September 11, 2001, started like any other day. Those with jobs went off to work. Children went to day care or headed off to school. People settled into their normal routines. Then, shortly after the start of the workday, news of what was happening live in New York City began to spread. People all over the country turned on their televisions to watch, confused and then horrified.
The Twin Towers in New York City were part of a large network of buildings in Lower Manhattan known as the World Trade Center. The towers were a regular feature of photographs of New York City’s skyline. They stood tall—two skyscrapers standing side-by-side. The effect of their immense size amid smaller buildings nearby made them all the more visible. The towers were at the heart of New York’s Financial District. Based in America’s largest city, the World Trade Center and its Twin Towers were a symbol of capitalism and America’s status as a global superpower. The buildings were iconic.
That morning, American Airlines Flight 11 took off from Boston, Massachusetts. There is no way to know exactly what happened onboard. What we do know is that at 8:46 a.m., Flight 11 flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, or One WTC. The plane crashed between the 92nd and 99th floors, causing panic and chaos. Thousands of people—up to 50,000—worked at the World Trade Center on any given day. Many of the workers did not realize what had happened. Some were instantly killed in the impact, as well as were those onboard the plane. As word spread, people began evacuating amid the panic.
Then, unimaginably, another plane struck the World Trade Center. United Airlines Flight 175, also from Boston, had now hit the South Tower, or Two WTC, only 17 minutes after the first plane had struck. With both buildings hit, it was clear this was no accident. The planes had been hijacked. America was under attack by terrorists.
The New York City Police Department (NYPD) and Fire Department (NYFD) were dispatched right away. First responders, or those who arrived at the start, set about evacuating people as best they could. Meanwhile, officials tried to make sense of what had happened. The buildings were designed to withstand the impact energy of a jetliner collision, but the heat of the burning fuel was later determined to have weakened the buildings’ frameworks. It was only a matter of time before they would fall, but few expected it. Some workers left the buildings as fast the narrow stairwells would allow. People on floors above the impacts were trapped, but some others below stayed in their offices, not realizing the danger.
As the country watched in shock, at 9:59 a.m. the damaged South Tower began to collapse. Only 29 minutes later, the North Tower fell too. Other buildings nearby were also severely damaged. Clouds of debris mushroomed into the air. The dust and wreckage could be seen from Brooklyn, the borough across from Lower Manhattan. Onlookers saw dark clouds where the towers had stood only moments earlier. Papers and other debris poured all over the streets as dust rolled from the epicenter and swirled around, barreling down the nearby streets. It engulfed and choked everything and everyone in its way. The destruction was so intense that fires continued to smolder at the site for more than three months after the attack. The location where the towers had stood became known as Ground Zero.
Pedestrians on the busy streets of New York stood by and watched, some recording what happened on their cell phones, helpless. Videos shot that day show people running from the scene, trying to escape the debris clouds. Some people still stuck in one of the Twin Towers chose to jump out of the burning buildings, despite certain death, rather than be burned to death. Many of the first responders who were desperate to rescue as many as possible were also killed in the destruction.
Reports quickly came that the Pentagon, an important military building across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., had been hit by a commercial airliner too. This was American Airlines Flight 77 from Dulles Airport, located just outside of Washington, D.C. The southwest side of the building had been hit. As the headquarters for the Department of Defense, the Pentagon was another iconic symbol of American power.
A fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark, New Jersey, was also part of the terrorist plan. However, it was found crashed in the countryside near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, failing to reach whatever target its hijackers had planned for it. The people onboard that flight had gotten word of the Twin Towers attack by cellphone and knowing they were on a flight doomed to be crashed into someplace important, fought with the terrorists. The plane went down, killing all aboard but saving whoever or wherever had been targeted. The passengers were hailed as heroes. All of the planes that were hijacked were scheduled to fly to the West Coast. As such, their fuel tanks were full. The terrorists ensured as much destruction as possible since the flammable liquid would contribute to the total devastation.
All told, nearly 3,000 people died: about 2,750 in New York City, 184 at the Pentagon, and 40 in Pennsylvania. All of the 19 terrorists who had carried out the plot were killed. In New York City, more than 400 of the dead were police officers and firefighters who gave their lives to rescue others.
President George W. Bush established the 9-11 Commission to conduct a full investigation. In time, the perpetrators of the terrorist plot were revealed to be an extremist and militant Islamic group called al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden. The operational planner of the attacks was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, referred to as KSM in the commission’s report. According to the report, the two extremists met in Afghanistan in 1996. KSM developed the audacious, or outrageous, plan to hijack commercial airliners as a way to attack the United States. He presented his idea to bin Laden. Al-Qaeda then supplied the personnel, money, and logistics to carry out the plan. The United States, heartbroken but resolved, responded by engaging in a war on global terrorism. Every year since the tragedy, on September 11, Americans solemnly remember the events of that day.