Notes from September 11, 2001

Within days of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, I sat down with a pencil and a yellow legal pad and made some notes about what had happened. There were no blogs back then so I never shared them with anyone. While cleaning out a drawer this summer I found them. Here’s what I wrote in the days after 9-11:

When Franklin Roosevelt spoke to the country after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he said that December 7, 1941 was a day that would live in infamy. September 11, 2001 became such a day when terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners, crashing two of them into the World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon, killing more than 5000 innocent civilians.

The story is well known. At 8;48 a.m. last Tuesday, an American Airlines 757 that had left Boston bound for LA smashed into the upper floors of one of the two towers of New York City’s World Trade Center. Eighteen minutes later, while the world was watching on live TV, a United Airlines 757 smashed into the second tower. About an hour later, an American flight from Dulles Airport to California crashed into the Pentagon. The fourth hijacked plane took off from Newark, flew almost to Ohio, then turned back on a course towards Washington, DC. That plane crashed in an open field near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The investigation has thus far identified nineteen hijackers, all from the Middle East. In teams of four or five, they boarded these planes armed with knives, razor blade box cutters and, perhaps, explosives. Much of what we know about what happened on these planes came from passengers on the planes who used cell phones to call people on the ground. Many of these conversations, related by relatives, were heart-wrenching, with last goodbyes and admonitions to take care of the kids.

But the calls also painted pictures of what happened on the planes with people being stabbed. By the time the Newark flight was taken, the whole country realized this was a massive terrorist attack. The cell phone calls from that plane brought the passengers the news that their captors were on a suicide mission. At least three passengers said they were about to try to retake the plane. Whatever happened – a deliberate crash, a bomb, or just a loss of control – the passengers on that plane are viewed as heroes, because that aircraft’s target was undoubtedly the White House, the Capitol, or some other such building.

The other heroes on this sad day were the firefighters and police in New York City, more than 400 of whom died. Here is what happened: The terrorists had planned well. They took over planes on cross-country flights early in their journeys when they were still full of highly flammable jet fuel on a Tuesday, statistically the slowest day for air travel, with fewer passengers to control. So when the planes hit the World Trade Center, each created an immense fireball of burning jet fuel. Photographs show dozens of people in proximity to the flames dangling from windows. More gruesome pictures freeze people in midair as they plummet to certain death one hundred floors below. At least one fireman was killed when such a person landed atop of him. In such desperate circumstances, hundreds of firefighters streamed into the building, laboriously climbing the stairs as thousands of the buildings’ occupants passed them as they evacuatated down the stairs.

Then, about an hour after the first plane struck, one of the towers collapsed. The already weakened structure could not withstand the incredible heat of the fire, and the upper floors suddenly plunged downward, creating a chain reaction until there was nothing left but a pile of rubble and a huge cloud of dust – and thousands of dead buried within the rubble. Just eight minutes later this unbelievable scene was repeated as the second tower followed the first, straight into the ground.

Only a dozen have been rescued and their is little hope for anymore. The death toll won’t be final for weeks. More than 5000 are missing including 300 firefighters, 50 police officers and the passengers on the two planes.

Compared to the World Trade Center, the casualties at the Pentagon were relatively light: Had the Pentagon happened on its own, we would have judged it to be a devastating attack. The death toll there, including those on the plane, was about 180.

Here in Lowell, the weather on September 11, 2001 was absolutely beautiful. The sky was a cloudless blue and the temperature was comfortably warm. I had walked from the courthouse down to Kearney Square for a meeting. Someone said they thought there had been an accident involving a plane and the World Trade Center. We found a TV and saw a video replay of the second plane striking the second tower shortly after it had happened in real time. Though the second plane made it apparent that none of this was accidental, it was still impossible to comprehend: Even though I had seen the video of the plane crashing into the building, I assumed it was a small private jet because after all, we had security at our airports and commercial jetliners just did not get hijacked anymore.

I walked rapidly back to the Courthouse and turned on a portable radio. The court officers had tuned the TV in the jury room to a news channel. Many of us sat there watching as the towers came crashing down on live TV. After the attack, our internet service went down, I assume from overuse of the network. At noon, Governor Jane Swift ordered that all state buildings be closed. At 12:30 pm I went home and spent the rest of the day watching CNN.

Because two of the planes had left from Boston, the Greater Lowell community was touched by loss – Ogonowski, Quigley, Kinney, were just some of the names of those who perished. A special mass was held at St. Louis church and community vigils took place at JFK Plaza and Boarding House Park. Everyone was flying the flag, but whether the average American is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to successfully respond to this attack is still an open question.