Harrowing oral history of 9/11 pieces together the untold stories

The first ever comprehensive oral history of 9/11 pieces together the untold stories from the day that claimed 2,977 lives, from the the last words of victims on hijacked United Flight 93 to the scenes inside a Cold War bunker in the White House.

Providing a step-by-step account from those who witnessed the horror firsthand new book, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, hears from 480 people and collates 5,000 relevant oral histories 18 years on from the tragedy.

From the ticket agents who unknowingly ushered terrorists onto the flights, to the first responders at the Twin Towers, writer Garrett M. Graff helps to share the terrifying memories of the day when hijackers used planes to topple the twin towers of the World Trade Center and another to attack the Pentagon. 

A fourth hijacked plane, Flight 93, went down in flames when heroic passengers fought back to bring it down in rural Pennsylvania before it could strike another high-profile target, probably in Washington. 

The twin towers of the World Trade Center pour smoke in New York. A new book hears from 480 people and 5,000 relevant oral histories 18 years on from the day that claimed 2,977 lives

The twin towers of the World Trade Center pour smoke in New York. A new book hears from 480 people and 5,000 relevant oral histories 18 years on from the day that claimed 2,977 lives

The twin towers of the World Trade Center pour smoke in New York. A new book hears from 480 people and 5,000 relevant oral histories 18 years on from the day that claimed 2,977 lives

Firefighters work beneath the destroyed mullions, the vertical struts that once faced the outer walls of the World Trade Center towers

Firefighters work beneath the destroyed mullions, the vertical struts that once faced the outer walls of the World Trade Center towers

Firefighters work beneath the destroyed mullions, the vertical struts that once faced the outer walls of the World Trade Center towers

On board Flight 93    

Flight 93 went down in flames when heroic passengers fought hijackers to bring it down in rural Pennsylvania before it could strike another target. 

Passenger Tom Burnett told his wife Deena: ‘We’re waiting until we’re over a rural area. We’re going to take back the airplane.’

After pleading with him not to do anything that put him in danger Tom replied: ‘If they’re going to crash this plane, we’re going to have to do something.’

She said: ‘I saw on the caller ID that it was Tom’s phone. I was relieved, thinking that if he was on his phone, he was in the airport and was fine. I said, “Tom, are you OK?”.

‘He said, “No, I’m not. They’re in the cockpit”. I told him about the World Trade Center. He hadn’t known about it yet.

‘He relayed that information to the people sitting around him. He said, “Oh my God, it’s a suicide mission”.’ 

 Mostly, I just wanted to say I love you and I’m going to miss you. I don’t know if I’m going to get the chance to tell you that again.
Flight 93 passenger Linda Gronlund to her sister Elsa

Verizon Airfone operator Lisa Jefferson spoke with passenger Todd Beamer who told him not to put him through to his pregnant wife so she would not be upset. 

He gave her his home number and asked Lisa to call it in the event something happened to him. 

Jefferson said: ‘I could hear the commotion in the background. I heard the flight attendant screaming.’ 

Beamer asked someone on the flight: ‘Are you ready? OK. Let’s roll.’  

Passenger Linda Gronlund called her sister: ‘Elsa, it’s Lin. Um, I only have a minute. I’m on United 93. It’s been hijacked by terrorists who say they have a bomb. Apparently, they, uh, flew a couple of planes into the World Trade Center already and it looks like they’re going to take this one down as well [sobbing].

Investigative personnel search the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 looking for debris and evidence, including the plane's flight recorder

Investigative personnel search the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 looking for debris and evidence, including the plane's flight recorder

Investigative personnel search the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 looking for debris and evidence, including the plane’s flight recorder

‘Mostly, I just wanted to say I love you and I’m going to miss you. I don’t know if I’m going to get the chance to tell you that again.’ 

And the mother of passenger Mark Bingham, Alice Ann Hoagland, received a call from her son. She recalls: ‘The call came at 6.37am [Pacific time]. He said, ‘Mom, this is Mark Bingham’. I knew he was a little flustered because he used his last name. He said, ‘I want to let you know that I love you’.’  

At the World Trade Center  

American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the north and south twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City killing 2,753 people. 

Terrorist Mohamed Atta was on board crashed American Airlines Flight 11.

Ticket agent Mike Touhey at Portland International Jetport recalls: ‘I saw these two fellows standing there looking around. I looked at the tickets. I go, “Whoa, first-class tickets”. You don’t see $2,400 tickets any more. There were less than 30 minutes to the flight. I said, “Mr Atta, if you don’t go now, you will miss your plane”.’

In New York City Herb Ouida left home with his son Todd to head to the North Tower, where they both worked. Herb said: ‘As we did every morning, my son Todd and I left our home together to travel to work. I told him, “Have a great day, sweetheart”. Those were my last words to Todd.’   

New York harbor ferry captain Peter Johansen said his passengers all thought there was an innocent reason for the first crash. He said: ‘Honestly, I think most people felt it was a navigation accident. The reason I say that is our ferry continued around to Pier 11, the Wall Street terminal, and there were about a hundred people on board. 

‘Every single one of them got off and went to work that morning. As they’re walking off, there are envelopes and letters floating down from the sky.’   

A firefighter breaks down after the World Trade Center buildings collapsed September 11

A firefighter breaks down after the World Trade Center buildings collapsed September 11

A firefighter breaks down after the World Trade Center buildings collapsed September 11

American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the north and south twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City killing 2,753 people

American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the north and south twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City killing 2,753 people

American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the north and south twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City killing 2,753 people

At 8:46am, the first plane hit the North Tower, the second slammed into the South Tower at 9:30am. 

Robert Small, who worked in the South Tower, said: ‘People on my floor started to leave. Then we decided to go back, call our families, let them know we’re OK — still thinking nothing was going to happen at the South Tower.’ 

Bond broker David Kravette said: ‘All of a sudden, jet fuel blasted out of the central lift bank and mushroomed everywhere. People were, 20 yards from me, lifted on this fireball and thrown through those lobby windows and incinerated.’

 In the end, as the smoke got thicker, he kept whispering, “I love you”, over and over.’
Sean Rooney’s wife Beverly Eckert

Consultant Richard Eichen said a man ‘died between my legs’. 

He told researchers: ‘I saw off my left shoulder an Asian man coming toward me. He looked like he had been deep-fried. His skin was hanging like seaweed. He was begging me to help him. He said, “Help me, help me”, and then did a face plant right between my legs. He died between my legs.’  

Sean Rooney worked in the South Tower. He called his wife Beverly Eckert, who said: ‘When I heard his voice on the phone, I was so happy, thinking he had made it out. He told me he was on the 105th floor. I knew right away Sean was never coming home. 

‘He told me to give his love to his family, and then we talked about all the happiness we shared during our lives. In the end, as the smoke got thicker, he kept whispering, “I love you”, over and over.’  

Joe Graziano, firefighter, Ladder 13, FDNY: ‘We got on a truck and it seemed like the city opened up for us. We got down there in no time. There were six of us, and I was the only one who came back.’

John P. Napolitano, 33, was a husband and father to two young daughters. He died during the 9/11 rescue effort. 

He father told researchers: ‘I knew my son was with a rescue company and that he’s probably be going in. I wanted to tell him, “Don’t be a hero”. After several attempts trying to get through to him – busy, busy, busy – I called my house to see if my wife spoke to my son.

‘I said, “The phone’s busy, and I want to tell him don’t take any chances if he’s going to go down there”. My wife was crying and said, “He’s already there”. 

Dr. Charles Hirsch, chief medical examiner, City of New York: ‘I will never forget seeing an airplane engine in the middle of West Street and then an amputated hand next to it.’   

Writer Garrett M. Graff helps to share the terrifying memories from those on board the doomed flights, eyewitnesses in NYC and officials at the White House. The final words of the victims reveal heartbreaking calls to their loved ones

Writer Garrett M. Graff helps to share the terrifying memories from those on board the doomed flights, eyewitnesses in NYC and officials at the White House. The final words of the victims reveal heartbreaking calls to their loved ones

Writer Garrett M. Graff helps to share the terrifying memories from those on board the doomed flights, eyewitnesses in NYC and officials at the White House. The final words of the victims reveal heartbreaking calls to their loved ones

Eyewitness at the World Trade Center describe horrifying scenes as people fell to their deaths

Eyewitness at the World Trade Center describe horrifying scenes as people fell to their deaths

Eyewitness at the World Trade Center describe horrifying scenes as people fell to their deaths

Wesley Wong, who worked for the FBI in New York recalled how a fireman told him to ‘watch out for the falling bodies’. 

He added: ‘I remember crossing West Street and thinking, “What did he say about falling bodies?”. As I got close to the building, this fireman yelled, “Run! Here comes one”. I froze and looked up into that beautiful bright blue sky. I saw a fellow spreadeagled, coming out of the sky. I couldn’t believe what I saw.’

Detective David Brink said he saw ‘daisy chains of people holding hands, leaping out of the buildings’. And officer Peter Moog added: ‘One jumper actually hit a fireman. He was one of the first firemen to get killed.’ 

William Jimeno was buried under debris. He said: ‘I remember being able to take out of my left pocket a card and my pen. I was able to etch into the card, “Allison, I love you”. I was hoping they would find it if they found my body.

‘At around 8pm, I heard voices, “United States Marine Corps, can anybody hear us?”.

‘They worked on me for three hours. As they pulled me out, I remember looking around and I said, “Where is everything?”.

‘That’s when a firefighter said, “It’s all gone, kid”.’ 

On Flight 11 

Flight attendant Betty Ong called the airline’s reservations line. She told agent Winston Sadler: ‘Um, the cockpit’s not answering. Somebody’s stabbed in business class, and, um, I think there is mace — that we can’t breathe. I think we’re getting hijacked.

‘Our, our No1 [flight attendant] got stabbed. Our purser is stabbed. And our No5. We can’t get to the cockpit. The door won’t open. Hello?’

Her colleague Madeline ‘Amy’ Sweeney called flight services: ‘There is a bomb in the cockpit. The coach passengers don’t know what’s happening. The hijackers are of Middle Eastern descent.

‘It is a rapid descent. Something is wrong. I don’t think the captain is in control. I see water. I see buildings. We’re flying low. We’re flying very, very low. Oh my God.’ 

A man places his hand on a wall showing photos of missing people outside Bellevue Hospital in New York days after 9/11

A man places his hand on a wall showing photos of missing people outside Bellevue Hospital in New York days after 9/11

A man places his hand on a wall showing photos of missing people outside Bellevue Hospital in New York days after 9/11

U.S. President George W. Bush listens as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card informs him of a second plane hitting the World Trade Center, while Bush was conducting a reading seminar at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida

U.S. President George W. Bush listens as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card informs him of a second plane hitting the World Trade Center, while Bush was conducting a reading seminar at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida

U.S. President George W. Bush listens as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card informs him of a second plane hitting the World Trade Center, while Bush was conducting a reading seminar at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida

On United Airlines Flight 175   

Passenger Brian Sweeney tries calling his wife, telling her: ‘Hey Jules, this is Brian. Ah, listen. I’m on an airplane that’s been hijacked. If things don’t go well, and it’s not looking good, I just want you to know I absolutely love you, I want you to do good, have good times — same with my parents.

‘I’ll see you when you get here. I want you to know that I totally love you. Bye, babe. I hope I call you.’

Passenger Peter Hanson, on board with his wife and daughter, calls his dad: ‘ It’s getting bad, dad. A stewardess was stabbed. They seem to have knives and mace. They said they have a bomb.

‘The plane is making jerky movements. I don’t think the pilot is flying the plane. I think we are going down. Don’t worry, Dad. If it happens, it’ll be very fast. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.’ 

Inside the Cold War bunker 

President George Bush was kept on Air Force One because Washington, D.C. was thought to be too dangerous.

Vice President Dick Cheney, along with other officials, was rushed to a bunker.

National Security Adviser at the time Condoleezza Rice said: ‘The Secret Service came in and they said, “You have got to go to the bunker”. I remember being driven along, almost propelled along. We had no idea where it was safe and where it wasn’t. We didn’t think the bunker of the White House was safe at that point.’ 

Cheney said: ‘A few moments later I found myself in a fortified White House command post somewhere down below.’

Vice President Dick Cheney, right, speaks to President George W. Bush by phone September 11, 2001 inside The Operations Center at The White House after the attacks. With Cheney are staff members including Presidential Counselor Karen Hughes, left, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, center

Vice President Dick Cheney, right, speaks to President George W. Bush by phone September 11, 2001 inside The Operations Center at The White House after the attacks. With Cheney are staff members including Presidential Counselor Karen Hughes, left, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, center

Vice President Dick Cheney, right, speaks to President George W. Bush by phone September 11, 2001 inside The Operations Center at The White House after the attacks. With Cheney are staff members including Presidential Counselor Karen Hughes, left, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, center

'Once the plane became hijacked—even if it had a load of passengers on board who, obviously, weren’t part of any hijacking attempt—having seen what had happened in New York and the Pentagon, you really didn’t have any choice. It wasn’t a close call,' then Vice-President Dick Cheney said

'Once the plane became hijacked—even if it had a load of passengers on board who, obviously, weren’t part of any hijacking attempt—having seen what had happened in New York and the Pentagon, you really didn’t have any choice. It wasn’t a close call,' then Vice-President Dick Cheney said

‘Once the plane became hijacked—even if it had a load of passengers on board who, obviously, weren’t part of any hijacking attempt—having seen what had happened in New York and the Pentagon, you really didn’t have any choice. It wasn’t a close call,’ then Vice-President Dick Cheney said

moke comes out from the Southwest E-ring of the Pentagon building September 11

moke comes out from the Southwest E-ring of the Pentagon building September 11

moke comes out from the Southwest E-ring of the Pentagon building September 11

It was there he gave the authority to shoot down the hijacked commercial aircraft.

Navy Commander Anthony Barnes speaks for the first time about that phone call.

Worried for the safety of those on the ground, F-16 fighters were scrambled from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland under direct orders from the VP to bring the plane down, United 93, at all costs. 

Cheney gave the go-ahead for the interception to take place to Barnes who was liaising directly between the Vice-President and the Pentagon.

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, hears from 480 people and collates 5,000 relevant oral histories 18 years on from the tragedy

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, hears from 480 people and collates 5,000 relevant oral histories 18 years on from the tragedy

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, hears from 480 people and collates 5,000 relevant oral histories 18 years on from the tragedy

He said: ‘I asked the vice president for permission to shoot down an identified hijacked commercial aircraft that question and he answered it in the affirmative. 

‘I asked again to be sure. ‘Sir, I am confirming that you have given permission?’

‘For me, being a military member and an aviator—understanding the absolute depth of what that question was and what that answer was—I wanted to make sure that there was no mistake whatsoever about what was being asked. 

‘Without hesitation, in the affirmative, he said any confirmed hijacked airplane may be engaged and shot down.’ 

Cheney said: ‘Once the plane became hijacked—even if it had a load of passengers on board who, obviously, weren’t part of any hijacking attempt—having seen what had happened in New York and the Pentagon, you really didn’t have any choice. It wasn’t a close call.’ 

Josh Bolten, deputy chief of staff, White House said: ‘Vice President Cheney was very steady, very calm. He clearly had been through crises before and did not appear to be in shock like many of us.’  

In a transcript from the book Cheney says: ‘In the years since, I’ve heard speculation that I’m a different man after 9/11. I wouldn’t say that. But I’ll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities.’ 

In the sky 

While Commander Barnes was speaking, a pair of F-16 fighter pilots volunteered to go on a ‘suicide’ mission to take down the hijacked plane.

Lt. Heather ‘Lucky’ Penney, an F-16 pilot with the D.C. Air National Guard based at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland was among the group of pilots who had been ordered airborne out of fear that the hijacked plane was heading for the White House or Capitol. 

The pilots were told that they would have to bring the plane down without using live ammunition or missiles, effectively killing themselves and everyone on board. 

Penney’s mission was to intercept the hijacked plane that was on course for Washington, and destroy it however she could.

Recalling that fateful day, the rookie pilot was told there was only one way to bring down the plane.

‘We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft. I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot,’ she said. 

‘Lucky, you’re coming with me,’ Lieutenant Colonel Marc Sasseville shouted.

Lt. Heather 'Lucky' Penney, an F-16 pilot with the D.C. Air National Guard based at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland was ordered to intercept the hijacked airliner heading towards D.C.

Lt. Heather 'Lucky' Penney, an F-16 pilot with the D.C. Air National Guard based at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland was ordered to intercept the hijacked airliner heading towards D.C.

Lt. Heather ‘Lucky’ Penney, an F-16 pilot with the D.C. Air National Guard based at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland was ordered to intercept the hijacked airliner heading towards D.C.

An arrival board at LA Airport on 9/11 displays canceled flights around the nation

An arrival board at LA Airport on 9/11 displays canceled flights around the nation

An arrival board at LA Airport on 9/11 displays canceled flights around the nation

Mr Sasseville, an F-16 pilot with the U.S. Air Force:, who is now stationed at the Pentagon, said: ‘We don’t train to bring down airliners. If you just hit the engine, it could still glide and you could guide it to a target. My thought was the cockpit or the wing.’

The scrambled F-16 fighter jets passed over the ravaged Pentagon, flying low and scouring the sky.

‘Sass and I fully expected to intercept Flight 93 and take it down,’ Penney said. ‘I genuinely believed that was going to be the last time I took off. If we did it right, this would be it.’

‘I was going into this moral or ethical justification of the needs of the many versus the needs of the few,’ Sasseville noted.

It wasn’t until hours later that the pair found out United 93 had already crashed in a field outside Shanksville in western Pennsylvania.

The 33 passengers of Flight 93, travelling from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, had fought back. The passengers, crew and the hijackers all died as they took the plane down.

‘The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves,’ said Penney.

‘They made the decision we didn’t have to make,’ Sassville adds.

Penney spent the remainder of September 11th in the air, clearing airspace and escorting President Bush around the country as he flew in Air Force One.

‘The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves. I was just an accidental witness to history,’ she said. 

The full interviews are part of a new book entitled The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, published on September 10, 2019. 

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