The Deadliest Terrorist Attack in History: 10 Facts About 9/11 | History Hit

The Deadliest Terrorist Attack in History: 10 Facts About 9/11

Harry Sherrin

10 Sep 2021
The twin towers of the World Trade Center smoking on September 11.
Image Credit: Michael Foran / CC

On 11 September 2001, America suffered the deadliest terrorist attack in history. 

4 hijacked planes crashed on US soil, striking the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon, killing 2,977 people and injuring thousands more. As the Detroit Free Press described 9/11 at the time, it was “America’s darkest day”. 

In the years after 9/11, survivors, witnesses and responders to the attacks suffered severe health complications, both mental and physical. And its repercussions were felt across the globe for years to come, as airport security measures were tightened and America pursued the War on Terror. 

Here are 10 facts about the September 11 attacks. 

It was the first time in history that all US flights were grounded

“Empty the skies. Land every flight. Fast.” Those were the orders issued to America’s air traffic controllers by the Federal Aviation Administration on the morning of the September 11 attacks. After hearing that a third plane had struck the Pentagon, and fearing further hijackings, officials made the unprecedented decision to clear the skies.

In roughly 4 hours, all commercial flights across the country were grounded. It was the first time in US history that a unanimous order to clear the skies of planes had been issued.

President George W. Bush was reading with schoolchildren during the attacks

Bush was reading a story with a class of children in Sarasota, Florida, when his senior aide, Andrew Card, told him that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. A short while later, Card relayed the next sad development to President Bush, declaring, “a second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.”

President George W. Bush at a school in Sarasota, Florida, on 11 September 2001, as a TV airs coverage of the unfolding attacks.

Image Credit: Eric Draper / Public Domain

4 planes were hijacked, but Flight 93 crashed before reaching its target

2 planes struck the World Trade Center on 9/11, a third plane crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth plummeted into a field in rural Pennsylvania. It never reached its final target, in part because members of the public broke into the plane’s cockpit and physically confronted the hijackers.

Though the target of the fourth plane was never conclusively determined, it’s known that at 9:55 am on the day of the attacks, one of the hijackers redirected Flight 93 towards Washington DC. When the plane crash-landed in Pennsylvania, it was around 20 minutes from the American capital.

The 9/11 Commission Report speculated that the plane was headed for “symbols of the American Republic, the Capitol or the White House.”

It was the longest uninterrupted news event in American history

At 9:59 am in New York City, the South Tower collapsed. The North Tower followed at 10:28 am, 102 minutes after the first aircraft collision. By that point, millions of Americans were watching the tragedy unfold live on TV.

Some of the major American networks aired rolling coverage of the September 11 attacks for 93 hours straight, making 9/11 the longest uninterrupted news event in American history. And immediately after the attacks, broadcasters stopped airing ads indefinitely – the first time such an approach had been adopted since the assassination of JFK in 1963.

Chief Joseph W. Pfeifer was the first senior fire chief to arrive at the World Trade Center on 9/11. His actions, along with those of hundreds of other firefighters, helped save tens of thousands of lives on that fateful morning 21 years ago. Joe's key role in organising the emergency response on September 11 2001 was captured on tape by the Naudet brothers in their extraordinary film 9/11, and the Warfare podcast was honoured to welcome the retired chief - who now lecturers at Harvard - onto the podcast. Join Joe as he talks James Rogers through his own personal history of one of the pivotal events of our time.
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16 people survived in a stairwell during the collapse of the North Tower

Stairwell B, in the middle of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, sheltered 16 survivors when the building collapsed. Among them were 12 firefighters and a police officer.

The evacuation of Manhattan was the largest maritime rescue in history

Roughly 500,000 people were evacuated from Manhattan in the 9 hours after the World Trade Center attack, making 9/11 the largest boatlift in known history. For comparison, the Dunkirk evacuations during World War Two saw around 339,000 rescued.

The Staten Island Ferry ran back and forth, non-stop. The US Coast Guard rallied local mariners for assistance. Trip boats, fishing vessels and emergency crews all offered assistance to those fleeing.

The flames at Ground Zero burned for 99 days

On 19 December 2001, the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) stopped putting water on the flames at Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center’s collapse. After more than 3 months, the blazes had been extinguished. The FDNY’s chief at the time, Brian Dixon, declared of the fires, “We have stopped putting water on them and there is no smoking.”

The cleanup operation at Ground Zero continued until 30 May 2002, demanding some 3.1 million hours of labour to clear the site.

Ground Zero, the site of the collapsed World Trade Center, on 17 September 2001.

Image Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer's Mate Eric J. Tilford / Public Domain

Steel from the World Trade Center was turned into memorials

Roughly 200,000 tons of steel plummeted to the ground when the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed. For years, huge portions of that steel were kept in a hangar in New York’s JFK Airport. Some of the steel was repurposed and sold off, while organisations around the globe displayed it in memorials and museum exhibits.

2 intersecting steel beams, once part of the World Trade Center, were retrieved from the rubble at Ground Zero. Resembling a Christian cross, the 17-foot-tall structure was erected at the September 11 Memorial and Museum, which opened to the public in 2012.

In this episode, Dan visits Ground Zero with Ray Victor, a lifelong New Yorker, as he shares personal stories and lesser-known facts about what happened that day and in the aftermath. They stop by the church where the NYFD coordinated their rescue, the bank where a little-known water rescue took place from Battery Park in which over half a million people were evacuated from the chaos by a flotilla of civilian vessels that rushed to their aid, a rescue bigger than Dunkirk. They finish at the reflection pools where the towers once stood and reflect on how this great city weathered the worst terror attack in history.
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Only 60% of victims have been identified

According to data quoted by CNN, the Medical Examiner’s Office in New York had identified just 60% of 9/11 victims by October 2019. Forensic biologists have been examining the remains uncovered at Ground Zero since 2001, augmenting their approach as new technologies have emerged.

On 8 September 2021, New York City’s Chief Medical Examiner revealed that 2 further 9/11 victims had been formally identified, just days before the 20th anniversary of the attack. The findings were made due to technological developments in DNA analysis.

The attacks and their repercussions may have cost $3.3 trillion

According to the New York Times, the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, including healthcare costs and property repairs, cost the US Government roughly $55 billion. The global economic impact, considering disruptions to travel and trade, is estimated at $123 billion.

If the subsequent War on Terror is counted, along with longer-term security spending and the other economic repercussions of the attack, 9/11 may have cost as much as $3.3 trillion.

Remembering those who were lost and an extraordinary story of survival from 9/11. The tragic events of 9/11 left thousands dead and injured and the impact of that loss is still being felt twenty years later by the families. It was also a day of extraordinary escapes as thousands more fled the twin towers after the planes hit. In this podcast, we both remember those people who died and also hear an extraordinary story of survival.
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Harry Sherrin