Living Through 9/11: Phoning Home From Flight 93

The second tower of the World Trade Center explodes into flames after being hit by a airplane, New York September 11, 2001 with the Brooklyn bridge in the foreground. Sara K. Schwittek/Reuters

Septemember 11, 2001, was a new date of infamy for America. After the hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center's twin towers and the Pentagon, the country came together in both patriotism and fear. A special edition of Newsweek, produced in the hours after the attack, tells the story of the deadliest attack on American soil in history, including accounts of mobile-phone conversations from passengers on the hijacked flights. The story below was published September 12, 2001, the day after the towers came crashing down.


Jeremy Glick knew that he was probably doomed. The hijackers had told the 45 passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93, bound from Newark to San Francisco, that they planned to blow up the plane. But Glick, a salesman for an Internet company, was able to place a mobile-phone call to his wife, Lyz, back at their home in northern New Jersey. "He did not sound panicked" Lyz told Newsweek. "Maybe he was just trying to be strong for me. He was pretty clearheaded." Glick told his wife that he had heard from another passenger, who had also called home on a mobile phone, that two planes had already plunged into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Asked Glick: could that be true?

It was, answered Lyz. She was at that moment, about 9:45 a.m., watching scenes of inconceivable devastation on TV. Glick told Lyz that his plane had been seized by three "Iranian-­looking" men wearing red headbands and brandishing a red box which, they claimed, contained a bomb. One of the men had a knife, but Glick had not seen any other weapons. The passengers had been herded into the rear of the plane; the hijackers were in the cockpit with the crew.

Glick had a last-ditch plan. He told Lyz that he and four or five other passengers were thinking of making a rush to "jump the hijackers." He told her that he loved her and that if he didn't survive, she should take care of their 3-month-old child. Lyz handed the mobile phone to her father, Richard Makely. Accroding to law-enforcement sources (who were listening in on the conversation), there was silence on the line. Then screams. Then silence. Then screams. Then nothing.

Quite possibly, a few very brave passengers aboard Flight 93 saved hundreds of lives—including those of some of the highest-ranking officials in the government. The flight path of Flight 93 shows it turning around near Cleveland and heading south and east—directly toward Washington, D.C. Toward the White House? Or perhaps the Capitol? Instead, at 10:10 a.m. Flight 93 plunged into a field in rural Pennsylvania.

A victory for courage over cowardice, but forces of terror carried the day on Sept. 11, 2001. The date, like Dec. 7, 1941, will live in infamy. The audacious air assault on the political and financial capitals made a mockery of Fortress America and ended the illusion that its citizens can somehow float above the hatreds of the world. The thick clouds of smoke and dust billowing up from the spot where the World Trade Center once stood were eerily reminiscent of the photographs from the Japanese attack on Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor—only the clouds were engulfing lower Manhattan, where hundreds of thousands of civilians live and work. The image of the broadcast tower on top of one of the Twin Towers, slowly sinking as the 110-story building disintegrated, reminded older Americans of newsreels of the Hindenburg disaster, the explosion of a giant German dirigible in New Jersey 64 years ago. Only the death toll from this horror could reach well into the thousands—no one will know the exact total for days—and the cause of the tragedy was not human folly but evil. With the kind of tactical precision that a trained commando unit could only dream of, a cell of terrorists had turned four jetliners into guided missiles and destroyed the most iconic symbol of American capitalism, the World Trade Center, while bombing and blackening the nerve center of U.S. military might, the Pentagon.

The politicians and pundits talked of war. But war would be too easy. Pearl Harborm at least, was an attack by a military force against a military base. To avenge its civilian deaths in New York and Washington, America may wind up chasing shadows. Intelligence sources told Newsweek that they are "90 percent certain" that the ultimate blame lies with Osama bin Laden, the saudi-born Islamic extremist who allegedly runs a vast international terror network. According to a knowledgeable source, U.S. intelligence knows how to find the terror mastermind, who is said to be hiding out in the hills of Afghanistan. Or that if American forces took out bin Laden, his heirs and successors might not be equally willing and able to entice young martyrs to enter Paradise by killing Americans.

Facing a profound test of leadership, President George W. Bush talked tough. "Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will not be defeated," said a stern-looking Bush as he appeared before the cameras at about noon. "Make no mistake: the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible those responsible for these cowardly acts." Yet Bush had to take his defiant stand from a secured Air Force base in Barksdale, La., on his way to an "undisclosed location"—another Air Force base outside Omaha, Neb., home of the Strategic AirCommand. (he was compelled to hide in bunkers because his advisers feared what the military calls a "decapitation strike" against American leadership.) Only at nighfall could the president slip back into Washington, under cover of fighter jets.

Way planes flying over the nation's capital. Armored personnel carriers guarding K Street, where the city's lobbyists eat in expense-account restaurants. Aircraft carriers patrolling off New York Harbor. All flights in the United States grounded (for the first time ever). Independence Hall, shrine of the Liberty Bell, closed. Shut down as well: the Seattle Space Needle, the New York Stock Exchange, the New York subways, Disneyland, the Golden Gate Bridge, and on and on. They would all reopen within hours and days, but American life, certainly American psyches, will not be the same for a long time, if ever. The last great superpower has been held hostage to fear by a few desperate zealots armed with pocketknives.

They, and they mysterious co-conspirators, showed considerable cleverness as well as a willingness to die for Allah. The plotters must have been carefully following the weather forecasts, for they chose a cyrstal-clear blue-sky morning that was the least likely to cause flight delays. Military planners talk of "time over target." To achieve surprise, the attack had to be carefully coordinated so that all four airliners, leaving from three different cities, hit theit targets within minutes of each other. The four planes—American Flight 11 out of Boston bound for L.A.; United Flight 175, also on the Boston-L.A. run; American Flight 77 from Dulles to L.A.; and United Flight 93 from Newar to San Francisco—took off within a half-hour span, from 7:59 to 8:21 a.m. The terrorists apparently picked large planes packed with jet fuel (about 60,000 pounds) for long flights—the better to make a really big flying bomb. The hijackings seemed to have gone off without a hitch. Carrying crude homemade weapons (reportedly penknives and cardboard-box cutters), the hijackers—perhaps three or four to a plane—seemingly blew right through metal detectors. It is possible that the hijackers forced the airline pilots to fly into crowded buildings, but that seems unlikely. More probably, say aviation experts, is that some of the hijackers were pilots themselves. The Boeing 757 and 767, the two types of aircraft hijacked, have similar cockpits and controls and and are often used on international flights. One veteran pilot told Newsweek that the hijackers could have learned to steer the planes on to their targets just by practicing in a flight simulator.

Reports of isolated mobile-phone conversations from terrified passengers suggest that the hijackers used knives to kill flight attendants. The screams of the attendants may have lured the copilots out of their cockpits. The hijackers turned off the transponders, which signal to air-traffic control the plane's identity, speed and altitude. According to some reports, the hijackers instructed passengers with mobile phones to call relatives and tell them they were about to die.

In New York City, it was 8:45 a.m. Rush hour was just winding down. Hason Braunstein, 22, was finishing a plate of hash browns at his desk in a stock brokerage on the 87th floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center when the first plane, American Flight 11, augured in about 10 floors up. "The building was swaying, shaking, rocking," he recalled. Barbara Chandler, the human-resources director at a consulting company on the 77th floor, felt a "crash rocking," and then saw flying glass and papers showering down outsider her window. "Then our suite began to fill with toxic fumes and smoke. We grabbed paper towels and water to put over our faces and walked down 77 flights." The scene in the stairwell was remarkably calm and orderly. "People were amazing, taking care of each other, passing water out, taking care of our pregnant colleagues," said Chandler.

On the highest floors, above the spot where the first plane struck, the intense heat and smoke provoked panic. Jeremy Davids was walking near the World Trade Center and witnessed a horrifying scene. "I saw at least 15 people jump to their deaths. You'd hear a gasp go through the crowd, and then you'd look up and you'd still be able to watch them fall for about 10 seconds. Some people were flailing their arms, some had stiff arms." At least one couple held hands.

While Davids watched, he heard the sec­ond plane making its suicide run. "I thought, what the hell is coming in so low, and, 'ka­boom'." The jet—United 175—plowed into Tower Two. Many workers had been told that the problem was in Tower One, that Tower Two was safe. "They said it's not necessary to leave," said Tim O'Brien, a consultant work­ing on the 55th floor. "The second plane hit, and they said, 'Get the hell out of here'." The evacuation was orderly, but scary in the damp darkness as lights flickered out and automatic sprinlers kicked in. Some of the fleeing workers noticed people in wheelchairs, left behind. They also saw rescue workers and firemen charging into the inferno. "The toughest part was watching the firemen go back in the building as it was coming down," said Jim Pesomen, 46, who was in Tower One on the 81st floor. "Those guys, they have courage, knowing what they know. I've got three kids, and I'm leaving the city after this."

What the firemen might not have realized is that the gushing jet fuel from the suicide planes, burning at more than 1,000 degrees, was melting the steel that held up the build­ings. At 10:05, Tower Two, to the south, col­lapsed. At 10:28, Tower One seemed to im­plode, sending a giant wall of dust and smoke racing through the canyons of lower Man­hattan as thousands of terrified pedestrians ran for cover. Jason Braunstein, who had hustled down 87 flights of stairs, recalled that emergency workers first told him, "Take your time getting out." But then the whole building started to go, and they just said, 'f--king run'," said Braunstein. "The terror was in the street. I got under a car. I could hear things falling and falling." Appaled, thousands of people watched from rooftops in Brooklyn as large wet flakes of debris drifted down like snowflakes. Dust billowed everywhere. At a Brooklyn school that looked across the East River at the Twin Towers, the teachers tried to cover up the wrenching new hole in the skyline. "Kids in this neighborhood know the World Trade Center," explained a parent, Neal Weinstock. "It's their friend. So when the crash happened, the teachers pulled all the shades down. The kids were very scared."

A group of firefighters walk amid rubble near the base of the destroyed south tower of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. Peter Morgan/Reuters

About 200 miles to the south, outside Washington, D.C., air-traffic controllers had watched with mounting dread as the blip of a third plane, American Flight 77, veered off its flight plan to the West Coast and headed, full throttle, straight at the White House. The Secret Service was warned and White House staffers were sent running out to Pennsylvania Avenue. But at the last minute, the plane made a sharp turn and headed for the Pentagon across the river. Banking onto its side, the 757 with 64 people on board sliced into the southwest face of the Pentagon and detonated into a fireball.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was holding a meeting in his office to discuss missile defense with some congressmen. The talk turned to terrorism. "Let me tell ya, I've been around the block a few times," said Rumsfeld. "There will be another event." A few minutes later, at 9:43 a.m., they heard a roar. "What was that?" asked Rumsfeld, but everyone instantly knew. This time, the ter­rorists had been a little off in their aim. Most of the top brass sit in offices on the north­east side of the Pentagon. The exploding airliner smashed through half the 60-year­-old building (some of it recently reinforced against explosion) and killed hundreds of soldiers and officers, but it spared the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

At the Capitol, a "code red" was declared. House Speaker Dennis Hastert was ushered into a "secure location," a bunker 75 miles from Washington. At tl1e White House, Lau­ra Bush was whisked off to a hiding place, and her twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna, were plucked off their campuses at Yale and the University of Texas by the Secret Service. By early afternoon, calls for revenge and recriminations were beginning to echo from Capitol Hill. Congressmen were outraged over the worst failure of intelligence since Pearl Harbor. "Where is the CIA? Where is the FBI?" stormed Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California. "We should do a clean sweep, sweep them away." (More likely, the intelli­gence services will see an infusion of cash. "I don't think we'll have a problem funding our intelligence budget this year," said Califor­nia Rep. Jane Harman.)

There had to be someone to blame besides the CIA and FBI, and Osama bin Laden's name and image began appearing on every TV screen. In Afghanistan, a spokesman for the ruling Taliban party, Islamic extremists who are known for harboring terrorists, insisted that bin Laden could not possibly have arranged so devilish a plot. In Palestine, Yasir Arafat insisted that he was "shocked" by the attack. But in the shanties of the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians cheered and handed out candy. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein's state-run TV played the scenes of the World Trade Center collapsing accompanied by the song "Amelica Is Falling." Arab watchers worried that the success of the attacks on the Ame1ican homeland would be inspirational. "The tragedy is that other groups, having seen this, will think: why not do something else?" said Richard Murphy, former ambas­sador to Syria and Saudi Arabia. ''This is the beginning of their war. There is a mentality at work here that the West is not prepared to understand."

Maybe so, but political leaders were brac­ing for a long twilight struggle. "Life is going to change," said Sen. John Kerry of Massa­chusetts. "Some of the response will be a higher state of vigilance, a higher state of awareness and a little less ease as we go about our lives." And perhaps less tolerance: already there have been reports of harassment of Muslim Americans. Washington was clearly going on a war footing. If bin laden was too elusive, his sponsors might prove to be more convenient targets. In his televised address to the nation on Tuesday night, Bush significantly vowed that America would make no distinction between terrorists and those who harbor them.

Some kind of military response seemed in the offing. A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., predicted the pressure will be on the Bush administration to tell the Taliban: hand over bin Laden "or we're going to come get him." Easier said than done, warned Crowe. "One, you're going to lose a lot of people. And two, it's going to require quite an effort to put a successful team in the middle of Afghanistan, a country we know little about. They've done a lot of fighting. The idea that you could insert a SEAL team in there and capture him, that's now how the world works."

Such words of caution could get drowned out. It is a war that could get bloodier. The death toll from the suicide bombers seems likely to top the 2,403 sailors, soliders and civilians who died at Pearl Harbor, and the final tally could exceed the worst days of carnage in the Civil War. And the terrorists were fighting largely with ingenuity. Imagine what they might do if they got their hands on chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.