Out Of the Blue Sky: 9/11 Minute By Minute

A report from The Independent on Sunday first published in September 2001.

11 September 2001


An ordinary morning in lower Manhattan. Clyde Ebanks, vice-president of an insurance company, is one of the 20,000 or so men and women already at work in the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. At a meeting on floor 103, his boss catches a glimpse of something outside in the bright blue sky and yells: “Look at that!”

8:45am (1.45pm BST)

North Tower, World Trade Centre: American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 with 92 people on board, crashes into floors 91 to 100. “We are under attack,” says Nigel Thompson, a 33-year-old trader from Sheffield, on the telephone to his twin brother. Other workers in the building call lovers, friends and family. The initial impact is followed by an explosion as 24,000 gallons of aviation fuel ignite.

London and Los Angeles: Workers at Cantor Fitzgerald hear colleagues on floors 101 to 105 of the tower scream as their conference call is interrupted by the crash.


South Tower, World Trade Centre: Derek Swords, 29, telephones his family in Dundee to say there has been an explosion in the other building but that he is safe. There is no need to leave, say fire marshals and security guards, but some people make for the lifts. An official with a megaphone on floor 44 tells people to go back up to their own offices.

North Tower, World Trade Centre: Emergency generators light the stairwells of the damaged, shaking building. Thousands of workers from floor 88 down attempt to flee, moving aside to let burns victims pass more quickly. Ronnie Clifford, 47, from Cork is at the foot of the building. “There was an explosion and a haze and a smell of fuel. Out of this haze came a woman. She came through the revolving doors with her two arms totally burned; her clothes were burned right on her body; no shoes. Her hair was literally melted with her face and eyes. We lifted her up and carried her outside.”


Fitzherbert Suite, Grand Hotel, Brighton: Tony Blair is on a sofa, preparing to give a speech to the TUC conference, when an aide enters to tell him about the crash. Like everyone else he presumes it is a dreadful accident.

9:03am (2:03pm BST)

On News Television: Millions of viewers across the world who are watching the smoke and flames see the black shape of an aircraft travel fast across their screens from the right. It disappears into the second tower and explodes.

South Tower, World Trade Centre: United Airlines Flight 175, a Boeing 767 carrying 65 people, hits floors 81 to 89.



Foreign Office, Whitehall, London: The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who has been watching television since the first crash, turns to his spokesman and says: “Right, that’s it. The world will never be the same again.”

South Tower, World Trade Centre: Derek Swords calls his fiancee, Maureen Sullivan, elsewhere in Manhattan, to say he is now being evacuated. She will not hear from him again. “I call his cell phone all the time, but it just forwards me to a voicemail. It doesn’t ring.”

West Street, Manhattan: Ronnie Clifford runs away from the Centre. “There were bodies falling, there were girders falling, everything was just falling off the building.” Tiffany Keeling is also out on the street, having ignored a Tannoy message to stay on the 61st floor of the South Tower. “I heard a whoosh, like air getting sucked in a vacuum. I started feeling little things on my back like hail and they got bigger and bigger until the air was solid debris.” Fireballs falling to earth turn out to be bodies. The 32-year-old financial consultant from New Mexico turns to a man and asks: “Are we dead?”


Emma E Booker Secondary School, Florida: George W Bush is taking a reading lesson with a classroom full of children before giving an address on education. He already knows about the first plane crash. Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, whispers news of the second into his ear. There is no chance of it having been an accident. Cameras show the President struggling to digest the information, before continuing to read.

Fitzherbert Suite, Grand Hotel, Brighton: Tony Blair is pacing the room, rehearsing his speech and eating a banana. His: official spokesman, Godric Smith, brings news of what he has just seen on the television downstairs. Mr Blair turns on his own set.

Lima, Peru: The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, is told of the attacks while having breakfast with Alejandro Toledo, the President of Peru.


Washington: “It certainly doesn’t look like an accident,” reporters are told by a senior government official.

Union City, New Jersey: Traffic into Manhattan is at a standstill. Drivers stuck on the approach to Lincoln Tunnel leave their cars and stand by the roadside, watching the stricken towers from across the Hudson River.

Lebanon: Crowds gather as some of the 360,000 Palestinian refugees in the country celebrate what they have seen on television, firing guns into the air. “America and Israel are one,” says one man. “This is the result of American policy.” But the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafik al-Hariri, says the attacks “contradict all human and religious values”.


Emma E Booker Secondary School, Florida: President Bush calls the crashes an “apparent terrorist attack on our country”. Flanked by parents, teachers and pupils, he says this is a difficult moment for America. “I have spoken to the Vice-President, to the governor of New York, to the director of the FBI, and have ordered that the full resources of the federal government go to help the victims and the families and to conduct a full scale investigation to hunt down and find those folks who committed this act.” After observing a brief moment of silence he concludes: “May God bless the victims, their families, and America.” The President leaves the school for Air Force One, the presidential Boeing 747, apparently bound for Washington.


Justice Department, Washington: The US Solicitor General, Ted Olson, talks to his wife, the lawyer and CNN commentator Barbara Olson, who is hiding in a lavatory on American Airlines Flight 77. The Boeing 757 has been hijacked on its way from Washington to Los Angeles with 64 people on board. Operators have refused nine times to accept the charges on the incoming call from Mrs Olson, not realising the situation or who she is, before relenting. She tells her husband the hijackers have forced the pilot and passengers to the back of the plane using “box-cutters and knives”. He tells her about the attacks in New York. Mrs Olson’s last words to her husband are: “What do I tell the pilot to do?”


Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: Television reports a phone call from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine claiming responsibility for the attacks.


Washington DC: Afework Hagos, a computer programmer, is stuck in a traffic jam near the Pentagon. “There was a huge screaming noise and I got out of the car as a plane came over. Everybody was running away in different directions. It was tilting its wings up and down like it was trying to balance. It hit some lamposts on the way in.”


The Pentagon, Washington: Flight 77 crashes into the south-west face of the military complex, the world’s largest office building. A train passenger, Allan Cleveland, sees “a huge mushroom cloud”.

Wall Street, New York: Trading is called off indefinitely.


Reuters news agency, New York: Screaming is heard in the background as a man on the trading floor of Cantor Fitzgerald answers the phone. “We’re fucking dying,” he yells. The line goes dead. Further calls go unanswered.


The White House, Washington: The West Wing and other government buildings in the city are evacuated as black smoke hangs overhead. The District of Columbia government shuts down and many private companies follow. The metro system closes. The roads are gridlocked as workers make for home and a fleet of emergency vehicles moves in. Senator Chuck Hagel calls the surprise terrorist operation “the second Pearl Harbor”.


Independence Avenue, Washington: For the first time ever, the Federal Aviation Administration bars aircraft from taking off anywhere in the country. International flights already airborne are told to land in Canada.


On the internet: Rubble from the World Trade Centre is posted for sale on the auction website eBay.com, where anyone can offer items to the highest bidder. The site owners remove it soon afterwards.


Damascus, Syria: An official of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine denies any connection with the crashes.


Pennsylvania: An emergency services operator takes a call from a passenger who has locked himself in the lavatory on United Airlines Flight 93. The Boeing 757 has been diverted en route from New Jersey to San Francisco with 45 people on board. “We are being hijacked, we are being hijacked!” cries the caller.

California: Deena Burnett is rung by her husband, Thomas, a businessman on Flight 93. “I know we’re all going to die. There’s three of us who are going to do something about it … I love you, honey.”

10am (3pm UK time)

West Pennsylvania: Flight 93 crashes in an open field near a coal strip mine at Indian Lake, 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. It was intended for Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, 85 miles away.


World Trade Centre: The South Tower collapses. The fire that started when fuel ignited has reached temperatures of 1,000 degrees or more, softening the steel columns and bands that support the building. They can no longer bear the weight of the concrete floors, which began to collapse in on each other from the top down. There are still crowds of people in the plaza below. Clouds of dust and smoke rise hundreds of feet above Manhattan. Powdered debris is carried on the air for miles.


Wall Street & Broad Street, Manhattan: Having fled his hotel in the World Trade Centre complex, Dermot Finch of Clitheroe, Lancashire, is on the pavement as an “avalanche of flying debris” comes towards him. A police officer orders dazed pedestrians to get into the New York Stock Exchange, then pulls down the shutters just in time. “If I had been standing outside 20 seconds longer I would have been overcome by the debris,” says Mr Finch. Those left standing in the street are killed, including many members of the emergency services.


Brighton: Visibly shaken, Tony Blair tells TUC delegates what has happened. “There have been the most terrible, shocking events in the United States of America in the last hours. I am afraid we can only imagine the terror and carnage there and the many, many innocent people who would have lost their lives. This mass terrorism is the new evil in our world today.” He leaves the podium to applause and returns to London by train. Aides hand him notes on Islamic fundamentalism.


Washington: “We don’t know who’s doing it,” a senior US intelligence official admits. “It’s not the work of an unsophisticated enemy.”

10:15 am

46th and First, midtown Manhattan: United Nations headquarters are evacuated. A security council meeting is called off. Staff emerging from the building find the sun blocked out by dust clouds. The streets look like the surface of the moon.

Sao Paulo, Brazil: The stock exchange closes. “Everything has come to a standstill,” says one trader.

City of London: Exchange Tower is evacuated as a precaution but trading continues. Stocks plummet. Workers at other financial companies in the City and at Canary Wharf in east London are sent home.

10:27 am

World Trade Centre: The North Tower collapses as its remaining occupants try to leave. Debris from the building falls on Manhattan in more suffocating clouds. Firefighters trapped under the falling building radio for help. Among those buried alive in the rubble is Lieutenant Andy Desperito of Engine Company 1, who had told his crew to leave, but stayed behind to help a victim.

Broadway, lower Manhattan: The Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, calls for evacuation: “If you’re south of Canal Street, get out!” he says, adding, “there have been a tremendous number of lives lost”.


City of London: Experts monitoring computer traffic express alarm as millions of users log on to find out the latest information. The internet is “80 per cent down” and will take days to repair, says one. Some company trading floors have closed but the markets remain open. Stocks continue to fall.

Across America: Parents pull their children out of school early. Public transport is packed as people leave the cities, as many are doing in London and other Western capitals where there are fears of attack. Federal courthouses begin to abandon their schedules for the day. Landmarks including the Sears Tower in Chicago and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota close to the public.


Lima, Peru: Colin Powell says he is leaving a meeting of the Organisation of American States to return to Washington. “A great tragedy has struck our country. It will not affect the nature of our society. We will find out who is responsible for this and bring them to justice.”


Brittany, France: President Jacques Chirac condemns the “monstrous attacks” and breaks off a tour to return to Paris as his country enters a state of high alert. “In these terrible circumstances all French people stand by the American people.”


Moscow, Russia: President Vladimir Putin expresses deep sympathy for the victims, whose plight he has been watching on CNN.


Gaza, Palestine: President Yasser Arafat sends the condolences of his people to America. “We completely condemn this serious operation,” he says. “We were completely shocked. It’s unbelievable. Unbelievable.”


Buenos Aires, Argentina: The American embassy is evacuated, as are others around Latin America. Staff at high-profile government buildings in the States are sent home. US military bases all over the world go on red alert.

11am (4pm BST )

46th and First, midtown Manhattan: The United Nations building is closed down officially, postponing the 56th annual session, which was due to start today.

Fifth Street, Washington: The Securities and Exchange Commission closes all US financial markets for the day.


Heathrow, England: Flights to America are grounded; other European countries follow suit as police officers and soldiers move in to tighten security.


Buckingham Palace, London: American tourists outside the gates weep as they discuss the news. “All my friends and family live in Manhattan,” says Sura Alammar, a 28-year-old investment banker. “I’ve no idea if they are alive or dead.”

Balmoral, Scotland: The Queen expresses her “growing disbelief and total shock” at what she is seeing on television.


City of London: The FTSE 100 Index closes 287.7 points down after the biggest one-day fall in its history. The biggest losers include shares in British Airways and the airports operator BAA. The prices of gold and crude oil have soared.


East Jerusalem: “I feel I am in a dream,” says Mustaf, a 24-year-old Palestinian. “I never believed that one day the United States would come to pay a price for its support to Israel.” Car horns sound and guns are fired into the air as crowds celebrate in Arab-dominated parts of the city. Exultant women give out sweets in the West Bank town of Nablus.


Barksdale Air Base, Louisiana: Air Force One arrives with a military jet by each wing-tip. Reporters travelling on the plane are banned from using their mobile phones in case they give its location away. No reason is given for a sudden steep climb during the flight. On the tarmac, President Bush is surrounded by armed soldiers in combat uniform. The return to Washington has been delayed because security chiefs now believe his plane was an intended target for the terrorists, along with the White House. “Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward,” Mr Bush tells reporters. “Freedom will be defended.”

Washington: Laura Bush, the First Lady, is taken to an unidentified secure location after saying: “Parents need to reassure their children everywhere in our country that they’re safe.”


Brussels, Belgium: “This is one of those few days in life that one can actually say will change everything,” says Chris Patten, the European Union’s Commissioner for External Relations.


North London: “Many people will be happy, jumping up and down at this moment,” says Sheik Abu Hamza of the Supporters of Shariah, based at the Finsbury Park Mosque. America’s behaviour abroad has created a pressure cooker with no valve, he says. “It is a great pity that the people of the US have to pay the price for their government’s policies.”

12:08pm (5:08pm BST)

Kandahar, Afghanistan: Osama bin Laden cannot be responsible, says a spokesman for the Taliban. “What happened was not a job of ordinary people,” says Abdul Hai Mutmanen. “It could have been the work of governments. Osama bin Laden cannot do this work; neither can we. We are not supporting terrorism. Osama does not have the capability. We condemn this.”


Brussels, Belgium: Nato and the EU both issue statements condemning the attacks.

12:18 pm

Florida: The headquarters of the American space programme at Cape Canaveral is shut down. So is Walt Disney World.


Mexico and Canada: Land borders with America are sealed off.

New York and Washington: Thousands of people queue to give blood.

1:30pm (6:30pm BST)

Beijing: The official China news agency reports its leader’s sympathy for the people of America and “grave concern” about the safety of Chinese in the US.

2:51pm (7:51pm BST)

New York and Washington: Military jets and helicopter gunships patrol the skies and the navy sends missile destroyers to defend the cities from further threat.

3pm (8pm BST)

Offutt Air Base, Nebraska: Air Force One lands at the Strategic Air Command base rather than Washington “as a security precaution”. The President holds a brief video conference with senior aides.

5:25pm (10:25pm BST)

World Trade Centre: Building Seven, the 47-floor Salomon Brothers annexe at the foot of the twin towers, collapses.

6:06 (11:06pm UK time)

Kabul, Afghanistan: Reported explosions are attributed to the Northern Alliance, main opposition to the Taliban, whose leader is believed to have been assassinated.

Washington: Commentators are demanding to know where their President has vanished to. Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, is underground at the White House bunker with Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser. Mr Bush is in the air, having resisted the advice of aides who wanted to keep him overnight in the nuclear command bunker near Omaha. Bill Clinton, the former president, who is in Australia, urges the American people to rally behind his successor.

7pm (midnight UK time)

Andrews Air Base, Washington: Air Force One arrives back in the capital. The President is taken by helicopter to the White House. Mr Bush declares New York a disaster area, releasing millions of dollars of emergency federal assistance.

8:30pm (1:30am BST)

The Oval Office, Washington: President Bush addresses the nation from the White House, speaking for less than five minutes, from an autocue. “Today our nation saw evil,” he says, before quoting from Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me.” Almost exactly 12 hours after the first attack came suddenly out of the blue sky, the President vows: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who commit these acts and those who harbour them.”

Published by Cole Moreton

Award-winning interviewer, writer and broadcaster.

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