Chapter 10: September 11, 2001 - The Half Life of Surprise - Episode 4Listen to podcast
At 8:38 AM Stewardess Ong is still on the phone to the ground giving her calm recital of the horrible events around her. She tells her ground contacts that the hijackers are Middle-Easterners and passes on their seat numbers so that they can be identified from the passenger manifest. She also says that the aircraft is in a rapid descent.
Stewardess Sweeny has also made phone contact and is also passing on crucial information.
The official communication is not as good. It is not until 8:37:52, to be exact, that the FAA contacts NORAD and asks for military help.
FAA: Hi. Boston Center TMU, we have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to — we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out.
NEADS [NorthEast Air Defense Sector]: Is this real-world or exercise?
FAA: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.
Eight minutes later, at 8:42, two F-15s from Otis Air Force base on Cape Cod are in the air. Officers wisely decided to scramble them first and get permission later.
Also at 8:42 United Airlines 93, a Boeing 757, takes off from Newark International Airport in New Jersey with a crew of seven and thirty-seven passengers — four of whom are about to become hijackers — and heads for San Francisco. The crew has not been told about the hijacking of Flight 11. The flight has been delayed on the ground in Newark by that airport’s chronic early morning congestion; that delay is one of the few things to go wrong for the hijackers on September 11.
And shortly after 8:42 United Airlines 175, which had been trying to help Boston Center locate American 11, is itself hijacked. The modus operandi is the same brutality which was effective on American 11. It works again, and the hijackers are in control of another plane. The air traffic controller who has been working Flight 175 quickly becomes suspicious when contact is lost, the transponder code is changed twice, and the flight starts to deviate from its flight path. Ironically, she can’t get to her superiors quickly with her suspicions because they are now closeted trying to deal with the hijacking of Flight 11.
NEADS does not know where to send its now airborne F-15s. The transponder on Flight 11 has been turned off so controllers are not sure where it is and cannot pick it out from numerous other primary (no transponder) targets on radar.
The officer directing the fighters pleads for more information: “I don’t know where I’m scrambling these guys to. I need a direction, a destination.” But there is no more information. With no target, the fighters are sent to military-controlled airspace off the coast of Long Island to keep them out of the way of New York area commercial traffic.
At 8:44 Stewardess Sweeney is still on the phone: “Something is wrong. We are in a rapid descent … we are all over the place.”
She’s asked to look out the window to try to determine where they are.
“We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low… Oh my God, we are way too low.”
The call ends.
At 8:46:40 Flight 11 crashes at 490 miles per hour into the north side of the north tower of the World Trade Center. The front of the airplane penetrates to the core of the huge building. The fuel meant to carry it to California does not explode but it does ignite and burns continuously with searing heat and thick black smoke.
“It appears that you don’t have many alternatives going forward,” says the banker to the hackoff executives.
“Bullshit,” says Larry. “We—”
The south tower shakes. They feel rather than hear a huge impact. Larry tries to continue but the roar from behind makes him turn and pry apart the closed blinds on the north-facing window. Others each pry an opening.
They can see the roiling black smoke coming from the high floors of the north tower but it obstructs their view of the plane imbedded in it. The smoke swirls to the top of the north tower and also blows south sometimes obscuring their view. Other than an occassional “What the fuck…” and “holy shit…”, they don’t talk.
The public address system clears its electronic throat and crackles on in the south tower. The occupants are told that their building is secure and that they may return to their offices.
“I’m outta here,” says Donna, She calmly gathers her papers and leaves for the elevator.
“I think we should resume at another time,” says George Wrobly. He and his staff gather their papers hurriedly.
“We’ll just stay and talk to your bankers,” says Larry, “unless they’re a bunch of pussies, too.”
“I don’t think we ought to continue this discussion without our clients present,” says H. Fredrick as the antihack contingent departs.
“Just what is it that you see in the antihack technology?” asks Dom. “Can you just tell us that? We know they outsourced the development of most of it. We know they have no patents. In fact, we know they don’t know shit, so what is it that you see in the antihack technology?”
By this time the junior most banker has recovered sufficiently to operate the console that opens the blinds. Their window is completely blocked by the black smoke. The smoke blows east momentarily and, in the clearing, they see a body hurtle from the 100th floor of the north tower towards the street.
“Those poor bastards,” says Dom. “There’s got to be a helicopter or something coming. Can’t they get to the roof?”
A fireball from the ignition of Flight 11’s fuel flares through some of the elevator shafts and some of the transfer lobbies of the north tower. Almost all elevators are immediately disabled. Many people below the 92nd floor begin a surprising orderly evacuation through the stairwells which are smoky but well lit and have glow strips.
Above the point of impact the temperature is rising and the smoke is getting thick. A few people manage a descent from these high floors through one rubbish-choked stairwell that remains open a short while through the intensifying hell of the impact zone.
Many call 911. Some get fast busy tones as the circuits over load. Most who do get through are given the standard instruction for a high rise fire: stay low, get a few floors below the fire, wait for rescue. The 911 operators do not know what floor the plane hit. They do not know that the New York City Fire Department has now given an evacuation order for the building.
Others climb towards the roof hoping for a helicopter rescue. In fact, a few people were rescued by helicopter a decade before when a terrorist bomb exploded in the parking garage below the twin towers. But the doors to the roof are locked. Nevertheless, with descent now impossible from above the impact point, they wait there.
Some cry. Some curse. Many call on their cell phones and plead for help or directions. Others calmly say good-bye to their families or, more often, to the voice mail of their families. Some dictate terms of their wills or leave the combination to the safe.
New York Police Department helicopters are in the air as close to the top of the building as the flames and smoke allow. At the Wall Street heliport, a crack police department rescue team pleads for a chopper to pick them up and take them to the roof. The pilots radio back that landing is impossible because of the heat and smoke. The helicopter pilots are also the first to tell air traffic control in the NYC area what has happened. But 911 does not know that there will be no rooftop rescue. Some people are still advised to climb.
George Harcourt returns to his bond trader’s office on the 110th floor. It is getting hot and smoky but it is better here than in the people-crammed stairwells he has tried where the crowd can now neither go up or down and isn’t sure which way it wants to go. Harcourt tries to reach his wife from his desk phone but gets no dial tone. His mobile phone has four bars but cannot complete a call. George types an email to his daughters and his wife.
From: George Harcourt
Sent: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 8:51 AM
Subject: I Love You
I believe I am about to die, much earlier than I would have ever thought. I’m not afraid, not really, but I miss you and the girls greatly and realize how immensely I love you all. Please make sure they always know that.
Perhaps this is all just a nightmare but it seems very real. We had so many dreams.
Money will not be a problem. Our wills are, of course, in the safe deposit box and PNC and the lawyer has a copy and will know what to do. There are brokerage accounts at Merrill and at Barcourt; statements from them are in my middle left desk drawer so you can get the numbers easily. They are in your name and mine jointly so you can access them immediately but there is no immediate need to do anything with them. My brother will be able to help with investment advice going forward. DON’T trust the brokers; they will suggest what is good for them.
There is a multimillion dollar executive insurance policy through Dillison Brothers. You may have to contact the Chicago office because this office is gone. Some of that is key-man insurance which goes to the firm but the rest is for you and the girls. Again, use my brother to sort that stuff out. He’ll make sure you get every penny that is coming to you.
Please marry someone; it hurts me to say that but you need a husband and the girls need a father. Please.
The car is parked at the end of the row just on your right before you cross the dinky track at princeton.
I love you.
Although the telephone networks have reached gridlock under the crushing load of attempted calls into and out of the stricken area, the Internet continues to function. Sometimes it slows to a crawl but email and even Internet phone calls continue to go through. George’s wife gets his email almost as soon as he sends it.
Sent: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 8:53 AM
To: George Harcourt
Subject: RE: I Love You
George, I cannot believe you will die you will be rescued or you will save yourself I know and I am praying and crying but I know youll be OK you will. You are wonderful and are my love. Come back to me
She will never know whether George saw this email.