A Nation Reacts

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Chapter Three
A Nation Reacts

As the emergency workers—firefighters, police, and medical personnel—were reacting to the attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, another level of activity was much less visible. It was clear that the nation had been attacked, but no one knew if these four hijacked planes were just the beginning of a flurry of terrorist strikes on American targets. And because no one was sure, tightening national security as quickly as possible was critical.

The Commander in Chief

At the time the World Trade Center was being attacked, President George W. Bush was in Sarasota, Florida, sitting in front of a second grade classroom in Emma E. Booker Elementary. He had come to talk to children about education and was listening as some of the excited seven-year-olds were reading aloud for him, when an aide came into the room and whispered something to the president.

Bush's face became very serious; however, he remained in the room for a few minutes more—although teachers say he was obviously distracted by what he had heard. The president listened as the last little boy finished reading aloud. "Really good readers, whew!" he told them. "These must be sixth graders."38 He quickly left the classroom and, after speaking to school officials for a few minutes, the president and his aides boarded Air Force One for Washington, D.C.

Decisions from Air Force One

The heightened security resulted in a very roundabout trip back to the White House. On Air Force One, which had been vigorously searched and researched for explosives, Bush was in contact with Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington about the most recent developments, such as the plane crash at the Pentagon. Cheney, who had been rushed to a safe location on the grounds of the White House by the Secret Service, discussed with the president the order that all airplanes over the United States must land immediately. After all, no one knew how many more of the hijacked planes were on their way to targets. The two men discussed how to deal with a plane that did not comply with landing orders. The military, Bush finally decided, would have to shoot down that plane—an incredibly wrenching decision. (Since all planes did comply, it was an order that did not have to be carried out.)

Cheney also urged Bush to delay coming to Washington and to fly instead to a secure military base. A few bases are designed especially for times such as these—when the country is under attack and the president's life might be in jeopardy. One base is in Nebraska, and Bush's Secret Service agents decided that he should go there until the situation seemed safe.

Defcon Delta

However, Bush and his aides also knew that it was very important for the nation to hear from him so that the American people would know that their government was still functioning. En route to the base in Nebraska, Air Force One stopped at an air force base in Louisiana so that the president could make a short speech. The situation at the base was tense as soldiers in full combat array stood guard. The nation was at Defcon Delta—the code name for the highest state of national alert.

Bush's speech was terse. "Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will not be defeated," he said. "Make no mistake: the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts."39 After his speech, Bush consulted with military advisers at the base, and not until that night did he finally get home to the White House.

Some criticized the president, accusing him of hiding when the American people needed him most. However, historian David McCullough explained that President Bush had little to say about the precautions that were taken: "All presidents do what they're told on matters of personal security," he said. "The most important thing is that the president is alive and safe and knows what's going on. We haven't seen this level of destruction on our home ground since the Civil War. This isn't the 'Titanic' movie. It's real."40

Shutting Down

With the president's safety assured, other important security measures could be taken. All air traffic had been suspended—something that had never before happened in the United States. This meant, too, that airliners en route to the United States from Europe and Asia had to be diverted to Canada. At airports throughout North America, passengers stranded far from home waited anxiously for word of resumed flights.

In New York City, the New York Stock Exchange was closed—hardly a surprise, since it is so close to the site of the World Trade Center. The navy sent two aircraft carriers—the USS John F. Kennedy and the George Washington—to patrol off New York harbor. F-16s prowled the skies over Washington, New York, and other large cities. Bridges and tunnels into Manhattan were closed.

Broadway, with its multitude of theaters, was dark, and major league baseball was canceled for the first time since D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe during World War II. Any attraction or building that could possibly be thought of as a target for terrorists was closed: Chicago's Sears Tower, Disneyland and Walt Disney World, Minnesota's Mall of America, the Seattle Space Needle, Mount Rushmore, and even Independence Hall, the Philadelphia shrine where the Liberty Bell is displayed.

Continuing to Search at Ground Zero

As security measures tightened nationwide, hopeful rescuers were still combing the rubble of the World Trade Center. Though it seemed less and less likely, they still hoped to find someone alive. Firefighters, police officers, and others who had not perished in the collapse were now digging through the ashy debris at what was now being called Ground Zero. Because fires were still raging beneath the ruins, the footing was still extremely hot in many places, and firefighters' boots, despite rubber soles four inches thick, were actually melting to their feet.

They found some bodies, including what appeared to be people strapped into airplane seats, as well as the body of a flight attendant with her hands bound. One firefighter admitted that he had to stop working for a little while after finding the body of a baby strapped in her car seat. The car had been knocked over by falling debris from the south tower.

However, most of what rescue workers found were parts of bodies. During the first week, rescuers just marked such remains, but kept digging. Finding a person still alive would have to take precedence, at least until it was clear that hope had run out.

Eventually the remains were retrieved and were put in individual body bags. Rescuers would take the bags out to refrigerated trucks, which would take them to the morgues. New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani ordered thirty thousand additional body bags when it became apparent how extensive the loss of life was—and how scattered the remains.

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Discouraged Dogs

Special dog teams, known as the K-9 squad, were brought to the site, too. Each dog works with a police officer and alerts its handler when it sniffs out the presence of a living person. Between two hundred and three hundred dogs and their handlers from all over the United States helped at Ground Zero, but with almost no success.

One disappointed handler said that he and his dog Gus found many body parts, but no living people. Gus, like most other dogs in K-9 units, is trained to sit down as soon as he smells a person. However, after working for several ten- to twelve-hour shifts, Gus had found nothing at all. Some on the scene said that the mountains of ash that cover everything may have interfered with the dogs' sensitive noses. Others believe that there was simply too much death—the smell of too much flesh was overpowering the dogs' sense of smell.

The search was as dangerous for the dogs as it was for any other rescue workers. Vets at the scene routinely treated dogs for dehydration and burning eyes. Many of the dogs were plagued by burns on their paw pads. Many had bloody paws from hours walking through sharp debris, too. (Some volunteers sewed more than fifteen hundred heavy-duty dog boots to allow the dogs to keep working without risking more serious injuries.)

However, the biggest toll on the K-9 units was discouragement. One trainer whose dog emerged from the debris with a torn, scorched teddy bear in its mouth, explained that his dog was not accustomed to going so long without success. To keep the dogs focused after hours of fruitless searching, trainers would take turns hiding under blankets and letting other trainers' dogs find them. "These dogs are trained to find live people," said an emergency care veterinarian. "It's positive energy for them—but they're finding just cadavers and body parts. The handlers try to stay upbeat, because the dogs take their cues from them, even though [the handlers] are very upset and moved to tears. Besides veterinary attention, we also give them affection—the handlers are bringing dogs back to get cuddled."41

A Moment of Silence

The rescuers were discouraged, too. Among the firefighters especially, the realization of how many of their coworkers had been lost began to sink in. Firefighters think of themselves as a true brotherhood; when one of their own dies, it is as painful as losing a family member. With three hundred firefighters lost and presumed dead, the grief, said those on the scene at Ground Zero, was immense.

That is why, when a firefighter's body was found, everyone paused for a moment of silence. "All the machinery is turned off," explained one firefighter, "and everybody takes their helmets off while a body bag is brought over and brothers from his station come and carry him away."42

The people of New York City were extremely supportive. Many brought casseroles and baked goods to the station houses. One visitor was amazed at the ability of the firefighters to cope with the nightmarish scenes they witnessed each day at Ground Zero. She said, "They're made of something I've not seen before."43

The station houses became shrines, decorated with votive candles, pictures, flowers, and letters from the neighborhood. One note, from a ten-year-old, was especially touching to the rescuers: "I am so sorry you lost your best friends. I hope you will be all right and you will not lose your lives. Be safe and wear heavy equipment."44


As the rescue workers searched, family members of those missing since September 11 watched from a distance. They had no way of knowing whether their loved ones had been found and taken to a hospital, or had been found dead, or had not been found at all. In the first forty-eight hours, those in New York made posters with a photograph of their loved ones, with the words "Have you seen …?" and "Please call this number" scrawled on the bottom.

The posters were taped or stapled to every window, every telephone pole, outside every hospital emergency room door. Posters were pinned to the chests of the family members, too. And they walked from hospital to hospital, hoping someone would recognize the photograph on their chests, hoping for news. Every so often, there would be a rumor—a cell phone ringing far beneath the rubble, or a story that a policeman trapped underneath fired his gun to alert rescuers. Such rumors got people excited for a short time, but eventually proved to be false.

So Many Funerals

The huge number of deaths in New York City resulted in such a steady stream of funerals there that many people were overwhelmed. In this excerpt from her article "The Circles of Loss," New York's Jennifer Senior relates how difficult it is for some communities to cope.

"Mass death has the curious effect of both magnifying a person's importance and trivializing it. These funerals and memorials, traditionally intimate rituals, have become epic events, as public as the deaths of the victims themselves. Last Tuesday, 1,300 people descended on the Church of the Resurrection in Larchmont for the memorial of Frank McGuinn, a managing director at Cantor Fitzgerald [a company whose staff was almost completely wiped out in the attacks]; the family needed six condolence books.

On Thursday, Christine Bennett had a funeral for her fiance, Danny Rosetti, who perished while installing office furniture for AON on the 105th floor of Tower Two. She felt like half the town of Bloomfield, New Jersey, showed up. 'Our escort—there had to be at least ten police cars out in front with their sirens going,' she says.… These mass outpourings are, of course, stunning tributes to the dead. But they are also forums for collective grieving; they have become a means for people to work through the events of September 11, even if they were not directly affected.

Ed Fox, director of John J. Fox Funeral Home in Larchmont—his town lost at least three—wonders whether these giant ceremonies tend to drown out the needs of the people closest to the deceased. Some families, he says, took to putting up signs on their front doors last week—firm but polite notes thanking their neighbors for stopping by but further explaining: 'We're not receiving people today.'

'The families appreciate all the support,' says Fox. 'But they've had to limit contact with people. So much support can become counterproductive.'"

In the days and weeks that followed without news, families were asked to fill out long questionnaires. They were asked about the dental records, scars, tattoos, and jewelry of the missing and the dead. Blood relatives could provide DNA samples—a swab from the inside of their cheeks, usually—along with the victim's toothbrush or razor. These items would help medical examiners match up the remains brought in from the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, or the Pennsylvania crash site with the correct family.

"I Just Don't Know What Else to Do"

The reaction of the medical community, the rescuers, the military, and various governmental agencies was extremely important in dealing with the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. However, many American people not in uniform reacted in important ways, too.

Many gave blood—in fact, Red Cross officials were astonished soon after they put out an appeal for donors. They had so many people responding that they had to turn some away. In New York, the line of donors at the Blood Center—more than a thousand people—extended almost around a full block. "It's just amazing," said one nurse standing in the donors' line. "There'll be a three- or four-hour wait, and just look at all of these people standing here."45

A lot of those who waited in line said they wanted to do something to help, but were not sure what. One man in a San Francisco blood bank was nervously waiting for word of a New York friend who was missing after the attacks. "I'd keep giving blood if I had enough," he said. "I just don't know what else to do."46

Doughnuts, Dancing, and Virtual Kool-Aid

Many people watching the events on television felt the same way—as though they, too, wanted to help in some way. "Seeing people racing through the streets in Manhattan without shoes, just tearing away as fast as they could go—that did it for me," recalled one Minnesota woman emotionally. "I was watching on TV—people with soot and ash all over them, bleeding, crying. I felt like, hey, this is my country; and those are my people going through hell. And I'm sitting here, feeling like I want to connect, you know?"47

A lot of Americans felt the same way. "It was clear," wrote columnist Nancy Gibbs soon after the attacks, "that people ached to live bigger lives, to find some way to be a brave and generous part of what most of us were consigned to watch only on television."48 Some mobilized their church or civic group and collected funds for the victims and their families. Some opened their homes to travelers stranded at a nearby airport.

In Washington, several people bought huge quantities of bottled water and handed it out to rescuers. An air force major who had survived the Pentagon attack was deeply moved by an experience he had several days afterward. He had gone to a coffee shop near his office. The shop owner told him he didn't have to pay—that a woman had come by earlier and given a lot of money to pay the bill of any soldier that came in.

"The End of the Free Ride"

Although many nations around the world sent sympathy and pledged support soon after the attacks, some nations' responses were seen as lukewarm, and were unclear about how much support they would offer. In this excerpt from his Newsweek editorial "The End of the End of History," Fareed Zakaria notes that there are places throughout the world that are not supportive enough of the United States—but the effects of the terrorism of September 11 will soon convince them that without a secure America, they will eventually suffer, too.

"For America, this is the end of unilateralism. And for the rest of the world it is the end of the free ride. People are now going to realize just how much they enjoyed the benefits of globalization; the peace and prosperity; the ease of trade and travel, the information and entertainment. They watched the movies, listened to the music, read the magazines, vacationed in America, and sent their children to college here. But none of this required them actively to support the United States or affirm its values. They could denounce America by day and consume its bounties by night.

But all these countries—in Europe and Asia and Latin America—must recognize that the world they have gotten used to will not survive if America is crippled. The United States is the pivot that makes today's globalization go round. If other countries believe in individual liberty, in free enterprise and free trade, in religious freedom, in democracy, then they are eating the fruits of the American order. And this order can be truly secure only when all those who benefit from it stand in its defense. Those abroad who love liberty cannot watch this war as if it were a horror movie, wondering how it will end. This is your struggle, too."

"The woman who gave [the shop owner] the money had just lost her husband or son in the disaster at the Pentagon," said the major. "This poor woman should have been in deep mourning. Instead, she's buying coffee and doughnuts for us guys in uniform. I have no answers to how someone cultivates a heart as large as that."49

Children, too, wanted to help—and found creative ways to show their support for America. One kindergartner in New Jersey renamed all of her dolls George Bush. A Texas eight-year-old sold her drawings as well as virtual cups of Kool-Aid on eBay to raise money for the victims. A six-year-old girl who was taking Irish step dance lessons set up a card table outside her North Carolina home with a poster decorated with Irish and American flags, urging people to contribute money to help the victims. As an incentive, she danced on the sidewalk nearby.


The grounding of all the nation's airplanes provided two young Dallas men with an opportunity to help. Matthew Harris and Eddie Perryman, who recover and process human tissue for the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, were watching the rescue efforts on television. They knew that many of the survivors, especially those who escaped from the crash at the Pentagon, were burn victims who would need skin grafts.

Since the normal way of transporting tissue or organs in emergencies—by airplane—was no longer an option, the two men volunteered to drive seventy square feet of skin for grafts to Washington in three large Styrofoam coolers. It was a frantic drive, for the sensitivity of the tissue made time an important factor. Even so, the men were glad to have contributed. Shrugged Harris, "We jumped at the opportunity."50

In New York City, enormous support was shown not only for the victims but also for the ever-present rescue workers. Many brought snacks and other things to the site for the workers. Long display tables were brought out from several nearby stores, and they were laden with everything from brownies and fresh fruit to aspirin and boxes of clean socks.

One resident smiles as he recalls some of the people who were so eager to help:

A woman came with lunch bags, like my mother used to make. You know, a brown paper bag with a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, a candy bar, and a folded napkin. A hundred of them. A guy came down …in his wheelchair and said, "Please, please, please take the bag in back of me. I made these sandwiches—would you give them to the men?" It's just mind-blowing.51

Down Time

For many Americans, no matter where they lived, the reactions to the tragedy were very personal and very private. Throughout the nation, families and friends scrambled to connect with one another. "My mom and I don't always get along, but she was the first person I wanted to call," said one twenty-three-year-old. "She lives up north, and I tend not to call her too often, because we end up fighting about something. But it didn't seem that important on the eleventh."52

"I just wanted to make sure my kids knew I love them," said one woman. "I wanted to physically just touch them, and make sure they were all right. It's a feeling I haven't had since they were really little, you know? When they're newborns, and you look at them and think how little and vulnerable they are? That's how I think now."53

Many people also found comfort in finding a quiet place to think. Churches, synagogues, and temples stayed open for people who wanted to pray, light a candle, or just reflect on what had happened. Some organized candlelight vigils and were amazed at both the numbers and the variety of people who attended.

As varied as the responses and reactions were—whether one chose to meditate, bake cookies, give blood, or simply watch the continuous television coverage—everyone seemed to share one reaction. After the shock and the horror of seeing the nation attacked in such a way, one word summed up the question on the minds of most people: Who?

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A Nation Reacts

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