Fall and Rise (2019) recounts the morning of September 11, 2001, a date when the world changed forever. Operating under the direction of Osama bin Laden, terrorists seized control of four commercial airliners, crashing them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It tells a story of fear, courage, and strength through the eyes of just a few of the men, women, and children who were there.
Biography and Memoir, Military, Afghan War Military History, World History, True Crime, American History, War, Terrorism, Politics, Mystery
Introduction: Go behind the headlines to meet the real people affected by the September 11 attacks.
The tragic events of September 11, 2001, shook the world. Nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists seized control of four commercial airliners. Three of those airplanes hit their targets: the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. The fourth crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers heroically attempted to retake control. The attack resulted in 2,977 fatalities and over 25,000 injuries.
But these are just numbers. As 9/11 recedes into history, it’s easy to forget that these numbers represent very real people. Each and every one of the victims and survivors of these attacks has a story to tell. Some of these stories ended in tragedy, with families and friends continuing to mourn the loss of their loved ones. Some are stories of great courage and heroism, with first responders and ordinary people risking their lives to help those in need. Some are simply stories of survival, overcoming the odds to live another day.
Telling all of these stories would be beyond the scope of any one book, much less these summaries. These summaries will introduce you to just a handful of the men, women, and children whose lives were forever changed on that fateful day.
In these summaries, you’ll discover
- how one American Airlines employee first raised the alarm;
- why the Air Force struggled to respond to the hijackings; and
- which miracle happened to the crew of Ladder Company 6.
The September 11 attacks were the result of years of careful planning.
The roots of what would grow into the September 11 attacks can be traced at least as far back as 1998. That was the year when Osama bin Laden issued a fatwa, a religious decree declaring war on the United States, its citizens, and its interests around the world.
Bin Laden had been on the radar of American intelligence agencies for some time. He was wanted thanks to his role in attacks in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. But while there were some that took the threat seriously, the idea of a large-scale, coordinated terrorist attack was unimaginable to most at the time.
The key message here is: The September 11 attacks were the result of years of careful planning.
The orchestrator of the attacks was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who had originally envisioned hijacking ten planes and attacking targets on both coasts. The plan was known as the Planes Operation, and Bin Laden approved a less complicated version in 1999. In order to carry it out, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would need men who spoke English, knew something of life in the West, and could obtain travel visas to the United States.
One such man was Mohamed Atta, a 33-year-old Egyptian who had been recruited by al-Qaeda while he was a graduate student in Germany. After he had trained in Afghanistan, bin Laden selected him as the tactical commander of the Planes Operation. Shaving his beard and adopting Western clothes in an attempt to blend in, Atta returned to Germany, where he began emailing American flight schools. By late summer 2000, outfitted with new passports and tourist visas, Atta led a small group to Florida, where they began studying to be pilots.
At the same time, bin Laden handpicked 16 additional men for the operation. One, who already had flight experience, was selected as the fourth pilot. The others, intended as “muscle” to control the passengers and crew, received training in close combat in Afghanistan. By spring 2001, the entire group had entered the United States.
As the spring and summer passed, bin Laden became impatient and demanded that the Planes Operation be put into motion. But Mohamed Atta wasn’t ready, continuing to take practice flights and study the routines of airport security and airline crews. Finally, near the end of August, Atta chose the second Tuesday in September as the date. Whether this was simply a logistical choice or if the date had some other, deeper significance remains a mystery.
With the date set, Atta and his men purchased plane tickets and found motels in and around Boston, Newark, and Washington, DC. On the evening of September 10, they made their final preparations for what would be their final act.
Speed and coordination played a key role in the success of the attacks.
At around 7 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 45-year-old Betty Ong sat in American Airlines’ employee lounge at Logan International Airport. A flight attendant for 14 years, Betty was looking forward to a routine flight from Boston to Los Angeles and a vacation in Hawaii later in the week with her sister. A little over an hour later, Betty Ong would give the world the first indication that there was trouble in the sky.
The key message here is: Speed and coordination played a key role in the success of the attacks.
Betty’s plane, American Airlines Flight 11, was the first to take off at 7:59 a.m. On board were ten additional crew members and 81 passengers, including Mohamed Atta and his fellow terrorists. Less than 20 minutes later, Atta and his group swung into action.
At 8:19 a.m., Betty used an Airfone built into one of the seats to dial American Airlines’ reservation number. When the call was picked up, Betty told the ticketing agent, “I think we’re being hijacked.” Betty provided crucial information: the hijackers had taken control of the cockpit, a business class passenger had been stabbed, and the remaining passengers and crew were being held at bay with something like mace that made it difficult to breathe.
In the minutes before and after Betty’s phone call, two more planes took off: United Flight 175 departed Boston bound for Los Angeles at 8:15 a.m., carrying a crew of nine, 51 passengers, and five hijackers. At 8:20 a.m., American Flight 77 left Washington Dulles International Airport for Los Angeles. On board were 53 passengers, six crew members, and five hijackers. Apart from the terrorists, no one on board either of these planes had any idea what was happening on American Flight 11.
Speed was a critical factor in the terrorists’ plan. With events unfolding so quickly, the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, the airlines, and the military had to deal with a deluge of sometimes conflicting information. In addition, no one had ever seen a hijacking like this before. In the past, hijackers would take control of the cockpit and force the pilot to reroute the plane to a new destination. No one had imagined a scenario where the hijackers themselves were flying the plane.
The last plane to take off that morning was United Flight 93, departing Newark for San Francisco with 33 passengers, seven crew members and four hijackers on board. By the time United 93 took off at 8:42 a.m., news had already begun to spread of the first two hijackings. Minutes later, at 8:46 a.m., American Flight 11 would crash into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and the full extent of the terrorists’ operation would begin to become clear.
Miscommunication and lack of information prevented a timely military response to the attacks.
Major Kevin Nasypany, a 43-year-old mission control commander at the Northeast Air Defense Sector, or NEADS had a busy day scheduled on September 11. NEADS was a vital part of protecting the airspace above the United States and Canada, but on most days, the work was fairly routine. To keep the men and women under his command sharp, Nasypany routinely scheduled training exercises and he had one planned for the 11th. But before it could get underway, a real-world emergency would require everyone’s focus.
The key message here is: Miscommunication and lack of information prevented a timely military response to the attacks.
Air traffic controllers at Boston Center lost contact with American Flight 11 at approximately 8:14 a.m. While they continued their efforts to reach them on the radio, their radar showed the plane making an abrupt turn toward New York. Shortly after, at 8:21 a.m., American 11’s transponder was switched off. This meant that the plane was still visible on radar, but no one had any idea how fast it was going or what its altitude was.
Boston Control assumed Flight 11 was experiencing a technical malfunction. That would change as air traffic controller Peter Zalewski picked up a transmission from Flight 11, apparently intended for the passengers. A foreign-sounding man said, “We have some planes. Just stay quiet, and we’ll be OK.”
Unfortunately, Zalewski didn’t immediately understand the hijacker’s first sentence. Even if he had, there’s no guarantee the threat would have been believed. Still, it was enough to convince him that Flight 11 had been hijacked.
For the next 12 minutes, Boston Control reacted as though a “traditional” hijacking had occurred. They made repeated efforts to raise the pilots using a dedicated messaging system. At 8:34 a.m., they decided to seek military assistance. If nothing else, fighter jets could help track the plane. Instead of going through the normal channels of FAA and Department of Defense bureaucracy, they decided to call the bases directly. One of those calls connected them to Major Nasypany’s NEADS post.
Nasypany hustled to get authorization to launch two F-15 fighter jets from Otis Air National Guard Base, about 150 miles from New York City. Protocol would have been for the jets to act as escorts, reporting anything unusual. But with Flight 11’s transponder switched off, no one knew where exactly to send the fighters. Making things more difficult, NEADS used a completely different radar system than the FAA. They operated in different languages, so the information received was often misinterpreted and contradictory.
When Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., Major Nasypany learned about it the same way most of the rest of the world did: a news report on CNN. They still had no idea any other planes had been hijacked. Unable to confirm the identity of the plane that had crashed, the two fighter jets continued their search for a plane that no longer existed.
Civilians in the Twin Towers received conflicting information about the attacks.
It has been estimated that approximately 17,000 people were at the World Trade Center complex when American Flight 11 struck the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. In the split second of impact, everyone on board the plane and an unknown number in the Tower itself were killed instantly. The plane also cut off access to all three emergency stairwells. An estimated 1,355 people on and above the 92nd floor were now trapped.
The key message here is: Civilians in the Twin Towers received conflicting information about the attacks.
At the time the North Tower was hit, 44-year-old Guyanese immigrant Stan Praimnath was at his desk on the 81st floor of the South Tower. Unaware of the cause of the explosion, Stan and temp worker Delis Soriano prepared to evacuate. As they reached the lobby, a security guard assured them that the emergency was restricted to the North Tower and advised them to go back to their office. After telling Delis to go home, Stan reluctantly rode the elevator back up with a small group of colleagues.
Meanwhile, 911 lines were being flooded with emergency calls from those trapped on the North Tower. As the fires spread and the air grew thick with smoke, 911 operators did their best to reassure the victims that help was on the way. But with the stairwells blocked, those trapped couldn’t get down, and rescuers couldn’t get up. With their options running out, many broke windows in a desperate attempt to get fresh air. In their panic, many either fell or jumped to their deaths.
As Stan returned to his desk shortly after 9 a.m., he received a call from a colleague in Chicago, urging him to get out. But Stan assured her that he was fine, doubting that she would have more information than the authorities there did. While he was on the phone, he spotted an object on the horizon speeding toward him. It was United Flight 175. Stan dove for cover beneath his desk moments before the plane struck the South Tower at 9:03 a.m.
Miraculously, Stan survived the impact and crawled out into a smoky, debris-strewn battlezone. He crawled through the wreckage until he saw a small light sweeping the area in front of him. Calling out for help, he heard the voice of Brian Clark, a 54-year-old Canadian who worked for Euro Brokers, three floors away from Stan’s office. The two men had never met before fate brought them together. Now, as Stan said to Brian when they finally came face-to-face, they’d be “brothers for life.”
Stan and Brian survived their ordeal, eventually making their way to safety. But the losses suffered that day were profound. In addition to all those aboard American Flight 11 and United Flight 175, 2,606 people lost their lives in the World Trade Center area.
The attack on the Pentagon sent a clear signal that America was at war.
As events continued to unfold in New York City, millions around the world watched them happen live on television. Among those watching was Dave Tarantino, a 35-year-old Navy doctor working in the Pentagon. As he saw the second plane hit the South Tower, he immediately knew that Osama bin Laden had to be the man responsible. His mind was already racing ahead to what he believed would happen next. Little did he know that a third airplane was on its way to his location.
The key message here is: The attack on the Pentagon sent a clear signal that America was at war.
American Airlines Flight 77 began to exhibit familiar signs of trouble at 8:54 a.m. Air traffic controllers out of Indianapolis Center first noticed an unauthorized turn and then lost their transponder signal. At this time, they knew nothing about the ongoing crisis in New York and assumed the plane had suffered a mechanical failure. Air traffic controllers in Boston, New York, and Cleveland had all been placed on alert following the first two hijackings, but no one at the FAA thought a hijacked plane was heading into Indianapolis airspace, so they had been kept out of the loop.
For 36 minutes, American Flight 77 flew undetected as Indianapolis controllers continued to assume the plane had crashed. But at 9:32 a.m., it re-appeared on radar screens at Dulles, the same airport it had departed from earlier that morning. As they scrambled to identify the mystery jet, Langley Air Force Base was alerted to the threat. Two F-16’s took off, but they had not been given specific details. Assuming they were being scrambled to defend Washington from missiles or Russian planes, they followed standard protocol and headed out to sea.
Minutes later, at 9:37 a.m., American Flight 77 struck the west wall of the Pentagon, instantly killing all 59 men, women, and children on board as well as several dozen Pentagon workers. The survivors faced a treacherous scene of flames, toxic black smoke, and falling debris.
As his colleagues scrambled to evacuate, Dave Tarantino’s combat medical training kicked in. He knew that most people would instinctively try to head for the building’s outer edge. The safer way out would be to head into the Pentagon’s central courtyard and from there to safety. Using wet paper towels as a makeshift gas mask, Dave headed into the inferno in search of survivors.
Thanks to the efforts of Dave Tarantino and others like him, hundreds of survivors were able to make it to safety. All told, 125 Pentagon workers lost their lives on September 11. At 9:42 a.m., five minutes after American Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, the FAA issued an unprecedented command, ordering every aircraft currently in the air to land at the nearest airport. At that moment, 4,546 planes were in the skies over the United States. All but one of them followed orders and landed safely. The one that did not was United Flight 93.
The heroic actions of the passengers and crew of United 93 prevented a fourth terrorist attack from taking place.
By the time United Flight 93 took to the skies at 8:42 a.m., Osama bin Laden’s plot was already in motion. At almost the exact same moment, hijackers were taking over United Flight 175, while American Flight 11 had been in their control for nearly half an hour. For the terrorists, this delay may have made the difference between success and failure.
The key message here is: The heroic actions of the passengers and crew of United 93 prevented a fourth terrorist attack from taking place.
United 93 was scheduled to depart Newark International Airport at 8:00 a.m., but a runway delay resulted in the plane waiting over 30 minutes before it received clearance for takeoff. Another key difference was the fact that United 93 carried only four hijackers, one man less than the five-man groups on board the other planes.
At 9:28 a.m., the four men sprang into action. This time, air traffic controllers were able to hear sounds of a struggle, as either Captain Jason Dahl or First Officer LeRoy Homer Jr. continued to press the talk button on their radio.
Controllers at Cleveland Center immediately realized that another hijacking was in progress. Within ten minutes, Cleveland was in touch with the FAA’s Command Center requesting military assistance.
Meanwhile, on board United 93, passengers were making phone calls to family and loved ones on the ground, just as they had on the other three planes. But by this time, the eyes of the world were on New York City. The passengers aboard United 93 were told of the two planes that had crashed into the World Trade Center. They knew that a similar fate most likely awaited them.
As the plane drew closer to Washington, DC, the remaining crew members and passengers of United 93 discussed the news they were receiving and put together a plan. No matter what happened to them, they were not going to allow this plane to reach its intended target. Near the back of the plane, a 32-year-old software salesman named Todd Beamer attempted to place a call to his wife, Lisa, pregnant with their third child. He was connected to airfone supervisor Lisa Jefferson. Todd gave her details of the hijackers, the passengers’ plan to overpower them, and asked her to pass along a final message to his wife. The last words Lisa Jefferson heard him say were, “OK, let’s roll.”
At approximately 9:59 a.m., United 93’s cockpit flight recorder began picking up the sounds of a struggle. A cacophony of voices, crashes, breaking glass, and thuds provide evidence of the passengers’ attempts to regain control of the cockpit. Within minutes, the hijackers knew they would never be able to reach their target, presumed to be either the Capitol Building or the White House. As the seconds ticked away, they knew they would have to resort to Plan B: crashing the plane into the ground.
At 10:03 a.m., United 93 nosedived into a field just outside the tiny town of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The 40 men and women who comprised the plane’s passengers and crew all died instantly, but they died heroes. Thanks to them, no one else was injured in what was meant to be the day’s fourth terrorist attack.
First responders performed heroically on September 11 despite facing insurmountable odds.
After the planes had crashed into the Twin Towers, thousands of people swarmed out of the World Trade Center area to get to safety. Only the bravest, the firefighters, paramedics, and police officers who were New York’s first responders, raced in the opposite direction, directly into the chaotic inferno in an effort to save as many as possible. As a result, many of them lost their lives when the buildings finally collapsed.
The key message here is: First responders performed heroically on September 11 despite facing insurmountable odds.
For years, firefighters had dreaded the idea of a fire breaking out in a New York high-rise. In 1999, Fire Department of New York Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn candidly admitted that it would be impossible to extinguish a blaze in an open-floor area of a skyscraper. It simply wouldn’t be possible to pump enough water that fast and that high.
The best firefighters could hope for was that the fire would burn itself out while they rescued the trapped civilians. But that would not be possible on 9/11, as thousands of gallons of jet fuel provided a constant ignition point. Even so, rescue personnel entered first the North Tower then the South, determined to find a passable stairwell and bring as many people as they could to safety.
At 9:59 a.m., with rescue efforts underway in both New York and at the Pentagon and just minutes before the passengers of United 93 forced their plane into a Pennsylvania field, the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. United Flight 175 had crashed into it less than an hour earlier. Thousands had already escaped, but everyone still inside, including emergency responders and the roughly 619 people still trapped on or above the 77th floor, were killed.
After the collapse of the South Tower, fear spread that the North Tower would soon follow suit. FDNY Chief Joe Pfeifer issued a command to all firefighters in the North Tower to evacuate immediately. But communication via hand-held radios was unreliable, and many never heard that command. They were forced to rely on their own judgment.
One of those firefighters was Captain Jay Jonas of Ladder Company 6. When the South Tower collapsed, he and his men were in Stairwell B on the 27th floor. Confirming through a window what had happened, Captain Jonas decided it was time to lead his men to safety.
As they made their way down, they encountered a woman on the 20th floor. Her name was Josephine Harris, a 59-year-old who was having difficulty making it down the stairs. Vowing they’d get her to safety, the men of Ladder 6 slowed down, allowing Josephine’s bad leg to set their pace, even as every instinct screamed at them to get out. They had made it as far as the fourth floor when, at 10:38 a.m., the North Tower succumbed to the inevitable and collapsed.
As the sound and dust cleared, Captain Jonas realized that he, Josephine and the rest of Ladder 6 were still alive, trapped within what remained of the lowest floors of Stairwell B. Emerging from the rubble a couple hours later, Captain Jonas realized that if they had been much higher or lower, they would have been killed. The rest of the building had been destroyed. Josephine would later be made an honorary member of Ladder 6, with the title “Guardian Angel.”
The key message in these summaries is:
The events of September 11, 2001, remain vividly etched in the memories of everyone who lived through them. But for those who watched them unfold on television, and especially for those too young to remember, it’s vital to remember the names and the stories of the men, women, and children who were there that day. We must celebrate the stories of survival and honor the memories of those who died.
About the author
Mitchell Zuckoff is the Sumner M. Redstone Professor of Narrative Studies at Boston University and a #1 New York Times bestselling author. He covered 9/11 for the Boston Globe and wrote the lead news story on the day of the attacks. Fall and Rise is his eighth book. As a member of the Globe Spotlight Team, he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and the winner of numerous journalism awards. He lives outside Boston.