Episode 23: 9/11 Anniversary Special Part 1 – American Airlines Flight 11 & United Airlines 175

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On September 11, 2001, four commercial jetliners were commandeered by terrorists and flown into buildings in New York City and Washington, D.C., and into a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania. That day forever changed America and the way that we all travel. Join us for part one of this special two-part September 11th anniversary episode of Take to the Sky: The Air Disaster Podcast as Shelly tells the story of the two planes that deliberately crashed into the Twin Towers: American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines 175. Hear about the heartbreaking events leading up the 9/11 crash and learn about the heroes that did the only thing they could do that day: try and save as many people as possible before the unthinkable happens.

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Nineteen years ago, on September 11, 2001, 19 militants hijacked four commercial airplanes and carried out suicide attacks against civilian and military targets in the United States. Two of the planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, a third plane hit the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C., and the fourth plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. By the day’s end, 3,000 people were killed during the attacks.  In a two-part episode special, Stephane and Shelly recounted the events that unfolded that day and explore how 9/11 has forever changed America and defined how we travel today. 

The Twin Towers Are Built in 1973 in New York

The iconic twin towers of downtown Manhattan’s World Trade Center were a triumph of human engineering and perseverance. Completed in 1973, the towers stood at 110 stories each, accommodating 50,000 workers and 200,000 daily visitors in 10 million square feet of space. 

The road toward their creation was an interesting one. The 1939’s World Fair included an exhibit called – you guessed it – The World Trade Center that was dedicated to the concept of “world peace through trade.” Seven years later, there was an effort to create a permanent trade exposition based in New York, but the plan was soon scrapped so the city could prioritize modernizing its ports instead. 

Then about 20 years later in 1959, David Rockefeller, grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, decided to revive the World Trade Center concept. Rockefeller formed the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association, which planned a $250 million complex near the Fulton Fish Market on the East River, including a single 70-story office tower and several smaller buildings. 

For the resources and power to make the project work, Rockefeller turned to the Port of New York Authority, who were going to also make improvements to the existing commuter railroad, called the PATH (Port Authority Trans Hudson) train. The Port Authority’s powerful and influential director, Austin J. Tobin, decided to move the prospective trade center location from the site near the East River to the west side of the city, combining the two projects. 

By this time, the Port Authority had decided that the trade center should replace the Empire State Building as the world’s tallest building. To fulfill the Port Authority’s requirement, architect Minoru Yamasaki designed two towers of 110 stories each. The buildings would not be constructed in a traditional way as stacked glass-and-steel boxes; instead, the towers would feature a revolutionary design: two hollow tubes, supported by closely spaced steel columns encased in aluminum. Floor trusses connected this exterior steel lattice to the central steel core of the building. In this way, the “skin” of the building would be strong enough that internal columns wouldn’t be necessary to hold it together.

Construction began in February 1967, but not without resistance. Lawrence Wien, who owned the Empire State Building and probably did not want it eclipsed, ran an ad in the New York Times in May 1968 predicting that a commercial airliner was likely to fly into the towers. But this was to no avail: the project kept progressing. And, to address any public concerns over a plane colliding with the towers, engineers designed the structures to withstand the collision with a fully loaded 707 plane (the largest existing plane at the time). And obviously, it was assumed such a plane would have to be lost in fog for that to occur; a terrorist attack was never envisioned.

The official ribbon cutting ceremony was held on April 4, 1973. At 1,360 feet tall, the World Trade Center towers were the tallest buildings in the world for less than a year; they were soon surpassed by Chicago’s Sears Tower. 

1993 Bombing Tests the Integrity of The Twin Towers

The first major test of the trade center’s structural integrity came on February 26, 1993, when a bomb exploded in the parking garage of the second-floor basement of the north tower. The blast killed six people, injured more than 1,000 others and caused an estimated $600 million in damage. Six Islamic extremists were tried and convicted in connection with the plot.

The towers reopened 20 days after the bombing with new security measures in place, including restrictions to parking lot access and electronic identification badges for building tenants. Over the next eight years, the Port Authority spent a total of $700 million on renovations, with safety upgrades like battery-powered stairway lights and a separate emergency command center in each building. Mayor Rudy Giuliani even set up a high-tech emergency operations command center, called “the Bunker,” at 7 World Trade Center, a 47-story office building adjoining the towers.

None of those precautions stopped what was coming in 2001. 

American Airlines 11 Hijacked by Terrorists First

On that day in September started as a memorably crystal-clear morning on the East Coast. 

At just about quarter to 6 AM, a group of 10 hijackers, unknown to everyone around them, make their way through security at Logan International Airport in Boston, MA. 

Just one minute before 8 AM, American Airlines Flight 11 takes off from Logan International. The Boeing 767 is headed toward Los Angeles with 92 people on board, comprised of 11 crew members, 76 passengers and (unbeknownst to all on onboard) five hijackers. 

Just about fifteen minutes after American Flight 11 takes off from Boston, at 8:15 AM, United Airlines Flight 175 also departs from Logan International and also heading for Los Angeles. This Boeing 767 has 64 people on board, comprised of nine crew members, 51 passengers and (again, unbeknownst to all onboard) five hijackers.

At 8:13 AM, as American 11 is passing over central Massachusetts at 26,000 feet, the pilots respond to a request from Boston ATC to make a 20-degree turn to the right. And right after that, Boston control tells the pilots to ascend to a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. It is at this exact time that ATC receives no response from the plane. Air-traffic controllers notice that something is terribly wrong and that the flight must be in distress when the crew is no longer responding, and at 8:21 AM, the plane’s transponder is mysteriously switched off.

It is believed that the hijackers forcibly entered the cockpit and either killed or incapacitated Captain John Ogonowski and First Officer Thomas McGuinness. It is suspected that the hijackers injured at least three people (possibly killing one), as a way to forcibly enter the cockpit. It was first reported that Captain Ogonowski was held captive in the cockpit and had thought to activate the cockpit radio, which allowed ground control to listen to remarks being made by the hijackers, although this assertion does not align with the description of events as laid out in the 9/11 Commission Report.

Just about 5 minutes after they take control of American 11, at around 8:14 AM, one of the hijackers accidentally calls ground control when trying to transmit a message to the passengers in the plane’s cabin, unwittingly alerting ground control to the attacks.

American 11 crew members Betty Ann Ong and Madeline Sweeney place a call to ground personnel with some chilling news: there is a hijacking in progress. And, heroically, in their report to ground personnel, they provide key information. They let ground know that the hijackers had stabbed two flight attendants, Karen Martin and Barbara Arestegui, and slashed the throat of passenger Daniel Lewin. Lewin, an American-Israeli Internet entrepreneur who understood Arabic, had served as an officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal special operations unit of the Israel Defense Forces. Lewin was seated in 9B, and one of the terrorists was directly behind him in 10B. The 9/11 Commission suggested that the terrorist may have stabbed and killed Lewin after he attempted to stop the hijacking. Lewin is believed to be the first fatality in the 9/11 attacks. During a four-minute call to the American Airlines operations center, Ong provided information about lack of communication with the cockpit, lack of access to the cockpit, and passenger injuries. She provided the seat locations of the hijackers, which later helped investigators to determine their identities. They are such true heroes. 

Meanwhile, over on United 175, the second plane in this attack and which is flying nearby to American Flight 11, Captain Victor J. Saracini, the pilot for the flight, hears the accidental transmission from the hijackers and alerts the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This is both heroic and haunting because Captain Saracini’s plane, United 175, is just minutes away from being hijacked itself. 

United 175 is Suspected to Be Hijacked, Igniting U.S. Response

At 8:37 AM, air traffic controllers ask the pilots of United 175 if they can see American 11. The United crew can indeed see the American Airlines plane and respond that Flight 11 is at 29,000 feet. Controllers, fearing a potential collision, order United 175 to turn and avoid the aircraft. The United pilots also tell controllers about the suspicious transmission they heard coming from Flight 11. The United flight crew can be heard saying to controllers, "Sounds like someone keyed the mic and said 'Everyone, stay in your seats'.” 

This, amazingly and hauntingly, is the last transmission that controllers will receive from United 175.

Receiving this information from Captain Saracini from United 175, at 8:40 AM, the FAA notifies the Northeast American Aerospace Defense Command’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) about the suspected hijacking of American 11. NEADS then mobilizes Air National Guard F-15 fighter jets at Otis Air Force Base in Falmouth, Mass., to identify and follow American 11. 

The order to dispatch the fighters at Otis wasn’t given until 08:46. More on this in a little bit further along in our story. 

It is at this moment, sometime between 8:42 AM and 8:46 AM, that United 175 is hijacked, while American 11 is just minutes away from hitting the North Tower.  

The first operational evidence that something was abnormal on United 175 came at 8:47 (about 10 minutes or less after their final transmission came through to controllers), when the plane's transponder signal changed twice within the span of one minute, and the aircraft began deviating from its assigned course. However, the air traffic controller in charge of the flight did not notice until 8:51. 

Unlike American 11, which had turned its transponder off, United 175's flight data could still be properly monitored. And at this very moment, United 175 changes its altitude. Over the next three minutes, the controller makes five unsuccessful attempts to contact United 175 and works to move other aircraft in the vicinity away from the plane. 

At around this time, United 175 has gone silent, and they almost have a near midair collision with Delta Air Lines Flight 2315, reportedly missing the plane by only 300 feet (90 m). Air traffic controller Dave Bottiglia frantically tells the Delta pilot to take evasive action. Bottiglia is the first person in the control center to realize that United 175 has been hijacked when he gave directions for a turn and United 175 did not respond. Instead, the plane does the exact opposite accelerating its speed and begins to head toward Delta Flight 2315. 

Bottiglia quickly instructs the Delta pilot, "Take any evasive action necessary. We have an airplane that we don't know what he's doing. Any action at all." Then United 175 avoids another near collision with Midwest Express Flight 7, which is flying from Milwaukee to New York.

Right around this time, the FAA notifies NORAD about the suspected hijacking of United 175.

American 11 Strikes the North Tower

At 8:46 a.m., American 11, being commandeered by terrorists, strikes the North Tower of the World Trade Center traveling at hundreds of miles per hour and carrying around 10,000 gallons of jet fuel. The flight crashes into floors 93-99 and severs all three emergency stairwells, trapping hundreds of people above the 91st floor. The impact leaves a gaping, burning hole near the 80th floor, instantly killing hundreds of people and trapping hundreds more in higher floors.

To give you a parallel comparison of what is happening at the same time: as the public begins to watch the event unfolding at the burning North Tower, it is believed it’s at that time that hijackers forcibly entered the cockpit and killed the pilots of United 175 while the other hijackers started moving passengers and crew to the back of the aircraft. And remember the F-15s scrambled from Otis Air Force Base? They take off just at 08:53, roughly seven minutes after American 11 had already crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The nine minutes of advance notification about the hijacking of American 11 was the most time that NORAD had to respond before the aircraft crashed into its target.

Passengers on United 175 Place Calls to Family, Loved Ones

Here is what is believed to have been happening on United 175. Flight attendant Robert Fangman, as well as two passengers (Peter Hanson and Brian David Sweeney), made phone calls from GTE airphones in the rear of the aircraft. Airphone records also indicate that Garnet Bailey made four phone call attempts, trying to reach his wife.

Fangman called a United Airlines office in San Francisco at 08:52 and spoke with Marc Policastro. Fangman reported the hijacking and said that the hijackers were likely flying the plane. He also said that both pilots were dead and that a flight attendant was stabbed.[11] After a minute and 15 seconds, Fangman's call was disconnected. Policastro subsequently made attempts to contact the aircraft's cockpit using the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) message system.

Brian David Sweeney tried calling his wife, Julie, at 08:58, but ended up leaving a message, telling her that the plane had been hijacked. He then called his parents at 9:00 a.m. and spoke with his mother, Louise. Sweeney told his mother about the hijacking and mentioned that passengers were considering storming the cockpit and taking control of the aircraft.

At 08:52, Peter Hanson called his father, Lee Hanson, in Easton, Connecticut, telling him of the hijacking. Hanson was traveling with his wife, Sue, and their 2½-year-old daughter, Christine. The family was originally seated in Row 19, in seats C, D, and E; however, Peter placed the call to his father from seat 30E. Speaking softly, Hanson said that the hijackers had commandeered the cockpit, that a flight attendant had been stabbed, and that possibly someone else in the front of the aircraft had been killed. He also said that the plane was flying erratically. Hanson asked his father to contact United Airlines, but Lee could not get through and instead called the police.

Peter Hanson made a second phone call to his father at 09:00:

“It's getting bad, Dad. A stewardess was stabbed. They seem to have knives and Mace. They said they have a bomb. It's getting very bad on the plane. The plane is making jerky movements. I don't think the pilot is flying the plane. I think we are going down. I think they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building. Don't worry, Dad. If it happens, it'll be very fast ... Oh my God ... oh my God, oh my God.”

As the call abruptly ended, Hanson's father heard a woman screaming.

United 175 Strikes the South Tower

At 8:59 AM, the Port Authority Police Department Sergeant Al DeVona issues orders to evacuate the Twin Towers. One minute later, evacuation orders are extended for all civilians in the entire World Trade Center Complex.

As the evacuation of the tower and its twin gets underway, television cameras broadcast live images of what initially appears to be a freak accident.

But then, at 9:03 a.m., just 18 minutes after the first plane, American 11, hits the North Tower, the iconic nightmare begins to take its complete and devastating form as United 175 appears suddenly overhead in New York City, coming out of the sky. It turns sharply toward the south tower and slices right into the building on floors 77-85. Two of the three emergency stairwells are rendered impassible and most elevator cables in the area are severed by the crash, trapping many on floors above the impact and inside elevators.

The collision causes a massive explosion that showers burning debris over surrounding buildings and onto the streets below. 

Twin Towers Attacks is War Declared on America

At this very moment everything in America is about to change. It is in this moment it immediately becomes clear that America is under attack.

New York City, a thriving, robust city at the time of just over 8 million people, comes to a standstill, as does the rest of the country. At 9:21 AM, all bridges and tunnels into Manhattan are closed. The FAA first bans all takeoffs for flights nationwide which were either going to or passing through its New York Center airspace. And then at 9:45 a.m., the FAA grounds all flights, ordering all aircraft to land at the nearest airport as soon as practical. More than 4,500 aircraft are in air at the time.

Heroic Evacuation of Twin Towers Attempted

What happens over the next 15 minutes inside those two towers becomes the stuff of legend as people struggle to find exits that lead them safely to the ground below. First responders, made up of police, firefighters, paramedics, and port authority, execute daring rescue operations, sending many first responders up into the burning towers. There are so many eyewitness accounts from survivors in the towers that recall seeing the first responders running up staircase after staircase, their blue and brown eyes the only features showing through heavily masked faces, all the while, never stopping, never turning back. 

And the iconic Twin Towers, who were in their inception, a feat of engineering, have held together for as long as they can. 

Twin Towers Crumble Under Severe Damage, Resulting in Mass Casualties 

At 9:59 a.m., after burning for 56 minutes, the South Tower collapses. It takes a shocking 10 seconds for the building to fully collapse into the ground, the exterior peeling back and out and at the same time down into itself. More than 800 civilians and first responders are killed in an instant. 

At 10:28 a.m., after burning for 102 minutes, the North Tower collapses. More than 1,600 civilians and first responders are killed. 

Only six people in the World Trade Center towers at the time of their collapse survive.

Almost 10,000 others are treated for injuries, many severe. In total, 2,763 human beings died after the two planes slammed into the twin towers. That figure includes 343 firefighters and paramedics, 23 New York City police officers and 37 Port Authority police officers who were struggling to complete an evacuation of the buildings and save the office workers trapped on higher floors.

The heroic efforts of the city’s fire and police departments and other emergency services helped 25,000 people escape from the site on 9/11 before the unthinkable occurred. The damage done at each point of impact forced the physical weight of the towers to be redistributed, and the undamaged part below the hole had to support the floors above. At the same time, the fires raging in both buildings weakened the steel trusses holding up each floor. With damage to a greater number of floors lower down on the building, the south tower gave way first, followed by the north tower less than a half hour later.

Terrorists Intentionally Targeted American 11 and United 175

And the cause of the crashes of American 11 and United 175 and the destruction of the Twin Towers is now fully known to the world and forever etched into the infamy of American history. 

The hijackers were Islamic terrorists from Saudi Arabia and several other Arab nations, some of which had lived in the United States for more than a year and had taken flying lessons at American commercial flight schools. 

On September 11, terrorists easily smuggled box-cutters and knives through airport security and boarded early-morning flights bound for California, chosen because the planes were loaded with fuel for the long transcontinental journey. Soon after takeoff, the terrorists commandeered the planes and took the controls, transforming ordinary passenger jets into guided missiles. 

New York Rebuilds After Devastating 9/11 Attacks 

The catastrophic destruction caused by terrorists on 9/11 left a gaping hole in the iconic New York skyline. That hole would eventually be filled by One World Trade Center, or “The Freedom Tower,” which rises even higher than the Twin Towers it was built to honor. 

At a symbolic 1,776 feet tall, One World Trade is the tallest building in the United States and in the entire Western Hemisphere, overtaking the Sears Tower in Chicago. Built on the original 6 World Trade Center site, it was originally designed by architect Daniel Libeskind to be an asymmetrical tower inspired by the Statue of Liberty. 

In 2004, architect David Childs took over. The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 2004, but the building did not open until November 2014. Architecture critic Kurt Andersen wrote, “The fact that it’s taken more than a decade to finish, I think —the gradualism—makes that sense of emblematic rebirth more acute and irresistible.”

9/11 Memorial Created in Footprint of Former Twin Towers

The rebuilt 16-acre World Trade Center site also includes the National 9/11 Memorial designed by Michael Arad. His design, “Reflecting Absence,” includes two reflecting pools in the footprints of the former Twin Towers surrounded by bronze panels with the names of all 2,983 victims of the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks.

Show Notes:

Listen to Part 2 of our story where we cover the 9/11 crashes at the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.


Written and produced by: Shelly Price and Stephanie Hubka
Directed and engineered by: Crosse deStreit, Salmon Pond Studios
Sound editing by: Stephanie Hubka
Graphic design and website by: Adam Hubka
Music by: Mike Dunn
Ground Zero on 9/11

Raising the American flag at Ground Zero, after the 9/11 attacks. Photo credit: Thomas E. Franklin

The Twin Towers prior to the 9/11 attacks

The Twin Towers prior to the 9/11 attacks. Photo credit: KellyWurx

One World Trade Center (Freedom Tower). Photo credit: Michael Vadon