9-11: America’s Second Day of Infamy
Mike Louviere – For The Record
September 11, 2001 began like many other days, sunny skies, a normal early fall day in the Northeast United States. In midmorning in a time period of 109 minutes, America would experience its greatest tragedy and would be changed forever.
Thousands of people would die, the air defense system would be proven inadequate, and out of the terror and horror of the day would come heroic stories.
Osama Bin Laden had become a devoted follower of fundamentalist Islam. He said he resented American troops being stationed in his home country, Saudi Arabia, that were sent to protect them from a possible invasion from Saddam Hussein. The Saudi king refused Bin Laden’s offer to protect Saudi Arabia and he was insulted that “Infidels” would be doing what he felt was his right to do.
Bin Laden may have planned and carried out a bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.
On this day, 9-11-2001, however, he had planned their destruction.
Nydia Gonzalez, an operations specialist with American Airlines in the operations center in New York City was the first to find out there was trouble on a flight. What follows is a partial transcript of the actual call from Betty Ong, a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11:
BETTY: OK my name is Betty Ong. I’m No. 3 on Flight 11.
AMERICAN AIRLINES OPERATIONS CENTER: OK.
BETTY: And the cockpit is not answering their phone, and there’s somebody stabbed in business class, and we can’t breathe in business class — somebody’s got Mace or something.
AMERICAN AIRLINES OPERATIONS CENTER: Can you describe the person that you said… someone is what in business class?
BETTY: I’m sitting in the back. Somebody is coming back from business, hold on for one second. … OK our No. 1 got stabbed, our purser got stabbed. Nobody knows who stabbed who, and we can’t even get up to business class right now because nobody can breathe.
BETTY: Is anybody still there?
AMERICAN AIRLINES OPERATIONS CENTER: Yes, we’re still here.
BETTY: OK. I’m staying on the line, as well.
AMERICAN AIRLINES OPERATIONS CENTER: OK.
During her call to the ground, Ong provided officials with the seat numbers of the hijackers, allowing them to identify the men early on. She was still on the phone, trying to help, when her plane hit the World Trade Center. She was able to tell then the plane had changed direction and was descending, but did not know where the plane was going. Suddenly her line went dead.
At the time of her death, Ong lived in Andover, Mass. and on September 11, 2001, Ong assigned herself to Flight 11 so she could return to Los Angeles and go on vacation to Hawaii with her sister. During the hijacking, she used a telephone card to call in to American Airlines’ operations/Raleigh reservations center from the plane’s rear galley, identified herself and alerted the supervisor that the aircraft had been hijacked.
Along with fellow flight attendant Madeline Amy Sweeny, she relayed a report of the seat numbers of three hijackers. During her Airfone call, she reported that none of the crew could contact the cockpit nor open its door. A passenger (Daniel M. Lewillin) and two (unnamed, cockpit key-carrying) flight attendants had been stabbed. Ong was very calm as she made this call as she gave valuable information.
As horrified people on the ground near the World Trade Center watched the smoke and debris coming from the North Tower, they noticed an occasional body falling. Some were people jumping in desperation. The bodies hit the concrete with force, the sound was sickening and it was a horrible sight for those on the streets, according to witnesses.
Then, the second plane was seen turning into the South Tower. In shortly over one hour, both towers would collapse into a pile of debris as tall as a six story building.
There are hundreds of stories of heroism and tragedy from that day, according to the site. Along with the thousands of victims, there are a few stories of miracles. One man rode down the collapse from the 64th floor and was found sitting dazed atop a pile of debris and was rescued by a team from the New York Fire Department.
The NYFD lost 343 of its men who were attempting to rescue survivors and also fight the fires that had started. One of those lost was Jonathan Lee Ielpi, a chief in Squad 288. His brother was a probationary firefighter with Engine 208, also there that day. Their father was Lee Ielpi, who was retired from service with Rescue 2 and was legendary for his effort in rescues in his career with the NYFD.
Jonathan had called his father and told him that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. “Son, be careful”, Lee said. Lee then took his tools and drove into New York City to try to help.
“I got there and saw some of the men that were in Jonathan’s squad and asked them about my son. They just looked at me and dropped their eyes. I knew then that he was gone. I joined the effort to look for survivors. It was hard not knowing about my other son and having just found that one son was dead, but in times like that, you just keep going”, said Lee. Later that day he found that Brandon, his other son was safe.
Each day Lee would go to the debris pile and help search for remains, hopefully they would find his son. Finally on December 11, 2001 the body of Jonathan Ielpi was discovered. Members of the lost firefighters company carried the remains out of the site. Jonathan’s body was placed on a stretcher and draped with an American flag and carried out with honor, as were many other bodies.
A member of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 16 years, Leonard W. Hatton was the only FBI agent lost in the World Trade Center attack. As an FBI specialist in explosives and evidence recovery, Hatton went to Africa in 1998 to help investigate the bombings of U.S. embassies by terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden.
On the Joint Bank Robbery Task Force, Hatton worked with New York City police, investigating bank and armored car robberies, kidnappings, and extortion cases.
He developed specialties as a bomb technician, trained in analyzing suspicious packages and disarming explosive devices, and as a member of the evidence recovery team, which processes crime scenes.
Because of his expertise in those areas, he was part of the team sent to Tanzania to conduct the crime scene investigations after the embassy bombings that claimed the lives of 11 people in Tanzania and 213 in Kenya.
Two years later, he went to Yemen to investigate the bombing of the Cole, which took the lives of 17 sailors.
“He wanted to be [an FBI agent] for as long as I’ve known him,” said his wife. “He loved his work. He just loved everything about it.”
Hatton was killed in the collapse of the towers.
“He didn’t have to go in. But that was his nature. That was truly his nature,” said his wife, JoAnne Hatton.
“If he had gone straight to work, he would be here today. But I would have expected no less from him,” she said.
Hatton was on his way to work that morning when he saw the smoke coming from the towers. He abandoned his car and raced to the towers on foot. None of his remains were ever recovered.
Several months after 9-11, JoAnne was contacted and told that Hatton’s service pistol had been recovered and would be given to her.
“I got the pistol and thought for a while about what to do with it. I did not know whether to keep it or give it to one of the children. I finally decided that I would bury it so that we could have a place to go and remember Leonard and to be able to pay tribute to him and what he tried to do that day”, said JoAnne.
September 11, 2001 was a chaotic day for the United States military. After they found that Flight 11 had been hijacked, word was received about three other planes. American Airlines Flight 77 and United Airlines Flights 175 and 93 had also been hijacked.
The hijackers had killed the flight crews and turned off the transponders on each plane. That made tracking impossible. The Air Force had scrambled five fighter planes, four F-16s, each plane with a 20mm Gatling gun, but they did not know where to go. There were so many planes in the air that the hijacked planes did not stand out. The air defense system was overwhelmed, it had not been expected that such an event as this 109 minute marathon of terror would occur.
In addition to the two planes that hit the World Trade Center, another would be flown into the Pentagon and one would crash in a field in Pennsylvania.
That day, America became involved in a war of terror on the homefront, the likes of which had never been seen.