11 September 2001>News Stories>Tragic events unfolded with sickening speed

Tragic events unfolded with sickening speed
John Dorschner . Miami Herald . 12 September

Sept. 11, 2001, could well become known as America's second day of infamy -- the most devastating surprise attack on America since Pearl Harbor.

The terrorists' assaults succeeded in virtually shutting down the entire country, striking at the heart of America, closing down everything from the nation's stock markets to Walt Disney World, from federal offices in Washington to Major League baseball games, from all of the nation's airports to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Thousands are believed to be dead -- far more than the 2,280 killed on America's earlier day of infamy, Dec. 7, 1941.

``We have been attacked like we haven't since Pearl Harbor,'' Adm. Robert Natter said at the Norfolk Navy base.

Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, echoed that sentiment, saying that, like Dec. 7, Sept. 11 will ``always be known as a watershed day -- an end of innocence.''

Here's an account of what happened during a day when, minute by minute, the news kept getting worse. Even after President Bush announced that a `'tragedy'' had occurred, more tragedies kept happening.

The day began quietly when, in a 15-minute span, four jetliners loaded with explosive fuel for coast-to-coast flights departed from the East Coast. Within two hours, all 266 aboard would die.

At 7:59 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 lifted off from Boston for Los Angeles. Ninety-two people were on board, including David Angell, 54, executive producer of the TV show Frasier, and his wife, Lynn. They were returning from their summer home in Chatham, Mass.

Two minutes later, United Flight 93 left Newark, N.J., with 45 passengers, bound for San Francisco.

Nine minutes after that, American Airlines Flight 77 departed Washington's Dulles International Airport for Los Angeles, carrying 64 passengers.

Four minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175, a Boeing 767, left Logan International Airport in Boston for Los Angeles with 65 people on board.

FAA air controllers soon noted something odd about the planes; the transponders, the devices that tell radar where the planes are, were switched off. Controllers didn't know where the planes went.

Experts believe the hijackers carefully coordinated their efforts, picking transcontinental planes that were carrying massive amounts of fuel. It seems likely that the terrorists were trained pilots because many think that, even with a gun pointed to his head, an American pilot would refuse to crash into a densely populated building.

But fly into buildings the planes did. At 8:45, the American flight from Boston smashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.

The massive 110-story building shook with the blast as the two engines exploded on impact. Clouds of smoke billowed from the wide gash in the side of the building.

On the 63rd floor of the other tower, Kevin Thomas, 24, a University of Florida graduate, was checking his e-mail in the offices of Morgan Stanley when he looked out to see fireball and debris. He walked quickly to the elevator, descended to the 44th floor, where he had to switch to a second set of elevators. He found these weren't working and took the stairs: ``On the stairs, it was packed. Everyone was calm.''

Just as many Americans were watching the charred tower on their TV sets, the United flight from Boston smashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center, the one where Thomas was descending the stairs.

On the 38th floor, Catherine Romano, 32, editor for an investment bank, heard a loud noise. The floor was shaking. Debris was falling past the windows. Along with everyone else, she rushed to the stairs and started going down the stairs. ``It was slow going because there were injured coming downstairs. One woman was very badly burned.'' People learned what was happening by their cellphones.

Minutes later, in Sarasota, President Bush was reading to a class at Emma E. Booker Elementary School when his chief of staff whispered in his ear. Bush frowned, then resumed reading.

In Manhattan, orange balls of flame and black smoke spread from the huge dark holes in the sides of the 1,350-foot-high towers where more than 50,000 people work. People were crashing to the pavement. Debris plummeted from the sky. Even three miles away, in Brooklyn, scraps of paper from the towers were drifting to the ground.

As panicked workers fled, the heart of American capitalism -- the New York Stock Exchange, the American Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq stock market and the New York Mercantile Exchange -- announced they would not conduct business.

The Federal Aviation Administration shut down all of the nation's airports for passenger and cargo traffic -- the first time in the nation's history that such a move had been taken.

In Sarasota, Bush read a brief announcement, saying America had just suffered ``a national tragedy.'' He vowed to ``hunt down the folks who committed this act.'' Bush said he was returning to Washington immediately.

Before the president reached the airport, Pentagon officials in Washington were notified that a hijacked plane was heading toward Washington.

Inside American Flight 77 was Barbara Olson, a former congressional investigator, who was talking by cellphone to her husband, U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson. She said the hijackers were using knifelike instruments.

At the Pentagon, Army Capt. Lincoln Liebner looked up to see ``this large American Airlines passenger jet coming in fast and low.''

The plane smashed directly into the western side of the Pentagon, the center of the American military establishment, where 20,000 people work. It slashed through the huge outer rings of the building and into the inner courtyard, leaving a hole six stories high and 40 feet wide.

A fleet of army helicopters quickly evacuated top officers to a secret location.

The damage was so horrific that it would keep burning for hours. A Pentagon spokesman reported ``extensive casualties.''

The West Wing of the White House and the Capitol were evacuated. Pedestrians were shocked to look up to see men with automatic weapons on the roof of the nation's most famous residence. First lady Laura Bush, who had been testifying before the Senate, and Vice President Dick Cheney were rushed to secret locations.

On television, meanwhile, ABC's Peter Jennings commented, ``This seems to be a stunning failure of intelligence.'' Terrorism experts agreed.

The south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed in an explosion of rubble, sinking straight down, rather than toppling sideways, as if a demolition team had planned its collapse.

Down below was financial analyst John Miles, 23, who had just fled a nearby building. He heard a thunderous crack. A wave of dark dust swept down on him as fast as a tidal wave. The dust became so thick that he couldn't see. He ended up at St. Vincents Hospital with a strained wrist.

Eight minutes later, at 9:58 a.m., an emergency dispatcher in Pennsylvania received a cellphone call from a passenger locked inside a bathroom aboard United Flight 93, flying from Newark to San Francisco with 45 persons on board: ``We are being hijacked!''

The man heard some kind of explosion. He said the plane was ``going down.''

At 10 a.m., eight miles east of Jennerstown, Pa., the plane crashed.

``It shook the whole station,'' said Bruce Grine, owner of a service station two miles from the crash.

Half an hour later, the northern tower of the World Trade Center fell to the ground. All over the nation, places were shutting down.

Government offices in the nation's capital closed, as well as the office buildings in suburban Tyson's Corner. The streets and highways were in gridlock. So many desperate people tried to call loved ones on cellphones that the system collapsed in many places.

National landmarks were also closed, including the Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, the Sears Tower, the Seattle Space Needle and the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

In Milwaukee, the scheduled meeting of the Major League baseball owners was canceled, as well as all of Tuesday's games.

In Orlando, tourists were greeted by a big blinking sign on I-4 announcing the status of Disney World: ``All Theme Parks Closed.'' Meanwhile, the Kennedy Space Center sent its 12,000 workers home.

At noon, black limos arrived at the Boston airport to ferry relatives of passengers on the hijacked planes to the Airport Hilton, where they could wait for news.

At an emergency center in lower Manhattan, Police Officer Tyrone Dux said, ``It's like nighttime there. I didn't hear any screaming, just dead, dark silence. . . . Dark. Frightening.''

With all of the threats against Washington, Air Force One was escorted by fighter jets to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

In a small conference room, Bush gave another brief speech: ``Make no mistake -- the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.''

Within two hours, the president was airborne again -- this time to Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command issued a statement saying it was on its highest alert: ``We have all of our air sovereignty aircraft -- fighters, surveillance and other support aircraft -- ready to respond.''

As dusk approached, Seven World Trade Center collapsed. Along with it went the New York City Mayor's Emergency Operations Room -- a 50,000-square-foot, $13 million high-tech complex on the 23rd floor.

With three helicopters serving as decoys, President Bush landed on the South Lawn of the White House. He went to the Oval Office and addressed the nation about a new day that will live in infamy.

Research editor Elisabeth Donovan, staff writers Frank Davies, Phil Long, William Yardley, freelance writer David Hancock and Herald wire services contributed to this report.