September 11, 2001, started off as an ordinary day but quickly spiraled into a devastating episode that none of us could ever forget. 19 men, part of an extremist group that was largely unfamiliar to Americans at the time—Al-Qaeda—turned commercial airplanes into missiles of terror. In New York City’s World Trade Center, 17,400 people had clocked in for another day at the office. But when the clock hit 8:46 a.m., life as they knew it was irrevocably altered. We should never forget what happened immediately after 9/11.
Never Forget What Happened Immediately After 9/11
What happened immediately after 9/11 sent ripples of sorrow, anger, and confusion across not just America, but the entire world. Today, we’re going to delve into the immediate actions, responses, and changes that occurred in the wake of that day—moments that touched the lives of millions, shaping the way we understand security, unity, and the ongoing fight against terrorism. Let’s explore this significant chapter in our collective story, as we remember and reflect on those events.
1. 3 of the 4 hijacked planes hit their targets
In the span of less than two hours on the morning of September 11, 2001, 4 commercial airplanes were hijacked, forever altering the course of modern history. The first target was the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center. At 8:46 a.m, American Airlines Flight 11, with 92 people on board, crashed into the building. Tragically, none survived above the point of impact.
While people in the South Tower were still grappling with the reality of the attack on the North Tower, instructions came to stay put, under the belief that they were safe. That belief was shattered at 9:03 a.m when United Airlines Flight 175, carrying 65 souls, hit the South Tower, specifically between the 77th and 85th floors.
As the country tried to make sense of the unfolding tragedy, President George W. Bush was in Florida, reading to a class of second graders. His Chief of Staff interrupted to inform him of the attacks. By then, it was 9:30 a.m, and the financial district of New York had already transformed into a war zone.
But the horror wasn’t over yet. At 9:37 a.m, Washington D.C. became the next target. American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, killing all 64 people on board and another 125 inside the building. Panic surged through the capital; the White House and then the Capitol were swiftly evacuated.
The collapses began at 9:59 a.m. The South Tower, standing wounded for less than an hour after being hit, crumbled to the ground in under 10 seconds. At 10:28 a.m, the North Tower followed, collapsing in a similar horrifying fashion.
2. Flight 93 crashed into a field in Pennsylvania
It was about 9:30 a.m., and America was already under siege. Two planes had horrifyingly struck the Twin Towers in New York, and in mere moments, the Pentagon would be next. That’s when the passengers and crew on United Airlines Flight 93 began to understand their terrifying reality. Through calls to loved ones, they learned about the other hijackings. The airplane had abruptly changed its course, and it was now heading east back toward Washington. It was clear: their flight had been turned into another missile.
The hijacker piloting the plane was Ziad Jarrah, a trained pilot. At 9:55 a.m, Jarrah had reset the aircraft’s autopilot. However, several passengers and crew members, already alerted about the fates of the other flights, made the courageous decision to act. Around 10:03 a.m, after a desperate struggle in the cabin, Flight 93 crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. All 44 people on board lost their lives, but they may have saved countless more. The 9/11 Commission Report, the most thorough investigation into the attacks, asserted that the intended target was likely Washington D.C.—either the Capitol or the White House.
Despite this well-reasoned conclusion, questions still linger. Adding another layer of ambiguity are conspiracy theories suggesting that the U.S. military might have shot down the plane, although there is no conclusive evidence to support this claim. What we do know is that the brave individuals on United Airlines Flight 93 took matters into their own hands. By doing so, they prevented another catastrophic attack, making their flight the only one of the 4 hijacked planes that day to not reach its intended target.
3. The attackers were from the Arab countries, Lebanon and Egypt
In total, 19 hijackers were involved in the operation, organized into three teams of five members each, and one team of four. The team of four commandeered the ill-fated flight that ended up crashing in Pennsylvania. Each team included at least one individual who had received pilot training, often at flying schools located within the United States itself.
The majority of the hijackers, fifteen in total, hailed from Saudi Arabia, the same nationality as Bin Laden. The remaining four were from other Arab countries: two from the United Arab Emirates, one from Egypt, and one from Lebanon.
4. The patients were not coming
In the midst of the unfolding horror that was 9/11, the healthcare providers and first responders were among the first to understand the unprecedented scale of the tragedy. At St. Vincent’s Hospital, located just a short distance from the World Trade Center, anticipation mixed with dread as Dr. Richard Westfal and his team prepared for what they believed would be an overwhelming number of injured people.
But as the minutes turned into hours, an unsettling realization dawned: the flood of critically injured patients never materialized. Instead, they saw a slow trickle of individuals affected by the dust, or stressed rescue workers, and others with pre-existing conditions exacerbated by the event. Dr. Westfal noted, ‘Either you were OK or you were dead,’ capturing the horrifying reality of that day.
Yet, amid this tragedy, there was a silver lining of human compassion and resilience. St. Vincent’s was overwhelmed not just by the calamity of the day, but also by the remarkable outpouring of support from the community. Doctors, nurses, and even ordinary people flooded the hospital, offering to help in any way they could.
5. Remembering Keith Roma, the 344th firefighter
Oh man, when we talk about 9/11, we gotta talk about the firefighters. These folks are heroes, no two ways about it. That day, 343 firefighters from the Fire Department of New York City (FDNY) lost their lives. That’s the most firefighters we’ve ever lost in a single incident. And it wasn’t just FDNY, you know. There was also a guy named Keith Roma from the New York Fire Patrol who was there.
A lot of folks don’t know this, but aside from the FDNY, there was another group called the New York Fire Patrol. They weren’t as big as FDNY but did really important work like protecting property during fires. Keith Roma was one of them. Loved his job, everyone says so.
That morning, Keith called his dad and said, “I’m heading to the towers,” and his dad, who was also a former patrolman, was like, “I’m coming too.” That was the last time they spoke. Keith never got to meet up with his dad because, well, you know how it went down.
Keith was a real hero. Made 4 trips up Tower 1 and saved over 200 lives. Imagine that. And he was last seen at the FDNY command post in Tower 1. They didn’t find him until Christmas Eve, surrounded by nine other people he was trying to save. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
And you know, it wasn’t just firefighters. The Port Authority Police lost 37 officers that day. The NYPD lost 23. Eight EMTs and paramedics were gone, just like that. And since then, hundreds more have passed away from illnesses they got doing rescue and recovery work.
So when you hear “Never Forget,” remember it’s not just a phrase. It’s about those nearly 3,000 souls we lost.
6. It was the deadliest day in history for the US firefighters
These guys, they knew going in that it was bad—really, really bad. But did that stop them? No way.
So, picture this: At 8:46 a.m, a plane hits the north tower. Within six minutes—six minutes!—the first firefighters are there. And mind you, they have no idea what they’re walking into. Then at 9:03 a.m, another plane hits the south tower.
The FDNY chiefs knew they were in a tough spot. But there were thousands of civilians in those towers. They couldn’t just stand by; they had to try and get those people out. So they didn’t think twice. They charged right into that chaos.
The first firefighter who died that day, Daniel Suhr, didn’t even make it into the building. A poor soul who jumped from the south tower hit him. The firefighters, they’re going up these stairs carrying all their heavy gear, right? And these buildings are like vertical mazes. Even the radios weren’t working well inside all that steel and concrete. It’s heartbreaking. But they kept going up.
The highest-ranking firefighter to die was Peter J. Ganci, the Chief of Department. This guy was outside, working the radios, coordinating everything. He knew the risks, and he stayed. That’s heroism, pure and simple.
7. Many people volunteered and sacrificed themselves for others
On that fateful day of September 11, both everyday heroes and those in uniform showed remarkable courage. Among them was Welles Crowther, known as the man in the red bandana. Working in the South Tower when disaster struck, Welles, who had been a volunteer firefighter, chose to risk his life for others. Instead of escaping, he put on his red bandana, a childhood keepsake, and led people to a working stairwell and ultimately to safety. He’s said to have saved at least 10 lives, making multiple trips back into the danger zone until the tower fell.
But Welles wasn’t the only one. All around the towers, regular folks became heroes that day. People held doors, guided others down smoke-filled stairways, and some even carried those who couldn’t move on their own. This collective heroism, the selfless acts of both professionals and ordinary citizens, became a source of hope and a symbol of resilience for a grieving community.
Stories like Welles’ have become part of our shared memory. His sister, Honor Crowther Fagan, has even written a children’s book about his bravery, “The Man in the Red Bandana,” aiming to inspire future generations. His red bandana, a simple yet powerful emblem of courage, is displayed in a museum as a constant reminder of the extraordinary feats ordinary people can achieve.
8. World Trade Center Building 7 Collapses As Well
The destruction that unfolded on September 11, 2001, was horrifying in its scope and complexity. At 9:59 a.m, the South Tower imploded, its massive framework disintegrating in a matter of 10 seconds. A mere half-hour later, at 10:28 a.m., the North Tower followed suit. Yet another wave of disbelief and speculation surged when, later in the day, World Trade Center Building 7—part of the same 16-acre complex in Lower Manhattan—collapsed as well, despite not being directly struck by an airplane. This 47-story structure seemed to disintegrate almost as if in free fall, taking less than six seconds to completely collapse.
This led to numerous conspiracy theories suggesting that Building 7 had been intentionally demolished through a controlled explosion. Allegedly, the building had tenants that aroused suspicion; it was not solely leased by financial companies like American Express and Salomon Brothers but also housed offices for the US Secret Service, the Department of Defense, and the CIA.
However, a comprehensive report from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), published in 2008, provides a counterpoint to these conspiracy theories. According to NIST, the collapse was a result of uncontrolled fires that broke out after the building was struck by debris from the collapsing North Tower.
9. The air became almost unbreathable
The air was thick with acrid smoke, dust, and debris, making it nearly impossible to breathe. This toxic mix of chemicals and particulates not only choked the atmosphere but also carried with it long-term, devastating health consequences.
The first responders, survivors and bystanders had to wear masks or bandanas. Still, they provided only limited protection against the poisonous air that enveloped Lower Manhattan on that harrowing day and the days that followed.
Exposure to these airborne toxins is considered to have caused fatal or debilitating illnesses among those present at Ground Zero. The Bush administration instructed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue statements reassuring the public about air quality for national security reasons. Despite this, the EPA didn’t declare the air quality to have returned to pre-September 11 levels until June 2002.
The health impact extended far beyond the first responders and rescue workers, affecting residents, students, and office workers in Lower Manhattan and nearby Chinatown. Several deaths have been directly attributed to the toxic dust exposure, and these victims’ names are inscribed on the World Trade Center memorial. Approximately 18,000 people are estimated to have developed illnesses resulting from exposure to this toxic atmosphere.
10. Even the search & rescue dogs were sad and depressed
In the scary days following the 9/11 attacks, almost 100 rescue dogs and their owners searched through the ruins at Ground Zero, hoping to find survivors. These dogs became really sad and stressed because they found so few people alive. To keep the dogs’ spirits up, their handlers and other rescuers would sometimes hide in the rubble, letting the dogs “find” them.
Dogs trained to find dead bodies also did important work. They helped identify people who had died, giving some comfort to grieving families.
Guide dogs inside the buildings during the attack also saved lives. Roselle, a guide dog, led her blind owner Michael Hingson down 1,463 steps from the 78th floor of the North Tower to safety. Another guide dog, Salty, helped Omar E. Rivera and his coworkers escape from the 71st floor. Rivera tried to let Salty go ahead alone, but the dog refused to leave him.
However, not all dogs made it out. Sirius, a police dog trained to detect explosives, died in his kennel at the base of the World Trade Center when the buildings collapsed.
Now, all these hero dogs have passed away. The last one, Bretagne, died in 2016 at age 16. She got a hero’s farewell, with firefighters and rescuers lining the street as her body, covered by an American flag, was carried out of the animal hospital.
Other heroic dogs were Apollo, a German Shepherd who was the first K-9 to arrive at the South Tower and searched for survivors for weeks; and Trakr, another German Shepherd, who found Genelle Guzman-McMillan, the last person pulled out alive, almost 27 hours after the towers fell.
These dogs and their handlers showed incredible courage and love during one of America’s darkest days, and we’ll never forget them.
11. The American Aviation was quick to respond
While many accounts exist of the experiences of first responders, survivors, and investigators, the narrative of what happened inside the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) in Rome, New York, offers a unique and sobering perspective.
New York Air National Guard Major Jeremy Powell was the first military person to learn about the hijackings, having taken the initial call from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Boston center. Ironically, they were participating in Exercise Vigilant Guardian, a North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) exercise. The eerie coincidence led to an initial wave of confusion, making it difficult to separate the simulation from the horrifying reality unfolding in front of them.
It was an impossible job
Fighters were scrambled from Otis Air National Guard Base, but there was no way they could have reached American Airlines Flight 11 before it crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The narrow window between the first alert and the impact was heartbreaking; it was a moment of helplessness for everyone at NEADS.
What followed was a flurry of reports and near misses as Powell and his colleagues grappled with an onslaught of information, much of it coming in late. They scrutinized as many as 19 or 20 planes as potential hijackings throughout the day. During this chaos, there were moments when the pilots in the air faced life-and-death decisions that no one should have to make. Sgt. Stacia Rountree spoke of those pilots contemplating the ultimate sacrifice—crashing their own jets into the hijacked planes to prevent further loss of civilian life, in case their weapons were out. This willingness to make such a harrowing sacrifice underscores the immense weight of responsibility and duty felt by the servicemen and servicewomen that day.
While the experience was filled with tragedies, the story of United Flight 93 struck a unique chord with Rountree. There was a moment when they thought the plane had landed safely, offering a glimmer of hope that was cruelly shattered upon learning it had crashed in Pennsylvania.
Since that day, the role of air defense sectors like NEADS has undergone a lot of changes. Before 9/11, their primary focus was on external threats. Now, their radar coverage has expanded exponentially, and their communication lines with Federal Aviation Administration centers are instant.
12. Calling all the boats!
The largest sea evacuation in history wasn’t orchestrated by a government or carried out during a widely recognized military operation; rather, it took place on 9/11 and was executed largely by civilian mariners who took the initiative to help thousands of stranded people in Lower Manhattan.
As the Twin Towers were ablaze and then ultimately collapsed, thousands of panicked people flocked towards the water, surging through Battery Park, leaping over benches and picnic tables. The U.S. Coast Guard and New York Police Department’s Harbor Unit immediately sent out urgent radio calls for all available boats to converge on the area for an emergency evacuation.
It was more impressive than Dunkirk
Responding to the call, a diverse armada sprang into action. From Coast Guard cutters to NYPD launches, from fireboats to fishing tugs, from the Corps of Engineers’ entire New York District fleet to private sailboats—each vessel raced toward Battery Park. Brandon Brewer, a USCG Chief Petty Officer on duty at the Battery Park building, vividly described the scene as a “mad rush of people heading for the water”. It was a makeshift but remarkably effective assembly of tugboats that took shape along the seawall. These tugs displayed homemade signs, made from spray-painted sheets hanging from their railings, indicating their destinations to help organize the chaotic sea of people.
It wasn’t just about ferrying people out of Manhattan. Lives were literally on the line. People were so desperate to leave that some started jumping into the water at Battery Park. In response, police officers coordinated with the boat owners to ensure they left space onboard for these extreme cases and they managed to rescue everyone who had plunged into the Hudson.
The overall effort that day saw nearly 500,000 people evacuated from Lower Manhattan by boat, a sea evacuation larger than the famous Dunkirk operation during WWII.
In just a few hours, the maritime community—professional and amateur, civilian and military—rallied to achieve an unprecedented sea evacuation. It was a chaotic ballet on water, fueled by ingenuity, bravery, and an unwavering commitment to help others. It was a day that showcased the worst of humanity but also, in many ways, brought out the very best.
13. The US airspace closed completely
Following the 9/11 attacks, the US airspace was closed completely, so all the planes in the air at that time were forced to land on the closest airport possible.
Gander, Newfoundland, a small town in Canada with around 10,000 people found itself at the epicenter of this international crisis. Gander International Airport, initially built as a refueling stop for transatlantic flights, suddenly became one of the most important airports in the world. It welcomed 38 wide-body planes almost out of the blue, swelling the town’s population with an additional 7,000 passengers and crew—and even 19 animals. In a matter of hours, the town effectively doubled in size, facing an unexpected logistical challenge that would have overwhelmed most communities.
But what happened next was nothing short of remarkable. Local residents opened their hearts, homes, and community centers to these “plane people,” who hailed from all over the world. Schools were transformed into makeshift shelters. Local bus drivers who were on strike set aside their pickets to help transport people, and pharmacies provided medications free of charge. Stores contributed food and supplies, disregarding the financial hit they’d take. It was as if the entire community came together with a single focus: to provide comfort, security, and a sense of home to thousands of scared and disoriented travelers.
The story of Gander is an illuminating chapter in a dark period of modern history. It has inspired books, documentaries, and even a hit Broadway musical, “Come From Away,” capturing the imagination and admiration of people worldwide. Yet, for the people of Gander, the acts of kindness they showed weren’t extraordinary. They were simply the right thing to do.
14. Ground Zero burned for a full 100 days after the attack
After it claimed nearly 3,000 lives, the Ground Zero of the World Trade Center attacks burned for 100 full days. For months on end, the site had exuded a cloud of acrid smoke that could be smelled for miles, reaching the far corners of Brooklyn and even upper Manhattan. Fueled by huge amounts of paper documents and office furniture, these fires were so relentless that they required an almost ceaseless cascade of water to keep them in check.
Tom Manley, a representative from the firefighters’ union, likened the effort to creating a massive lake. “The amount of water we had to pump into that site was unimaginable,” he said. And despite all this, the fires would sometimes impede the crucial work of clearing the rubble and searching for human remains, as flare-ups occurred whenever the debris was exposed to the air.
Even with the flames extinguished, the clearing process was far from over. Experts anticipated another six to nine months of grueling work, focusing primarily on the seven floors of compressed rubble that lay beneath the surface. Occasionally, workers still found small, isolated pockets of heat, prompting a fire engine to remain on standby at the site. Despite the absence of visible flames, the New York Fire Department continued to classify Ground Zero as an active fire scene.
In the years that followed, the events of 9/11 became a defining moment, not just for America but for the entire world. It was a day that demonstrated both the worst and best of humanity, and we should never forget that day.