Heroes of 9/11

On September 11, 2001, hijackers flew planes into the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center; the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C.; and a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. But during the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, ordinary people performed heroic actions. Meet some of the heroes who saved so many lives that day.

Rick Rescorla

British-born retired Army officer Rick Rescorla worked in the south tower of the World Trade Center. He was prepared for this attack: He had been work­ing at the north tower when it was bombed by terrorists in 1993 and had helped people evacuate the damaged building then. Rescorla believed a similar attack could happen again—and that the next time might be worse.

After the first plane struck the north tower, Rescorla used a bullhorn to order everyone in his office to leave. His co-workers knew exactly what to do—Rescorla had been practicing safety drills with them for years. To keep people calm in the stairwell, he sang the same songs he had once crooned to cheer up his fellow soldiers during the Vietnam War.

Rescorla led nearly 2,700 of his employees to safety before the towers collapsed. But he wouldn’t leave until he was sure everyone had escaped. Rescorla was last seen on the 10th floor of the south tower head­ing upstairs, looking for more people to save.

Ladder Company 6 and Josephine Harris

The men of Ladder Company 6, a firefighter company from New York City’s Chinatown, were rushing up an emergency stairwell of the World Trade Center’s north tower on September 11 when they felt the floor begin to quake. Lights flickered overhead. Captain Jay Jonas heard the news over his radio: The neighboring south tower had just collapsed.

Fearing the north tower would be next, Jonas ordered his men to turn around at the 27th floor and head for the exit. On the 20th floor, they encountered a bookkeeper named Josephine Harris, who had just descended 50 floors on her own. She was out of breath and barely able to stand. If the men slowed to help her down the stairs, they risked their own lives. But they were firefighters, and saving people was their job. Jonas ordered his men to help her. Minutes later, the north tower began to collapse.

When the north tower fell, it peeled away like a banana around a tiny section of stairs. Only the small bit of twisted stairwell around the firefighters was left standing, protecting them from being crushed. If the firefighters hadn’t slowed to help Harris, they would have been killed. They had saved Harris—and she had saved them. She became known as the Angel of Ladder Company 6.

The passengers and crew of Flight 93

After hijackers flew planes into the twin towers, the U.S. government ordered all airplanes flying over the country to land as soon as possible. But it was too late for United Airlines Flight 93. Hijackers had already taken control of the aircraft.

Passengers and crew members on the plane called loved ones, who told them about the other attacks that morning. But the people on Flight 93 decided to fight back—they weren’t going to let the plane be used as a weapon. Flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw boiled water to throw at the hijackers, and others gathered cutlery and fire extinguishers to attack the terrorists. In a phone call recorded as passengers and crew prepared to fight back, passenger Todd Beamer was heard saying, “Are you ready? OK, let’s roll.” Passengers then launched a food cart at the locked cockpit door to break in and take control of the plane.

The terrorists, realizing the cockpit might be breached, crashed the plane in an empty field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 10:03 a.m., killing all 44 on board. But the heroic actions of everyone on Flight 93 kept the plane from reaching its intended target—likely the White House or the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.—and spared many innocent lives.

Water rescue

Large crowds fled from the World Trade Center in New York City after the twin towers were struck by airplanes. Many headed south till they were stopped by the Hudson River. The Coast Guard sent out a call for help. It asked all boats in the area to take people to safety. Despite the fear of another attack, more than 150 ferries, yachts, tour boats, and tugboats rushed to the area to rescue people. In less than nine hours, the boats picked up almost 500,000 people, taking them to Staten Island, Ellis Island, and New Jersey. It was the largest water-rescue operation in American history.

Search-and-rescue dogs

In the days after the 9/11 attacks, thousands of rescuers searched for people in the rubble of the World Trade Center. More than 300 dogs joined them. Working with their human handlers, the search-and-rescue dogs used their trained sniffers to hunt for humans in the disaster zone, called ground zero. The dogs tirelessly searched through twisted steel and charred ruins, working up to 14-hour shifts for as many as four weeks.

The heroic canines were an important part of the rescue operation, since they could search faster than humans and could fit in places people couldn’t go. One dog, a German shepherd named Trakr, found Genelle Guzman-McMillan. She had been pinned under a pile of steel and cement for 27 hours. She was the last survivor rescued from the wreckage of the twin towers.

Thanks to these four-legged heroes, thousands of dog owners were inspired to pursue search-and-rescue certification following the events of September 11.             

The people of Gander, Newfoundland

After planes hit the twin towers, all airplanes flying over the United States were ordered to land as soon as possible. No planes could fly over or into the country. For 38 large airlines, the closest landing spot was a little airport in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, in Canada.

For the next five days, residents of Gander and nearby towns took care of almost 7,000 passengers and crew members from about a hundred countries. When hotel rooms filled up, people hosted passengers in their homes. They gave them food, clothing, and phones to call their loved ones, asking for nothing in return.

Text partially adapted from the Nat Geo Kids book September 11 by Libby Romero.