Terror Hits the Towers
How Government Officials Reacted
to Sept. 11 Attacks

Sept. 14 — Sept. 11, 2001, was a day filled with tragedy and horror for millions of Americans, and a day of intense pressure for government officials who had to decide moment by moment what to do.

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In dozens of exclusive interviews with ABCNEWS, Congressional leaders told of chaos on Capitol Hill, Cabinet secretaries described a war council deep in a secret bunker beneath the White House, generals and sergeants told of how they ramped up for a possible nuclear strike, and the president and vice president were said to have ordered U.S. pilots to shoot down any planes threatening the nation's capital.

The frenzied events that unfolded after the attack stood in stark contrast to the the way the morning of Sept. 11 began. The day dawned for most Americans as a crisp, clear, normal day — with newscasters discussing tax cuts, the weather and Michael Jordan's possible pro basketball comeback.

‘We Have a Hijacked Aircraft’

However, shortly after 8:30 a.m. ET, behind the scenes, word of a possible hijacking reached various stations of NORAD, the North American Air Defense Command, which was conducting training exercises and therefore had extra fighter planes on alert.

"First thing that went through my mind was, 'Is this part of the exercise? Is this some kind of a screw-up?'" said Air Force Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold, who was at a command center at the Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.

But the truth soon became evident.

"I picked up the line and identified myself to the Boston Center controller," said Air National Guard Lt. Col. Dawne Deskins, the mission crew chief for the exercise. "He said, 'Uh, we have a hijacked aircraft and I need you to get some sort of fighters out here to help us out."

Air Force Col. Robert Marr, who along with Deskins was at the National Guard's Northeast Air Defense Sector in Rome, N.Y. — also known as NEADS — got permission from Air Force Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold to scramble jets from Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, and they would be in the air headed toward New York by 8:52 a.m. ET.

But as American Airlines Flight 11 was crossing from Massachusetts to New York, it turned off its satellite transponder. That meant the 767 jet plane no longer was signaling its identity, altitude or speed, and therefore was lost amid more than 2,500 planes in the air over the Northeast.

‘Quite a Lot of Damage’

At 8:46 a.m. ET, officials still were looking for the jet when a plane — the one they were looking for, they would confirm later — plowed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York.

At 8:52 a.m. ET, ABCNEWS' Good Morning America broke in with a special report showing flames coming out of the World Trade Center.

"You can see quite a lot of damage," ABCNEWS' Don Dahler said minutes later from near the scene. "If it was an airplane, it had to be huge."

At the time, President Bush's motorcade was arriving at the Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., for a planned event when the pagers of his aides erupted in a cacophony of beeps and tones.

"Before the president goes into the school, [presidential adviser] Karl Rove and I and some others were standing there and informed him of this," said Dan Bartlett, assistant to the president for communications.

"The president was surprised," said Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary. "He thought it had to be an accident."

The president ducked into an empty classroom and called his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and asked her to keep him informed.

‘Bin Laden’s Fingerprints’

In Washington, CIA Director George Tenet and David Boren, former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, were having breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel three blocks from the White House.

"Out of the corner of my eye, I could see several people converging on our table," Boren said. "One of them said to George Tenet, 'Mr. Director, the World Trade tower has just been attacked by an airplane.' I was struck by the fact he used the word 'attacked.'"

An aide handed a cell phone to Tenet.

"After he … handed the cell phone back to his security person," Boren recalled, "he said to me, 'You know, this has bin Laden's fingerprints all over it.'"

‘Oh, My God’

At 9:03 a.m. ET, with television stations on the air live, a plane hit the World Trade Center's south tower.

"Oh, my God," ABCNEWS' Dahler exclaimed on the air.

"Oh, my God. Oh, my God," ABCNEWS' Diane Sawyer said.

"This looks like it is some sort of concerted effort to attack the World Trade Center that is under way," ABCNEWS' Charles Gibson said.

The F-16 fighter jets that had been scrambled from Otis Air National Guard Base, whose pilots were code-named "Duff" and "Nasty," called in for an update.

"At that point, they said the second aircraft just hit the World Trade Center," Air National Guard Lt. Col. "Duff" said. "That was news to me. I thought we were still chasing American [Airlines Flight] 11.

"We're 60 miles out, and I could see the smoke from the towers," he said. "At that point, obviously, everything changed."

"When the second aircraft flew into the second tower, it was at that point that we realized that the seemingly unrelated hijackings that the FAA was dealing with were in fact a part of a coordinated terrorist attack on the United States," said Army Brig. Gen. W. Montague Winfield, who was at the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon, and alerted the top brass there.

‘America Is Under Attack’

President Bush was in the middle of a reading lesson with second-graders when the second plane hit, and was not immediately aware of it.

"It all came to a blinding moment of realization when the president's chief of staff walked over to the president and whispered to him," said Ann Compton, covering the Bush appearance for ABCNEWS. "Nobody interrupts the president, not even in front of a second-grade classroom."

"I tried to be very efficient with my words," said Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff. "I knew this was not the place to stand and have a conversation with the president. … I said, 'A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.'"

"The president's eyes got wide … and the face told it all," Compton said, noting that "something terribly grave. … Something beyond imagining" happened around 9:07 a.m. ET, according to her notes.

"I think there was a moment of shock, and he did stare off maybe for just a second," Card said.

The president waited for a moment for the students to finish, then said, "Thank you all so very much for showing me your reading skills," and headed for the empty classroom next door.

"We had found a television … and they were replaying the crash over and over again," Card said.

‘He Had Tears in His Eyes’

"The president said, 'I'm going to need to make a statement before we leave here,'" Rove recalled.

The appearance made a lasting impression on the children.

"He was red, and I seen that he had tears in his eyes, so I knew something bad had really, really happened," said Byron Mitchell, a fifth-grader. "His face was just red and … his lips were just trembling."

"He kind of stuttered when he talked, and he kind of said it all slowly," said Micheal Andrews, another fifth-grader.

"Today, we've had a national tragedy," Bush said. "Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country."

Sept. 11 Scramble
A Plane Hits the Pentagon; Bush Takes Flight; Others Give Orders From Bunkers

Sept. 14 — As President Bush told Americans the crash of two jets into New York's World Trade Center appeared to be the work of terrorists, the Secret Service was springing into action at the White House.

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Just after 9 a.m. ET on Sept. 11, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney was in his West Wing office when two or three agents came in and told him "Sir, you have to come with us," according to David Bohrer, a White House photographer who was there.

One of the agents "put his hand on the back of my belt, grabbed me by the shoulder and sort of propelled me down the hallway," Cheney said.

They took him into an underground bunker known as PEOC, the President's Emergency Operations Center.

"It's got blast doors on each end," Cheney said. "There's a secure phone there as well as a television set."

Up above, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, whom President Bush had telephoned after the first plane hit the World Trade Center's north tower, was trying to find the rest of the president's team. But Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Peru. Attorney General John Ashcroft was in the air. And Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh was at a conference in Montana.

"As I was trying to find all of the principals," Rice said, "the Secret Service came in and said, 'You have to leave now for the bunker. The vice president's already there. There may be a plane headed for the White House. There are a lot of planes in the air that are not responding properly.'"

‘We Just Lost the Bogey’

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta already was in the bunker.

"Someone came in and said, 'Mr. Vice President, there's a plane out 50 miles,'" Mineta said.

Mineta conferred with Federal Aviation Administration Deputy Chief Monte Belger.

"I said … 'Monte, what do you have?'" Mineta said. "He said, 'Well, we're watching this target on the radar, but the transponder's been turned off, so we have no identification.'"

As the plane got closer, air officials had picked up enough information to believe the unidentified plane was headed toward Washington, perhaps toward Ronald Reagan National Airport, near the Pentagon.

At 9:30 a.m. ET, at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, F-16 fighter pilots scrambled into the air 105 miles — or 12 minutes — south of Washington.

"Our supervisor picked up our line to the White House," said Danielle O'Brien, an air traffic controller at an FAA facility near Washington's Dulles Airport, "and started relaying to them the information: 'We have an unidentified, very fast-moving aircraft inbound toward your vicinity, eight miles west, seven miles west.' And it went, '6, 5, 4.'"

"Pretty soon, he said, 'Uh oh, we just lost the bogey,' meaning the target went off the screen," Mineta said. "So I said, 'Well, where is it?' And he said, 'Well, we're not really sure.'"

‘Bang, the Airplane Hits the Building’

At 9:38 a.m. ET, 52 minutes after the first attack on New York's World Trade Center, Allan Wallace, a firefighter with the Fort Myer Fire Department in Northern Virginia, was on duty next to the helicopter landing pad on the west side of the Pentagon.

"I look up and see the airplane," Wallace said. "I hear the noise from the airplane and bang, the airplane hits the building. And that's how fast it happened."

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld felt the impact on the fourth floor of the Pentagon, around the corner from the crash site.

"The whole building jumped," he said. "The table shook and the building shook, and … it felt like a bomb had hit the building.

"I went downstairs and went outside, and around the corner, and of course there it was," Rumsfeld said. "There was metal all over the grass, and there were people coming out of the building hurt, and people were assisting them."

"Everything around the firetruck and the fire station, including the blacktop that surrounds the fire truck, was on fire," Wallace said. "There were trees alongside the Pentagon that the leaves were on fire."

‘We’re At War’

High overhead, the jet fighters arrived just moments too late.

One of the pilots, Air National Guard Maj. Brad Derrig, recalled "looking down and actually seeing the Pentagon burning — you know, big black smoke billowing out of it," he said. "And I'm thinking, 'We're at war.'"

Army Brig. Gen. W. Montague Winfield, at the Pentagon, put together a secret conference call including the White House, Air Force One and other government officials.

Rumsfeld ordered U.S. forces to "Def-Con Three," the highest alert for the nuclear arsenal in 30 years.

"The smoke got intense at one point," said Air Force Gen Richard Myers, working his first day as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "I actually recommended to [Rumsfeld] maybe we ought to think about an alternate location."

"I decided I'd prefer to stay," Rumsfeld said.

Instead, Rumsfeld sent his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to a secret, remote bunker where there is a duplicate of the Pentagon's command and control system.

‘This Can’t Be Happening to Us’

As the plane hit the Pentagon, it literally reverberated in congressional corridors, and congressmen could see smoke rising. Police warned congressional leaders the Capitol building could be next.

"People were just as fearful as I've seen," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "I saw looks in senators' faces, looks in staff faces that I've never seen before."

Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., the speaker of the House of Representatives, said: "I'm thinking to myself, 'Here I am, speaker of the House, something I never dreamed would ever happen to me, and we're evacuating the Capitol. This can't be happening to us.'"

Hastert, third in the line of succession to the presidency, was placed in a secure automobile and soon found himself "hurtling through the back streets of Washington," he said.

"We were like everybody else," said House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo. "We were in complete chaos."

Some leaders rushed to the west front of the Capitol, where military helicopters awaited.

"We flew over the Pentagon," Daschle said. "We saw the remnants of an airplane into the side of the Pentagon, with this whole facade caved in, with black smoke and thousands of people gathering around. It was a terrible sight."

‘Wheels Up in Nanoseconds’

In Florida, the president virtually was shoved aboard Air Force One, as other officials and reporters were prodded to race aboard.

"As the president sat down in his chair, [he] motioned to the chair across from his desk for me to sit down," White House adviser Karl Rove said. "Before we could, both of us, sit down and put on our seat belts, they were rolling the plane. And they stood that 747 on its tail and got it about 45,000 feet as quick as I think you can get a big thing like that up in the air."

The plane was in the air by 9:55 a.m. ET.

"It seemed we were 'wheels up' in nanoseconds," said Ellen Eckert, a White House stenographer. "The chatter in the press section of the plane where I was sitting was, 'Where are we going? Where are we going?' And we were looking out the windows trying to see if we could figure out geographically where we were going."

That's exactly what President Bush was being asked to decide.

"He said, 'I'm coming back,'" said Rice, who was on the other end of a phone line in the White House bunker. "And I said, 'You may not want to do that, Mr. President, because Washington's under attack. We don't know where the next attack is coming.'"

She said the vice president gave Bush similar advice.

"There was a little bit of pulling and pushing with him to suggest that we should fly to a secure location where we could have good communication, and then make a decision when he should return to Washington," White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said.

At that point, Secret Service agents were suggesting to reporters aboard Air Force One that they would not be returning to Washington.

‘Get the Damn Planes Down’

Deep beneath the White House, Transportation Secretary Mineta issued an unprecedented order to have planes approaching the Eastern Seaboard turn around and head west, westbound planes keep heading west, and planes near their destinations land. At the time, more than 4,000 planes were in the skies over the United States.

FAA policy normally allows pilots to use their own discretion on where to land in an emergency, but on this morning, "I said, 'Screw pilot discretion. Get the damn planes down,'" Mineta said.

Up above, the Secret Service ordered the White House staff to evacuate.

"As soon as we were outside, Secret Service agents told us to run," said Jennifer Millerwise, press secretary to the vice president. "One of them yelled, you know, 'Women, take off your heels and run. Take off your heels and run.' And so I did."

At that point, dozens of fighters were buzzing in the sky, as more F-16s scrambled at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

"We were told to get airborne and protect the capital," Air Force Capt. Brandon Rasmussen said. "It never in my wildest dreams occurred to me that one day I'd be orbiting over the Pentagon that had just been hit, looking for possible incoming aircraft."

‘You’re Going to Have to Shoot It Down’

In the Pentagon command center, there was a report of another hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93, which apparently had switched off its transponder and turned toward Washington.

"We rapidly developed some rules of engagement for what our military aircraft might do in the event another aircraft appeared to be heading into some large civilian structure or population," Rumsfeld said.

"They said if we get … another one of these, you're going to have to shoot it down," recalled a fighter pilot code-named "Nasty," who was still airborne after responding to the first report of a hijacked plane.

Shoot-Down Orders
Another Hijacked 9/11 Plane Threatened D.C.; Officials Saw Few Options

Sept. 15 — Just before 10 a.m. ET on Sept. 11, 2001, jet fighters were swarming around the nation's capital.

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Only minutes before, a hijacked airplane had struck the Pentagon, and little more than an hour had passed since the first of two hijacked jets hit New York's World Trade Center.

"This is the first time in my career that I ever actually wanted to go out and use my airplane to kill someone," said Air National Guard Maj. Dean Eckmann, a fighter pilot who had been dispatched from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia minutes before the Pentagon was hit.

But that was not yet an option — even as another aircraft, United Airlines Flight 93, was believed hijacked and headed for Washington.

‘You Had to Do Something Instantaneously’

President Bush, in his cabin aboard Air Force One, and Vice President Dick Cheney, in a bunker beneath the White House, were mulling their next move.

Cheney had compiled a list of possible threats from the air, with tail numbers of planes "that we couldn't account for," he said.

"Eventually, it narrowed to Flight 93," said David Bohrer, a White House photographer who was there. "That was … the biggest threat at that point, knowing that the plane was hijacked."

Aides saw a trajectory that might take the plane right to Washington.

"You just had to do something instantaneously," Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said.

The target might be "probably the White House or Capitol," Cheney said. "We learned later from interviewing the people who were detained, al Qaeda members reporting that — from some of them — that the fourth plane was intended for the White House."

‘Order to Shoot Down a Civilian Plane’

President Bush made a grim decision.

"The significance of saying to a pilot that you are authorized to shoot down a plane full of Americans is an order that had never been given before," Cheney said.

"The president did give the order to shoot down a civilian plane if it was not responding properly," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said. "And it was authority requested through channels by [Defense] Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The vice president passed the request. The president said 'yes.'"

"This was a very difficult, difficult proposition," Cheney said. "If we'd had been able to intercept the planes before they hit the World Trade Center, would we? And the answer was absolutely yes."

The vice president called military commanders and notified them of the presidential order.

"In the National Military Command Center [at the Pentagon], everything stopped for a short second as the impact of those words sunk in," Army Brig. Gen. W. Montague Winfield said.

Air Force Col. Robert Marr, commander of the Northeast Air Defense Sector in Rome, N.Y., also got the call.

"The words that I remember as clear as day … [were], 'We will take lives in the air to preserve lives on the ground,'" Marr said. "And we, of course, passed that on to the pilots: … United Airlines Flight 93 will not be allowed to reach Washington, D.C."

‘Times That You Have to Make Sacrifices’

The closest fighters were two F-16 jets flown by pilots on a training mission from Selfridge Air National Guard Base near Detroit.

But there was a problem.

"The real scary part is that those guys are up there on a training mission [so] they don't have any weapons on board they can use," Marr said. "The first question that came from my mission crew commander — the individual that is in charge of the operations force — [was] 'Well, sir, what are they going to do?' I said, 'We're going to put them as close to that airplane as we could in view of the cockpit and convince that guy in the airplane that he needs to land.'"

If that didn't work, Marr suggested, the pilots might have to take the commercial plane down by crashing into it.

"As a military man, there are times that you have to make sacrifices that you have to make," Marr said.

At first, the outcome seemed unclear.

"At some point, the closure time came and went, and nothing happened, so you can imagine everything was very tense at the NMCC," Winfield said of the National Military Command Center. "We had basically lost … situational awareness of where this airplane was."

Actually, Flight 93 was about 175 miles northwest of Washington, over Somerset County, Pa.

‘The Ground Just Shook’

On the ground in Shanksville, Pa., Assistant Volunteer Fire Chief Rick King, the proprietor of Ida's Country Store, was talking by phone with his sister Jody about the New York and Washington attacks.

He recalled: "She said to me, 'Rick, I hear a plane,' and I said, 'Yeah,' and she said, 'It's really loud.'"

Just outside Shanksville, Valencia McClatchey was startled by the noise and looked out her window to catch a glimpse of "a reflection of the sun hitting on something."

"I could hear the engines screaming," King said. "Seconds later it hit, and I remember, the ground just shook. Everything underneath my feet just rumbled."

"It almost jolted me to the point of losing my balance," McClatchey said.

She grabbed her camera and snapped a photo of what she saw.

"It was very startling against the clear blue sky to see that, a huge ball of smoke coming up," McClatchey said.

‘Smell of Jet Fuel, Burned Flesh’

Shanksville Fire Chief Terry Shaffer called the local 911 center and headed for the scene, where he recalled "a smell that you'll never forget — a smell of jet fuel, burned flesh."

"Pulling into the crash site, I remember just seeing vehicles everywhere, firefighters' vehicles, other fire department vehicles, just a lot of confusion," Shaffer said.

"When I got there," King said, "I wondered to myself, 'What is it?' … The plane was just totally disintegrated.

"After about the first five or 10 minutes, we realized that we didn't have any survivors," King added.

Soon, Wallace Miller, the Somerset County coroner, arrived.

"You could see all kinds of stuff hanging out of the trees, like socks and pieces of suitcase, and luggage, and seat covers and seat belts," Miller said.

"The only thing we didn't see were people," King said.

"Nothing to indicate that there was even anybody on the plane," Miller said.

‘An Act of Heroism’

Up above, a fighter jet streaked by, and at about 10:03 a.m. ET Winfield got the report that Flight 93 had crashed.

"Eventually, of course, we never fired on any aircraft," Cheney said.

Cheney said he thought to himself at that moment, "We just witnessed an act of heroism."

  • Moments of Crisis: Part 4 — Post-Attack Tremors

ABCNEWS' Charles Gibson contributed to this report.