh God, a man in khakis and an open blue suit jacket, feet up in the air, falling down the side of the building facing the river, three, four, five seconds, gone, vanished.… Then more people began to jump out the river side of the tower, and then out the front, where they fell against the backdrop of the windows, almost in sequence, like paratroopers bustling out of an aircraft.15
As long as she lives, says one young woman, she will never be able to get the grotesque images out of her mind—images of people so desperate that jumping was preferable to burning. "They had no chance of living. We watched them hit the ground, just landing on the street in front of us.… There was blood everywhere.… A young woman jumped out of a window who was wearing a red blouse and black skirt. I will be haunted by that image for the rest of my life. I could not watch any more."16
As Flight 11 was crashing into the north tower, another plane had been seized by hijackers. Like Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175 originated in Boston. Carrying fifty-six passengers and nine crew members, it, too, was on its way to Los Angeles. It was halfway between Newark and Philadelphia when it suddenly doubled back, toward New York City.
Investigators now believe that these hijackers had their own pilot, who took over the controls once the plane was in the air. Armed only with crude weapons such as plastic-handled box cutters, the terrorists are thought to have killed the pilot and crew. The passengers must have seen the skyline of the city to the left as they headed east, the skies now black with smoke from the north tower. One passenger, sensing what was to happen, called his parents on his cell phone, telling them, "I think we're going down, but don't worry. It's going to be quick."17
"The Birds Are on Fire"
As the following excerpt of an editorial from the September 18 edition of the New York Times shows, schools that were extremely close to the World Trade Center were in session when the towers collapsed. It was only because of quick-thinking teachers that the students were evacuated safely.
"The tragedy at the World Trade Center has produced scores of stories about people whose cool heads and courage saved lives. Among them are the public school teachers who evacuated several schools that were dangerously near the collapsing towers and moved a total of 8,000 children to safety without a single serious injury. Their achievement is all the more amazing given that the disaster struck on the third day of the school year, requiring many teachers to deal with frightened children whom they hardly knew.…
The teachers at Public School 234, on Chambers Street, had to evacuate 6- and 7-year-olds during the most harrowing part of the disaster, just after the second trade center tower collapsed, enveloping the school in a debris-filled cloud.
Many of the children were screaming for parents who actually worked in the towers. As one teacher stepped into the street, a small child saw the burning bodies falling from the tower and cried out, 'Look, teacher, the birds are on fire!' Taking some students by the hand and carrying others on their shoulders, the teachers plunged through the rubble-strewn streets that were clogged with adults running for their lives. With their small charges in tow, they walked 40 minutes north to the safety of the nearest safe school in Greenwich Village. Some children whose parents could not get to them by the close of the day went home with teachers, with whom they stayed until their mothers or fathers could be reached by phone."
Newspaper and television crews, with their cameras already trained on the north tower, were in place at 9:06 a.m. as Flight 175 crashed into the south tower. Many watching the fiery impact on television believed at first that they were seeing footage of the first crash. However, the screams of the announcers soon made it clear that the image viewers were seeing was a second airplane that had just hit the World Trade Center.
The Second Attack
This plane came in lower, swooping in with its left wing banked, turning into the southeast corner of the south tower. One young man called his mother from the ninety-second floor, describing the plane he could see jutting out of the north tower, and the people he could see jumping to their deaths. "He sounded calm," a Time writer reports. "But suddenly he started screaming. He dropped the phone. His mother … held the line for half an hour, hoping he'd come back. He never did. Now she assumes her son was screaming at the sight of a plane heading toward his window."18
Those who had survived the crash emerged from the tower to a scene even more frenzied than it had been ten minutes before. On streets that were slick with blood, huge chunks of concrete, glass, and debris were crashing down, killing some rescue workers, crushing fire trucks and ambulances below—as though, say observers, those vehicles were toys. At least one firefighter was killed by a falling body.
Above, in the tower, a fireball created by ten thousand gallons of jet fuel roared. Even so, as survivors were making their way out of the tower, firefighters and emergency medics were streaming in, ready to help the injured escape. Tragically, many of the rescuers would be dead within minutes.
"Straight Down Like an Elevator"
The towers had been built to withstand a great amount of wind—gales of up to two hundred miles per hour. And because the architects had been aware of the dangers inherent in one of the world's tallest structures, the buildings could even take a hit by a large airliner. However, the towers were not designed for the type of impact they suffered on September 11, 2001.
The burning jet fuel caused the fire in the towers to burn hotter than an ordinary fire. Because of where the aircraft hit the south tower, the tower's structural damage became evident first. The inner strength of the towers came from the steel girders—over 240 of them—which formed the perimeter of each floor. The girders on any floor were stress-bearing, meaning that they bore the weight of all of the floors above.
The heat, which was between one thousand and two thousand degrees, quickly began to affect the steel, making it as soft as modeling clay. "All that steel turns into spaghetti," explains one expert. "And then all of a sudden, that structure is untenable, and the weight starts bearing down on floors that were not designed to hold that weight, and you start having collapse."19
At 10:00 a.m. the south tower collapsed—straight down on top of itself. Pulitzer Prize–winning author John Updike was watching from a Brooklyn relative's roof when the tower collapsed. "As my wife and I watched … the south tower dropped from the screen of our viewing," he writes. "It fell straight down like an elevator, with a tinkling shiver and a groan of concussion distinct across the mile of air. We knew we had just witnessed thousands of deaths; we clung to each other as if we ourselves were falling."20
Outrunning the Cloud
The collapse created a thick cloud of concrete dust and glass, which seemed to gather momentum as it raced outward from the site through the canyons of lower Manhattan. Frightened people ran from it; those who could not outrun the cloud were either trampled or engulfed in unbreathable, dirty air. Most took off shirts or put scarves or handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses so they wouldn't suffocate from the dust.
One man recalls a police officer yelling for people to run, not walk—telling them that breathing the air would be fatal. Another man was leaving a nearby building amid a group of workers and found himself in the middle of a billowing cloud of ash:
It was completely pitch black. You could not see your hands. I heard people bumping into people and falling and screaming for help. I was completely disoriented. I couldn't even tell which way was the sidewalk. I could see absolutely nothing.… My eyes were stinging so badly. I wandered around in the dark for fifteen minutes and I was beginning to think I was going to die. I had trouble breathing. My eyes were closing.… Eventually a cop saw me and put me on a bus. I got off at about 32nd street on the East Side. I went to a pharmacy to get some drops for my eyes. The cashier looked at me and started to cry.21
"I Know They're Still in There"
The second tower collapsed twenty-nine minutes later, amid more smoke and debris. Fires in both buildings continued to rage, and the sound of sirens was everywhere. The grim news was that few people were emerging from the ruins. Thousands, people speculated, had been trapped inside the towers when they fell. And unless they could be rescued quickly, most would surely die.
Firefighters especially were missing in large numbers. They had been on the scene early, and many were still inside when the towers collapsed. Entire squads were wiped out as they attended to the injured who were unable to evacuate the towers. By the end of the day, more than three hundred firefighters were either missing or known to be dead.
"These guys, they were heroes," sobbed a man who had escaped from the north tower. "They saved my life, they got me out of the stairway when it collapsed; they told me to run like hell out, toward the daylight. I thought I'd see them again, but I know they're still in there."22
Waiting for Bodies
As soon as the first plane hit, ambulances and emergency medical teams were assembled at the site. At first, they were extremely busy; many victums had received severe burns or had suffered broken bones or smoke inhalation. These patients were quickly taken to nearby hospitals. However, after the second plane and the subsequent collapses of the towers, area hospitals were alerted that they would soon be swamped with patients with severe injuries.
However, say medical technicians, hardly any patients were brought in after that first wave. In fact, the biggest problem wasn't shortages of bandages or morphine or other supplies—it was the overabundance of doctors, nurses, and volunteers. Ambulances from other areas of the city would pull up, sirens wailing, but with no one in the back. The drivers explained that they had come to help. And when they asked, "What can we do?" no one seemed to have an answer.
One group of surgeons specializing in trauma were bused to the area to help. But it was clear, says Dr. Andrew Renner, that it was pointless. "This is a nightmare," he said. "We haven't seen any wounded. You're either going to walk out of there or you're dead."23
The long trails of people, shell-shocked and covered with ash, ran—and then walked—away from what had been the World Trade Center. The emergency medical people waited. And the firefighters and other rescue workers, grieving over friends that they knew had not come back out of the towers, frantically searched for survivors.
As all of these events were taking place, the rest of the nation was glued to television sets, horrified to learn that the tragedy in Manhattan was only part of the terror the United States was to experience that day.