Shaped like a large fiddlehead fern, Hurricane Erin danced across the Atlantic Ocean toward the eastern coastline of the United States, moving like a giant snake threatening to strike at anytime. She had begun her journey from the coast of Africa on August 30, twirling across the ocean at her leisure with seductive eyes focused on the American continent where she promised to come ashore as a devastating Category 2 storm.
She shook her tentacles at the northern shore of Bermuda as she passed by, just to show them what could have been theirs. Then she turned north and slightly east. It appeared there would be no stopping her now as she headed toward her target enjoying the unhampered swim and wide berth she had been given by sea-going vessels. Weather personnel around the world watched their monitors, read their instruments and quietly predicted that, given the right conditions, she would strike the New York metropolitan area.
Fueled by unseasonably warm waters, the Category 2 storm increased to a Category 3 and continued in a north easterly direction, wobbling back and forth from east to west like a drunken sailor. She maintained her path parallel to the eastern coastline, huffing and puffing and causing strong winds, rip tides and high waves. Like a calvary charge from an old western movie multiple short-wave troughs blew in from across the United States declaring war on the threatening storm and weakened it to a subtropical ridge. Those winds continued to push the weakening storm further eastward into the Atlantic and away from it’s intended target of New York City. Audible sighs of relief could be heard in weather stations around the nation as they realized New York City had dodged a devastating bullet. It was September 11, 2001.
Oblivious to having escaped a threatening storm, people on the east coast of the United States went about their business as usual. It was Tuesday. The weather was perfect with predictions of clear skies and low 80 degree temperatures. There was work to be done, planes to be caught, schedules to keep.
Four commercial airplanes took off that beautiful Tuesday morning for cross-country flights. Their tanks were full, their crews rested and on board as their scant passengers prepared for the long flights from Boston, Newark and Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles and San Francisco, CA. Airport security was casual, at best, with little concern over any possibility of hijacking or terror attacks. American Airlines Flight 11 took off at 7:59 a.m. from Boston’s Logan airport headed to Los Angeles, CA. Eighty-one passengers plus the crew were on board for the long flight. Forty-seven minutes later the flight abruptly ended as the plane-turned-bomb was flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, New York City.
United Flight 171, also headed for Los Angeles, CA, left Boston’s Logan airport only fifteen minutes later at 8:14 a.m. Fifty-six passengers and crew were on board the fully-fueled hijacked plane when it was flown into the South Tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m. The third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, loaded with fifty-eight passengers and crew, left Washington, D.C. at 8:20 a.m., twenty one minutes after Flight 11 took off. Like the other two planes, Flight 77 was headed for Los Angeles. At 9:37 a.m. American Airlines Flight 77 became a jet-fuel-enhanced rocket as it slammed into the newly remodeled and refurbished Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
Due to issues on the tarmac at Newark Airport, United Flight 93 was delayed for forty-two minutes from it’s originally scheduled departure time of 8:00 a.m. On board, in addition to the crew were thirty-seven passengers. The weather was exquisite, hinting of a fabulous Indian Summer and a beautiful fall. There was no threat from a hurricane or anything else menacing as the passengers kicked back and prepared for the long flight across the country to San Francisco. The brilliant sky promised a smooth flight and colorful views of the terrain below if the sleepy passengers wished to look out the windows.
The beautiful, crystal blue skies of New York City were pierced by the loud roar of an aircraft that had veered off of it’s flight pattern, flying low and fast across the city’s skyline. Then the unthinkable happened! The plane smashed into the extremely high and large North Tower of the World Trade Center building as though it were a magnet pulling the plane unto itself. The crash was deafening. The jet-fuel-fed fire was huge as it licked it’s way up the sides of the magnificent building creating flames that were almost exquisite in their hideousness. It was 8:06 a.m. People hurrying to work stopped and looked up. Sirens screamed. Mouths gaped. Media rushed to the scene.
How could this be? How could someone just fly into something so large? There must have been a medical emergency. Maybe the pilot had a heart attack. It was thought to be a small airplane, a private jet.
Policemen rushed to the scene, pushing stunned pedestrians away from the streets to allow rushing emergency vehicles through. No one could believe this. It was impossible. It just didn’t happen.
As shock-proof New Yorkers stood watching the terrible scene unfold they thought their eyes must be deceiving them as another plane, United Flight 175, banked at an extreme angle and flew into the South Tower. It was 9:03 a.m. and America was under attack! War had reached our shores. The unthinkable had just happened yet no one could imagine the horror that lay ahead.
Stunned airport control tower personnel couldn’t believe their radar screens as the flights dropped from view like disappearing jacks from a child’s game. But this was no game. Planes were disappearing, falling from the skies and crashing into buildings. People were dying. Then the inconceivable happened again. American Airlines Flight 77 dropped from the sky and hit the Pentagon so hard and fast that rumors were that it wasn’t a plane but a rocket that had hit the building, crashing through the tough exterior and creating an explosive fire.
Shocked. Dismayed. Terror stricken. America was beginning to comprehend what was happening. Phones were ringing as people were told to turn on their TV sets. Cell phones rang as loved ones left behind attempted to reach their family, friends and associates that might be on those planes. It was settling in. Shock turned to a need to reach out and warn and to hear the voices of their loved ones.
Meanwhile, United Flight 93 was piercing the other-wise-calm-skies as it flew over western Pennsylvania. Suddenly four men left their seats and began taking control of the flight crew and the plane killing anyone that got in their way. As the plane penetrated the sky over Ohio passengers were pushed to the back of the plane. The life blood of non-cooperative crew members saturated the aisle-way and carpets of the hostage aircraft.
Oblivious of what had already unfolded in New York City and Washington the terrified passengers began calling their loved ones to tell them what was happening. Using phones in the back of the plane seats and cell phones, they dialed their families, their work, their life and told of the hijacking. And they learned. They learned of the other three flights that had been hijacked, the planes turned into bombs and flown into major buildings.
Loved ones on the ground comforted those in the air but encouraged them to fight. By now it had become obvious that any hijacked plane was not going to land safely if someone didn’t do something to fight back. They had to try. Their lives hung in the balance. They were going to die. If there was any chance at all for their survival it rested in their own hands.
Little is known for sure what all occurred on United Flight 93. Phone calls ended abruptly as the passengers moved into their planned attack mode. The black box, once finally recovered, told some of the story. What matters is that thirty-three amazing Americans took over a hijacked plane on that once-beautiful-Tuesday-morning and wrestled it out of the hands of the four determined terrorists. What was intended to bring death and destruction to the supposed target of the United States Capitol building ended up as a deep, dark hole in a field near Shanksville, PA, marked only by the smoke cloud that wafted heavenward. Had the passengers not taken control and the plane crashed when and where it did, within twelve minutes multitudes of lives would have been sacrificed in our nation’s capitol.
Twelve minutes. Seven hundred twenty seconds. One hundred twenty airmiles west of Washington, D.C., a smouldering sacrifice was made that would have ended much differently in only twelve minutes had the passengers not fought back and crashed the plane in that lonely field.
Lives were renewed in those twelve minutes while smoke clouds raced heaven-ward from the soil of Pennsylvania.