Chapter 10: September 11, 2001 - The Half Life of Surprise - Episode 5Listen to podcast
By 8:52 a battalion chief, two ladder, and two engine companies are at the north tower while others units are pouring into the area. The Fire Department shift which is about to go off duty spontaneously and en masse decide not to. They ride as extras on the converging trucks.
Many off-duty firemen and police are told not to report. They disobey. Many come directly to the site.
The Fire Department has quickly decided that rescue is their main mission. They cannot hope to fight a fire so high, so large, and so intense. They are sure that many of the fire suppression systems in the tower have been damaged but they do hope that the fire may burn itself out. Most of the building is not flammable — at the temperatures of a normal fire.
By 8:57 firemen from one ladder company and one engine company begin to climb Stairway C of the stricken tower in order to report from the scene of impact and set the stage for the rescue operation. The other companies who are not allowed to climb immediately strain towards the stairs and the people they know are above. Both NYC and Port Authority police on the scene begin their own reconnaissance climbs, pausing only to help the injured down.
In the lobby command center there is frustration. The weak radios the climbing firemen use can only faintly penetrate the many floors of steel and concrete so many can’t report back. The frequency they are broadcasting on is also so full of traffic that even a strong signal is hard to make out. During the previous terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, firemen conducting the evacuation had the same problem and a repeater system was installed in the building for exactly this reason. It is normally kept off so as not to interfere with radio traffic in the area and no one in the north tower knows the full procedure for turning it back on. In the absence of information from the advance units, more firemen insist on climbing the tower.
Several floors below the World Trade Center site, a PATH train from New Jersey pulls into the platform. Even down here, there is smoke from the fireball that flashed down the elevator shafts. There is no one waiting on the platform since evacuees have been led out onto the street and people in the station have been directed out. The motorman keeps his doors closed and radios for instructions.
He is told by dispatch that there are no instructions so he should unload his passengers normally. Instead, he saves their lives by keeping the doors closed, calmly but firmly telling dispatch to clear the tunnel behind him, and taking his train back under the river to New Jersey.
At 8:52 Peter Hanson, who is aboard United Flight 175, calls his father. “I think they’ve taken over the cockpit — an attendant has been stabbed — and someone else up front may have been killed. The plane is making strange moves. Call United Airlines. Tell them it’s Flight 175, Boston to LA.” The senior Hanson passes the information on to the Easton Police Department.
At 9:00 AM Brian David Sweeney calls his mother, Louise, after not being able to reach his wife. He tells her the flight has been hijacked and that the passengers are thinking of storming the cabin.
The passengers’ debate is intense. Of those who can talk at all, half think the best thing to do is what the hijackers say. Almost all hijackings end without casualties, they point out. The hawkish half are convinced that something is different about this hijacking; there is something they sense that tells them attack, not compliance, is the right response. But they can’t say why; they don’t know about Flight 11. Some begin to move forward.
Peter Hanson calls his father again: “It’s getting bad, Dad — a stewardess was stabbed. They seem to have knives and Mace. They said they have a bomb. It’s getting very bad on the plane — passengers are throwing up and getting sick. The plane is making jerky movements. I don’t think the pilot is flying the plane. I think we are going down. I think they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building. Don’t worry, Dad — if it happens, it’ll be very fast. My God, my God!”
Lee Hanson hears a woman scream as the call ends abruptly.
At 9:03 President George Bush enters the Emma E. Booker Elementary School. He has been told by Senior Advisor Karl Rove only that a twin engine plane has hit the World Trade Center. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice also has talked to him briefly and also talked about a twin engine plane. The President believes that pilot error was the cause. Although NORAD is aware of one hijacking and, at this very moment is being informed of a second, the White House has not yet been told this.
NORAD is not aware that a third hijacking has also taken place. American Airlines and Indianapolis Air Traffic Control have now also lost contact with American Flight 77 from Washington to LA. It had taken off at 8:20 with a crew of six and fifty-eight passengers, five of whom hijacked it sometime between 8:51 and 8:54. The transponder is off and the plane is deviating from course. With two of his flights in trouble, American Airlines Vice President Gerald Arpey has ordered all American flights in the Northeast which have not yet taken off to remain grounded.
Both Lee Hanson and Louise Sweeney turn on their televisions. At 9:03:11 they see Flight 175 turn and crash into the south side of the south tower of the World Trade Center at 590 miles per hour. Since the plane is banked, the impact stretches from the 77th to the 85th floors.
Larry, Dom, and the bankers are thrown to the floor as the tower lurches from the impact. There is an immediate smell of burning kerosene. H. Fredrick has fallen across Larry’s legs.
“Get the fuck off me,” says Larry.
The banker tries to stagger to his knees and Larry pushes him back over as he gets up.
“Something happened to this building,” says Dom.
The bankers leave the room.
“Need to know whether it’s above us or below us,” says Larry.
“It’s above us,” says Dom.
“How the fuck do you know?” Larry screams.
“Because burning shit is falling past the window and the only smoke I see is coming down, not up.” Dom is talking very softly but quickly. He is sweating and shivering. “I’m not taking the elevator. I don’t think I can do a dark stairwell. I’ll be crushed in the dark.”
“We don’t even know where the fucking stairs are!” says Larry.
“I do,” says Dom still softly and trance-like. “I do know where they are. We passed them and I know the way.” He runs from the room awkwardly and Larry follows.
It is hard to push the stairway door open since its frame is slightly bent but they do. Once they crack the door, it is hard to get it open wider because of the crush of people going past the other side. But they do that as well. Dom hesitates; there are glow lights but the stairway is dark and, as he’d feared, crowded. Larry pushes past him and begins his descent.
The way down is almost completely blocked by a thin man who has fallen across the stairs. Ankle braces protrude from his legs; he is trying to roll out of the way, but there is nowhere to go. Some can trickle by him on either side; some step over him. People are careful not to hurt him.
“Jesus,” says Larry loudly when he can see what the blockage is. “Somebody push him out of the way. He’s going to get us all killed. Come on, goddamn it. Do it!” He pushes the man over towards one side and the flow past him increases but is still partly blocked. Once Larry is on the more open stairs, he pushes his way down quickly.
Dom is not blinking; the whites of his eyes show like those of a frightened horse. He sweats and shivers and pants with his mouth open. He would fall if he were not being held up by the crush, which he can’t pull back from. He tries to go back through the door and out of the teeming stairwell but he has been carried down past it.
Dom is propelled by an eddy of people to the fallen man’s head which is just touching the wall of the stairwell. He stops. “I-can-help-you,” he says in a mechanical voice which sounds like it comes from a voice synthesizer; “I-can-help-you-if-you’ll-let-me.”
“Don’t,” says the fallen man. “Don’t help me. Just get me out of the way so people can escape. That’s what makes sense.”
“I-can-help-you,” says Dom, not moving although people are pushing on his back. He slides his arm under the man’s shoulder and pushes him to a sitting position. The man is nearly as thin as the braces around his ankles and very light. Dom has him to his feet when they are both pushed over by the crowd behind him.
“Get back!” says Dom; now his voice is a mighty, roar of command which sounds like it comes from a powerful set of speakers with reverberating bass. “Get back so this man can get down.”
The pushing stops; the crowd stops. This time Dom lifts the man all the way to his feet, drapes one of the man’s pencil-thin arms over his own shoulder; and begins to help him shuffle and bump down the stairs.
For twenty floors Dom half-carries and half-drags his companion. At the 30th floor the flow down is stopped again and the crush is becoming intense. “It’s-okay,” says Dom to the man. “No pushing!” he roars at the crowd behind them. The thin man begins to have trouble breathing, then faints.
The obstruction is an ascending EMS team with powerful flashlights. One of them, a stocky woman panting from the thirty floors she has climbed, seems to immediately recognize the condition. She takes the slumping man from Dom’s shoulder and lies him down in a space protected by her companions and their lights.
“Take him out here,” one of them says opening a door onto a floor full of light.
As they carry the man out, he wakes up and looks for Dom who is standing near him. “Who are you? Why did you do this?”
“UltraMole,” says Dom in another new voice. “It is my role to rescue you.”
At 9:07 AM, FAA controllers in Boston request the Command Center in Herndon, Virginia to warn flight crews about the possibility of attack. For whatever reason, the warning is not passed on to the planes. However, at 9:19 United flight dispatcher Ed Ballinger decides to take action himself. He has sixteen transcontinental flights under his control and he sends messages to each of them: “Beware any cockpit intrusion. Two a/c hit World Trade Center.”
At 9:26, Pilot Jason Dahl from Flight 93 responds: “Ed, confirm latest mssg plz — Jason”.
At 9:28 the four hijackers wrest control of cabin keys from a stewardess and enter the cockpit of Flight 93. Since surprise is not total this time, they have a fight on their hands. It is a fight the unarmed cabin crew cannot win; they do transmit a “Mayday” while they fight for their plane.
By 9:32 hijacker Ziad Jarrah is at the controls. Like Atta before him, he transmits a message meant to quiet the passengers and, like Atta before him, he doesn’t push the right buttons. Air Traffic Control but not the passengers hear him say: “Here the captain, please sit down keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board. So, sit.”
It is unlikely the passengers would have been impressed if they had heard him. They are already on their cell phones and seatback phones with friends and relatives on the ground. They know about the planes flying into the Twin Towers.
The half-life of a radioactive isotope is the time in which half the molecules decay to a more stable state. The half-life of surprise is the time in which half those who care learn a new piece of information. Forty-six minutes after Flight 11 hits the north tower, the civilians of the world, even those crowded into the back of Flight 93 by knife wielding hijackers, know all they need to know about the intent of their captors and the futility of passivity. The rules for dealing with hijackings have changed. This vital information flowed from the phones of those on the first hijacked planes through CNN and the networks to those on the ground who are now talking to their friends and relatives in the air over Western Pennsylvania.
The passengers vote on whether or not to attack. The vote isn’t close; they know what they have to do.
The FAA now understands the magnitude of the challenge it faces but doesn’t know how many more planes have hijackers on board. At 9:42 after hearing from news sources that a plane has struck the Pentagon, it orders all planes in US airspace to land at the nearest suitable airport. Pilots and controllers handle this unprecedented order with great skill but all the planes with hijackers aboard have already been hijacked this day.
Communication between the FAA and NORAD is more formal and slower. Cleveland Center asks for military help with Flight 93 at 9:36. At 9:46 the FAA Command Center tells FAA HQ that Flight 93 is “twenty-nine minutes out of Washington, D.C.” At 9:49, the Command Center and Headquarters are talking.
HQ: They’re pulling Jeff away to talk about United 93.
CC: Uh, do we want to think, uh, about scrambling aircraft?
HQ: Oh, God, I don’t know.
CC: Uh, that’s a decision that somebody’s gonna have to make probably in the next ten minutes.
HQ: Uh, ya know everybody just left the room.
So NORAD does not know that Flight 93 has been hijacked. The fighters that scrambled from Otis and were sent out to sea, have now been ordered to New York City airspace. But the towers are already in flames.
Based on a false report that American 11 is headed towards Washington, two fighters are scrambled from Langley at 9:24. But a SNAFU in communications sends them out to sea.
At 9:36 Boston Center tells NORAD: “Latest report. Aircraft VFR six miles southeast of the White House.”
The NORAD mission controller takes control of the airspace and orders his jets back: “Okay, we’re going to crank them up. Crank it up. Run them to the White House…. I don’t care how many windows you break.” But Flight 77 has already hit the Pentagon.
Although they do not know it, the jets are now in a race with United 93.
On board Flight 93 at 9:57 the passenger counter-attack begins. One woman ends her call to the ground: “Everyone’s running up to first class. I’ve got to go. Bye.”
Todd Beamer of Cranbury, New Jersey says: “Let’s roll.”
The passengers charge forward in the aisle using a beverage cart as a shield against the hijackers’ knives. Some are slashed and stabbed but others continue.
In the cabin, one of the hijackers tells pilot Ziad Jarrah that they cannot hold off the passengers, that he should follow the alternative orders from Muhammad Atta and crash into Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant or some other high value target.
“Muhammad Atta sometimes thinks he is the Prophet Muhammad,” says Ziad. He tightens his grip on the controls. “To him does not belong all the glory. I will destroy the White House.” He orders the hijacker back out to fight the passengers. “Insh’Alláh,” he says to himself.
Ziad rolls the plane steeply to the left and then to the right in an attempt to knock the charging passengers off their feet. The assault on the cockpit continues and he can hear the cart battering at the door. He pitches the nose of the plane up and then down again. There is a sound of broken glass from the galley behind the cockpit. For a moment, the counterattack seems to have been quelled. Ziad levels the plane.
Immediately, the sound of fighting resumes.
“Is that it? Shall we finish it off?” Ziad asks.
“No. Not yet. When they all come we finish it off.”
Ziad pitches the nose up and down again. At 10:00:06 a passenger says: “In the cockpit. If we don’t, we’ll die.”
Another passenger shouts: “Roll it!”
“Alláh’u’akbar. Alláh’u’akbar,” Ziad chants. He levels the flight again and asks the hijacker behind him. “Is that it? I mean, shall we put it down?”
“Yes, put it in it, and pull it down.”
But Ziad continues to fly toward Washington. The other hijackers shout at him to crash the plane as they are overcome by the passengers. Twenty minutes flying time from his goal, Ziad gives up his personal jihad as the passengers break the door behind him. He pushes the nose steeply down and rolls the plane to its right.
“Alláh’u’akbar!” shout the hijackers.
The passengers continue to fight as Flight 93 crashes into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 580 miles per hour.
The Langley fighters are back over Washington shortly after the crash of Flight 93 and do not yet know about the hijacking of that flight. They would have been in position to intercept it if they had known about it. However, even had they intercepted it, they might have done nothing. Shortly after 10:10, somewhere over Washington, they are told by their controller who doesn’t know either that Flight 93 was hijacked or that it crashed: “Negative. Negative clearance to shoot.”
In fact, Vice President Cheney, now in the White House bunker, has given the order to shoot down airliners which are off track and don’t respond. Somehow this order meets impedance: some want the authority of the President; some are concerned with what the pilots will do when they get this command.
It is 10:39 when Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld talk.
VP: There’s been at least three instances where we’ve had reports of aircraft approaching Washington — a couple were confirmed hijack. And pursuant to the President’s instructions I gave orders to have them taken out. Hello?
SecDef: Yes, I understand. Who did you give the directions to?
VP: It was passed from here through the center at the White House, from the—
SecDef: Okay, let me ask the question here. Has that directive been transmitted to the aircraft?
VP: Yes, it has.
SecDef: So we have a couple of aircraft up there that have those instructions at this present time?
VP: That is correct. And it’s my understanding that they’ve already taken a couple of aircraft out.
SecDef: We can’t confirm that. We’re told that one aircraft is down but we don’t have a pilot report that did it.
The VP is wrong. As the Secretary apparently suspects, the order has not been given to the pilots who would have to carry it out. An aircraft headed for Washington is down short of its target, but it was not brought down by the jets.
The downed aircraft is Flight 93 — stopped by passengers who learned on their cell phones what had happened to the other hijacked flights. It was stopped because brave passengers on the earlier flights used their cell phones to describe what was happening. It was stopped because all this information was communicated chaotically and effectively by CNN and the other networks.
By any historic standard, the almost complete official mobilization of America within two hours of the first plane hitting the north tower is an extraordinary feat of formal communication despite the inevitable confusion and SNAFUs. But it is likely that the White House was saved by information that flowed to the passengers of Flight 93. They mobilized forty-six minutes after the first crash, acting on the information they had.