Moments of Crisis, Part 1: Terror Hits the Towers
How Government Officials Reacted to Sept. 11 Attacks
September 14, 2002
Sept. 11, 2001, was a day filled with tragedy and horror for millions of Americans, and a day of intense pressure for government officials who had to decide moment by moment what to do.
In dozens of exclusive interviews with ABCNEWS, Congressional leaders told
of chaos on Capitol Hill, Cabinet secretaries described a war council deep in
a secret bunker beneath the White House, generals and sergeants told of how
they ramped up for a possible nuclear strike, and the president and vice president
were said to have ordered U.S. pilots to shoot down any planes threatening the
The frenzied events that unfolded after the attack stood in stark contrast to the the way the morning of Sept. 11 began. The day dawned for most Americans as a crisp, clear, normal day with newscasters discussing tax cuts, the weather and Michael Jordan's possible pro basketball comeback.
We Have a Hijacked Aircraft
However, shortly after 8:30 a.m. ET, behind the scenes, word of a possible hijacking reached various stations of NORAD, the North American Air Defense Command, which was conducting training exercises and therefore had extra fighter planes on alert.
"First thing that went through my mind was, 'Is this part of the exercise? Is this some kind of a screw-up?'" said Air Force Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold, who was at a command center at the Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.
But the truth soon became evident.
"I picked up the line and identified myself to the Boston Center controller," said Air National Guard Lt. Col. Dawne Deskins, the mission crew chief for the exercise. "He said, 'Uh, we have a hijacked aircraft and I need you to get some sort of fighters out here to help us out."
Air Force Col. Robert Marr, who along with Deskins was at the National Guard's Northeast Air Defense Sector in Rome, N.Y. also known as NEADS got permission from Air Force Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold to scramble jets from Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, and they would be in the air headed toward New York by 8:52 a.m. ET.
But as American Airlines Flight 11 was crossing from Massachusetts to New York, it turned off its satellite transponder. That meant the 767 jet plane no longer was signaling its identity, altitude or speed, and therefore was lost amid more than 2,500 planes in the air over the Northeast.
Quite a Lot of Damage
At 8:46 a.m. ET, officials still were looking for the jet when a plane the one they were looking for, they would confirm later plowed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York.
At 8:52 a.m. ET, ABCNEWS' Good Morning America broke in with a special report showing flames coming out of the World Trade Center.
"You can see quite a lot of damage," ABCNEWS' Don Dahler said minutes later from near the scene. "If it was an airplane, it had to be huge."
At the time, President Bush's motorcade was arriving at the Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., for a planned event when the pagers of his aides erupted in a cacophony of beeps and tones.
"Before the president goes into the school, [presidential adviser] Karl Rove and I and some others were standing there and informed him of this," said Dan Bartlett, assistant to the president for communications.
"The president was surprised," said Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary. "He thought it had to be an accident."
The president ducked into an empty classroom and called his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and asked her to keep him informed.
Bin Ladens Fingerprints
In Washington, CIA Director George Tenet and David Boren, former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, were having breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel three blocks from the White House.
"Out of the corner of my eye, I could see several people converging on our table," Boren said. "One of them said to George Tenet, 'Mr. Director, the World Trade tower has just been attacked by an airplane.' I was struck by the fact he used the word 'attacked.'"
An aide handed a cell phone to Tenet.
"After he handed the cell phone back to his security person," Boren recalled, "he said to me, 'You know, this has bin Laden's fingerprints all over it.'"
Oh, My God
At 9:03 a.m. ET, with television stations on the air live, a plane hit the World Trade Center's south tower.
"Oh, my God," ABCNEWS' Dahler exclaimed on the air.
"Oh, my God. Oh, my God," ABCNEWS' Diane Sawyer said.
"This looks like it is some sort of concerted effort to attack the World Trade Center that is under way," ABCNEWS' Charles Gibson said.
The F-16 fighter jets that had been scrambled from Otis Air National Guard Base, whose pilots were code-named "Duff" and "Nasty," called in for an update.
"At that point, they said the second aircraft just hit the World Trade Center," Air National Guard Lt. Col. "Duff" said. "That was news to me. I thought we were still chasing American [Airlines Flight] 11.
"We're 60 miles out, and I could see the smoke from the towers," he said. "At that point, obviously, everything changed."
"When the second aircraft flew into the second tower, it was at that point that we realized that the seemingly unrelated hijackings that the FAA was dealing with were in fact a part of a coordinated terrorist attack on the United States," said Army Brig. Gen. W. Montague Winfield, who was at the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon, and alerted the top brass there.
America Is Under Attack
President Bush was in the middle of a reading lesson with second-graders when the second plane hit, and was not immediately aware of it.
"It all came to a blinding moment of realization when the president's chief of staff walked over to the president and whispered to him," said Ann Compton, covering the Bush appearance for ABCNEWS. "Nobody interrupts the president, not even in front of a second-grade classroom."
"I tried to be very efficient with my words," said Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff. "I knew this was not the place to stand and have a conversation with the president. I said, 'A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.'"
"The president's eyes got wide and the face told it all," Compton said, noting that "something terribly grave. Something beyond imagining" happened around 9:07 a.m. ET, according to her notes.
"I think there was a moment of shock, and he did stare off maybe for just a second," Card said.
The president waited for a moment for the students to finish, then said, "Thank you all so very much for showing me your reading skills," and headed for the empty classroom next door.
"We had found a television and they were replaying the crash over and over again," Card said.
He Had Tears in His Eyes
"The president said, 'I'm going to need to make a statement before we leave here,'" Rove recalled.
The appearance made a lasting impression on the children.
"He was red, and I seen that he had tears in his eyes, so I knew something bad had really, really happened," said Byron Mitchell, a fifth-grader. "His face was just red and his lips were just trembling."
"He kind of stuttered when he talked, and he kind of said it all slowly," said Micheal Andrews, another fifth-grader.
"Today, we've had a national tragedy," Bush said. "Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country."
ABCNEWS' Charles Gibson contributed to this report.
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