Amid the tragedy of 9/11, the courage of ordinary people shone through

‘We’re going to take back the airplane. I’ll be home for dinner… but I might be late’: Amid the tragedy of 9/11, the courage of ordinary people shone through as they refused to give in to terrorists. Here, 20 years on, their voices echo down the decades

  • On morning of September 11, terrorists hijacked four California bound planes
  • By 9.30am the World Trade Center had been hit and hundreds were killed 
  • Flight 77 hijacked and was en route for the Pentagon and Flight 93 also hijacked

On the morning of September 11, 2001, 19 Al-Qaeda terrorists successfully hijacked four California-bound planes, with the intention of crashing them into iconic buildings. 

By 9.30am the World Trade Centre, one of New York City’s most famous landmarks, had been hit, hundreds killed and many more trapped in the floors above.

Flight 77 had been hijacked and was en route for the Pentagon; Flight 93 also had terrorists at the controls. Al-Qaeda’s mission was going exactly to plan.

9.31am: Terrorist Ziad Jarrah is at the controls of Flight 93. He is out of breath after struggling with the pilots as he attempts to speak to the 33 passengers on board over the intercom, but as he is unfamiliar with the controls he inadvertently transmits his message to air traffic control instead: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen. 

Here the captain, please sit down keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board. So, sit.’

But there is no bomb — his aim is to crash the plane on either the Capitol or the White House.

Firefighters and emergency crews at the scene of the United Airlines Flight 93 crash on September 11, 2001

A dramatisation of United Airlines Flight 93 crash during the September 11 attacks 

At 9.50am Tom Burnett tells his wife Deena: ‘We’re going to take back the airplane. I’ll be home for dinner. I may be late, but I’ll be home’

9.32am: The cockpit voice recorder starts recording the output of the microphones in the pilots’ headsets. It picks up the sound of a woman, probably a flight attendant, held captive in the cockpit. Jarrah tells her: ‘Don’t move! Shut up! Sit, sit, sit down!’

The woman pleads: ‘Please, please don’t hurt me.’ A hijacker shouts at her: ‘Down! No more!’ The woman calls out: ‘Oh, God! I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!’ Then there is the sound of a snap, the sound of a struggle and the woman crying.

9.35am: Equities trader Welles Crowther, 24, his face covered by a red bandana, has been helping people escape the South Tower of the World Trade Centre. 

He guides tax official Ling Young to the stairs and follows her down, carrying a woman on his back. When they reach cleaner air, Welles goes back up. He’ll save at least ten people today.

Cantor Fitzgerald brokers at the top of the North Tower are losing hope. It’s hard to breathe because of the smoke and the stairwells are impassable. They are connected to their London office via squawk boxes.

One says: ‘Tell my wife and children I love them. I’m never getting out of here.’

Paul Lynn in London remembers: ‘There was a deathly silence on the trading floor. From that moment we sat, as the world did, and watched the tragedy unfold on TV. I had close friends there, we all did, we were the kind of firm where people knew each other well.’

None of Cantor Fitzgerald’s 658 employees survive.

9.37am: On Flight 93 a hijacker in the cockpit says that they won’t have any more problems with the female hostage. ‘Everything is fine. I finished.’ The woman is not heard again.

At the Pentagon Fire Station, firefighter Alan Wallace sees Flight 77 hit a road sign and then crash into the west side of the Pentagon just above ground level, setting off a fireball 200 feet high. The 64 people on the flight are killed, as are 125 Pentagon staff. Alan dives under a van to escape the flames.

9.40am: Christine Olender, the assistant general manager of the Windows On The World restaurant, at the top of the North Tower, repeatedly phones the police for advice as the restaurant is full of smoke. She asks permission to break a window.

Officer Ray Murray tries to reassure her and says: ‘You do whatever you have to to get to the air.’ On his video monitor Ray can see bodies on the ground at the foot of the North Tower and suspects that everyone in Windows On The World is doomed.

In 1996, from his base in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Al Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden and his right-hand man, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, began planning ‘the Planes Operation’

Pictured: Explosions rock the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, after the towers were hit by two planes

At 9.08am at the Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, President Bush is reading to a class of children, watched by reporters. White House Chief of Staff Andy Card whispers in his ear: ‘America is under attack’

9.42am: All 4,546 flights in U.S. airspace are ordered to land at the nearest airport. Only Flight 93, the remaining hijacked plane, ignores the instruction. 

On board, Tom Burnett calls his wife at their home in San Ramon, California. Deena tells him: ‘They’re hijacking planes all up and down the East Coast . . . they’ve already hit both towers of the World Trade Centre.’ 

Tom goes quiet and then says: ‘Oh my God, it’s a suicide mission!’ Passenger Linda Gronlund leaves a message on her sister Elsa’s answerphone. She has the presence of mind to give her the combination for her safe at home. She ends: ‘I love you and I hope that I can talk to you soon. Bye.’

9.44am: Rumours of more hijacked planes spread around Washington. At the U.S. Capitol, a police officer is running through the corridors shouting: ‘There’s a plane coming! Get out!’ 

For the first time in history the building is evacuated. Lawmakers and their staff rush outside and Senate and House leaders are led to underground bunkers.

In Row 32 of Flight 93, software salesman Todd Beamer has failed to get through to his home, so, desperate to talk to somebody, he reaches an Airfone supervisor named Lisa Jefferson. 

Shaken by a sudden lurch of the plane, he asks Lisa to say the Lord’s Prayer with him. Then Todd recites Psalm 23: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil . . .’

9.50am: The passengers on Flight 93 know their plane is going to be crashed into a building. They are forming a plan to fight back.

Todd Beamer asks phone supervisor Lisa Jefferson to make a call for him if he doesn’t make it: ‘Would you tell my wife and family how much I love them?’

Tom Burnett tells his wife Deena: ‘We’re going to take back the airplane. I’ll be home for dinner. I may be late, but I’ll be home.’

The group aim to overpower the hijackers and try and land the plane safely, probably by using the skills of two passengers: Donald Greene, who has a licence to fly small planes, and Andrew ‘Sonny’ Garcia, a former air traffic controller. 

Sonny manages to get through to his wife, but after only a second they’re cut off. All she hears is her name: ‘Dorothy.’

Pictured: People flee the area in New York as the second tower at the World Trade Center collapses

9.55am: In the North Tower there are now firefighters as high as the 54th floor, checking each level as they climb. The planes have severed key structural elements in both towers, but crucially they have also torn away vital fireproofing protecting the steel in the impact zones.

The heat generated by the combustion of fuel oil, oxygen and building materials is weakening the unprotected steel. It can no longer support the weight of the floors above. A helicopter pilot reports that the top storeys of the North Tower are ‘glowing red’.

9.56am: Airfone supervisor Lisa Jefferson hears screams down the phone, then Todd Beamer saying: ‘Are you guys ready? Let’s roll!’

Flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw is in the galley on the phone to her husband, preparing boiling water to throw at the hijackers. 

They tell each other how much they love each other and their children, then Sandra says quickly: ‘Everyone’s running up to first class. I’ve got to go. Bye.’

9.57am: The cockpit flight recorder picks up the sound of a struggle outside the door and a man screaming. 

A hijacker says in Arabic: ‘Let’s go guys! God is Greatest! God is Greatest!’ and then Tom Burnett’s voice is heard, shouting: ‘In the cockpit! In the cockpit!’ Jarrah shouts: ‘Hold the door! Hold from the inside!’ He starts to rock the wings to throw the passengers off balance.

9.59am: Near the top of the South Tower, Kevin Cosgrove, insurance executive and a father of three, calls 911 in desperation. The operator reassures him that help is at hand. Kevin says: ‘Doesn’t feel like it, man, I got kids. There’s smoke really bad . . . We’re young men, not ready to die.’

There is a pause and the operator says: ‘Hello?’ Kevin then says: ‘Hello… there’s three of us, two broken windows . . . Oh God! Oh!’ The line goes dead as the roof collapses and the South Tower falls. The quarter-mile high building collapses in just ten seconds.

Pictured: Civilians run away from the World Trade Center after two planes slam into the twin towers

Welles Crowther is in the lobby with a group of firefighters getting ready to go up into the South Tower once more, when it collapses. In March 2002, his body will be found in the wreckage, together with the firefighters.

Four years later Welles will be made an honorary member of the New York Fire Department. 

His family found a number of red bandanas in his apartment and one is on display in the 9/11 Memorial Museum. People on the streets of Lower Manhattan flee the giant dust cloud — some dive under cars and others into the Hudson River. Those who can’t outrun the cloud are plunged into darkness and start choking. A seismograph 265 miles away picks up the shock wave from the falling South Tower.

10.00am: The Flight 93 passengers haven’t yet managed to break down the cockpit door. The cockpit recorder picks up a male passenger shouting desperately: ‘In the cockpit! If we don’t, we’ll die!’

Jarrah pitches the nose of the plane up and down. The passengers have a food trolley to batter down the door. An American voice says ‘Roll it!’ and there is the sound of plates and glass crashing. Jarrah shouts that they should cut off the oxygen. Washington is now only about 100 miles away.

10.02am: A fire chief orders the immediate evacuation of the North Tower, but not everyone hears the order, either because the radios don’t work or they are off-duty firefighters without radios. Sixty off-duty firefighters die on 9/11.

One fire chief on the 35th floor takes matter into his own hands, travelling the stairwells shouting through a megaphone: ‘All FDNY [Fire Department of New York], get the f**k out!’ About 6,000 civilians of the 7,500 in the North Tower have been successfully evacuated.

10.02am: The Flight 93 passengers have broken into the cockpit and are fighting for the controls. ‘Turn it up!’ one shouts. ‘Down, down, pull it down! Pull it down!’ a hijacker yells. The plane is plunging to the ground. ‘No!’ a passenger shouts.

The Boeing 757 flips sideways and then completely upside down. As the struggle continues, one of the hijackers whispers in Arabic: ‘God is Greatest! God is Greatest!’

10.03am: Flight 93 cuts through power lines and slams into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The entire cockpit breaks off and disintegrates; the rear of the plane shatters as it plunges into the ground. The courageous passengers made sure the plane never reached Washington.

Pictured: President Bush speaking to Vice President Dick Cheney onboard Air Force One on September 11, 2001

Pictured: A firefighter prays after the World Trade Center buildings collapsed on September 11, 2001

Airfone supervisor Lisa Jefferson is still on the line, calling out Todd Beamer’s name. She stays on the phone for 15 minutes. Deena Burnett listens for Tom’s voice for three hours, ‘waiting for him to call back to tell me he had landed the plane and everything was fine . . .’

10.28am: Firemen on the ground notice that the antenna on top of the North Tower is starting to move back and forth. FDNY Lieutenant Mickey Kross and his men are in the process of evacuating the tower and have reached the third floor of Stairwell B. Suddenly he hears ‘a tremendous roar’ heading right for him. 

Then Mickey is hit by a fierce wind that starts to lift him off the ground, so he crouches down as small as he can: ‘I tried to crawl into my fire helmet — that’s what I wanted to do, just to protect myself.’

The North Tower is collapsing on top of him. He knows this could be the end. ‘I was a little angry. Like, why me?’ Then everything goes dark. In the silence after the fall of the North Tower, there is the sound of scores of high-pitched locator alarms worn by firemen and triggered when an officer falls and doesn’t move.

10.35am: In Kinderhook, New York, Anne Mulderry has just finished a yoga class near her retirement home. 

She stops off at the Post Office and sees that she has a package. She says to the woman behind the counter that she hopes it’s something fun. ‘I hope so too on a day like this,’ replies the woman, and tells Anne about the World Trade Centre attack.

Anne freezes — her son Stephen works there.

She rushes home and sees that her answerphone is blinking. It’s a message from Stephen calling from the conference room: ‘Mom, my building’s been hit by a plane. And right now . . . I think I’m OK, I’m safe now but it’s smoky. I just want to say how much I love you and I will call you when I’m safe. OK mom? Bye.’

Anne said later: ‘There was a catch in his voice that allowed me to know that . . . he knew he was facing death.’

Emergency crews run through the streets as the World Trade Center’s Tower collapses

11.02am: New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani orders the evacuation of Lower Manhattan.

It is over an hour since the third aircraft, Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon, killing the 64 people on board and 125 military and civilian staff. Marines are still going in and out of the wreckage of the building, pulling out survivors, and the centre courtyard is being used for triage. The firefighting operation at the Pentagon will last for 36 hours.

12.30pm: Trapped in the rubble of the North Tower, FDNY Lieutenant Mickey Kross and his men have been calling ‘Mayday’ on their radios for two hours. Finally, they get a response: ‘Where are you?’

All flights in U.S. airspace are now grounded. In Britain, all flights over London are banned, and special security measures have been placed around the Stock Exchange and Canary Wharf. 

Prime Minister Tony Blair has cancelled his speech to the Trades Union Congress and is phoning world leaders, including French president Jacques Chirac, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister.

Pictured: Taliban fighters on top of a Humvee parade along a road in Kandahar on September 1, 2021, after the US pulled its troops out of Afghanistan

1.30pm: Many anxious parents have been collecting their kids from school early. Deena, the wife of Tom Burnett, who played a key role in the storming of the cockpit of Flight 93, decides to let her children stay put. She recalled: ‘Being there was better than seeing me fall apart.’

The school headmaster had called earlier and said that the children were fine and that they didn’t know that their father’s plane had crashed. Deena decides to go to church.

2.30pm: After being trapped for four hours in what remains of Stairwell B, enough dust and smoke have cleared for Mickey Kross to see an opening about 30 feet above: ‘A 110-storey building on top of us and we can see the sun.’ Rescuers lower a rope and 12 firefighters, one police officer and three civilians are lifted out.

Mickey makes the perilous journey through the mountains of steel and deep holes in the ground to a Fire Department command post. He sees his name on a list of missing, presumed dead and crosses it out.

5.20pm: The adjacent 47-floor building known as Seven World Trade Centre has been severely damaged by debris from the Twin Towers and collapses. The Fire Department has lost so many men that they let the building burn — there is no one inside.

Many families are still hoping their loved ones are alive. Rosemary Dillard, whose husband Eddie was on Flight 77, keeps calling his mobile phone and his pager.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who earlier had helped with the rescue at the Pentagon, gives an order that September 12 is to be a normal working day: ‘I want everybody here reporting for work.’

6.30pm: President Bush is in the presidential helicopter Marine One over Washington; it is flying low and zig-zagging to deter a ground attack. He can see smoke rising from the Pentagon. Bush turns to his chief of staff Andy Card and says: ‘You’re looking at the first war of the 21st century.’

7pm: At the scene of the crash of Flight 93, the FBI and the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department are searching for wreckage and human remains. 

Splinters of metal are embedded in trees, and clothing hangs from branches; on the ground are oxygen masks, shoes, dollar bills, seat buckles and a bank card belonging to Ziad Jarrah that will provide a vital clue to how the attacks were financed.

They will eventually find flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw’s flight log together with a photo of her family, an ID badge belonging to Todd Beamer — the man who said ‘Let’s roll!’ — and co-pilot LeRoy Homer Jr’s wedding ring inscribed with a Bible verse about faith, hope and love, ‘and the greatest of these is love’.

7.45pm: On the steps of the east front of the U.S. Capitol, Members of the House and Senate gather to speak to the Press. They declare their full support for President Bush, but some criticise the intelligence community for failing to stop the attacks.

The lawmakers know about Flight 93 and that the bravery of the passengers prevented the Capitol becoming a target. They spontaneously start to sing ‘God Bless America’.

8pm: American airspace has been closed since the morning, so hundreds of planes have been re-routed. 

Thirty-nine have landed at the international airport at Gander, a small town in Newfoundland, Canada, with a population of only 10,000. The people of Gander are mobilising, doing what they can for the 7,000 stranded passengers from more than 100 countries — donating toiletries, organising vital prescriptions and providing toys for the children.

The planes were carrying in their holds nine dogs, ten cats and a pair of rare Bonobo monkeys; they, too, are being taken care of.

The passengers will be stranded in Gander for five days and all are put up in local homes. The story inspires the hit musical Come From Away.

8.30pm: President Bush addresses the nation from the Oval Office, calling the attacks ‘evil, despicable acts of terror’ and declaring that the United States, its friends and its allies would ‘stand together to win the war against terrorism . . . America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. 

None of us will ever forget this day. Yet, we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.’

11.30pm: A few people are being pulled alive from the rubble of the Twin Towers. Police Officer William Jimeno is badly injured and is taken to a nearby hospital, where he expects to see thousands of survivors being treated. William says to the nurse: ‘Where is everybody?’ She replies: ‘You’re it.’

The fires are still burning at Ground Zero. They will burn for another three months.


Nearly 3,000 people from 90 nations were killed on September 11, spanning ages from two to 85. The remains of 1,109 men and women are still unidentified.

Approximately two billion people, almost a third of the world’s population, witnessed the tragedy via television, radio and the internet. When he visited Ground Zero for the first time, President Bush said angrily: ‘The people responsible for this have got to pay.’

On May 2, 2011, Osama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy Seals in Pakistan; his right-hand man, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is awaiting trial at Guantanamo Bay. He faces the death penalty.

Jonathan Mayo is the author of D-Day Minute By Minute (Short Books, £8.99).

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