M. Alex Johnson – Journalist at Large

An analog journalist in a digital world

Terrorists strike United States

Two hijacked jets collapse World Trade Center in N.Y.; Pentagon also hit

By Alex Johnson

Sept. 11, 2001 — In a coordinated attack on the nation’s financial and military centers Tuesday, two hijacked jetliners slammed into New York’s World Trade Center, collapsing the towering twin icons of America’s economic might. Less than an hour later, a third jet plowed into the Pentagon, the nerve center of the world’s most powerful military force. As the nation awaited an address Tuesday evening by President Bush, U.S. intelligence began zeroing in on Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden as the prime suspect in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

There was no way to estimate — or comprehend — the loss of life in the series of attacks, which began shortly before 9 a.m. ET. As many as 50,000 people were believed to work in the two main towers of the World Trade Center alone, and a third, smaller, Trade Center building collapsed about six hours later.

Bush declared a state of major disaster.

“It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Joan Goldstein, an Associated Press employee who was on a bus from New Jersey when she saw “smoke pouring out of the World Trade Center building.”

“We said, ‘Oh, my God! The World Trade Center’s on fire!’ ” Goldstein said.

MSNBC.com reporter Martin Wolk, who was inside one of the towers, said the lights flickered and there was a loud bang. People panicked and started to flee the building.

When they reached the lobby, smoke started to fill the building and people could see debris falling. “It was sheer pandemonium. People were screaming and crying, afraid to go outside because of the falling debris,” Wolk said. “We looked up, and it looked like the top 20 floors were in flames.”


The White House, the U.S. Capitol and federal buildings in and around Washington were evacuated after the three assaults in New York and Washington and a failed fourth strike that ended when a jetliner crashed into a field near Pittsburgh.

The president was stranded outside Washington, discussing education in Florida, when the attacks were launched. With speculation swirling that the jetliner that crashed in Pennsylvania had been headed for his retreat at Camp David, Md., Bush hopscotched the country in Air Force One.

At Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La., he delivered a brief, emotional statement promising to “hunt down and punish those responsible.” He then flew on to Offutt Air Force base outside Omaha, Neb., where he was taken to a underground bunker at U.S. Strategic Command headquarters.

The president met by teleconference with Vice President Dick Cheney and his national security team before heading back to Washington, where he arrived shortly after 6 p.m. ET with plans to deliver a televised address to the nation later Tuesday evening.

Bush announced from Barksdale that the U.S. military was on “high-alert status.”

“Freedom itself was attacked this morning, and I assure you freedom will be defended,” he said.

Authorities in Washington immediately called out troops, including an infantry regiment. Security was tightened at strategic installations and along U.S. borders.

“This is the second Pearl Harbor. I don’t think that I overstate it,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.

Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew back to Washington from Europe. Asked about potential military responses to the attacks, Shelton told reporters: “I have no intentions of discussing what comes next. But make no mistake about it — your armed forces stand ready.”

Attorney General John Ashcroft, who oversees the FBI, echoed Shelton. “These heinous attacks are an assault on the security of our nation,” he said. “… We will not tolerate such attacks.”


The images of devastation struck at the heart of two of the nation’s most prominent symbols of power and commerce.

In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani estimated that at least 2,250 people had been injured, many seriously. He would not estimate the number of deaths, but a city police source said it could be in the hundreds or thousands, including tens of people who jumped from the burning trade center towers.

Two hundred sixty-six people were feared dead in the four aircraft that were hijacked and forced to crash. At the Pentagon, officials said initial estimates were that 100 or more people had been killed or injured there.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was in his office on the opposite side of the Pentagon, was not injured and indeed was reported to have helped with rescue efforts.

“The Pentagon is functioning,” he told reporters Tuesday evening. “It will be in business tomorrow.”


The attacks accomplished at least some of their presumed purposes, snarling the nation’s government, transportation and finances and sowing fear and suspicion among its citizens:

  • For the first time ever, the Federal Aviation Administration closed all U.S. airports, shutting down air traffic until Wednesday morning at the earliest.
  • Financial markets also closed and were to remain closed Wednesday.
  • Members of Congress met at Washington police headquarters to consider how to conduct business. They agreed to return to the Capitol later Tuesday evening.
  • Prominent Arab-American and Muslim American organizations, fearing a backlash against Americans of Arab descent, urged their members and followers to consider staying out of public and called for heightened security at mosques and Arab centers.
  • All Major League Baseball games were canceled, and large buildings across the nation — shopping malls, skyscrapers, transportation centers — were shuttered.


The attacks began in New York when the first aircraft struck shortly before 9 a.m. ET, starting fires and sending smoke billowing out of one of the World Trade Center’s two main skyscrapers, which had famously dominated Manhattan’s skyline.

Shortly after 9 a.m., a second aircraft was seen crashing into the other tower. Broadcast cameras already watching the scene taped the second plane as it exploded in a huge fireball.

Crews were evacuating people when the first tower then collapsed, trapping rescuers and workers. Much of lower Manhattan was later evacuated.

The second tower disintegrated shortly thereafter, sending enormous plumes of choking gray smoke and debris tornado-tunneling through packed narrow streets rimmed by Manhattan’s enormous skyscrapers.

“I was on the 81st floor of 2 World Trade Center,” Felipe Ayala told MSNBC. “I ran down to 78 — the main concourse — and met my wife and coworkers. … I was asked to go back upstairs because it was safe. … I left my wife and returned to the 81st floor. I was looking out the window with a co-worker when the entire room just collapsed on me. I can’t find my wife and I’m looking around for her.”


American and United airlines both said two of their planes had been hijacked and crashed.

American said its aircraft were carrying a total of 156 people. One was a Boston-Los Angeles Flight, the other Washington-Los Angeles. An FBI source said the former, a Boeing 767, hit one of the Trade Center towers; the latter, a Boeing 757, hit the Pentagon.

Two United airliners with a total of 110 aboard also crashed — a Boeing 757 outside Pittsburgh, the other in a location not immediately identified. The FBI source, however, said that flight, a Boeing 767, hit the Trade Center, as well.

The crash in Pennsylvania was a Newark-San Francisco flight. It slammed into the ground in a field about 85 miles from Pittsburgh; U.S. officials and intelligence experts said it was possible the plane had been on a course for the presidential retreat at Camp David.

An emergency dispatcher in Westmoreland County, Pa., received a cell phone call at 9:58 a.m. ET from a man who said he was a passenger locked in the bathroom of United Flight 93, said dispatch supervisor Glenn Cramer.

“We are being hijacked. We are being hijacked!” Cramer quoted the man as saying. The man told dispatchers that the plane “was going down. He heard some sort of explosion and saw white smoke coming from the plane, and we lost contact with him,” Cramer said.

Rep. James Moran, D-Va., said Marine Corps officers disclosed at a briefing that the hijackers apparently were trying to crash the jet into Camp David, located in the mountains of Catoctin, Md.


Although no one immediately claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks, suspicion immediately focused on the extensive terrorist organization run by bin Laden, 44, a wealthy Saudi militant suspected in previous attacks on U.S. interests. Among them are the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and last year’s bombing of a U.S. Navy ship in Yemen.

Senior U.S. intelligence official told NBC News’ Robert Windrem late Tuesday afternoon that information developed since the crashes “strongly indicates that bin Laden’s organization is responsible.”

Officials and terrorism experts said few, if any, other organizations are believed to have the cash or expertise to mount attacks like those of Tuesday.

A U.S. judge had set Wednesday as the sentencing date for a bin Laden associate for his role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in Tanzania, which killed 213 people. The sentencing had been set for the federal courthouse near the World Trade Center.

Washington had earlier offered a $5 million reward for bin Laden’s capture. George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said this week that bin Laden was the most immediate and serious threat to U.S. security.

A spokesman for Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, which has been accused of harboring bin Laden, condemned the attacks and denied that bin Laden was behind them. The sophistication of the coordinated assault required the expertise of a government, the Taliban said.


Developments continued rippling out from the terror attacks throughout the day:

  • A third, smaller World Trade Center building collapsed in late afternoon. It was believed unlikely that many people were inside, but initial reports were sketchy.
  • Explosions were reported in Afghanistan, but “in no way is the United States government connected to those explosions,” Rumsfeld told reporters. Instead, U.S. military and intelligence officials told NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski that the attack was believed to be retaliation by anti-Taliban forces led by Ahmad Shah Masood, who was assassinated over the weekend.
  • U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico, some of which had been closed earlier in the day, were reopened late Tuesday afternoon.
  • The U.S. Navy dispatched three ships from Norfolk Naval Base, Va., to positions off New York: the destroyers USS Ross and USS Ramage and the cruiser USS Vella Gulf.
  • Iraqi state television hailed the attacks as the “operation of the century,” which the United States deserved because of its “crimes against humanity.”
  • U.N. officials said the United Nations did not receive any direct threats, but the building was evacuated as a precaution.
  • Gasoline prices began soaring across the nation within hours of the attacks. Prices at stations in Kansas, Mississippi and Missouri were reported to have hit as high as $5 a gallon by early evening.

MSNBC.com’s Martin Wolk and Miguel Llanos and NBC’s Robert Windrem and Jim Miklaszewski contributed to this report.

Written by Alex

January 5, 2023 at 10:49 pm

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