The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sept. 11, 2001: An ordinary work day, then surreal scenes of dread and death

They boarded planes, went to their offices at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. Some wouldn’t survive.

The New York City skyline with World Trade Center’s twin towers in the center, circa 1990. (AP)
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This story was originally published in The Washington Post on Sept. 16, 2001.

A few minutes before 8, Tuesday morning. The day had broken clean and clear and sweet on the East Coast. Summer was over mentally, if not officially.

It was time to get to work, and people were up and at it. The saddest and most relentlessly horrific day in modern American existence started in the most ordinary ways.

American Airlines Flight 11 had backed away from Gate 26 of Terminal B at Boston’s Logan Airport and was rolling toward the runway for a six-hour flight to Los Angeles. Edmund Glazer, in Seat 4A, first class, heard the flight attendant instruct the passengers to put away their cellphones and computers, but could not resist punching in his wife Candy’s number anyway.

He’d left her in the darkness of their Wellesley home and driven away in their black SUV. He was a top financial guy for a high-tech firm, and though business was rough, life seemed good. He’d lost 40 pounds. He and Candy were feeling close. He was on board.

“Hi, hon. I made it,” he said.

A few minutes later, Steve Miller was getting off the subway at the Fulton Street exit in Lower Manhattan. The digital clock on the side of the Century 21 building read 8:09. He stopped at a deli for an ice coffee and a scone and moved on, passing a farmers market. He made a note to himself: Get back here later to buy veggies for dinner. Then into 2 World Trade Center at the Liberty Street entrance and up the elevator to the 78th floor, out again, across the lobby to another elevator, and off at the 80th, and over to his desk for Mizuho Bank, where he was a computer systems administrator. He was a married man of 39, thinking of starting a family, but not surrendering to middle age. On his two large computer monitors he had taped a photo of Britney Spears and an old tabloid headline, “Die You Vile Scum.”

A red bag was draped over his seat, a survival pack that had been distributed to each of Mizuho’s employees after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Inside: flashlight, glow stick, and a hood you can slip over your head to help you breathe. Miller sat down and took off his shoes, a new pair of brown leathers that he was still breaking in. He looked out at the glorious view east toward the heart of the financial district and the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge. The office’s telephone systems manager came by, a spirited young woman named Hope Romano. “Hi, Hope,” he said.

Across the skyscraper chasm, up on the 106th floor of 1 World Trade Center, the northern of the twin towers, Adam White was already at work. He liked to be in place by 7:30 after making the hour-long subway haul from his industrial loft in east Brooklyn. He was one of the eager kids at the huge bond brokerage firm, Cantor Fitzgerald. Blue-eyed, upbeat, only 25 and a few years out of the University of Colorado, where he climbed mountains and acted and took environmental studies. He was using that interest in his job, traveling around the world for a program that helped power plants broker and trade emission credits. He had told his mother in suburban Baltimore that he would be in the office all week before leaving Friday for business in Rio.

The prosaic poetry of what passes for workaday life, all around, even in places and among people accustomed to danger. Sheila Moody had reported for her first day on the job as an accountant at the Pentagon, off the Metro and inside her office — first floor, E-Ring, Corridor 4, Room 472 — before sunrise so that she could fill out reams of administrative paperwork. Matt Rosenberg was down on Corridor 8, a medic at the health clinic in the massive military headquarters, grateful for an uninterrupted hour in which he could study a new medical emergency disaster plan based on the unlikely scenario of an airplane crashing into the place. At Dulles Airport, Capt. Charles Burlingame, who had been a Navy F-4 pilot and once worked on anti-terrorism strategies in the Pentagon, was steering his 757, American Airlines Flight 77, down the runway for the long flight to Los Angeles. Plenty of empty seats in his cabin, like several other cross-country trips at that hour.

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Real people, not characters in a movie, yet all of them soon to be caught up in surreal scenes of dread and death and horror organized by perpetrators who seemed to understand perfectly the symbols and theatrics of American culture. People surviving or dying in ways at once shudderingly alien and hauntingly familiar, if only on celluloid. People rendered speechless by what they witnessed. People making selfless choices, some leading to death. People allowed only the choice of how to die, reduced to a hand or a limbless corpse on the street. People in their own isolated hells yet somehow connected to one another and to the entire world by spectacular technology that could spread their voices and their images and do everything but save the doomed among them.

“American, this is Boston Center. How do you read?”

The flight carrying Edmund Glazer to Los Angeles was about 20 minutes out of Logan when the call of concern came from air traffic control. They had given the go-ahead for the flight to climb to 31,000 feet, but nothing happened, no word from Capt. Jim Ogonowski or his co-pilot Tom McGuinness.

Nothing from the transponder, a device that sends an airplane’s airline identification, flight number, speed and altitude to the radar screens.

Somewhere above Albany, the plane veered off its flight path, heading south down the Hudson River, the water gleaming in the morning sun.

What happened next is to a large degree forever unknowable. Anyone who saw any of it is dead. But a few voices apparently made their way to the outside world first. Betty Ong, a flight attendant, was able to call her supervisor back in Boston and report that the plane had been hijacked.

There were five hijackers, she said, and one person aboard the plane had been stabbed. Then, intermittently, traffic controllers were able to pick up snatches of conversation from AA-11′s cockpit. A push-to-talk button that allows pilots to communicate with air traffic control while their hands are on the controls was going on and off. Among the alarming snippets of conversation heard: “We have more planes. We have other planes.”

Then nothing again, as the jetliner buzzed toward Lower Manhattan. Rob Marchesano, a construction foreman, was working at a site at La Guardia Street and West Third. He heard a roar overhead, and saw a plane flying by, low and fast and at an angle that at first made him fear that it would hit his crane. He and his co-workers watched in astonishment and then horror as the plane approached the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He noticed that the plane seemed to tilt at the last second, as though someone wanted the wings to take out as many floors as possible.

At 8:47, Steve Miller was leaning back in his chair, trying to figure out ways to avoid the drudgery of work. He could hear traders across the office floor talking loudly into their phones. Disembodied voices from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange were coming over the loudspeakers. A television was turned to MSNBC. Then came a strange sound. High-pitched. Whoosh! He walked to the window and saw an enormous swirl of paper and dust. It looked to him like a ticker-tape parade, except that made no sense.

A man burst onto the floor and shouted, “Get out! Get out!” Something had struck the other tower. Miller didn’t know what to think. He sat down and put on his shoes, then followed his colleagues out.

“Everyone get out!” a woman shouted in the hallway, arms flailing. They filed down the stairs, three across, without speaking, the only sounds at first their breathing and the shuffle of shoes hitting cement steps. After a few floors, the pace slowed and more people joined in the descent.

“What’s going on?” a man asked.

“I don’t know,” said another.

“Shut up!” said a third.

There was a faint sour odor. Miller concentrated on getting down the stairs and keeping his breathing steady. He thought of his wife, Rhonda, back in Brooklyn. Call her, he thought. The floors were passing slowly. Seventy-seven … seventy-five … seventy-two …

“Move it!” someone shouted.


“Shut up!”

67 … 59 … 55 … 53.

Everyone stopped. Miller was not sure why. He was tired, and saw an open door. He stepped out of the hallway into a trading office and heard a voice over the building’s loudspeaker: THERE’S A FIRE IN TOWER ONE. TOWER TWO IS UNAFFECTED. IF YOU WANT TO LEAVE, YOU CAN LEAVE. IF YOU WANT TO RETURN TO YOUR OFFICE, IT’S OKAY.

Miller walked to the elevator bank where he found a group of people including his friend and colleague Hope Romano.

“This is so scary,” he said, hugging her.

“Yeah, it really is,” she said.

The elevator door opened, going up, and they got on with the crowd, 10 or 15 people. Miller felt uneasy about it; what if the elevator broke down and they were all stuck? He slipped out, and looked back at his friend. “Hope, I don't think you should go up,” he said. The door closed before she could answer.

He walked into an office to find a telephone and saw a cluster of people over by the window, looking out. “Oh, my God!” one shouted. “They’re jumping. People are jumping!”

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Inside the North Tower, there was the same stairwell exodus, though the intensity was perhaps tenfold, even among those who were as yet unaware of exactly what had happened. Bomb? Earthquake? Their building was on fire, and shaking. Fire marshals were on the stairwells, urging people to walk on the right and keep moving. People were fainting, collapsing, being passed along overhead so they wouldn’t slow the escape too much. Down in the lobby of the Marriott hotel that straddles the towers stood Ron Clifford, a businessman in from New Jersey, the appointment that was to take him upstairs suddenly rendered irrelevant. In the haze he saw a woman coming toward him, with hideous burns all over her body. He found some water to put on her wounds and tried to comfort her, not leaving her side.

High above, on those floors in the nineties and hundreds, including the floors of young Adam White’s firm, Cantor Fitzgerald, there were no stairwells to reach, no ways out, except the windows and free-falling down a thousand feet. Some were in the inferno itself, others were just above it, the walls and floors crumbled, the heat rising. They had time to contemplate their fate, to call their wives and mothers and best friends, but then what? From the window of his apartment building on North Moore Street in Tribeca, author Chip Brown had a clear sightline to the top of the building. He saw the profile of the plane’s wing and orange flames burning along entire floors above and below. Each window, to him, looked like the window into a kiln.

Scott Pasquini was standing in the doorway of his apartment building along the West Side Highway, three blocks away. He thought the noise he had heard a few minutes earlier was a car bomb. The doorman turned ghastly pale. Was it a meat truck? He pointed to a big slab out on the street. There, in the middle of the northbound lane, was a twisted torso, without limbs. Pasquini was not the overly squeamish sort; he had wrestled for four years at Princeton before coming to New York to start life in a brokerage firm in Building 4 of the trade center. He walked to the corner and saw two young women crying, pointing to something on the sidewalk outside the Marriott hotel. It was part of a human hand. A man from the hotel took his jacket off and threw it over the horrific sight.

“Hi, Jules,” Brian Sweeney was saying into his cellphone. “It’s Brian. We’ve been hijacked, and it doesn’t look too good.” His wife, Julie, was not at their home in Barnstable, Mass., so he was talking into the answering machine. His voice sounded calm, but his message was fatalistic for a big guy, 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, who had flown F-14s for the Navy.

“Hopefully, I’ll talk to you again, but if not, have a good life. I know I’ll see you again some day.” The time was 8:58. Sweeney was aboard United Flight 175, which had left Boston for Los Angeles and had crossed over Massachusetts and the northwest tip of Connecticut and lower New York State into New Jersey before the five terrorists took it on a different path, pounding toward Manhattan at low altitude.

Cellphones again conveyed the dreadful situation and the sense of impending doom aboard the 767. If anything could have been prevented, pilots Vic Saracini and Michael Horrocks and passengers such as Sweeney and two tough professional hockey scouts, Ace Bailey and Mark Bavis, would have been the ones to do it. Saracini was another former Navy pilot, and Horrocks had been a star quarterback at West Chester University before learning how to fly in the Marines. He never got rattled when the big linemen came at him. But by the time of Sweeney’s call, it was too late.

At the air traffic control center in Garden City, Long Island, which tracks and manages traffic flow in high-level airspace over the New York area, controllers had caught sight on radar of this aircraft as it made its descent. Its identification was still unknown to them. At this point, they were still searching for American Flight 11. They knew it had been hijacked but were unaware that it was the first plane to hit the tower. Now as this other craft lowered toward the city, they wondered whether it was another hijacked plane or a troubled aircraft rushing for a runway at either Newark or La Guardia. Then, in the dark and windowless control room lit only by the bank of radar screens, one controller stood up in horror.

“No,” he shouted, “He’s not going to land. He’s going in!”

“Oh, my God! He’s headed for the city,” another controller shouted. “Oh, my God! He’s headed for Manhattan!”

Every eye in the room was now trained on one radar screen, a roomful of professional controllers frozen by the electronic rendering of a hideous sight they could not control. A single controller counted down the hits of the radar as it turned. “Two more hits. … One more hit. … That’s the last. He’s in.” In meant gone.

And here came Flight 175 searing its image forever into the consciousness of the millions who were by now watching the tragedy unfold on television — here it came into view in the last second of its approach to the South Tower of the World Trade Center. On television it seemed small, artificial, like one of those recreations of a bullet entering a body or going through jelly. Then the fireball. It was 9:05. One of the passengers who died in that instant was a woman named Ruth McCourt, the sister of Ron Clifford, the New Jersey businessman who was nursing the badly burned woman in the lobby of the hotel below. Soothing a stranger and losing a sister in the same horrible interconnected mangled moment.

Scott Pasquini had by now walked down toward Battery Park, along the river, and was standing in a crowd of people looking up at the North Tower when he heard a sound overhead and watched the second plane hit the other tower. Everyone started to run. He headed toward the river, then gathered his wits and started looking for a pay phone. As he waited in line, looking up, he saw the twin horrors, the monstrous billowing of orange flame from the South Tower and people jumping from the top floors of the north. He saw a man who seemed to have created a makeshift parachute; it slowed him down for about 10 stories, then fell apart and he accelerated and was lost.

Melvyn Blum, a wealthy executive whose real estate company tried to buy the trade center leases last year, was watching through a telescope from his 44th floor office on Seventh Avenue a few miles away. He saw people waving towels and hanging out the windows of the upper floors and jumping.

Chip Brown was now on the roof of his condominium, his binoculars trained on the same sight. He, too, saw a man waving a white flag, and then chairs and debris falling and then people. “A man in khakis and an open blue suit jacket, feet up in the air, falling down the side of the building facing the river … three, four, five seconds, gone … then more out the front, where they fell against the backdrop of windows, almost in sequence, like paratroopers bustling out of an aircraft.” He stopped counting after a dozen, but there were so many more.

The collision in the South Tower knocked Steve Miller off his feet.

Everyone was racing for the stairs again. He stepped into the hallway, saw the logjam, and went back to a bathroom, then found another stairwell.

There were no outward signs of panic. A woman in her fifties stopped in front of him. Are you okay? he asked. She nodded and moved on. They reached a landing where a maintenance man said he wanted to go up to help people.

“Don’t go,” someone yelled. “It’s not your responsibility.”

They had yet to reach the 40th floor. Miller was sweating, feeling dizzy, but kept going, 35 … 30 … 20 … 17 … 10 and the lobby, where there was another crowd waiting to take two escalators down to a concourse.

Through a picture window he could see the huge modernist sculpture in the plaza, normally a gleaming silver, now shrouded in dust and debris.

Finally, he was out and down the double doors on Church Street and into daylight and fresh air, and he was so happy he wanted to hug the sky. There were firefighters everywhere, and barricades, and he joined the throng moving east and looked up at the building and saw a big hole on the side of his tower, very close to his office. How did it get there? he wondered.

Rita Ryack, a costume designer and cartoonist, was then leaving her apartment in south Brooklyn to move her car and looked up to see what she thought was glitter fluttering from the sky onto Clinton Street at 2nd Place. No, not glitter, but papers, by the hundreds, all blown by the wind from the towers across the river, singed and stenched but still readable.

She started gathering them out of curiosity. A rental car claim adjustment from Broken Arrow, Okla. A financial statement for Osprey Partners. A statement noting that the gross short futures and interim haircut was a negative number. A reference guide for SNA dial equipment. Two pages from a novel about paratroopers in southern France in World War II. A printout of the daily run of trades for Lehman Bros. customers. Expenses for Carr Futures. A fax from South America. And coded pages of sales comparisons for Cantor Fitzgerald, which had found its way over from the 106th floor where Adam White worked.

The modern world might seem all digital and electronic, millions of facts stored in a thumbnail, but business still runs with paper everywhere, recording everything, and here it was on Ryack’s street. She thought of it as a hideous art form — “the banality of evil.”

Two planes gone, targets hit. Two more in the air, taken over by terrorists. American Flight 77 had more than an hour earlier pulled out of Gate D26 at Dulles and was reaching its normal cruising altitude at 35,000 feet when it became apparent that hijackers were turning the plane around.

By 9:25, one of the passengers, Barbara K. Olson, the television commentator, was on the cellphone with her husband, U.S. solicitor general Theodore B. Olson. Can you believe this? We’re being hijacked, she said.

The call was cut off, but she reached him again. He told her about the other hijackings and how the planes had been flown into the World Trade Center. She said the passengers in her plane had been herded into the back of the plane by hijackers armed with knives. How could they stop something similar from happening? Capt. Burlingame and the co-pilot, David Charlebois of Washington, might have been back there, overpowered by the five terrorists, for Olson’s last words to her husband were to this effect, “What do I tell the pilot to do?”

Soon controllers at Dulles spotted an unidentified aircraft heading east-southeast toward restricted airspace over the White House. It was flying low and hard, perhaps more than 500 miles an hour, plowing near Arlington Cemetery, where Burlingame’s parents were buried and on toward the U.S. Capitol and then banking in a circle and coming around again toward the Pentagon from the west.

About 9:40, Alan Wallace had finished fixing the foam metering valve on the back of his firetruck parked in the Pentagon fire station and walked to the front of the station. He looked up and saw a jetliner coming straight at him. It was about 25 feet off the ground, no landing wheels visible, a few hundred yards away and closing fast.

“Runnnnn!” he yelled to a pal. There was no time to look back, barely time to scramble. He made it about 30 feet, heard a terrible roar, felt the heat, and dove underneath a van, skinning his stomach as he slid along the blacktop, sailing under it as though he were riding a luge. The van protected him against burning metal that was flying around. A few seconds later he was sliding back out to check on his friend and then race back to the firetruck. He jumped in, threw it into gear, but the accelerator was dead. The entire back of the truck was destroyed, the cab on fire. He grabbed the radio headset and called the main station at Fort Myer to report the unimaginable.

The sun was still low in the sky, obscured by the Pentagon and the enormous billowing clouds of acrid smoke, making it hauntingly dark. The ground was on fire. Trees were on fire. Hot slices of aluminum were everywhere. Wallace could hear voices crying for help and moved toward them. People were coming out a window head first, landing on him. He had faced incoming fire before — he was with the hospital corps in Vietnam when mortars and rocket shells dropped on the operating room near Da Nang — but he had never witnessed anything of this devastating intensity.

Sheila Moody, in Room 472, heard a whoosh and a whistle and she wondered where all this air was coming from. Then a blast of fire that left as fast as it came. She looked down and saw her hands aflame, so she shook them.

She saw some light from a window but could not reach it and could not find anything to break it with in any case. Then she heard a voice. “Hello!” a man called out. “I can’t see you.”

Hello, she called back, and clapped her hands. She heard him approach and sensed the shoosh of a fire extinguisher and then saw him through a cloud of smoke, the rescuer who would bring her out and ease her fear that she would never get to see her grandchildren. Into the soothing calm of the Pentagon’s health clinic, with its lavender carpets and travel posters, rushed a man screaming, “Evacuate now! Evacuate now!” This was not part of the disaster drill plan Matt Rosenberg had studied earlier that morning. He stopped a shave biopsy on a patient in Minor Surgery Treatment Room 2 and started evacuating patients.

A naval officer rushed in and said they had a patient in the courtyard where some people, confused and scared, had rushed to escape the collapsing inferno inside Corridor 5. Rosenberg, 26, armed only with a penlight, trauma scissors and stethoscope he had on his belt, dashed down a hallway across four inner rings, pushing through hundreds of people escaping the opposite direction. “Get out of my way,” he screamed, until finally he reached the center courtyard, where he saw smoke billowing and people staggering out from the area that had been hit on the opposite side. He grabbed his radio and called back to the clinic. “You need to initiate MASCAL [the disaster plan] right now! We have mass casualties! I need medical assets to the courtyard!”

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Carl Mahnken and his colleague in the Army public relations office, David Theall, had been in a first-floor studio only a few dozen feet from where the plane hit. A computer monitor had blown back and hit Theall in the head, but he was conscious and he led the way out for his buddy. They were walking over electrical wires, ceiling panels. They could see no more than five feet in any direction. After the initial whoosh and blast, it had seemed eerily silent until they reached the D Ring hallway, where they heard other people, crying, moaning, talking. They coaxed some stunned colleagues to follow them. One woman was frantic about her daughter, who was at a child care center on the other side of the building. They persuaded her to come along. As they struggled down the hallway, Theall called out for people until they made their way outside.

The enormity of the tragedy was answered by the simplest of gestures.

There was the woman with a head injury being carried out of the wounded building by two men, a third man carrying her infant child behind them. The colonels and lieutenant colonels and captains dropping hats, ties and ranks and becoming Jim, Cynthia, Joe and Frank as they formed four-person litters to rescue the wounded, litters that would not be used that day. The American flag waving in the burning third-floor office next to the gaping hole where the jet crashed. The cheers that went up when a fireman was taken from a window, placed on a gurney and rolled away. The three-star Army general thanking the volunteers. The tall, thin chaplain saying a prayer. People who managed to get a cellphone working amid the jammed circuits offering to pass messages on to husbands and wives.

Over in his office at 1D-525 on the first floor of D Ring, Robert Snyder, an Army lieutenant colonel, had been surfing the Web to check on the World Trade Center horror. He heard a crack and boom, and then, instantly, he saw flame and felt engulfed. The lights went out and his digital watch stopped.

It read 00:00:00. He hit the floor, having been taught in military training that staying low was the best way to avoid smoke. The only light came from a series of small fires burning around the room. He bumped into someone, a civilian secretary, and together they moved ahead until they saw some light and heard voices and made their way through a mangled doorway to Corridor 5 and toward safety.

His wife, Margaret, at that moment was caught in her own personal hell.

She was an elementary school teacher in Springfield, where co-workers had told her about the explosions at the World Trade Center, and she was frantically trying to phone a brother-in-law who worked on the 82nd floor of one of the towers and her brother who worked across the street. She dialed and dialed but could not get through. A teacher came in and asked, “Where does your husband work?”

“Not my husband,” she responded. “My brother and brother-in-law.”

“No,” came the answer. “Where does your husband work?”

Scott Pasquini was still down near Battery Park, looking up, when the next unthinkable thing happened. At 9:51, the South Tower collapsed and fell, floor upon floor, down a thousand feet, shooting out another hideous billow, this one of soot and dust and ash, crushing and burying all the firefighters and rescue workers and fearless souls who had charged up the stairwells on missions of hope.

Pasquini and the crowd around him were momentarily paralyzed by the awesome sight, but then as the massive cloud of debris seemed to be falling toward them, they ran toward the Hudson. Some jumped onto a police boat.

Pasquini moved toward another building, a harbor restaurant with a large glass wall facing the water. His face was pressed against the glass when the debris reached ground level, thickening the air with ash. He took off his shirt and wrapped it around his face and head and started banging on the window with two other men, trying to figure out a way inside the restaurant. Now he could barely breathe and could not see. His eyes felt as if they were on fire.

On the other side of the glass, he saw a hand pointing to the left, and he and the others moved that way toward a door. He was inside. Tablecloths were being ripped off tables and glasses of water passed around. He took a pitcher and tried to help people flooding in. One man had a bloody leg; he said he had jumped through a window. They washed the blood and tied a tablecloth around the leg.

Steve Miller, free from the South Tower, had been moving another direction, in a parade of survivors walking east, toward the Brooklyn Bridge. He worried whether that was the safest way home. Could the bridge be another target? But he could not think of a better alternative so he kept going. The sidewalk was packed, everyone speed walking, but not panicking, when the sound washed over them, another tremendous roar. He turned around and saw his office building, 2 World Trade Center, coming down in an avalanche, and then the outrageous cloud of smoke and ash and confusion.

“Oh, my God!” he said. His office was falling out of the sky. His mind went immediately to his office friend, the telephone system manager, delightful Hope Romano, who went up when that elevator door closed. She must be dead, he thought. People were now bumping against his back. He feared a stampede. A woman put her hand over her mouth and bent over at the waist. Then everyone turned and headed toward Brooklyn again, walking even faster. Miller found himself in lockstep with another man.

“I worked in that building,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” the man said. “I saw the plane hit it.”

A plane? Until that moment, Steve Miller had not known what exactly had caused all of the calamity.

There was one plane of terror still in the sky then, one more commercial jetliner turned into a giant missile loaded with transcontinental fuel and only 45 passengers and another band of methodical and suicidal hijackers, four of them. This was United Airlines Flight 93 to San Francisco, which had backed out from Terminal A, Gate 17 at Newark Airport at 8:01 but apparently was stuck in runway traffic for 40 minutes before getting airborne. The plane had followed the designated path west across Pennsylvania and into Ohio toward Cleveland, according to radar, but then started doubling back south and east, taking a series of sharp turns. Here again, the plane was at once a lonesome vessel, the people aboard facing their singular fate, and yet somehow already attached to the larger drama, connected again by cellphones. People on the plane learned about what had happened in New York and sent word back the other way about what was happening to them.

Thomas E. Burnett Jr., a California businessman, called his wife, Deena, four times. In the first call, he described the hijackers and said they had stabbed a passenger and that his wife should contact authorities. In the second call, he said the passenger had died and that he and some others on board were going to do something about it. She pleaded with him to remain unobtrusive, but he said no way. Mark Bingham, in the rear of the first-class cabin, called his mother near San Francisco and said the plane had been taken over by three terrorists. Bingham was a rugby player, calm and fearless enough to run with the bulls in Pamplona. He sounded calm but scared, as though he knew how this might end.

Jeremy Glick called his wife, Lyzbeth, in Hewitt, N.J., with details of the hijackers: Middle Eastern, wearing red bandannas, with knives and a box they said was a bomb. He said some of the bigger men were talking about taking on the hijackers. They would try to storm the cockpit and take on their captors. As Glick talked, Lyzbeth could not stand the anxiety, and passed the phone on to her father. A final call came into the Westmoreland County 911 Center in Pennsylvania from a man who said he was locked in the lavatory. We’re being hijacked, he said. This is not a hoax. The recorded time was 9:58.

Ten minutes later, in the hamlet of Shanksville, Pa., Rick King sat in his modest gray clapboard house watching the disaster coverage on television and talking with his sister on the telephone. “Rick,” said his sister, Jody Walsh. “I hear a big plane. I think it’s going to crash!” The words seemed implausible to King, the assistant chief of the volunteer fire department. What did Shanksville have to do with any of this? But he dashed to the porch to get a look for himself, and now his sister was more insistent. The plane was nosediving, falling like a stone. “Oh, my God, Rick … it’s going to crash!” King heard a shattering boom in his right ear, over the phone, and in his left ear, he heard the rumblings from four miles distant, where Flight 93 fell.

There were no people around, no symbols; this was not a monument to American capitalism or military might, this could not have been where the plane was supposed to go down — in Shanksville, population 250, in the cornfields 80 miles from Pittsburgh. The destination was thought to be Washington, perhaps the White House, or Air Force One, or Camp David — something that would shake the nation again. The passenger revolt must have succeeded, for a reason, or more likely a string of reasons, that will never be fully known — the heroism of pilots and people aboard, the awareness they had of what had happened to the other planes, perhaps some hidden makeshift weapon, perhaps the relative vulnerability of this band of hijackers.

Rick King, in shorts and a T-shirt, hung up the phone and ran to Ida’s Country Store, the convenience store and deli he owns with his wife.

Moments later, he had the Shanksville emergency siren wailing. He suited up in firefighting gear with three other men, jumped into Big Mo, the nickname for their 1992 truck carrying 1,000 gallons of water, and started screaming up Lambertsville Road. “This is going to be something we haven’t seen before,” he told his men. “Just prepare yourself.” Big Mo turned off Lambertsville onto a gravel road leading to a defunct strip mine that was now a large field of dry golden grass surrounded by woods. It was 10:20. King braced himself again for awful carnage. But what he saw left him feeling strangely calm and vacant:

Obliteration to the point of almost nothing. A few scattered fires. Some debris hanging from trees. Small chunks of yellow honeycomb insulation. No pieces of fuselage. No bodies, one piece of charred flesh no larger than a piece of bread. Over in the woods, 50 yards away, he could see some shirts, pants, loose papers. Farther in the distance, out of sight, some farm lawns were scattered with mail.

By 10:25, Melissa Turnage had left her teaching job at St. Paul’s School and was home in Cockeysville watching television with her husband, an Episcopal priest, along with other friends and family. She had not heard from her son, Adam White, the young mountain climber and Cantor Fitzgerald broker. Much of the television coverage had been so calm and distant that even with such an intense focus it was not completely clear how awful it was, or had been, for people trapped on those tower-top floors.

Melissa had visited Adam at his office there, and had never felt comfortable with him working in that place — so high up, surrounded by glass. The thought had unavoidably crossed her mind: How on earth would you get out of here? She had mentioned that fear to him, and Adam, so full of energy and goodwill, had put his arm around her shoulder and laughed and said, “It’s okay, Mom.”

She was watching television at 10:28 when the North Tower collapsed, the steel giving way in 1,000-degree heat, her son’s office and all the others folding down one upon the next, and then, again, the giant evil cloud of ash. She wanted to believe that he had somehow already made it out.

Looking out from her seventh-story Soho loft, artist Sigrid Burton had a clear view 20 blocks down West Broadway. The World Trade Center used to be the view. Now it looked as though the second building had just melted, like a sand castle under a wave, but there was no wave, and then there was a hole, and the smoke blew away on the eastward wind, and she saw blue sky where the tower had been and she could not believe it. She was on the phone with her brother and told him, “The building isn’t there. It just isn’t there.” More firefighters and rescue workers entombed in the debris. But from her distance, it appeared to Burton almost normal again, though her sensory perceptions were heightened and colors seemed brighter and clearer. Which only made it stranger.

Scott Pasquini was still in the harborside restaurant when the second tower collapsed. Some firefighters thomped in and instructed people to make their way down the river to a ferry that could take them to New Jersey.

When the dust settled, police led the troop of ash-covered evacuees out of the eerie darkness on the trek to the tip of the island. They boarded a police tugboat, full to the brim. Pasquini found a seat near the back, and the boat shoved off, away from Manhattan. Looked like an illegal immigration scene, he would later reflect. So many piled on the boat it could hardly float. He looked back toward the financial district in utter disbelief.

“I need a plastic surgeon! I need a plastic surgeon!” a young woman kept screaming as she was loaded off the ambulance into St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Craig Tenenbaum, an emergency room doctor, quickly assessed her needs as more serious than that. He could tell she was a businesswoman, and she had burns over 70 percent of her body. What little remained of her charred clothing had to be cut off. He tried to reassure her. “It’s okay,” he said.

“You made it. You got out. You’re going to be all right.” But he was not so sure. The burns were horrific. He intubated her to help her breathe, and to silence her: screaming, even just talking, could cause her airway to swell shut.

From 10:30 to noon the ambulances kept coming in a frantic parade. Under normal circumstances, dispatchers would alert the emergency room en route so the waiting medical teams would know what kind of trauma was coming, but there was no time for that. Doctors and nurses waited anxiously in the ambulance bay, not knowing what to expect. Burns, heart attacks. A fireman came in on a stretcher, an older man, wearing the uniform of a unit from Jersey City across the river. He was in cardiac arrest from the smoke and debris he had inhaled. No active heart rate or electrical activity, which meant that every minute down decreased his survival odds by another 10 percent. Precious time had been lost at the disaster scene and on the ambulance ride. Tenenbaum didn’t think he had much of a chance. The ER team decompressed the fireman’s lungs and abdomen. Breathe! Breathe! Breathe!

Tenenbaum jammed a needle full of atropine into his heart. They put him on a ventilator. Then a heartbeat, a pulse, life’s wonder, it seemed.

In the struggle for life, though, age makes a difference as well as will.

The young female burn victim survived. The old firefighter died. It turned out that he was not even supposed to be there. He was 64, retired, had a bad heart, his family did not even know that he had put on his uniform again and gone out with his old crew. He died on the day that firefighters died, hundreds of them.

By the time another doctor, John Pryor, reached St. Vincent’s, it seemed that the emergency room staff was mostly standing in the sunshine beside empty gurneys, not at all what he expected during his mad dash up the turnpike from Philadelphia and under the Holland Tunnel, waving his doctor’s badge at the authorities to let him through. He had been doing his morning rounds at the University of Pennsylvania’s hospital when he first heard about the New York catastrophe. He figured there would be thousands of casualties, and pictured in his mind scores of rescue workers alive but trapped in the collapsed rubble of the twin towers, the massive vertical files he had watched be built when he was a kid in Westchester County and his dad worked in an office next door. From the moment he saw the first tower come down, he knew he had to go.

But now, at St. Vincent’s, at noon — nothing. He took a seat in a room crowded with about 50 other volunteer surgeons, some in scrubs and some in street clothes. Minutes dragged by, but no more victims. Casualties are dead or wounded. Now they all seemed dead. Pryor picked up his backup duffel with his surgical equipment, flagged down an ambulance headed downtown, and jumped in. He wandered around from post to post, street to street, the good doctor Samaritan in search of someone to save. He encountered scores of firefighters, but not the injured, just the mentally wounded and exhausted. They were often simply sitting, staring bleakly into space.

Asked whether they were all right, they would answer in a word or two, then fall silent again. Words meant nothing.

By the time Steve Miller reached Brooklyn, whitish flakes were falling from the sky. Not papers like the ones Rita Ryack scooped up on Clinton Street, but ash concentrate from the blast. His hair and clothes were soon covered. The image of his office building collapsing kept playing like a film loop in his mind. He passed a construction crew of guys all wearing masks and asked whether they had an extra. Nope. He passed Atlantic Avenue, by his dentist’s office, and then down another dozen blocks or so until he reached home. Now what? His street was roped off. Bomb scare, an officer told him. He kept walking until he saw a buddy running east along Union, away from the roped-off area.

“Will!” he shouted. “Will!”

Will stopped, turned around.

“Where’s Rhonda?” Miller asked.

Around the corner. He ran ahead and saw her running toward him. They hugged and kissed.

“Oh, my God, you’re alive,” she said. “I thought you were dead!”

“I’m alive. Here I am. I love you.” Now she was crying and hugging him and kissing him all over the face.

A few hours later, he was back home and talking to his boss, Wayne Schletter. Was everyone at the office okay? It seemed so. And Hope? Did Hope get out? That haunting sight of the elevator closing, going up.

Yes, his boss told him. Hope was alive.

Melissa Turnage would wait and wait but get no such news about her ebullient young son, Adam White. A phone call at midafternoon gave her a glimmer of hope that some Cantor Fitzgerald people had made it down, but there was nothing after that, and slowly the resignation of unspeakable loss set in. She imagined how he might have reacted in those minutes of terror. He was resourceful and dexterous, and she saw him in her mind’s eye doing everything possible for the people around him. She grieved not as a war victim seeking vengeance, but as a mother in search of some deeper human understanding.

Carl Mahnken and David Theall, after escaping from the Pentagon inferno, worked all day helping other victims, loading burned women onto helicopters, helping nurses put in IVs, until finally they were told that they had gone through enough and should leave. But leave what and for what?

They started walking, first to a Crystal City hotel, and then kept going, mile after mile until they reached Theall’s house in Alexandria, and once they were there, they did not want to leave each other. Theall said to Mahnken, “Buddy, I ain’t going to let you go. We had survived this. This force that drove us through walls.”

The awareness and acceptance of life-changing news often comes in stages.

As Candy Glazer watched the news reports all morning, it only gradually entered her consciousness that a plane had come from Boston, that it was American Airlines, that it may have been — and then, it was — the flight her husband of 11 years had called her from at 8 o’clock with those simple reassuring words, “Hi, hon, I made it.” When reality hit, she screamed. She became hysterical, overcome for two hours until an airline official called with the official word. The Glazers were new to their neighborhood, but neighbors came over quickly and stayed with her and put up yellow ribbons.

She was exhausted but kept watching television until well after 2 a.m., finding it somehow therapeutic to see the pictures from New York where her husband actually was. She dozed off for a time and awoke feeling lonely to her soul, and then her 4-year-old son, Nathan, came bounding into the room and jumped on his father’s side of the bed. She hadn’t told him anything yet.

“Honey,” she said, pierced with a pain she had never imagined possible.

“Daddy’s been in an accident.”

Nathan looked at her. “What do you mean?”

“Daddy’s dead.”

The boy started sobbing. “Can’t we fix him?” he asked.

Read more Retropolis:

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