On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the streets of New York's Manhattan were bustling with corporate workers navigating the peak-hour chaos on their way to work. With the autumn blue skies, it was just like any other day—until one of the biggest tragedies in modern history unfolded.
Four passenger planes were hijacked by 19 al-Qaeda terrorists who deliberately flew them into several iconic landmarks, killing 2966 people and injuring more than 6000. The New York Times referred to it as the “worst and most audacious terror attack in American history.”
The Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in Downtown Manhattan were both targeted. At 8.46 AM, the first plane, American Flight 11, struck—plunging into the North Tower. Reporters and witnesses had no idea whether it was a disastrous accident or whether it had been premeditated. Just 17 minutes later, at 9.03 AM, the second plane, United Flight 175, crashed directly into the South Tower.
Captured and broadcast by multiple news outlets on live television, the second plane confirmed that both crashes had been deliberate—plunging the city into chaos. The second plane exploded on impact, igniting both towers. Just 20 minutes earlier, the city that never sleeps had felt safe for its residents, but the impact of this day was going to be evident for years to come.
Among those in the city during this devastating moment in history was Canberra woman Christina Sparrow. The then 31-year-old had flown into the Big Apple with her high-school friend Sarah Hill the night before. Speaking to WHO about her memories of that grave day, Sparrow says she and Hill had plans to wander Downtown towards the World Trade Center, but overslept due to their jet lag. At 8.45 AM, the pair heard the first plane fly over their hotel. “The thing that struck me straight off was how loud it was. It sounded like it was really gunning its engines,” Sparrow tells WHO, “I turned around to my friend and said, ‘My God, they’re flying low over the city.’ ”
Having been in New York less than 24 hours, the young women were still working out the “normal” sounds of the city during their first big overseas trip. “We went down to the foyer of the hotel and a guy came into the front of the hotel and he kind of held himself up against the wall and he looked completely freaked out,” Sparrow explains. “He said, ‘I just saw a plane. A plane fly into the side of a building’ and we honestly thought it was like a small Cessna plane and an accident—we didn’t realise it was a full-on Boeing 767 full of people.”
As the women walked outside, the first thing they saw was a big mushroom cloud of smoke billowing in the air and hanging over the tall skyscrapers. Sparrow says: “We were literally looking up to the sky to see where the next planes were coming from.”
At least 200 people working in the Twin Towers during the attack either jumped or fell from the 110-storey buildings. A complete evacuation was near impossible, with civilians trapped by smoke and flames with no way out due to damaged staircases. Vietnam combat veteran John Maloney said, “I don’t know what the gates of hell look like, but it’s got to be like this—I never saw anything like this [in Vietnam].”
When American Flight 77 ploughed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all aircraft currently in-flight to locate the nearest airport and land. By now, the attacks were global news and passengers on-board United Flight 93 had learnt of the hijackings and tried to regain control of their plane, diverting it and crashing into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10.03 AM.
In New York, the South Tower collapsed at 9.59 AM, followed by the North Tower at 10.28 AM—both towers took only 12 seconds to crumble. “We didn’t know exactly what had happened but the word on the street was that people had fallen out windows,” Sparrow says. “There were [dead] bodies and I didn’t want to see that because of the disrespect and danger.”
Sparrow and Hill headed straight for the Australian consulate, which they believed to be the safest place. It was then that the friends were able to see for themselves on the TV exactly what had unfolded— including footage of the people who had jumped from the towers. “It was just unbelievable; everyone was in complete shock,” Sparrow tells WHO. “I had never felt so far away and freaked out.” The next day, the pair packed their belongings and caught a train out of the city. “It felt wrong being a tourist in a city of mourning.”
On Sept. 16, 2001, President George W. Bush declared a “war on terrorism” in the Middle East, before making clear his “with us or against us” approach. Rescue efforts continued until Sept. 24, when it was declared a recovery mission—only 12 survivors were pulled from the rubble. “One of the worst days in America’s history saw some of the bravest acts in Americans’ history,” President Bush said in 2008. “We’ll always honour the heroes of 9/11.”
On Sept. 11, 2011, the 9/11 Memorial where the Twin Towers once stood was officially opened to the public on the 10th anniversary of the terror attacks. Memorial President Joe Daniels said on the day of the opening, “We now have a lasting tribute to the lives that were taken from us 10 years ago."
On the 15th anniversary, President Barack Obama spoke at the Pentagon. “We remember, and we will never forget, the nearly 3000 beautiful lives taken from us so cruelly— including 184 men, women and children here, the youngest just three years old,” Obama said. “As Americans, we do not give in to fear. We will preserve our freedoms and the way of life that makes us a beacon to the world.”