On September 11, 2001, the United States was the target of multiple terrorist attacks, when members of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda hijacked four airplanes, flying one into the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and two into the World Trade Center in New York City. A fourth plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after people on board attempted to thwart its hijackers. Nearly three thousand people were killed in what was the worst terrorist attack in US history. The events of 9/11 helped precipitate the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the loss of many more lives, and huge economic repercussions that would continue to affect the United States in the decades that followed.
The Morning of September 11, 2001
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, ninety-two people boarded American Airlines Flight 11 at the Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts. The flight—which was bound for Los Angeles, California—took off at 7:59 a.m. Fifteen minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175, also headed for Los Angeles, took off from the same airport with sixty-five people aboard. A few minutes later, as Flight 11 veered off path, crew members alerted ground personnel that the plane had been hijacked, and a minute later, American Airlines Flight 77, with sixty-four people aboard and bound for Los Angeles, flew out of Dulles International Airport near Washington, DC.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was notified of the possible Flight 11 hijacking, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) alerted North American Aerospace Defense Command’s (NORAD) Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) about the incident after the flight veered off course. NEADS organized a mission for two fighter planes to locate Flight 11 to attempt to escort the plane to safety. At this time, United Airlines Flight 93, which had been delayed about forty minutes and was carrying forty-four people, took off from Newark International Airport in New Jersey and headed toward San Francisco, California.
At 8:46 a.m., the hijackers aboard Flight 11 had navigated the plane into New York City airspace, maneuvering the plan dangerously close to several skyscrapers and then crashing the plane into the north tower of the World Trade Center (WTC). The plane struck between floors ninety-three and ninety-nine, leaving a huge fiery hole in the building. Everyone on board the aircraft was killed along with hundreds of people inside the building. Seconds later, people began to evacuate the burning north tower as firefighters, police officers, and other emergency personnel were dispatched to the scene. At first, people struggled to figure out what had happened, and many people believed the crash was an accident as they did not know the plane had been overtaken by hijackers. Various media outlets rushed to the scene to report, and President George W. Bush (1946–), who was visiting a school in Florida, was notified of the incident.
By 9:00 a.m., the evacuation of the south tower had begun, and more than ten thousand people scrambled to escape the mayhem. At 9:03 a.m., live media broadcasts captured a second plane, Flight 175, as it crashed into the south tower between floors seventy-five and eighty-five. Everyone aboard the plane and hundreds of people inside the south tower were killed. After this crash, officials realized that the hijacker were using the planes to attack strategic targets, and the FAA banned all flights around New York City immediately afterward and officials gave orders to close bridges and tunnels.
The FAA suspected another hijacking after Flight 77 crew members and passengers began calling family members and other officials. At 9:31, President Bush announced that the country was under an “apparent terrorist attack.” Six minutes later, hijackers crashed Flight 77 into the western side of the Pentagon building in Washington, DC, killing nearly two hundred people on the plane and inside the Pentagon, igniting a structure fire, and causing a partial collapse of the building. The FAA grounded all flights in the continental United States at 9:42 a.m., and airplanes already in the air spent the next few hours landing at various airports across the country and in Canada. A few minutes later, the White House, the Capitol building, and other Washington, DC, landmarks were evacuated. Back in New York City, where many people were in complete shock, the south tower of the WTC collapsed at 9:59 a.m.
Aboard Flight 93, which had also been hijacked, people had begun to hear reports of the attacks in New York City and Washington, DC. Around 10:00 a.m., several passengers and crew members attempted to regain control of the plane as they realized the nefarious plans of the hijackers. Despite the efforts of the passengers and crew, Flight 93 crashed into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. No one aboard the plane survived the crashed, and investigators never determined the destination the hijackers had intended to attack, though it seemed the destination was most likely somewhere in Washington, DC.
In New York City, the north tower of the WTC, whose internal structure had weakened significantly from the extremely hot fire fueled by jet fuel, collapsed at 10:28 a.m. As emergency personnel continued to search for survivors at the site, New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani (1944–) called for Lower Manhattan to be evacuated, and the president put US military forces on high alert. As the search for survivors continued into the evening, a building known as Seven World Trade Center near the north and south towers collapsed at 5:20 p.m. Several people, mostly rescue workers, were injured, but no one was killed because of that building’s collapse. President Bush—who had been transferred to several locations throughout the United States during the day due to safety concerns—returned to the White House around 7:00 p.m., and he addressed the nation about the terrorist attacks on television two hours later.
The terrorist attacks left the country feeling devastated and vulnerable; however, it also pulled many people together, as they volunteered their time to search the rubble at the site of the WTC for survivors, donated blood to help survivors, and showed signs of support for those directly impacted by the attacks. Nearly 3,000 people perished during the 9/11 attacks, including 343 firefighters and paramedics, 23 New York City police officers, and 37 Port Authority police officers who worked to evacuate the city and rescue people. Only six people inside the WTC during the collapses survived, and about ten thousand people were injured during the attacks.
The United States quickly learned that the hijackers were a group of nineteen Islamic terrorists from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates. They had been working for the terrorist organization al-Qaeda under the direction of the group’s leader, Osama bin Laden (1957–2011). Bin Laden personally took responsibility for the attacks in a tape released in December 2001, and bin Laden explained that the attacks were in response to the United States’ continued support of Israel, the Persian Gulf War (1990–1991), and America’s military presence in the Middle East. Many of the terrorists involved in the plot had been living in the United States for some time and had enrolled in American flight schools to prepare for their hijacking missions. They chose long-distance flights because the planes would be carrying large amounts of fuel, which the terrorists correctly surmised would help fuel fires and increase carnage. The hijackers successful smuggled box cutters and knives through security checkpoints at the airports, and the weapons allowed the terrorists to take control of all four planes quickly after takeoff, after which they employed their limited knowledge of flying (learned in the flight schools) to maneuver planes to their targets.
The cleanup of the WTC site, which became known as Ground Zero, took months. In addition, 9/11 had an economic impact on the country, with losses in the billions of dollars. In response to the attacks, the government created the Department of Homeland Security, streamlined other federal agencies, and put other systems into place in response to the terror attacks. In an effort to thwart al-Qaeda and capture bin Laden, the United States began a war in Afghanistan (2001–2014) on October 7, 2001. US officials believed that the Taliban, the ruling force in Afghanistan, was providing protection to bin Laden, and they took military action against them. The US military formally declared an end to the war in 2014 and switched to a smaller counterterrorism mission. Bin Laden was finally located and killed in 2011. In March 2003, the United States entered its second war in Iraq (2003–2011), continuing to fight the war on terror. Both wars cost trillions of dollars, led to the deaths of nearly seven thousand American troops and more than one hundred thousand Afghans and Iraqis, and injured about millions of American soldiers and civilians living in the countries. Despite these losses, US forces remained in these regions into the 2020s. President Joe Biden (1942–) announced in April 2021 the withdrawal of all remaining troops in Afghanistan by September 2021. He also announced the end of combat missions in Iraq by the end of 2021.