A new book entitled The Only Plane in the Sky: an Oral History of 9/11 records the firsthand accounts of witnesses to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, including detailed interviews with United States government and military officials who were serving at the time. The book, by former Politico magazine editor Garrett Graff, includes the transcripts of the interviews.
Wednesday marks 18 years since the September 11 terror attacks. Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks in which hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, a fourth hijacked plane, thwarted the crashing of the plane into the capital and caused it to crash on a field in Pennsylvania instead.
“Well that’s a strange accident,” thought national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, when she heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, according to an excerpt from the book published by Politico. After talking to president George W. Bush about how odd it was, she proceeded to her regular staff meeting.
Once a second plane hit the World Trade Center, everyone knew that this was not just a strange accident. “It was the moment that changed everything,” said Rice.
The Secret Service barged into vice president Dick Cheney’s office as radar caught site of an airliner heading towards the White House at 500 miles an hour.
“We learn that a plane is five miles out and has dropped below 500 feet and can’t be found; it’s missing,” recalled Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Cheney. “You look at your watch and think, Hmmm, five miles out, 500 miles an hour. Tick, tick, tick.”
“My Secret Service agent said, ‘Sir, we have to leave now,’” said Cheney. “He grabbed me and propelled me out of my office, down the hall and into the underground shelter in the White House.”
Rice was also sent down to the bunker under the White House. “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,” said Rice.
“The look on the faces of the Secret Service agents who were told that they had to stay – I will never forget that because we had at least the opportunity to flee,” recalled Christine Limerick, a White House housekeeper, according to the Politico excerpt.
“We were fairly confident that plane was going to hit us,” said Secret Service special agent Ian Rifield in the book. “The supervisor in the [service’s] Joint Operations Center basically said: ‘Anybody who survives the impact, we’ll go to an alternate center, and we’ll continue.’ It wasn’t a joke.”
The officials gathered in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center and worked to locate and ground all planes in the US. As they sat there, they watched the South Tower fall on large screens set up there.
“There was a deafening silence, and a lot of gasping and 'Oh my god' and that kind of thing,” said commander Anthony Barnes, deputy director of the Presidential Contingency Programs.
“In the years since, I’ve heard speculation that I’m a different man after 9/11,” said Cheney. “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.”
For Rice, the first though was: “Get a message out to the world that the United States of America has not been decapitated.”
“These pictures must have been terrifying,” said Rice. “It must have seemed liked the United States of America was coming apart. My test was to keep my head about me and to make certain that people around the world didn’t panic.”
“We were in foreign territory; we are used to protecting the shores, way out overseas. Our processes and procedures weren’t designed for this,” said Col. Bob Marr, commander of the Northeast Air Defense Sector. Another commander mentioned how they couldn’t see the aircraft because they didn’t have any radars pointing into the US since anything there was considered “friendly by definition.”
According to Barnes, the Pentagon asked for permission to shoot down an identified hijacked commercial aircraft. He asked the vice president for permission and Cheney responded in the affirmative, according to the Politico excerpt. “Without hesitation, in the affirmative, he said any confirmed hijacked airplane may be engaged and shot down.”
“It had to be done,” said Cheney. “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.”
“As bad as the events of 9/11 were, some of us had practiced exercises for far more dangerous and difficult circumstances – an all-out Soviet nuclear attack on the United States,” explained Cheney. “That helped – that training kicked in that morning.”
After the order was given to shoot down hijacked aircraft, the military worked quickly to find fighters it could use, even if it had to be unarmed fighters to be sent on a kamikaze mission to crash into hijacked airliners, according to Politico.
“We would be ramming the aircraft,” said Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney, an F-16 pilot in the D.C. Air National Guard. “We didn’t have [missiles] on board to shoot the airplane down. As we were putting on our flight gear in the life support shop, [Lt.-Col. Marc Sasseville] looked at me and said, ‘I’ll ram the cockpit.’ I made the decision I would take the tail off the aircraft.”
“[Sasseville] and I fully expected to intercept Flight 93 and take it down,” said Penney.
Penney and Sasseville ended up not having to make the difficult decision, as passengers on Flight 93 thwarted the terrorist attack attempt and caused the plane to crash in a field in Pennsylvania instead.
“As that plane took a dive, I could hear the commotion in the background,” said Lisa Jefferson, a Verizon Airfone operator who was called by Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer. ”I heard the flight attendant screaming. People hollering out, “Oh, my God! Jesus, help us!” He asked me, if he didn’t make it, would I please call his wife? I told him I would, but I asked him if would like me to connect him to her right then. He said, no, he didn’t want to upset her. She was expecting their third child in January, and he knew she was home alone. He gave me his home phone number.”
“Todd turned to someone else and he said, “Are you ready?” I could hear them; they responded. He said, “OK. Let’s roll.” That was the last thing I heard,” said Jefferson.
All 40 passengers and crew aboard the flight were killed when Flight 93 crashed, as well as the four hijackers.