Bush to Address Nation; Explosions Reported in Afghanistan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 11, 2001; 5:52 p.m.
President Bush placed the military on “high alert” today and returned to Washington to address a nation deeply shaken by devastating terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center towers, seriously damaged the Pentagon and killed all those aboard four commercial airliners.
The president, who condemned the attacks and vowed revenge as he traveled from Florida to Louisiana to Nebraska, planned an evening televised speech from a capital city under greater overt military security than at any time since World War II.
In a coordinated, unprecedented terrorist attack, hijackers commandered four commercial airliners and destroyed New York’s World Trade Center towers and killed or injured hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of people.
Dozens of injured workers at the Pentagon were rushed to area hospitals, but reports of explosions at the State Department and the Capitol proved unfounded.
The U.S. government has evidence that the terrorists may be connected to fugitive terrorist Osama bin Laden, senior officials told the Washington Post. Bin Laden, believed to live in hiding in Afghanistan under the protection of the fundamentalist Taliban regime, has been indicted for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa and has been linked to last year’s attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen and to the failed plots to set off bombs at the dawn of the new millennium.
Taliban officials denied any role by Bin Laden in the attacks.
U.S. military and intelligence organizations seemed to be caught utterly by surprise. Sources said the military had not viewed hijacked commercial airplanes as serious threats that could plow into the Pentagon, White House or other facilities.
Four commercial airliners -- one traveling from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles, two departing from Boston and one from Newark, N.J. -- were hijacked and crashed, officials said. All those aboard were presumed dead.
The stunning events brought the nation to a virtual standstill. All commercial flights were ordered to land, all major airports were closed, and countless events were canceled nationwide. Officials evacuated all federal buildings in Washington, creating a late-morning downtown scene of chaos and gridlock. Lower Manhattan became a devastating scene of smoke, dust and sobbing, terrified people.
All four airliners involved were starting cross-country flights, and therefore were loaded with fuel when they crashed:
* American Airlines Flight 77 from Dulles to Los Angeles -- a Boeing 757 with 58 passengers, four flight attendants and two pilots -- crashed next to the Pentagon, setting the building ablaze.
* American Airlines Flight 11 -- a Boeing 767 bound from Boston to Los Angeles, with 81 passengers, nine flight attendants and two pilots -- crashed into the World Trade Center.
* United Airlines Flight 175 -- a Boeing 767 bound from Boston to Los Angeles, with 56 passengers, two pilots and seven flight attendants -- also crashed into the World Trade Center.
* United Flight 93 -- bound from Newark to San Francisco with 38 passengers, two pilots and five flight attendants -- crashed in western Pennsylvania just north of the Somerset County Airport, near Jennerstown. U.S. Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) said after a Marine Corps briefing in Washington that the flight apparently was intended for Camp David, the presidential retreat in the mountains of Maryland, AP reported. The crash site was 85 miles northwest of Camp David.
President Bush, who was in Florida when the attacks began in lower Manhattan, was temporarily flown to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. From there he announced that the U.S. military was on “high-alert status,” adding: “Freedom itself was attacked this morning and I assure you freedom will be defended. Make no mistake. The United States will hunt down and pursue those responsible for these cowardly actions.”
Air Force One landed in the afternoon near Omaha, Neb., at Offutt Air Force Base, headquarters of the Strategic Air Command. “The president wants to return to Washington as quickly as possible,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. “He arrived in Nebraska as a security precaution. He will convene a meeting of the National Security Council via teleconference from the Air Force Base.”
McClellan said at about 3 p.m. that Bush had talked several times to Vice President Cheney, and to First Lady Laura Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, New York Mayor Giuliani, New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism expert at the Congressional Research Service, said the devastating attacks represented an intelligence failure of “catastrophic proportions.”
“How nothing could have ben picked up is beyond me—way beyond me,” Katzman told the Post. “There’s a major, major intelligence failure, specially since the [previous] Trade Center bombing produced such an investigation of the networks and so much monitoring.”
CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield responded that “the CIA has worked diligently and relentlessly to counter terrorism. Our resources are being devoted to determing who was repsonsible for these horrendous attacks, and it doesn’t serve any useful purpose to respond to such criticism.”
The number of people killed in Manhattan was not immediately known, but officials feared devastating casualty counts from the collapse of the twin 110-story towers. About 50,000 people normally work there, but many had not arrived by 8:50 a.m. EDT when the first plane crashed.
Workers began evacuating, but the second tower was hit about 18 minutes later. A short time later the first tower, and then the second, crumbled into horrific heaps of smoke and dust as Americans watched incredulously on television. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said he feared “a horrendous number” of people were killed.
At about 9:30 a.m., the American Airlines plane from Dulles crashed near the Pentagon, which burst into flames. A portion of one side of the five-sided structure collapsed. Secondary explosions were reported in the aftermath of the attack and great billows of smoke drifted skyward toward the Potomac River.
Authorities immediately began deploying troops, including a regiment of light infantry. Before leaving Florida, Bush pledged to use “the full resources of the federal government to help the victims and their families” and “to hunt down and find those folks who committed these acts.”
“This is the second Pearl Harbor. I don’t think that I overstate it,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).
Although officials had no direct information this morning linking him to the attacks, fugitive terrorist Osama bin Laden is automatically considered the leading suspect behind the bombings, a senior government official said.
The federal government shut down national landmarks across the country, including the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty and the St. Louis Gateway Arch, according to the National Park Service. The FBI deployed all personnel under the assumption that the United States had suffered a coordinated terrorist attack. All FBI offices were put on full alert, and offices near the outside windows of the J. Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington were evacuated. All personnel moved to interior locations safer from the effects of an outside attack.
The Associated Press reported anguished responses by people throughout the nation:
* “The fact is that there is a level of sophistication and coordination that no counter-terrorism expert had ever previously anticipated, and we don’t have a group that we can immediately identify that has this kind of capability.” — Anthony Cordesman, a terrorism expert from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
* “All of a sudden there were people screaming. I saw people jumping out of the building. Their arms were flailing. I stopped taking pictures and started crying.” — Michael Walters, a freelance photo journalist in Manhattan.
* “This is perhaps the most audacious terrorist attack that’s ever taken place in the world. It takes a logistics operation from the terror group involved that is second to none. Only a very small handful of terror groups is on that list.” — Chris Yates, an aviation expert at Jane’s Transport magazine.
* “I just saw my two towers fall. I’m devastated beyond belief. In many respects this is significantly worse than Pearl Harbor, and we don’t know who the enemy is.” — Lewis Eisenberg, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the World Trade Center.
* “I just can’t believe what’s happened. God, my heart goes out to all of these people, believe me. I just hope there is justice.” — Martha Ridley, whose daughter died in the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.