On September 11, 2001, people in New York City woke up to a beautiful late summer day. It was a Tuesday, and people were preparing for another day at work and school.
Thousands of people headed for the World Trade Center, a complex of seven buildings that included a pair of skyscrapers known as the twin towers. Each tower had 110 stories and stood about 1,360 feet high. The tallest buildings in New York City at the time, the twin towers rose above the city’s downtown skyline. Nobody there knew that in just a few hours, both buildings would fall.
A shocking event
People who live in New York are used to seeing and hearing airplanes flying overhead. But on the morning of September 11, people stopped on the streets and looked up. The sound of an approaching airplane was too loud, and the plane seemed to be flying too low. To the horror of people watching below, the airplane flew straight into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
American Airlines Flight 11 hit the north tower at 8:46 a.m. The impact of the crash tore a hole that stretched from the 93rd to 99th floors of the building. Smoke and flames poured out of the tower. Many people thought they had just seen a terrible accident. But 17 minutes later, a second plane flew into another one of the World Trade Center buildings—this time into the south tower.
United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the 77th through 85th floors of the south tower at 9:03 a.m. Some cell phone and TV station cameras caught the second attack on film. The footage was played over and over again on television. Soon people knew that hijackers—individuals who capture an aircraft, ship, or vehicle by force—had taken over the planes. A group of men had taken control of the cockpit of each airplane and flown them into the buildings on purpose.
The attack continues
The United States was under attack. About half an hour after the second tower was struck in New York City, hijackers crashed a third airplane. American Airlines Flight 77 hit the west side of the Pentagon, a five-sided concrete building that serves as headquarters for the U.S. Department of Defense, in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. The plane’s fuel tanks exploded, and two giant fireballs blasted into the air.
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 this fourth aircraft. They were flying the plane toward Washington, D.C.
Passengers and crew members on the plane called loved ones, who told them about the other attacks in New York and Virginia. People on Flight 93 thought their aircraft would be used as a weapon, too. So they fought the hijackers to try to get control of the plane. In a phone call recorded as passengers and crew began to fight back, passenger Todd Beamer was heard saying, “Are you ready? OK, let’s roll.”
Flight 93 eventually crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The crash site was close to the hijackers’ likely target, a government building in Washington, D.C.
The rescue begins
Back in New York City, dark smoke poured from the twin towers. People rushed to escape the area, which later became known as ground zero. First responders—including police officers, firefighters, and paramedics—arrived within minutes of the first attack on the World Trade Center. They rushed into both towers to help people trapped inside, even though it would be an extremely difficult rescue operation. Almost all the elevators in the twin towers had stopped working. So rescuers started climbing up the stairs, but many were blocked by rubble or fire. Still, firefighters forged ahead, ignoring the danger. (Read more about the heroes of 9/11.)
The towers fall
When the airplanes hit the twin towers, they caused massive damage. Concrete floors were destroyed. Steel support beams were cut in two. Floors above the crash sites started to sag downward. Meanwhile, the sprinklers in both buildings were damaged. There was nothing to stop the raging fires, which became hot enough to weaken steel. The buildings grew unstable. Then they collapsed.
The south tower fell first. Once it began to crumble, it took only 10 seconds for it to collapse. The impact caused the north tower to shake, and it, too, crumbled to the ground 29 minutes later.
First responders helped many people before the twin towers collapsed. More than 25,000 made it out of the buildings before they fell. But nearly 3,000 people—from the twin towers, the Pentagon, and the four airplanes—died in the attacks that day.
The official response
The events of September 11, 2001, shook the nation. The U.S. government had to respond. President George W. Bush led the country in a day of prayer and remembrance. Then he led the nation’s effort to find and punish the people who had caused the attacks.
A terrorist group based in Afghanistan (a country in the Middle East) called al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. Their leader was Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda and bin Laden considered the United States to be their enemy, which is why the hijackers used the airplanes to attack important U.S. buildings. In total, 19 hijackers took over the four planes that crashed on 9/11.
World leaders promised to help the United States punish al Qaeda and locate their leader. In October 2001, the United States and its allies started military actions in Afghanistan, searching for members of al Qaeda who worked with bin Laden to plan and carry out the 9/11 attacks. It would take nearly 10 years for these forces to locate and kill bin Laden himself, who was eventually discovered hiding in nearby Pakistan in May 2011.
Although the 9/11 attacks took place in the United States, many people from other countries felt that a terrorist attack on such a powerful nation was a threat to peace around the world. They brought flowers to U.S. embassies and lit candles to honor the victims. They gathered to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” One French newspaper showed its support with the front-page headline “Nous sommes tous Américains,” meaning: “We are all Americans.”
After the attacks, many people in the United States wanted to show support for their country, too. They gave flowers, candles, food, and thank-you notes to first responders. U.S. residents and organizations also donated a record-breaking $2.8 billion to help the families of victims of the attacks. By the end of 2001, more than 300 U.S. charities were raising money for the cause.
Most Americans tried to help others after the 9/11 attacks. But some people took their anger and fear out on people who looked like they came from the same Middle Eastern countries as the hijackers. Innocent people who had nothing to do with the events of 9/11 were attacked and not treated fairly.
20 years later
A lot has changed since September 11, 2001. To prevent similar terrorist attacks from happening in the country, the United States government created the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. The organization is responsible for border security, immigrations and customs, and disaster relief and prevention. But they also keep a close watch over suspected terrorist groups and send warnings if they think the country and its people are in danger. That way, the government can protect them.
Air travel became stricter after 9/11. Before the attacks, private security companies performed all airport screenings. After September 11, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created to give the federal government direct responsibility for all airport screenings. In 2002, the TSA began using explosive detection systems nationwide to screen all bags for explosives. They also installed more advanced technologies, such as the full-body scanner, to ensure travelers weren’t trying to bring anything harmful on an airplane. (The hijackers used weapons they had carried onboard to gain control of the aircrafts.) Other rules—like using small containers for liquids like shampoo or removing shoes during security checks—were put in place to make sure people didn’t sneak dangerous things onboard.
The United States also entered a long war on terror abroad. In addition to sending troops to Afghanistan, Bush also sent troops to Iraq in 2003 because of rumors that the country was hiding dangerous weapons. By the time Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, some 4,500 American soldiers had died in Afghanistan and Iraq, with many thousands more wounded.
Many Americans felt the loss of life wasn’t worth it—bin Laden was still missing, and no weapons were ever found. But in 2011, bin Laden was finally located and killed. His death was a blow to al Qaeda and gave some U.S. citizens hope that progress was being made in the fight against terrorism.
By the end of 2011, Obama had withdrawn all combat troops from Iraq. But U.S. troops were still fighting in Afghanistan by the end of his second term in 2017. And another terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), threatened the region throughout Obama’s presidency and into Donald Trump’s single term as president, too.
During Trump’s term in office, he announced the removal of all troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, delayed the removal, announcing that the United States would be removing all troops from Afghanistan by August 31 instead, just before the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Honoring the victims
Memorials now stand to pay tribute to those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001. The 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City contains pools set within each area where the twin towers stood; the names of all the 9/11 victims from each tower are inscribed on bronze panels. At the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, each of the 184 benches is dedicated to a victim of the Virginia attack. And the Tower of Voices at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania has 40 wind chimes to honor the plane’s passengers and crew members.
The attacks on September 11, 2001, shook the world and made people realize that even a powerful country like the United States could be a victim of terrorism. But the horrific event also brought Americans closer together. As U.S. senator John Kerry said at the time, “It was the worst day we have ever seen, but it brought out the best in all of us.”
Text partially adapted from the Nat Geo Kids book September 11 by Libby Romero.