In Manhattan, at just past a quarter to nine on 11 September, 2001, an American Airlines passenger jet hits the North Tower of the World Trade Center, at a velocity approaching 800 kilometres per hour, 100 storeys above the city streets.
At three minutes past nine o’clock a second Boeing, also departed from Boston, strikes the South Tower above the 77th floor, going 950 kilometres per hour. A series of coordinated attacks on the United States has begun, which kills some 3,000 people and staggers the world.
In a primary school in Sarasota, Florida, a presidential aide informs George W. Bush at five minutes after nine. Bush then leaves the children assembled for his visit. He makes a sombre announcement at half past the hour: “Today, we’ve had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.”
At 9:37 a third American Airlines plane crashes into the nerve centre of the US defence establishment, the Pentagon, just having left Washington-Dulles airport. The national aviation authorities cancel all take-offs. Among the employees on her way to work at the Pentagon is Cheryl Ryefield.
She said: “There was a plane coming over the hill, right between the highway and the Navy Annex. And, I knew immediately what it was. And, ‘Oh that can’t be; it’s got to stop.’ And, it kept coming, and it paralleled the side of the hill and sped up and waggled its wings. And I saw a little movement in the-, I think I saw a little movement in the pilot’s window, and it sped up and just slammed into the building.”
The Twin Towers are burning. Desperate people jump from the inferno.
At 9:59, just 56 minutes after the second plane’s impact, defying imagination, the south tower dies. Of some of the victims no trace is ever found.
At 10:03, the passengers of a fourth Boeing, United Airlines out of Newark, New Jersey, alerted by phone of the other events, overpower their terrorist hijackers. Their plane nosedives into a rural field, killing all on board, but the suspected target, the White House, is spared.
Still more lives end as the Trade Center’s north tower gives out at 10:28, enflamed for one hour and 42 minutes. In the agony and confusion, counting the New York death toll will come to 2,606.
The president, from the security of Barksdale air base in Louisiana, places the armed forces on maximum alert. Before transferring to the Midwest state of Nebraska, he records this message for the American people and the wider world:
“Freedom was attacked this morning by a faceless coward and freedom will be defended. I want to reassure the American people that the full resources of the federal government are working to assist local authorities to save lives and to help the victims of these attacks. Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.”
Soon, the faces become known of some of the men who carried out the deadliest strike on the US since Pearl Harbour, recorded by airport surveillance.