The Day That Changed America

Except for the place where they died, Bill Feehan and Mohamed Atta would seem to have had absolutely nothing in common. Feehan rescued people; Atta killed them. As a lifelong firefighter who rose to become first deputy commissioner of the New York City Fire Department, Feehan was directly or indirectly responsible for saving thousands of lives. As a suicidal terrorist who flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Atta murdered thousands, including Bill Feehan, who was helping a woman at the base of the North Tower when the building collapsed on him. Any suggestion of moral equivalence between the two men is repugnant. And yet, it must be said, both believed in the rightness of their causes with absolute certainty. It might be more comforting to think that Atta was stark raving mad, but true madmen, who are usually dysfunctional, don't work with Atta's calm purpose. No one wants to think that even a seminormal human being--indeed, nearly a score of them--could do what the terrorists did on September 11. In a world of moral relativism, we prefer psychological explanations; no one wishes to stare directly into the face of evil.

Virginia DiChiara did have a premonition that something wicked was on the way. DiChiara, whose office was on the 101st floor of the North Tower, had worried that the terrorists might come back to finish off the World Trade Center. She had been a block away, working at Bankers Trust at 130 Liberty Street, when terrorists bombed the WTC in 1993. But in 2000, when she got a big job as director of audit for Cantor Fitzgerald, a bond-trading firm at the top of the North Tower, she tried to put her fears out of her mind. Her corner office looked out on the Statue of Liberty far below, at the brilliant sunsets and, in the distance, to the Jersey shore, where she liked to go boating in the summer. Once a carefree sun worshiper, DiChiara will never soak up the rays in the same way again; on September 11 she sustained third-degree burns on much of her body. She had gone to hell and then, slowly, painfully, come back.

Denial is an ordinary and understandable response to calculated mass murder. Americans, like most people, don't want to see what they don't wish to know. Warning about "grand terrorism"--terror with weapons of mass destruction--and calling for "homeland defense" has been an academic subspecialty for years. Foundation and government reports warned that it was only a matter of time before the terrorists struck America in a way that could claim thousands of lives. Yet at the White House, homeland defense was not the first job Vice President Dick Cheney got when the new administration took office last January. Cheney spent several months running a task force to solve an energy crisis that, it turns out, was probably exaggerated. His staff was just formally turning to the subject of homeland defense on September 11, when the terrorists hit.

To be sure, few could have guessed at the brazenness and resourcefulness of Atta or Al Qaeda, the terrorist network that backed him and the 18 other suicide attackers. The September 11 plots had been methodically thought out and meticulously planned over at least two years. And yet a reconstruction of Atta's movements in the months leading up to the attacks shows that the terror ringleader, for all his careful planning, made numerous small blunders. His trip-ups could have been tipoffs--if only Americans had been watching.

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The fog of war, a term now much in vogue, was thick around the first battle in the new terror war. As FDNY First Deputy Commissioner Bill Feehan mustered his troops to combat the blazes at the Twin Towers, there appears, in perfect hindsight, to have been an almost willful blindness toward the risk that the towers might collapse. Likewise, in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC), the bunker buried far below the White House where Vice President Cheney commanded the initial U.S. response, misinformation overwhelmed the facts. At one point, NEWSWEEK has learned, Cheney gave an order to shoot down a hijacked civilian airliner that didn't exist--a phantom created by panic and garbled communications.

That is not to say that Feehan and Cheney were anything but cool and steady in crisis. Indeed, they showed true sangfroid at some very frightening moments. We celebrate many such tales of courage on September 11--perhaps the most moving of which is the passenger revolt on the hijacked United Flight 93 that may have saved the U.S. Capitol or the White House from destruction (NEWSWEEK, Dec. 3). And there continue to be quieter, more private acts of defiance and human resolve, like the bravery shown by DiChiara, the burn victim from September 11 whose everyday life has been transformed but whose fierce love of life is undimmed.

This is the story of September 11, the day that changed America, told through four characters whose lives collided in those once unthinkable hours: Mohamed Atta, Bill Feehan, Virginia DiChiara and Dick Cheney. It is a story of good and evil, despair and shock, determination and courage. It begins with the strange obsession of a young Egyptian engineer more than a decade ago.

Mohamed Atta's otherwise austere apartment in Hamburg, Germany, had a curious decoration. On his wall hung a poster of the black-and-white photograph taken by Lewis Hine in 1930 of construction workers perched on a beam of the Empire State Building high above New York. The city far below looks dwarfed and inconsequential. According to his teachers and former classmates, Atta believed that high-rise buildings had desecrated his homeland. In the ancient cities of the Middle East, the time-honored mode of construction was to build one- and two-story houses with private courtyards. The construction of towering, impersonal and usually ugly apartment blocks in the 1960s and '70s, Atta believed, had ruined the old neighborhoods, robbing their inhabitants of privacy and dignity.

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It may have been particularly galling to Atta that his own family had moved into an 11th-floor apartment in just such a hulking monstrosity in 1990, as he was graduating with an engineering degree from Cairo University. To Atta, the boxy building was a shabby symbol of Egypt's haphazard attempts to modernize and its shameless embrace of the West. Atta burned with desire to restore the old glories of Islam--though peaceably, at least at first. It was after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 that Atta, then 13, started a daily regimen of prayer.

While in engineering school, Atta came under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement aimed at creating an Islamic state and curbing Western influence. The Muslim Brotherhood officially condemns violence, though militants often emerge from its ranks. In Egypt in the late '80s, engineering schools, full of disillusioned students, were prime recruiting grounds for the Muslim Brotherhood; in the country's stagnant state-run economy, young engineering grads could look forward to low-paying, dead-end jobs in a bloated bureaucracy. Atta's parents were more ambitious for their children. His overbearing father, the elder Mohamed Al-Amir Atta, who grandly but preposterously described himself to NEWSWEEK as "one of the most important lawyers in Cairo," wanted his only son to study abroad. Only by learning German--"the language of engineers"--could young Atta catch up to his accomplished sisters, both of whom had doctorates. His son should go to Germany, the father decided. At first, Atta resisted; he did not want to be separated from his mother. Even in his 20s, the short, slight Atta would sometimes sit in his mother's lap. "I used to tell her that she was raising him as a girl," the father scoffed, "but she never stopped pampering him." There was another problem, more than a little ironic in retrospect: Atta hated flying. "My daughter, who is a doctor, used to get him medicine for every journey, to combat the cramps and the vomiting he feels every time he gets on a plane," said the father.

Atta was precise in his work. Laboring part time as a draftsman for Plankontor, an urban-planning firm in Hamburg, while he studied for his master's, he was obsessive about his drawings--extremely detailed, color-coded diagrams in fine ink. He rarely showed his feelings, but on a trip back to Cairo he revealed his disgust with the Egyptian government to a colleague, Ralph Bodenstein. The government was interested only in promoting tourism and attracting rich Westerners, Atta complained. Meanwhile, they were tearing down houses and forcing mass relocations. Atta had hoped to use his education to help set Egypt on a new path, but he often complained that his only option was working for a government he despised. "He had ideals. He wanted to improve urban life," says Bodenstein. Atta scorned the United States for its support of Israel and its callousness and "hypocrisy" toward the Muslim world. Although Atta seethed, he did not rant. "He did not raise his voice when he talked about politics," says Bodenstein, but he was "very clear. He would have an insisting tone in his voice." He was, in other words, like a lot of college-age Egyptians of his time.

Atta's progression from disgruntled student to Islamic militant to terrorist appears to have been gradual and subtle. No single event explains how a mama's boy became a mass murderer. Atta did show some psychological tics, including an almost pathological disdain for women. In writing his will in 1996, he barred females from his funeral and grave site. But he does not appear to have been so much mad as profoundly angry. Somehow, his bitterness hardened into fanaticism and then to something like pure evil. It seems clear that his resentments were sharpened by the casual racism he encountered in Germany, where the large immigrant Muslim population is widely treated as a lower caste. He found refuge in the mosques of Hamburg, where radical mullahs enjoyed more free-speech rights than they ever would in Egypt--and sometimes acted as recruiting agents for the terrorist underground. Atta's search for Islamic purity deepened on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1995; possibly, he fell in with Al Qaeda operatives who fished for possible terrorists among the true believers. The most obvious turning point came in 1997, when Atta traveled to Afghanistan and enrolled in one of Osama bin Laden's training camps. There, in a cultlike atmosphere designed to break waverers and forge implacable hatreds, Atta was taught dark arts like bomb building and chemical weaponry. Egyptians were given special treatment in these camps. While not physically robust, Atta appears to have been picked out for a leadership role. His hard stare alone was enough to compel obedience.

When he returned to Hamburg in 1998 it was to set up a terror cell: two of his roommates, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Samir Jarrah, would join him as suicide hijackers. The three men all came from solid middle-class families who were multilingual, computer literate and highly educated. Atta did not abandon his purely intellectual pursuits. While he plotted to bring down the World Trade Center, he diligently continued his urban-planning studies at Hamburg Technical University. His thesis was on the restoration of Aleppo, an ancient Syrian city, to its pure Islamic past--devoid of skyscrapers. It was awarded a B-plus.

Atta was intelligent and certainly determined. But his drawn-out preparation to become a suicide-squad wing commander was dotted with red flags. It is painful, in hindsight, to realize that if the authorities had spotted any of them, the September 11 attacks might have been headed off. At the outset, beginning in 1998, Atta's Hamburg apartment at Marienstrasse 54 was under surveillance by German federal investigators who knew that its occupants were in touch with a suspected bin Laden operative, Mamoun Darkazanli (Darkazanli says he is innocent of any wrongdoing). But the surveillance of the apartment was dropped; the investigation stalled. When Atta, along with other Qaeda men, entered the United States to train for their mission at Florida flight schools, the hijackers were often clumsy and boorish. They were saved only by the willingness of both officials and ordinary people to look the other way.

Atta antagonized his instructors, his landlords and just about everyone he came in contact with by staring coldly and behaving arrogantly. His efforts to be polite (he brought his landlady cookies) could not conceal his contempt for women. One day Atta was flying with a fellow student, a woman named Anne Greaves. As they sat in the cockpit of a plane, Atta reached in and grabbed her seat cushion. Surprised, Greaves tried to wrestle it from his grasp, but Al-Shehhi lunged forward, putting his arm between them. "To protect him in a way," Greaves recalls. "I remember thinking, 'What on earth could they be frightened of?' " Rudy Dekkers, the owner of Huffman Aviation in Venice, Fla., was on the verge of kicking out Atta and Al-Shehhi in September 2000 when the two men abruptly switched to Jones Aviation Service in Sarasota. They quickly made themselves unwelcome with careless flying and rudeness, and returned to Huffman, where they finally won their instrument-grade pilot's licenses that December. In one extraordinary incident, they rented a plane that stalled on the runway at Miami International Airport. Atta and Al-Shehhi simply got out and walked away, abandoning the plane on the runway of the nation's ninth busiest airport at the height of the Christmas season. (The FAA later reviewed the plane's maintenance records, but no action was taken.)

Atta's behavior was suspicious as well as obnoxious. In the spring of 2001 he flew to Tennessee to a small airport in the Appalachian mountains and began asking pointed questions of one of the airport regulars, Dan Whitener. "Tell me about this chemical factory we flew over," Atta said, pointing to a plant that once manufactured sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid. Then he asked about a local water reservoir and whether it connected with a river flowing by two nearby nuclear power plants. When he had gone, Whitener turned to his friend John Rutkowsky and described the strange interaction. "Danny, sounds like terrorists," Rutkowsky joked.

Atta had two brushes with the authorities. His tourist visa had expired when he came back from a trip to Spain in January 2001, but he convinced Customs officials that he was waiting for a student visa. He got pulled over by police in April while driving without a license north of Miami and never showed up for his court date. A warrant for his arrest was filed but forgotten. As the terrorists' D-Day approached, Atta and his henchman made a nuisance of themselves on a last night out on the town. At Shuckums, a sports bar in Hollywood, Fla., Al-Shehhi knocked back five vodkas and began to complain that the food was bad and the cocktails were weak. He harangued the barmaid who was trying to collect the check. As late as the second to the last night, Atta and Al-Shehhi were dropping clues about their malignant design: checking out of their motel in Florida, they left behind flight manuals, an eight-inch stack of high-quality aeronautical maps covering every state on the East Coast, three martial-arts manuals and a box cutter.

Atta spent the final 24 hours of his life with Abdulaziz Alomari, a Saudi Arabian who had slipped into the United States that summer to be one of the musclemen for the hijackers. Atta and Alomari rented a car and drove to Portland, Maine. They would spend the night there before flying to Boston to join the three other men who would hijack American Airlines Flight 11 bound for Los Angeles. (Apparently, Atta thought that five Middle Easterners checking in all at once might turn heads; Al Qaeda's detailed and precise terrorist-training manual suggests that hijackers enter airport security from a "secondary station" to deflect attention.) In Portland on the evening of Sept. 10, Atta and Alomari stopped at a Pizza Hut, visited two ATMs and spent 20 minutes at a local Wal-Mart. Captured on security cameras, the men appear relaxed, confident. Alomari is grinning. Atta and Alomari were so casual that they nearly blundered: arriving at security at 5:45 a.m., they had to rush to catch the 6 a.m. commuter flight to Boston, nearly missing their connection to Flight 11. It seems hard to imagine, but perhaps they overslept.

On Monday, Sept. 10, Bill Feehan, the first deputy commissioner of the New York City Fire Department, was contemplating retirement. An aide asked Feehan if he would be willing to stay on in the next city administration. "Absolutely," answered the deputy commissioner, but he understood that a new mayor would almost certainly want his own team come January. Feehan was 71 years old. Most firefighters retire before they reach 60. One of Feehan's aides had seen nascent signs that his boss was ready to call it quits. In the lobby of FDNY headquarters in downtown Brooklyn, there is a wall-size plaque for all the firefighters who have perished in the line of duty. The memorial had room for 780 names. Since 1865, when the FDNY was officially organized, the memorial had been nearly filled with 778 names. When Feehan returned from lunch with his friend and comrade Deputy Commissioner Tom Fitzpatrick a couple of weeks before September 11, the two noticed that workmen were touching up the addition of three names from a devastating Father's Day fire in Astoria, Queens. "I want to be out of here before that plaque is full," said Feehan.

Feehan's friends and family, however, were worried that he'd hate retirement. "I don't want it to be just me and the squirrels in the backyard," he often told colleagues and family. In a real sense, Feehan was the New York City Fire Department. He had been in the department since 1959 and had held every job, from "proby" fireman to acting commissioner. Since his wife, Betty, had died in 1996, he had taken one vacation, arriving at work at 7 a.m., often leaving after 8 p.m. and on call all the time. His staff dubbed him "Yoda" because of his age and his institutional wisdom. Firefighting was a calling for Feehan's family. His father had been a fireman; a nephew, one of his sons and his son-in-law were all firemen. Although Feehan had risen through the bureaucracy, he saw himself as a firefighter whose proper place was at the fire ground. He preferred to be called "Chief" rather than the stuffier "Commissioner."

Feehan was fiercely protective of the close, almost clannish culture of the FDNY. In the early 1990s, when the then Mayor David Dinkins objected to the low number of women and minorities in the FDNY--which is still more than 90 percent white males--Feehan warned against ruining the FDNY's "camaraderie" and "esprit de corps." "Listen," he declared at a city hall hearing. "Maybe we should recruit on the black radio stations... But don't talk about the Fire Department culture, because that is the culture that gets ordinary men to run into burning buildings and do extraordinary things."

In Feehan's office hung a poster of Korean War soldiers patrolling a lonely road. Feehan never talked about it, but he had won two Purple Hearts in Korea as an Army "grunt." Feehan thought a lot about the psychology of soldiers--and firemen. It was important, he believed, for them not to know too much. Warriors and rescuers had to be willing to act on blind faith. In Korea, Feehan told his buddy Tom Fitzpatrick, his commanders would tell his company to take a hill and hold it no matter what. "I'd look on my side and see 1,000 troops, and I'd look across the other side and see 100,000, and I'd say, 'OK, we're going to hold this, but they outnumber us 100 to 1. How does this work?' " Better, thought Feehan, not to ask.

Feehan could be acerbic. "That guy," he said about one recently appointed fire marshal, "couldn't find a Jew in Jerusalem." And he had no use for whiners and malingerers who took advantage of the FDNY's liberal policy on medical leave. "You misplaced the boots?" he demanded of a firefighter who had trouble hanging on to his equipment. "Where did you misplace the boots? Did you lose your feet?" But he also had a sentimental side. He would sit for hours at the bedside of a wounded firefighter, and he always ended his banquet speeches with "May God hold you in the palm of his hand." Fitzpatrick teasingly called Feehan "The Monsignor."

A creature of routines and habits, Feehan began September 11, as he did every morning, by rising before dawn, putting on a suit and tie and climbing into his department-issue black Grand Marquis sedan at a little before 6. He pulled into his usual parking space at the North Shore Diner in Queens, sat in his usual booth and ate two eggs over easy and bacon while he read the New York Daily News. (Feehan often ate fruit for lunch; "I gotta lose some weight," he would say, though at 6 feet, 180 pounds, he was reasonably fit.) At about 6:45, he picked up the cup of coffee (light milk, no sugar) that was always waiting for him by the cash register. He went out the door into the first bright rays of sun and said, "Looks like it's going to be a nice day."

If Atta had followed his own instructions that morning, carefully written out in a document entitled "The Last Night," he had shaved excess hair from his body, dabbed on cologne and sharpened his knife. He was instructed to pray, continuously, in the cab, in the airport, on the flight to Boston and as he took his seat in the first-class cabin on Flight 11. "Be happy," he had written himself, "optimistic, calm, because you are heading for a deed God loves and will accept. It will be the day, God willing, you spend with the women of paradise."

American Airlines Flight 11 took off from Boston's Logan airport at 7:59 a.m. with 81 passengers and 11 crew members. Breakfast was supposed to be served after they reached cruising altitude; the movie was "Dr. Dolittle 2." But at 8:13 the plane's pilot did not acknowledge a flight controller's instructions to climb to 35,000 feet. The controllers wondered: an electrical problem? Then on the radarscope, the plane's blip suddenly turned south. A few minutes later American Airlines supervisors on the ground received grim, frantic calls from two flight attendants in coach class: Middle Eastern men had attacked a passenger and two flight attendants in first class and slit their throats. They had stormed the cockpit and gained control of the plane.

On the ground, an American Airlines supervisor asked one of the flight attendants if she knew their location. The woman, Madeline Amy Sweeney, replied, "I see water and buildings. Oh my God, oh my God!" The water was the Hudson River. The buildings were New York City.

Investigators believe that Atta was at the controls of Flight 11 as the airliner, filled with 20,000 gallons of jet fuel, roared at 500 miles an hour straight at the top floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. His instructions said: "Either end your life while praying, seconds before the target, or make your last words: 'There is no God but God, Mohammad is His messenger'." One wonders what his face looked like. The chilling, dead stare, now so familiar from his photographs? Or was he, at last, smiling?

A self-described workaholic, Virginia DiChiara was normally out of her house and on her way to work by 7 a.m. But the morning of September 11 was so brilliantly beautiful that DiChiara decided to dawdle. She let her two golden retrievers play in the yard, cooked herself some eggs, poured herself a cup of coffee. "I was just moseying along," she says. "I didn't feel like rushing." She left her Bloomfield, N.J., home at 7:40, a 40-minute delay that would end up saving her life.

It was a little after 8:40 when she entered the lobby of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Together with a Cantor Fitzgerald co-worker, she rode the elevator up to the 78th floor, where she crossed a lobby to take a second elevator the rest of the way to her office on the 101st floor. The elevator door opened and she pressed the button for 101. It was 8:46 a.m.

As the elevator doors closed, Flight 11 plowed into the northern face of Tower 1 some 20 floors above. The elevator went black and "bounced around like a ball," DiChiara recalls. "I remember seeing two lines shooting around the top of the elevator"--electrical cables that had come loose and were spitting current--and "everybody started screaming." In front of her was a man named Roy Bell, who later said that the sound of impact was "deafening," like someone banging a 2-by-2-foot sheet of aluminum with a hammer "six inches from your head." The right wall of the elevator car crashed into Bell, breaking several of his fingers and flinging him to the left side. Miraculously, the elevator doors remained open about a foot. Within seconds, Bell "just sprinted" out of the elevator, he recalls. "Inside was not where you wanted to be."

DiChiara had crouched down behind Bell. She saw Bell go through, and thought, "I don't hear any screaming, so I know he's not on fire... I'm outta here."

She decided to go for it. But as she gathered herself, huge blue flames--translucent teardrops of fire, a foot in diameter--began falling in a steady curtain. DiChiara dropped her bag, covered her face with her palms and squeezed through the door, her elbows pushing the black rubber guards on the elevator doors. Left behind was her Cantor co-worker. DiChiara never saw her again; at times she feels guilty that she made it out and her co-worker did not.

DiChiara was aflame when she emerged from the elevator. "I remember hearing my hair on fire," she says. (She later joked, "I must have put on some extra hair spray.") With her hands she tapped out the fire. "I got it out, I got it," she said to herself. Then, feeling something else, she looked back and saw flames rising from her shoulder. In that instant, she remembered the old lesson from grade school: stop, drop and roll. She threw herself to the carpeted floor and rolled over and over, frantically patting out the flames. "I remember getting up and just looking at myself," she says. " 'OK, everything's out.' And then sort of laughing, almost like a hysteria, like a little giggle, like, 'Oh my God, let me do it again just in case I missed it.' I was so scared, like there was an ember on my body that was still going to go up."

DiChiara crawled some 20 feet down the hallway and sat with her back propped against a wall. She was wearing a sleeveless cotton shirt that day, and her arms and hands were seared with third-degree burns. In shock, she did not feel the pain--yet. Improbably prosaic thoughts crossed her mind. In the briefcase she'd left on the elevator were some airplane tickets recently purchased for a vacation jaunt to the Florida Keys, as well as a wad of cash. Should she go back and retrieve it? "No," she thought to herself. "Just stay right where you are."

Then she spotted a co-worker, Ari Schonbrun, head of global accounts receivable at Cantor. "Ari!" she called out. He turned around and looked at her. "Virginia! Oh my God!" he said. "Ari, I'm badly burned," Virginia told him. She was gradually realizing how grave her condition truly was, and beginning to feel it as well. "I'm in so much pain," she said. Schonbrun was horrified. "The skin was peeled off her arms," he says. "You knew this woman was in trouble." DiChiara read his expression. "I knew by the look on his face that I was bad," she says. Schonbrun told her, "Virginia, take it easy. We're going to get help. Don't worry. You're going to be fine." She begged, "Whatever you do, don't leave me." Schonbrun reassured her, "I'm not going to leave you. I'll be with you."

The hallways were smoky, suffused with the nauseating smell of burned jet fuel, littered with debris and completely dark save for some outdoor light filtering in from windows at the end of the hall. Schonbrun gently guided DiChiara toward a small security office behind the elevator banks where the lights still worked. About a dozen people were huddled there, including two security guards. DiChiara lay down on the floor, on the verge of passing out. A woman sitting nearby was crying. One of the security guards was furiously dialing for help on the office phone but couldn't get through. The other guard had a radio, but she was paralyzed, crying. Schonbrun told her, "You've got to calm down. You've got to get on that radio and get us help." The guard tried, but the only sound coming over the radio was a cacophony of screams.

Singed by his narrow escape through the elevator doors, Bell had also made it to the security office. His doctors would later tell him that the few seconds between his exit and DiChiara's made the difference between his second-degree and her third-degree burns. Suddenly, a man appeared saying that he was a fire warden. There was a stairwell in the middle of the tower that they could use, he announced. Schonbrun leaned over DiChiara and laid out the options: either they could wait for someone to rescue them, or they could start heading down by foot.

For DiChiara, there was no choice. No way was she going to sit there and wait. Gritting her teeth, she got up and headed for the stairwell.

Hey, boss!" yelled Peter Guidetti, Feehan's longtime driver and personal aide. "I think you better see this!" "Bill!" yelled Ray Goldbach, the fire commissioner's executive assistant. "A plane went into the World Trade Center!" Both men were looking out the window, which faced west from the FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn, across the East River toward downtown Manhattan. They could see smoke swirling from the top floors of the North Tower.

Bill Feehan emerged from his office and looked out at the far-off conflagration. "Oh my God!" he said. He paused only a second before ordering, "Let's go!" Some of the secretaries began crying and sobbing. "Oh, for God's sake, calm down," Feehan interrupted. "What's the matter, you never saw an airplane hit a building before?" An avid student of fires, Feehan had closely studied the last collision between an airplane and a skyscraper: the foggy morning in 1945 when a B-25 bomber had plowed into the Empire State Building between the 78th and 79th floors. Feehan had marveled at how one of the bomber's engines had penetrated an elevator shaft and plummeted to the basement like a bomb.

Feehan's men--Guidetti, Goldbach and two other deputy commissioners, Tom McDonald and Tom Fitzpatrick--began rushing to the elevator. "Now, hold it, guys," said Feehan, wearing a wry smile, holding his arms to the side and waving his palms down, like a teacher calming rambunctious schoolchildren. "Do we really want to run to this? Or should we walk to it?" Feehan was following an old dictum: "Firemen should never run." It was important to stay calm, to size up the job before rushing in.

Yet in the car, racing across the Brooklyn Bridge, Feehan was visibly bothered when he was unable to raise the FDNY dispatcher on the radio. "Car 2 to Manhattan," Feehan said. "Car 2 en route to the World Trade Center incident." No response. At the wheel, driver Guidetti glanced over at his boss and saw something he had never seen before: Feehan looked apprehensive, even a little scared.

The people in the car fell silent. No one discussed strategy. They could see the North Tower in the distance, billowing black smoke from its upper floors. Finally McDonald said, a little lamely, "This is going to be a job and a half." The five men in the car knew that the chances of rescuing anyone on the floors above the fire were slim to none. In his head, Fitzpatrick did some simple math. As a rule of thumb, heavily laden firemen advance up the stairs of a burning building at the rate of a floor a minute. At that speed, it would take the men an hour and a half before they even reached the fire.

Feehan's drollery reappeared. "You think this'll put a damper on the primaries?" he asked. New York's voters were scheduled to go to the polls that day to choose Democratic and Republican nominees for mayor.

Guidetti parked the big Grand Marquis half on the sidewalk at the corner of Broadway and Dey streets, two blocks from the burning North Tower. He popped the trunk, and the men clambered out of the car to pull on their "turnout" coats (an old term for firemen who "turn out" for blazes). Each coat, made of a fire-resistant synthetic weave and emblazoned with fluorescent stripes and the owner's last name, weighs 20 pounds. "Well, Tom," Feehan said, putting his hand on the shoulder of his old chum Fitzpatrick, "this is going to be one for the history books." Both men were amateur history buffs. ("Some social life you guys have," their colleagues would tease. "Going home every night to watch the History Channel.")

As Feehan and his team made their way to the burning building, thousands of stunned people streamed by. Some were crying; others looked dazed. Feehan's driver, Guidetti, called out, "People, get out of here. This building's coming down." His gut instinct was telling him the building would not stand. Yet he was reassured by the memory of a conversation he had had almost 25 years earlier. Guidetti had been chatting with an architectural engineer who had stopped by the firehouse one day. Guidetti had asked the man what would happen if a large commercial airliner filled with jet fuel hit the 80th story of one of the Twin Towers. Would it topple the 30 floors above? The architect thought not. The building, he said, had been designed and constructed in such a way to prevent that kind of disaster.

Guidetti did not bring up his concern with Feehan. None of the men even mentioned the possibility that the buildings might collapse altogether. They just walked, double-time now, toward the fire.

In his office in the west wing of the White House, Dick Cheney was staring at the TV image of smoke pouring from the hole high in the North Tower. The vice president was characteristically unexcitable. He almost never raised his voice. At meetings he rarely spoke unless he needed to, and then in a low, dry monotone that compelled others to lean forward to hear him. Cheney was decisive, but he did not jump to conclusions. As he watched the early news bulletins, the vice president was mostly puzzled. "I was sitting there thinking about it," he recalls. "It was a clear day, there was no weather problem--how in hell could a plane hit the World Trade Center?" Around the White House, top officials were disturbed by the fragmentary reports, but not enough to alter their routines. Across a small driveway from the West Wing, in his ornate office in the Old Executive Office Building, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the vice president's chief of staff and national-security adviser, was talking with his top deputy, Eric Edelman. It was only 9 in the morning, but the two White House aides were already running late, caught up in a discussion about the stalled peace process in the Middle East. Waiting in Libby's outer office was Adm. Steve Abbot, who was slated to run a new vice presidential task force on homeland defense against terrorism. Libby's assistant, Jenny Mayfield, popped her head into the office to tell them the TV networks were reporting that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. "Do they think it's terrorism?" Libby asked. Mayfield said no one was sure; it appeared that a small plane had hit the building. Libby turned on his television set, but turned it off again; he did not want to be distracted from the Middle East conversation. A few minutes later Mayfield walked back into the office and said, "This is one of the most chilling things I've ever seen." She marched over and turned on the TV. "That's very unlike her, so I knew it was serious," says Libby.

The three of them watched, horrified, as the unmistakable silhouette of a commercial airliner sailed in from the right of the TV screen straight into the South Tower, which suddenly blossomed with an explosion. "We looked at each other," Edelman recalls, "and said, 'That's no accident'."

Down in her West Wing corner office, the president's national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, heard about the crash into the North Tower as she was getting ready to go to a meeting of her top staffers before 9 a.m. "I thought to myself, what an odd accident," Rice recalls. She picked up the phone and called President Bush, who was in Sarasota, Fla., visiting an elementary school to push his education bill. The president asked her: what kind of plane? She passed along the first press reports, that a twin-engine plane had struck the tower. "That's all we know right now, Mr. President," she said. Bush went on to meet with the second graders.

Rice went to her usual national-security staff meeting and started working around the table, asking for reports on various global hot spots. She was "about three people in," she recalls, when her assistant handed her a note saying that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. "I thought, 'This is a terrorist attack'." She would replay the moment again and again in her mind; "it was the moment that changed everything," she says. Her aides recall that she stopped talking in midsentence. "I have to go," she said. She got up abruptly and began walking, quickly, to the White House Situation Room.

Virginia Dichiara never heard united airlines Flight 175 slam into the South Tower. As she made her way to the stairway on the 78th floor of the burning North Tower at 9 a.m., all she could think about was trying to put one foot in front of the other. She did stop to take a last look in the direction of the elevator she had escaped from; it was no longer there. "It was a black hole," she says. Once at the stairwell, "I remember seeing '78'," DiChiara recalls, "and I said to Ari, 'How the hell am I going to do it?' 'Don't worry,' he replied. 'You're going to make it'." They set off down the stairs, with Bell in the lead, followed by Schonbrun and then DiChiara. "Virginia," Schonbrun said to her, "if you have to fall, fall forward. Fall on me."

That Schonbrun, of all people, ended up helping her that day was an irony not lost on DiChiara. When she arrived at Cantor last year, she conducted her first audit on Schonbrun's unit at the time, the business-administration department. "Needless to say, she was not my best friend," Schonbrun now says. "He had the first case of full review, inside out," says DiChiara, a feisty woman with a penchant for sarcasm and a hoarse Brooklyn accent. "I beat the crap out of him." Their relationship remained cold and strained. A year later, here he was offering her succor in the midst of disaster. At one point in their descent, DiChiara looked at Schonbrun and said, "Ari, of all people, huh?"

Steadily, they worked their way down the stairwell, which was illuminated with fluorescent lights and was clear of smoke. They hadn't descended more than five floors when Schonbrun's cell phone rang--a miracle in a building in which you could rarely, if ever, get a signal in its upper reaches. It was Schonbrun's wife. "Honey, I'm fine," he told her. "I'm in the stairwell. We're on our way down... But I've really got to go. It's not a good time." They continued down the stairs, Schonbrun counting out the floors for DiChiara--50, 49, 48. "You're doing great," he would tell her. "Just keep going." DiChiara fixated on one thought: "One foot in front of the other." She held her arms out, Frankenstein style, careful not to let anyone or anything touch them. Her body was so charged with adrenaline that she doesn't recall feeling any pain at that point. A robust 5-foot-9 woman, she was fortunate that her legs were uninjured and muscular--and that she was wearing flats. Before long, they came upon other people. As the stairwell grew more crowded, Schonbrun kept people away from DiChiara's arms and began calling out, "I've got a burn victim here. Please step to the right. Let us through." Everybody moved aside. Some people were visibly shocked when they saw DiChiara, with her matted hair, singed eyebrows, beet-red face caked with soot and arms shedding skin. One woman screamed at the sight of her--which horrified DiChiara. "God, Ari, what do I look like?" she asked him. "It's OK," he told her. "You'll be fine."

Eventually they came across firefighters loaded with gear, trudging their way up the stairs. Everyone stepped aside to let them pass, watching them in awe. By the time DiChiara made it to the 23d floor she was exhausted. There the party came across a man named Michael Sadis, who had asked a firefighter to crack open a vending machine fully stocked with water and Snapple. One stroke of an ax was all it took. Sadis was handing out drinks on the landing, an area that was crowded with people descending and 15 or 20 firefighters who had set up a staging area. One of DiChiara's companions gave her water to guzzle and poured another bottle on her arms and hands. The water was a relief for DiChiara, who was parched from her burns. The scene was hectic. In the crush of people, "one lady was freaking out, raising people's tension level," says Sadis. Some people screamed; others sought to calm nerves; others blessed the firefighters heading straight up into the inferno. "You're looking in their eyes and you could see the courage," says Bell. "It gave you inner peace. You felt you were guarded."

After a brief rest, DiChiara and her party continued their trek down. By the time they got near the bottom of the stairwell, they were ankle deep in water from the sprinklers. "Whatever you do, don't slip," DiChiara told herself. When she emerged from the stairwell, she recalls, dirty water was dripping on her raw flesh. "It was horrendous," she says. By now, it was around 9:30 a.m. and she was with Schonbrun in the first floor of the mall adjacent to the lobby of the North Tower. Cops directed them to a triage center that had been set up outside the World Trade Center complex, across Church Street in front of the Millenium Hilton. They made it up an escalator and out into the street. It was mayhem--sirens wailing, people yelling, fire trucks and ambulances screaming past. Above, both towers were spewing black smoke. DiChiara seemed to see blood wherever she turned. "If I saw too much red, my head would snap around the other way so fast," she recalls. "I didn't want to see it. I just looked down at the ground."

Schonbrun led her to an ambulance at the triage center. A paramedic directed her to sit on the curb next to a man who, she says, was "head-to-toe blood." DiChiara couldn't bear it and walked away. She told the paramedic, "I'm going to freak the guy out, because he's going to see by the look on my face how bad he is." So the paramedics sat her in the ambulance with two other victims, giving her water, clipping her shirt and bra off and draping her in a gown. "I'm going to pass out," she told Schonbrun. Now seemingly safe outside the tower, DiChiara became more conscious of her pain. "It was like someone was tearing the skin off of me," she says. "It was excruciating." She rocked herself back and forth. She didn't pass out, and was alert enough to give Schonbrun the phone numbers of her mother in Brooklyn Heights and a friend in New Jersey. She looked up at her rescuer and new friend. "Thank you, Ari," she said.

Feehan and his men had just reached the world Trade Center Plaza when United Flight 175 crashed into the second tower. They felt a sudden flash of heat and smelled jet fuel. Objects began raining down. A strut. A truss. A brake drum. An airplane wheel, minus its tire, landed 10 yards away from Feehan and his group as they ducked and dodged across the plaza. For a moment, Fitzpatrick was sorry he had not worn his helmet. Then he figured that the stuff falling from the sky could kill him regardless. A man emerging from the lobby of 2 WTC was cut in half by a falling sheet of glass. Fitzpatrick tried not to concentrate on the body parts strewn on the ground.

He couldn't ignore the jumpers. They were flying out of the black gash in the side of the North Tower, from floors 94 through 99, where the plane had struck, as well as from the floors above. Danny Suhr, a fireman from Engine 216, became the first FDNY casualty as he rushed toward the North Tower and was flattened by a female jumper. Bodies were landing with audible rushes of air, muffled thuds and thick red splashes that looked like paint. Inside both towers, elevators like the one Virginia DiChiara had barely escaped became massive metal coffins. Some were sheared from their cables by the planes' impact. Filled with jet fuel, they dropped like bombs, just like the B-25 engine during the Empire State Building crash of 1945.

Feehan and his men made it safely under the overhang of 5 World Trade Center. "This is unbelievable, isn't it?" said Feehan to Fitzpatrick. "This is history. This is not a coincidence. This is an attack." Feehan and Fitzpatrick had whiled away hours discussing the battle strategies of Civil War generals. Now, Fitzpatrick thought, we are the generals. They needed to get organized, to marshal their troops. To lead.

Feehan and Fitzpatrick and the others made for the lobby of the North Tower. Fitzpatrick was relieved to see that there was no real panic. Rivers of people flowed by, strikingly well ordered, he thought, and eerily quiet. No one was burned that he could see. They entered the grand, marbled command post of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the government agency that runs New York's airports, harbor, bridges and tunnels. Television screens covered the walls. Someone had unrolled blueprints on a conference table.

Port Authority officials hastily briefed the FDNY men. Typically, they said, about 50,000 workers occupied the Twin Towers at the height of the working day. Now, at almost 9:15 a.m., they estimated that half that many had arrived. Two fire companies, Engine 10 and Ladder 10, from the Liberty Street Station, had arrived on the scene within a few minutes. Scores of firemen were pouring in (all told, some 600 FDNY men would work the two towers in their last 100 minutes; 343 would die). The men were climbing stairs under staggering loads of state-of-the-art gear. The helmet ($216), turnout coat ($1,038), bunker pants ($776), leather boots ($250), compressed-air cylinders for breathing ($2,300), radios ($900) and assorted axes and hand tools weighed between 80 and 100 pounds per man. The last transmissions from FDNY radios would come from the 55th floor.

The enormity of the job ahead was starting to sink in. "We're going to need a recall," said Feehan. A "recall" meant calling in every FDNY firehouse and all of the 11,228 firefighters. No one had given an order like that since the blizzard of 1947. Staging it would require the use of Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium. In the meantime, Feehan had to bring some order to the units rushing to the scene. He began rattling off commands. He wanted Brooklyn units lined up on West Street, the major north-south thoroughfare through the financial district.

As Feehan spoke and conferred with the others, a massive chunk of marble fell off the lobby wall. It was time, they agreed, to find a new headquarters. Feehan and his team made a run for it on a walkway across West Street linking the North Tower to the World Financial Center. Bodies and debris were still raining down.

The fire engines lining up on West Street were streaked with blood and littered with body parts from jumpers on the North Tower's west face. The heavy rigs rolled over human limbs. An arm got stuck in a wheel well. (The first half-dozen rigs would be crushed by rubble when the buildings fell.) Feehan saw a civilian with a high-end digital video camera panning vertically, over and over, capturing the doomed jumpers. Many were using makeshift parachutes made from drapes or tablecloths. For a second or two the canopies billowed out and broke the fall--before being torn free by the rush of air. Feehan walked up to the photographer, enraged.

"Don't you have any human decency?" he shouted. "Shut that f---ing thing off!" Startled, the man ran away.

In the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center, Feehan and the others set up a command post. For a few minutes, Feehan and a clutch of FDNY top brass stepped outside onto a driveway running parallel to West Street. The oblique angle made it difficult to see the top of the towers. It was hard to assess the damage. Several of the officials wondered aloud if the fire was burning itself out.

There was general agreement that the buildings were stronger than the planes that had hit them. They assumed that the airliners had been shredded into thousands of pieces by the steel facing on the buildings, four inches thick, and 47 top-to-bottom core columns thick as sofas. They did not stop to consider the effect of the burning jet fuel on the steel. All firefighters are taught that steel softens at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. And any firefighter can tell you that the head of a match burns at 2,000 degrees. But no one seemed to contemplate the heat of burning aviation fuel, which reaches 3,000 degrees. The firemen were on their own. No engineers were present.

Feehan turned his attention back to the logistics of rescue. He and Fitzpatrick noticed two medics carrying a stretcher stacked with oxygen and other supplies south down West Street. A few seconds later they observed another medic team carrying a stretcher laden with equipment heading north. "We gotta get this organized," said Feehan. He ordered the ambulances to "stage"--line up--north of the fire trucks on West Street, pick up the wounded and shoot uptown or down through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. From time to time he would mutter his refrain, "This is one for the history books."

At about 9:35 a.m., Vice President Cheney was standing by his desk, looking at the TV in the corner. A Secret Service agent said to him, in a tone that brooked no dissent, "Sir, we have to leave now." The agent grabbed the vice president by the back of his belt and aimed him at the door. "They practice this," says Cheney. "You move. Whether you want to be moved or not, you're going. They don't exactly pick you up and carry you. It's more like they propel you forward." Cheney was unflappable about his hasty exit. As he was swept through the outer office, the vice president reached out and grabbed a magazine, a copy of that week's Economist, off the table. "I'm always carrying something in case I get hung up someplace," Cheney explains. "I've got to have something to read."

Down the hallway, past the empty Oval Office, the vice president was rushed into a tunnel outside a bombproof bunker known as the PEOC, the Presidential Emergency Operations Center. About 30 miles away, at Dulles airport, air-traffic controllers were watching agape as a plane raced toward Washington at 500 miles an hour. A controller looking at a radar screen had noticed the blip, heading straight for the White House, about 12 miles out. As ABC's "20/20" later reconstructed the scene, another controller called the Secret Service: "We have unidentified, very fast-moving aircraft inbound toward your vicinity, eight miles west." In the Dulles radar room, the horrified air-traffic controllers counted down the miles. Five, four, three--then the plane began to turn away. The tension ebbed. One of the controllers suggested the blip must be an Air Force fighter, "one of our guys." But the plane kept turning until it had made a full 360-degree circle. "Oh my God," yelled a controller, "he's coming back!" The blip suddenly disappeared. At Reagan National airport, just across the Potomac River from the capital, an air-traffic controller reported that the Pentagon had been hit. At Dulles, there were audible gasps in the control room.

In the relative safety of a tunnel far below the White House, Cheney was told by the Secret Service that a plane had been tracked heading for the White House at high speed. The vice president reached for a phone on the wall and said, "Get me the president." The chief executive was not easy to reach; he was at that moment being hustled on to Air Force One for a quick departure from Sarasota. The president had already been told by his chief of staff, Andrew Card, that "America is under attack." Now, when Bush finally came on the line, Cheney told him that the White House had been "targeted."

As the president and vice president spoke on the secure line, Cheney's wife, Lynne, appeared in the tunnel with her Secret Service agent. She had been at her downtown office when the second tower was hit shortly after 9 a.m. She was moved "rather briskly" to a car, she recalls, and sped toward the vice president's mansion in northwest Washington. Abruptly, her car made a U-turn and headed back downtown toward the White House. She arrived just as the complex was being evacuated. At first the guards would not let her in, but her determined agent drove up on the sidewalk around the barrier. Mrs. Cheney was rushed down to the PEOC to meet her husband.

As she arrived, Vice President Cheney had just learned that the Pentagon had been hit. The first reports indicated that a helicopter had crashed into it. Over the phone, Bush was saying that he wanted to come back to Washington right away. Cheney urged him not to come back, as he later recalled, "until we could find out what the hell was going on."

The president and his No. 2 talked about protective measures. At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had already ordered Air National Guard fighters to take to the skies to guard New York and Washington against further attack. Cheney knew that the pilots needed to be given "rules of engagement" that would allow them to know when to shoot. What if a commercial airliner was not responding to radio calls or warnings from the fighter pilots to turn away? "I recommended that we authorize them to shoot," Cheney recalls telling Bush. "We talked about it briefly. And he said, 'OK, I'll sign up to that.' He made the decision."

Shortly before 10 a.m., the Cheneys were led into the PEOC conference room, a wood-paneled chamber with a large table and a wall of TV screens. A plate of store-bought cookies was on the table. "It was surreal," recalls Lynne Cheney. "You know, it was sort of like the polite hostess--there you are in the middle of this amazing crisis, and somebody remembers to put out the cookies." No one reached for one. Instead, they looked up at the TV screens. It was 9:58 a.m.

Scanning the south tower from the driveway along West Street, Feehan and Fitzpatrick noticed a puff of lighter-colored smoke shooting out from around the 90th floor. It was 9:59 a.m. The steel had heated past the critical 1,100-degree mark. Now, most likely, rivets that had connected concrete floors to the facade had begun popping, transferring weight to the 47 core support columns, which began buckling, one floor at a time. Looking up, Fitzpatrick wondered if his eyes were playing tricks. The building's crown seemed to be slowly twisting and shifting. Loud cracks heralded an enormous black billow of smoke and cascade of debris. It seemed "like an atomic mushroom cloud," Fitzpatrick later recalled. For a few seconds, Feehan and Fitzpatrick stood transfixed, unable to move. Then they ran for their lives, toward the World Financial Center's underground garage.

The driveway was mobbed with people fleeing. Feehan stopped to help a woman who had been knocked down. Fitzpatrick lost sight of his old friend as he was swept down the ramp in the stampede. A gust of dust half blinded him. The air seemed heavy, like cotton. Fitzpatrick ran down a long, dark passageway. He imagined the 1,362-foot tower toppling like a tree, bowling over the building he was now beneath. He wondered: when am I going to get hit? He stumbled into an office-size locker room. He felt trapped. "I'm not going to die in a locker room," he said aloud to himself, angrily. I'd die in a fire, he thought, but I'm not going to slowly suffocate in a locker room tapping on a pipe for three weeks. He decided to backtrack, feeling his way. Others were groping the walls with him. "I found a door over here!" a construction worker shouted. It opened onto a dust-covered stairway leading into a bagel shop that served the WFC's Winter Garden. Fitzpatrick ran up and outside, astonished to be alive.

Feehan had survived as well. He emerged from the World Financial Center garage into the stygian darkness of dust and smoke. The first deputy commissioner immediately began digging out bodies trapped in the rubble. People around him had become hysterical. A young firefighter had begun to lose his composure. "What, you never seen anything like this before?" Feehan needled the younger man. "Relax, relax, kid, we're going to handle this." He turned to his stunned fellow firefighters in the ash-covered turnout coats. Some of them wondered whether the second tower would also come down. "You expect this is going to happen twice?" asked Feehan. "Get out of here. C'mon, let's go." He leaned over and began pulling bodies from the rubble.

Paper was floating down through the murk. Near a decapitated woman, Feehan found another woman, alive but moaning for help. He was lifting concrete from her when, at 10:28 a.m., the North Tower began its collapse.

Standing on the other side of the WFC, Fitzpatrick did not even bother to look up. He had heard the awful noise of a 110-story building imploding less than a half hour before. He just turned and ran for the river, toward the North Cove marina. For a moment the sound of an airplane terrified him. The third act in the atrocity is going to be the World Financial Center, he thought to himself, and he was standing in its shadow. There was no place left to run. Fitzpatrick was not much of a swimmer, but the Hudson River beckoned. Then somebody said, "It's a fighter plane." An Air National Guard F-16 had arrived, far too late.

In the conference room of the PEOC, Cheney and Rice and their aides watched on television as the towers collapsed. A picture taken at the time by a White House photographer shows stricken expressions on several of the White House officials' faces as the images of devastation flicker on the screen. Told that a casualty estimate ranged well into the thousands, Cheney just nodded grimly. For the most part, the atmosphere in the PEOC was calm and businesslike. Cheney recalls that he was eager to get "plugged in" and "work the problem." But problems were erupting all over--and coming straight at them.

Shortly after the first tower fell, at about 10, the PEOC received an urgent alarm. A uniformed military officer working in the Communications Room informed the vice president that a radar blip showed an unidentified plane 80 miles from Washington and closing fast. "We were all dividing 80 by 500 miles an hour to see what the windows were," says the vice president's chief of staff, Scooter Libby. The answer was, less than 10 minutes. The vice president was asked if the Air National Guard fighters, who had finally arrived to patrol the skies above Washington, should "engage" the plane. Cheney answered yes, "in about the time it takes a batter to swing, maybe starting from the windup," recalls Libby. Cheney says he was merely executing the decision already made by the president during their earlier discussion as the vice president had stood in the tunnel outside the PEOC conference room talking to Air Force One. "I did not go back to him on a plane-by-plane basis," says Cheney. "You don't have time for that."

At just about the time Cheney was ordering the fighters to engage, United Flight 93--the unidentified blip on the radar screen--was crashing into a field in rural Pennsylvania. It's not absolutely clear whether Cheney's shoot-down order would have gotten through if the plane had kept on coming. The pilots flying the patrol, members of the North Dakota Air National Guard's 119th Fighter Wing, known as the Happy Hooligans, say their radio frequencies were cluttered with orders and chatter. At one point, one of the pilots thought he heard the Secret Service order "protect the house"--presumably the White House, but he wasn't sure. It wasn't until early afternoon that the PEOC learned--to its occupants' great relief--that the plane had not been shot down. Cheney instantly grasped that the passengers and crew had revolted against the hijackers. "I think an act of heroism just took place," he told the others.

Information, much of it wrong, was pouring into the vice president's command post that morning. Lynne Cheney, sitting in a corner, started writing down the reports as they flooded in. As she later read them to NEWSWEEK, the litany conveys the impression of a terrorist blitz on the nation's capital. A report of an explosion at the Lincoln Memorial. A car bombing at the State Department. A bomb at the Capitol. A military officer from the Communications Room announced that a threat had been received against Air Force One. "How do we know?" asked Edelman, Libby's top aide. The officer replied that the warning included the aircraft's code name, which is classified. The threat was almost surely bogus--though to this day White House officials say they do not know where it came from. "I don't think we'll ever know," says Condi Rice.

Suddenly there was a report from the FAA of another plane heading straight for the capital, only five to 10 miles--about 30 seconds--away. "Take it out," the vice president ordered, according to his wife's notes. Scooter Libby recalls: "We learn that a plane is five miles out and has dropped below 500 feet and can't be found; it's missing... You sort of look at your watch and think, hmmm, five miles out, 500 miles an hour. Tick, tick, tick... It's a little bit like the Scarlet Pimpernel. It drops below the radar screen and it's just continuously hovering in your imagination." The plane was a phantom of the fog of war; it never existed.

The scene in the PEOC, says Lynne Cheney, "was unbelievable. It was like a novel." She remembers recalling the plot of "Fail-Safe," the 1962 novel about accidental nuclear war, in which the president has to order American bombers to take out New York City in exchange for a mistaken attack on Moscow.

The vice president was also thinking about nuclear war, though in a more prosaic and procedural way. He was focused on continuity: about making sure that someone high up in the constitutional order of presidential succession survived to run the country. Cheney was a cold-war veteran. He had been White House chief of staff under Gerald Ford, then a high-ranking congressman involved in intelligence matters, then secretary of Defense under the first President Bush. He had been through countless war games and exercises preparing for an all-out nuclear assault. Horrible as the events in New York and Washington were, Cheney understood, they were well short of a nuclear attack. Still, he wanted to be extra careful.

The president, now flying on Air Force One, was headed to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. There, shortly after noon, he would make a statement to reassure citizens that the government of the United States was functioning--that it had not been, to use a nuclear-age term, "decapitated." But after Barksdale, the president was agitating to come back to Washington. Cheney strongly urged that Bush should go instead to Offutt Air Force Base, home of the Strategic Command in Omaha, Neb. "It's secure as hell, it's a military installation, it's got great communications," Cheney recalls arguing. It would have been "foolish in the extreme" to bring Bush back, Cheney now says, "until we really had a pretty good fix on the scope and scale of the attack." Reluctantly, Bush agreed with Cheney. The president was later criticized for not returning immediately to the embattled capital. "That's crap," says Cheney. "This is not about appeasing the press or being the macho guy who is going to face down danger. You don't think in those personal terms... This is about preserving and protecting the presidency. His importance lies in the office he holds."

At one point amid the tumult of threatening but mostly erroneous reports, Cheney was told that counterterrorism experts on the National Security Council staff had suggested that he relocate to a safer place. Cheney refused to go; the president was secure, and the PEOC offered good communications--"connectivity," as he put it.

Good communications, but bad information. With some 2,000 commercial and private planes in the air at the time of the attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration had done a yeoman's job of getting almost

The Day That Changed America | News