Two New Targets

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Chapter Two
Two New Targets

Many who heard that the World Trade Center's north tower had been hit by a passenger jet assumed that it was a tragic accident, perhaps caused by a malfunctioning plane. However, with the arrival of a second suicide aircraft just minutes later, the truth was clear: America was under attack. And the attack was so well organized that two hijackings had occurred on the same morning, from the same airport.

The enemy—whoever they were—had chosen a very obvious symbol of U.S. business as their target. However, two more planes in the air had also been seized by hijackers. These two groups had targets other than business in mind.

Flight 77

About two hundred miles to the south of the crumbled towers in Manhattan, air traffic controllers at Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C., had received a disturbing telephone call from U.S. solicitor general Theodore Olson. He had just been contacted by his wife, Barbara, a former federal prosecutor who had become a well-known television commentator during the impeachment hearings of Bill Clinton.

She was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 77, which had taken off from Dulles Airport and was en route to Los Angeles. She told her husband that the plane was being hijacked, and described how the terrorists had forced all the passengers to the rear of the plane. She also asked her husband what he thought the pilot should do. Before Olson could respond, however, the connection was broken.

The air traffic controllers had not received any information about a plane being hijacked from Dulles. Interestingly, however, several other families were getting cell phone calls from passengers on the flight, too. Investigators believe that those calls were not made secretly; it appears that the terrorists were encouraging passengers to call their loved ones, to let them know they were about to die.

Losing Contact

The air traffic controllers soon saw for themselves that something was happening on board Flight 77. The plane had gone westward for some distance into West Virginia before someone—presumably one of the hijackers—had turned off the plane's transponder, the device that transmits an airliner's speed and flight identification to controllers on the ground.

Now, with neither radio contact nor identification on their radar screen for Flight 77, ground control realized the plane had made a quick turnaround. It was now heading northeast, toward the Potomac River. With growing alarm, they saw that it was streaking into restricted airspace over the White House. For security purposes, no commercial or private aircraft are allowed to fly over certain U.S. buildings, such as the Capitol and the White House.

Hurriedly, ground control alerted the Secret Service of the security breach; although the president and his family were not in the White House at the time, many staff members were working in the West Wing. Secret Service agents sent them running out of their offices to Pennsylvania Avenue.

A Military Target

But the plane's direction suddenly changed. "Just as [it] seemed to be on a suicide mission into the White House," writes one reporter, "the unidentified pilot executed a pivot so tight it reminded observers of a fighter jet maneuver."24 The plane circled to the right and headed toward the Pentagon. It was flying so low at that point that it completely vanished from the radar screens.

One man driving nearby saw the jet swoop in, full throttle, its wings wobbling, flying no more than fifty feet off the ground. Another driver recalled the plane was extremely loud and was coming in so low that he could read the "AA" (for American Airlines) on its side. Some firefighters working at the Pentagon's heliport heard the roar and looked up to see the plane—at this point only two hundred yards away. Still at full speed, it was only twenty-five feet off the ground and, they told one reporter, "was shearing off the tops of light poles and closing in like steel lightning."25

At 9:40 a.m. Flight 77 slammed into the southwest face of the Pentagon, the five-sided, five-story structure that is the headquarters of the five branches of the U.S. military. The jet rocked the building and ripped a gaping hundred-foot hole that extended from the ground to the roof.

No Match for a Suicide Crash

The twenty thousand employees—both civilian and military—at the Pentagon were already nervous. Like others throughout the nation, they had been watching the events at the World Trade Center. Some Pentagon employees, in fact, had even had a premonition that the Pentagon would be next.

The sixty-year-old Pentagon had been recently strengthened—ironically, in case of an enemy attack. Its concrete walls, two feet thick, were no match for a suicide crash, however. "All of a sudden," recalls one Pentagon worker, "there was this huge impact. I was thrown across my office. The floor buckled. The office filled with smoke. It was really terrifying."26

A man working on the helipad near the crash site agrees. Hearing the roar and feeling the fireball, he dove under a nearby van to escape the metal and other debris that exploded into the air. "Everything was on fire," he says. "The grass was on fire. The building was on fire. The firehouse was on fire."27

The crash killed all on board the plane, which disintegrated upon impact. Many inside the Pentagon were killed immediately, too—most by the fiery explosion. Officials say that the side that was hit houses the offices of army and navy operations personnel. No one could guess, when the crash occurred, how many people had actually been lost, but they knew it could have been worse. Because of the recent renovation many workers had not yet moved back into their offices.

"I Haven't Felt Something That Hot Before"

There was no shortage of rescue workers; at least one thousand firefighters, police, and Pentagon employees (many with combat experience) rushed to search for survivors. As at the World Trade Center, those rescue efforts were made extremely difficult by intense heat from the jet fuel.

One firefighter could not believe the intensity of the heat within the crash site. "We went into the building, searching for victims," he says. "There was so much fire, smoke, and damage. You couldn't see a lot, because of the smoke. It was dark, black smoke, and the walls were buckled out, and fire was balling down the hallway.… We were on the ground floor. I haven't felt something that hot before."28

One man was pinned down by fallen pipes, chunks of concrete, and furniture. To allow them time to remove the debris, rescuers formed chains, passing wet T-shirts to one another to protect their faces from the smoke. "It took 30 men 30 minutes to get just that one guy to the door 15 feet away," says one rescue worker." That heat and fire—it could eat you alive in three seconds."29

Also similar to the crisis in New York City, very few victims were being taken to hospitals. As soon as the crash occurred, hospitals throughout northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., were put on high alert—that they should expect a heavy influx of ambulances.

Only seventy patients were treated at those hospitals, however. Many had severe burns over half of their bodies; other patients had serious lung trouble from smoke inhalation. Most in the vicinity of the blast died immediately—or at least before rescuers could reach them. There were exceptions thanks to heroic rescue efforts.

A Human Chain

Lieutenant Colonel Marilyn Wills had been knocked across the room on the second floor where she had been working. The room was black, and she could hear screams as she crawled in search of a doorway. One woman nearby was frozen with fear—unable to move. Wills told the woman to hold on to her pant leg, and they crawled together. They came across another woman—an officer—and Wills added her to the chain.

"The Pentagon Has Been Hit!"

In this excerpt from "Crisis Management," which appears in People Weekly, Mike Walter, a correspondent from USA Today Live Television recalls how terrified he was when the plane crashed into the Pentagon.

"This morning the traffic near the Pentagon was just crawling along. I looked out the window and saw a plane coming over, loud and very low. I could read the 'AA' on its side. It looked like it was 20, 30 feet up in the air. It was coming in a direct path to the Pentagon. I started to say to myself, 'This plane is going to crash.' It disappeared behind the trees, and there was a massive explosion. I kept muttering, 'Ohmigod, ohmigod.' It was surrealistic. The traffic had stopped. A woman was screaming, 'Turn around, turn around! The Pentagon has been hit!' It was just pandemonium.

I pulled over and ran to see what I could see. There was debris from the jet on the overpass. I was watching the military personnel set up a triage. These tarps, red and green and yellow. And flags. They were running around with stretchers. All of a sudden they grabbed them and started running for the Pentagon. Three or four military officers came running up saying, 'You've got to get back! Another plane's been hijacked and is heading our way!' People were saying it was 25 minutes away, others said 25 miles away. Then an F-16 came screaming by the Pentagon, and people cheered. There was a staff sergeant standing next to me saying, 'What do they do if it's a passenger plane and they shoot it down?' I tried to stay busy, tried to work [filing television reports]. When all this was over, an Army guy came over and said, 'The FBI wants to talk to you.' I dissolved into tears. He said, 'Don't worry about it. You're in a state of shock.'

Psychologically, this is pretty jarring. So often [reporters] show up, and the yellow tape is up, and it's after the fact. To be there and watch it was very tough."

However, once they found the door and got out into the hallway, they encountered more problems. Not only did the exits appear blocked with debris, the two women Wills was helping were overcome with smoke, as one reporter writes:

[The] officer started choking. The sprinklers had cut on, and Wills's sweater was as waterlogged as a sponge. "Put the sweater over your mouth and suck the water out!" Wills ordered. The civilian on the back of the chain called out that she couldn't make it. Wills shoved the sweater into her face, too. When Wills turned around, the woman in front was gone. Crawling again, she saw a pin of light down the corridor—a window. A soldier was breaking it with a fax machine. Reaching him, Wills found the strength to stand, and helped lower her civilian companion and another woman two stories to rescuers below. Wills said she was going back for the officer from her human chain. A colonel, pushed back by the billowing smoke looked at her. "No," he said.30


Those who were able to evacuate the building milled around outside, where military helicopters circled the surrounding area, looking for another air assault. Many raced to the Pentagon's day care facility to make sure their children were safe. The children had been evacuated to a grassy area nearby and were unaware of what was happening around them.

As hundreds of rescue vehicles raced to the Pentagon, the federal government closed its offices. More than 250,000 people left hurriedly, not knowing what to expect. Their hurried departure, in addition to the closing of downtown businesses, made traffic impossible. On the nearly empty streets around the Capitol, hundreds of National Guard members patroled in humvees.

Just as the World Trade Center was a symbol of American business and financial affairs, the Pentagon was an obvious symbol, too. Never before had it been attacked, and to many Americans, seeing its one side crumbled and burning seemed almost impossible to believe. One man, whose office was destroyed, sadly recalled that just the day before, he had looked out his window to see President Bush taking off from the helipad, now in ruins.

"You couldn't feel that there was any safer place in the world," he said. "After my home, I viewed my office as the most secure place I could be."31

Flight 93

Unbelievably, a fourth airplane was hijacked that same morning. United Airlines Flight 93 took off from Newark International Airport and was bound for San Francisco. That aircraft, and the thirty-eight passengers and seven crew members it carried, became highly important for what did not occur on it, rather than what did. Unlike those on the other three airplanes, the terrorists on board Flight 93 did not accomplish their deadly mission. It is almost certain that a few very brave passengers saved hundreds of lives on the ground that morning.

The airplane was to have taken off at 8:01 a.m., but was forty minutes late. It was just south of Cleveland, Ohio, when it took a sudden, sharp left turn and headed back toward Pennsylvania. Ground control, fearful of what was happening to Flight 93, tried to contact the crew by radio, but without success.

Soon afterward, air traffic controllers in Cleveland picked up a radio signal from the plane. Although the transmission was somewhat muffled, controllers did hear screams, then silence, and then more screams. They also heard the words "Bomb on board." By this time, both towers of the World Trade Center in New York were in flames, and Barbara Olson was in the process of telling her husband of her flight's hijacking. What was happening to Flight 93?

A Flurry of Phone Calls

Soon after the alarming radio transmission, some of Flight 93's passengers were making cell phone calls of their own—to family members. Days later, these phone calls were able to give investigators a much clearer understanding of what actually happened on that flight.

Some callers described the hijackers as Arab or from the Middle East. The three men, they said, wore red headbands. The men, they said, were carrying knives, and one had a box with red markings that the hijackers said was a bomb. After the hijackers took control of the plane, a man with an Arabic accent announced, "This is the captain speaking. Remain in your seat. There is a bomb on board. Stay quiet. We are meeting with their demands. We are returning to the airport."32

Perhaps if the plane had taken off on time, the passengers would have had no reason to doubt the announcement—that the plane would land safely and no harm would come to them if demands were met—but the fact that the airplane had taken off forty minutes late would end up making a huge difference.

"The Passengers Wouldn't Have Had the Big Picture"

At least one passenger had heard the fate of the two hijacked planes that had crashed into the World Trade Center, and he shared that information with some of his fellow passengers. That knowledge would have given passengers on Flight 93 a more accurate idea of what was probably going to be their fate, too. Says one Defense Department official, "It would have changed the events if the plane had taken off on time. The passengers wouldn't have had the big picture. They would have been dealing only with the misinformation supplied by the hijackers."33

The passenger who first learned about the crisis in New York City was Tom Burnett, an executive with a medical device company in California. He had called his wife, Deena, and told her his plane had just been hijacked and that the men had knifed one of the passengers. He gave her the flight number and told her to call the authorities. It was then that Deena gave him the disturbing news about the other hijackings.

"So Armed, They Could Act"

In this excerpt from his Time magazine editorial "The Greater the Evil, the More It Disarms," Charles Krauthammer asks—and answers—the question: Why were the passengers of Flight 93 the only ones who fought back against the hijackers?

"The passengers' seeming passivity is reminiscent of the Holocaust. We ask, with trepidation: How could Jews have allowed themselves to be herded into gas chambers by just a few people carrying machine guns? Because it was inconceivable—that the men carrying the weapons would do what they, in fact, did do. The victims were told these were showers. Who could imagine herding children into gas chambers? In all of history, no people had ever done that. The victims could not plumb the depths of their enemy's evil.

I suspect the same thing happened to the doomed passengers on the hijacked planes. After all, hijackings had been going on for 40 years. Almost invariably, everybody ends up OK.… Never in history had hijackers intentionally turned a passenger plane into a flying bomb, killing everyone aboard, including themselves. Decades of experience teach us that if you simply do what the hijackers say, they'll eventually get tired and give up. That's the rule.

But when the rules don't apply, when inconceivably cold-blooded evil is in command, the victims are truly helpless.… Why then did the passengers on the plane that went down near Pittsburgh decide to resist the hijackers and prevent them from completing their mission? Because they knew: their relatives had told them by cell phone that the World Trade Center had already been attacked by hijacked planes. They were armed with final awareness of the nature of the evil they faced.

So armed, they could act. So armed, they did."

After awhile, Burnett called her back with a very sobering announcement. "I know we're all going to die," he said. "There's three of us that are going to do something about it."34 Deena says, "I pleaded with him to please sit down and not draw attention to himself, "she said later. "And he said, 'No, no. If they're going to run this into the ground we're going to have to do something.' And he hung up," she says, "and never called back."35

"Let's Roll"

Soon afterward, Lyzbeth Glick received a cell phone call from her husband, Jeremy. He, too, was on Flight 93 and wanted to know if it was true—that people had crashed planes into the World Trade Center. His wife confirmed the grim news. Glick told her what Tom Burnett had told his wife—that several of the passengers were going to take a vote on how to proceed, but he thought they would take on the hijackers. He even joked, she said, that they would use the butter knives from the in-flight breakfast.

Another passenger, thirty-one-year-old Mark Bingham, called his mother with much of the same information. During the call, his mother could hear him talking in the background, talking quietly with others about their plans. His mother has no doubt that he would have fought against the terrorists.

Todd Beamer could not reach his wife on the plane's in-flight phone because it rejected his credit card. He was routed to an operator supervisor instead. He told her of the hijacking and how some of the passengers were going to fight back. He also gave the operator his home phone number, and asked her to call his wife and tell her how much he loved her and his two little boys. The last thing the operator heard was, "Are you ready, guys? Let's roll."36

Screams and Silence

At least one of the cell phones was left on after that. Law enforcement officers who had been alerted to the hijacking were listening in on Jeremy Glick's last call to his wife. After he finished talking, they could hear screams in the background and then silence.

The plane's cockpit recorder later gave a more vivid look at the plane's final minutes. Investigators say that scuffling sounds and shouting were heard in both Arabic and English. Writes one reporter, "Investigators are operating on the theory that the men somehow made their way up 100 feet from the rear of the plane into the cockpit. The cockpit voice recorder indicates someone, probably a hijacker, screaming, 'Get out of here. Get out of here.' Then grunting, screaming, and scuffling. Then silence."37

What happened then is much more evident. Investigators say that it is almost certain that because of that struggle, Flight 93 went down very quickly. Eyewitnesses near the crash site, which was a coalfield in western Pennsylvania, said that the plane flew low and suddenly fell from the sky. Some said it was making a whistling sound, like a missile.

One witness, who was sitting on his porch less than one-quarter mile from the crash site, commented that the plane had seemed to fall straight down, like a stone. Another man rushed to the site, hoping he could help somehow. However, there was little evidence of a plane, let alone survivors. The plane, at almost full throttle, had made a ten-by-twenty-foot crater in the field and was reduced to charred fragments.

A Lone Bright Spot

Investigators have uncovered another important piece of information. Because of the struggle and subsequent crash, the terrorists on the plane were not able to carry out their assigned mission—a suicide crash, just as terrorists on the other three hijacked planes had done. Investigators are almost certain the plane had reversed its direction to fly to Washington, D.C. The specific target, they say, was most likely the White House or the Capitol.

Though Flight 93 had crashed and all aboard were killed, the heroics on board would later prove to be one of the only bright spots in a time of unspeakable tragedy. But on September 11, after the four hijacked planes had crashed, after the Pentagon had been attacked and the World Trade Center demolished, there was little time to reflect on heroism or what might have been. Immediate concerns needed to be addressed: searching for possible survivors, putting out the fires that still smoldered in Washington, D.C. and New York, and wondering if other deadly attacks were coming.