Last update: September 20, 2001 at 7:02 PM

Another workday becomes a surreal plane of terror

David Maraniss,  Washington Post
September 21, 2001 POST21
A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A few minutes after 8, Tuesday morning. The day had broken clean and clear and sweet on the East Coast. Summer was over mentally, if not officially. It was time to get to work, and people were up and at it. The saddest and most relentlessly horrific day in modern American existence started in the most ordinary ways.

American Airlines Flight 11 had backed away from Gate 26 of Terminal B at Boston's Logan Airport and was rolling toward the runway for a six-hour flight to Los Angeles. Edmund Glazer, in Seat 4A, first class, heard the flight attendant instruct the passengers to put away their cell phones and computers, but could not resist punching in his wife Candy's number anyway. He'd left her in the darkness of their Wellesley, Mass., home and driven away in their black SUV. He was a top financial guy for a high-tech firm, and though business was rough, life seemed good. He'd lost 40 pounds. He and Candy were feeling close. "Hi, hon. I made it," he said.

Steve Miller was just then getting off the subway in Lower Manhattan. The digital clock on the side of the Century 21 building read 8:09. He stopped at a deli for an ice coffee and a scone. Then into 2 World Trade Center and up the elevator to the 78th floor, out again, across the lobby to another elevator and off at the 80th, and over to his desk for Mizuho Bank, where he was a computer systems administrator. He was a married man of 39, thinking of starting a family but not surrendering to middle age. On his two large computer monitors he had taped a photo of Britney Spears and an old tabloid headline, "Die You Vile Scum."

A red bag was draped over his seat, a survival pack that had been distributed to each of Mizuho's employees after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Miller sat down and took off his shoes, a new pair of brown leathers. He looked out at the glorious view east toward the heart of the financial district. The office's telephone systems manager came by, a spirited young woman named Hope Romano. "Hi, Hope," he said.

Across the skyscraper chasm, up on the 106th floor of 1 World Trade Center, the northern of the twin towers, Adam White was already at work. He liked to be in place by 7:30 after making the hour-long subway haul from his loft in east Brooklyn. He was one of the eager kids at the huge bond brokerage firm, Cantor Fitzgerald: Blue-eyed, upbeat, 25, a few years out of the University of Colorado, where he climbed mountains and acted and took environmental studies. He had told his mother in suburban Baltimore that he would be in the office all week before leaving Friday for business in Rio.

Sheila Moody had reported for her first day on the job as an accountant at the Pentagon, off the Metro and inside her office-first floor, E-Ring, Corridor 4, Room 472, before sunrise. Matt Rosenberg was down on Corridor 8, a medic at the health clinic in the massive military headquarters, grateful for an uninterrupted hour in which he could study a new medical emergency disaster plan based on the unlikely scenario of an airplane crashing into the place. At Dulles Airport, Capt. Charles Burlingame, who had been a Navy F-4 pilot and once worked on anti-terrorism strategies in the Pentagon, was steering his 757, American Airlines Flight 77, down the runway for the long flight to Los Angeles. Plenty of empty seats in his cabin, like several other cross-country trips at that hour.

Real people, not characters in a movie, yet all of them soon to be caught up in surreal scenes of dread and death and horror organized by perpetrators who seemed to understand perfectly the symbols and theatrics of American culture. People surviving or dying in ways at once shudderingly alien and hauntingly familiar, if only on celluloid. People rendered speechless by what they witnessed. People making selfless choices, some leading to death. People allowed only the choice of how to die. People in their own isolated hells yet somehow connected to one another and to the entire world by spectacular technology that could spread their voices and their images and do everything but save the doomed among them.

'Everyone get out!'

"American, this is Boston Center. How do you read?"

The flight carrying Edmund Glazer to Los Angeles was about 20 minutes out of Logan when the call of concern came from air traffic control. They had given the go-ahead for the flight to climb to 31,000 feet, but nothing happened, no word from Capt. John Ogonowski or his copilot, Tom McGuinness. Somewhere above Albany, the plane veered off its flight path, heading south down the Hudson River.

What happened next is to a large degree forever unknowable. Anyone who saw any of it is dead. But a few voices made their way to the outside world first. Betty Ong, a flight attendant, was able to call her supervisor in Boston and report that the plane had been hijacked. There were five hijackers, she said, and one person had been stabbed. Then, intermittently, traffic controllers heard snatches of conversation from AA-11's cockpit. A push-to-talk button that allows pilots to communicate with the tower while their hands are on the controls was going on and off. Among the alarming snippets of conversation heard: "We have more planes. We have other planes."

Then nothing again, as the jetliner buzzed toward Manhattan. Rob Marchesano, a construction foreman, was working at La Guardia Street and West Third. He heard a roar overhead and saw a plane flying by, low and fast. He and his co-workers watched in astonishment and then horror as the plane approached the north tower of the World Trade Center. He noticed that the plane seemed to tilt at the last second, as though someone wanted the wings to take out as many floors as possible.

At 8:47, Miller was leaning back in his chair. He could hear traders talking loudly into their phones. A television was turned to MSNBC. Then came a strange sound. High-pitched. Whoosh! He walked to the window and saw an enormous swirl of paper and dust. It looked to him like a ticker-tape parade, except that made no sense.

A man burst onto the floor and shouted, "Get out! Get out!" Something had struck the other tower. Miller didn't know what to think. He sat down and put on his shoes, then followed his colleagues out.

"Everyone get out!" a woman shouted in the hallway, arms flailing. They filed down the stairs, three across, without speaking, the only sounds at first their breathing and the shuffle of shoes hitting concrete steps. After a few floors, the pace slowed and more people joined in the descent.

"What's going on?" a man asked.

"I don't know," said another.

"Shut up!" said a third.

There was a sour odor. Miller concentrated on getting down the stairs and keeping his breathing steady. He thought of his wife, Rhonda, back in Brooklyn. Call her, he thought. The floors were passing slowly. Seventy-seven ... seventy-five ... seventy-two ...

"Move it!" someone shouted.

"C'mon!"

"Shut up!"

67 ... 59 ... 55 ... 53.

Everyone stopped. Miller was not sure why. He was tired and saw an open door. He stepped out of the hallway into a trading office and heard a voice over the building's loudspeaker: THERE'S A FIRE IN TOWER ONE. TOWER TWO IS UNAFFECTED. IF YOU WANT TO LEAVE, YOU CAN LEAVE. IF YOU WANT TO RETURN TO YOUR OFFICE, IT'S OK.

Miller walked to the elevator bank, where he found a group of people, including friend and colleague Hope Romano.

"This is so scary," he said, hugging her.

The elevator door opened, going up, and they got on with 10 to 15 people. Miller felt uneasy; what if the elevator broke down and they were stuck? He slipped out. Looking back. he said, "Hope, I don't think you should go up." The door closed before she could answer.

He walked into an office to find a telephone and saw a cluster of people by the window. "Oh, my God!" one shouted. "They're jumping. People are jumping!"

Inside the north tower, there was the same stairwell exodus, though the intensity was perhaps tenfold. Bomb? Earthquake? Their building was on fire and shaking. Fire marshals were on the stairwells, urging people to walk on the right and keep moving. People were fainting, collapsing, being passed along overhead so they wouldn't slow the escape too much.

In the lobby of the Marriott hotel that straddles the towers stood Ron Clifford, a businessman in from New Jersey. In the haze he saw a woman coming toward him, with hideous burns all over her body. He found water to put on her wounds and tried to comfort her.

High above, on those floors in the 90s and 100s, including the floors of young Adam White's firm, Cantor Fitzgerald, there were no stairwells to reach, no ways out, except the windows and free-falling down a thousand feet. Some were in the inferno itself, others were just above it, the walls and floors crumbling, the heat rising. They had time to contemplate their fate, to call their wives and mothers and best friends, but then what?

Scott Pasquini was standing in the doorway of his apartment building along the West Side Highway, three blocks away. The doorman turned ghastly pale. He pointed out to the street. There, in the middle of the northbound lane, was a twisted torso, without limbs. Pasquini walked to the corner and saw two young women crying, pointing to something on the sidewalk. outside the Marriott hotel. It was part of a human hand. A man from the hotel took his jacket off and threw it over the horrific sight.

A grim message

"Hi, Jules," Brian Sweeney was saying into his cell phone. "It's Brian. We've been hijacked, and it doesn't look too good." His wife, Julie, was not at their home in Barnstable, Mass., so he was talking into the answering machine. A big guy, 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, who had flown F-14s for the Navy, Sweeney sounded calm, but his message was fatalistic. "Hopefully, I'll talk to you again, but if not, have a good life. I know I'll see you again someday." The time was 8:58. Sweeney was aboard United Flight 175, which had left Boston at 8:15 for Los Angeles and had crossed over Massachusetts and the northwest tip of Connecticut and lower New York state into New Jersey before the five terrorists took it on a different path, pounding toward Manhattan at low altitude.

At the air traffic control center in Garden City, Long Island, controllers had caught sight on radar as the 767 descended. Its identification was still unknown to them. They were still searching for American Flight 11. They knew it had been hijacked but were unaware that it had been the first plane to hit the tower. Now, as this other craft descended on the city, they wondered whether it was another hijacked plane or a troubled aircraft rushing for a runway at Newark or La Guardia. Then, in the dark control room lit only by the bank of radar screens, one controller stood up in horror.

"No," he shouted, "he's not going to land. He's going in!"

"Oh, my God! He's headed for the city," another controller shouted. "Oh, my God! He's headed for Manhattan!"

Every eye in the room was now trained on one radar screen, a roomful of controllers frozen by the electronic rendering of a hideous sight they could not control.

The second plane hits

And here came Flight 175 searing its image forever into the consciousness of the millions who were by now watching on TV as it came into view in the last second of its approach to the south tower of the World Trade Center. On television it seemed small, artificial. Then the fireball. It was 9:03. One of the passengers who died in that instant was a woman named Ruth McCourt, the sister of Ron Clifford, the New Jersey businessman who was nursing the badly burned woman in the lobby of the hotel below. Soothing a stranger and losing a sister in the same horrible interconnected mangled moment.

Scott Pasquini had by now walked toward Battery Park, along the river, and was standing in a crowd looking up at the north tower when he watched the second plane hit the other tower. Everyone started to run. He headed toward the river, then started looking for a pay phone. As he waited in line, he saw the twin horrors, the monstrous billowing of orange flame from the south tower and people jumping from the top floors of the north. He saw a man who seemed to have created a makeshift parachute; it slowed him down for about 10 stories, then fell apart and he was lost.

Melvyn Blum, a wealthy executive whose real estate company tried to buy the Trade Center leases last year, was watching through a telescope from his 44th floor office on Seventh Avenue a few miles away. He saw people waving towels and hanging out the windows of the upper floors and jumping. Chip Brown was on the roof of his condominium in Tribeca, his binoculars trained on the same sight. He, too, saw a man waving a white flag, and then chairs and debris falling and then people.

The collision in the south tower knocked Steve Miller, who'd left his friend at the elevator, off his feet. Everyone was racing for the stairs again. He stepped into the hallway, saw the logjam, went back to a bathroom, then found another stairwell. There were no outward signs of panic. He reached a landing where a maintenance man said he wanted to go up to help people. "Don't go," someone yelled. "It's not your responsibility."

They had yet to reach the 40th floor. Miller was sweating, feeling dizzy, but kept going, 35 ... 30 ... 20 ... 17 ... 10 and the lobby. Finally, he was out and into daylight and fresh air, and he was so happy that he wanted to hug the sky. Firefighters and barricades were everywhere. He joined the throng moving east and looked up at the building and saw a big hole on the side of his tower, very close to his office. How did it get there? he wondered.

Two planes gone, targets hit. Two more in the air, taken over by terrorists. American Flight 77 had more than an hour earlier pulled out of Gate D26 at Dulles and was reaching its normal cruising altitude at 35,000 feet when it became apparent that hijackers were turning the plane around. By 9:25, one of the passengers, TV commentator Barbara Olson, was on the cell phone with her husband, U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson. Can you believe this? We're being hijacked, she said. The call was cut off, but she reached him again. He told her about the other hijackings and how the planes had been flown into the World Trade Center. She said the passengers in her plane had been herded into the back of the plane by hijackers armed with knives. How could they stop something similar from happening? Capt. Burlingame, who was born in St. Paul, and the copilot, David Charlebois of Washington, might have been back there, overpowered by the five terrorists, for Olson's last words to her husband were to this effect: What do I tell the pilot to do?

Soon controllers at Dulles spotted an unidentified aircraft heading east-southeast toward the White House. It was flying low and hard, full throttle, perhaps more than 500 miles per hour, near Arlington Cemetery, then on toward the U.S. Capitol, banking in a circle and coming around toward the Pentagon.

Diving for cover

About 9:40, Alan Wallace had finished fixing the foam metering valve on the back of his firetruck in the Pentagon fire station and walked to the front of the station. He looked up and saw a jetliner coming straight at him. It was about 25 feet off the ground, no landing wheels visible, a few hundred yards away and closing fast.

"Runnnnn!" he yelled to a pal. There was no time to look back. He made it about 30 feet, heard a terrible roar, felt the heat and dove underneath a van, skinning his stomach as he slid along the blacktop. The van protected him against burning metal that was flying around. A few seconds later he was sliding back out to check on his friend and then raced back to the firetruck. He jumped in, threw it into gear, but the accelerator was dead. The entire back of the truck was destroyed, the cab on fire. He grabbed the radio headset and called the main station to report the unimaginable.

The sun was still low in the sky, obscured by the Pentagon and the enormous billowing clouds of acrid smoke, making it hauntingly dark. Wallace could hear cries for help and moved toward them. People were coming out a window head first, landing on him. He had faced incoming fire before -- he was with the hospital corps in Vietnam -- but he had never witnessed anything of this devastating intensity.

Sheila Moody, first day on the job in Room 472, heard a whoosh and a whistle and wondered where all this air was coming from. Then a blast of fire that left as fast as it came. She looked down and saw her hands aflame, so she shook them. She saw some light from a window but couldn't reach it. Then she heard a man call out, "Hello! I can't see you."

Hello, she called back, and clapped her hands. She heard him approach and sensed the shoosh of a fire extinguisher and then saw him through a cloud of smoke, the rescuer who would bring her out.

Into the Pentagon's health clinic rushed a man screaming, "Evacuate now! Evacuate now!" This was not part of the disaster drill Matt Rosenberg had studied earlier that morning. He stopped a procedure on a patient in Minor Surgery Treatment Room 2 and started evacuating patients.

A naval officer rushed in and said a patient was in the courtyard where some people, confused and scared, had rushed to escape the collapsing inferno inside Corridor 5. Rosenberg, 26, dashed down a hallway, pushing through hundreds of people escaping the opposite direction, until he reached the courtyard, where he saw smoke billowing and people staggering out from the area that had been hit. He grabbed his radio and called back to the clinic. "You need to initiate MASCAL [the disaster plan] right now! We have mass casualties! I need medical assets to the courtyard!"

Scrambling for shelter

Scott Pasquini was still down near Battery Park, looking up, when the next unthinkable thing happened. At 9:51, the south tower collapsed and fell, floor upon floor, down a thousand feet, shooting out another hideous billow, this one of soot and dust and ash, crushing and burying all the firefighters and rescue workers and fearless souls who had charged up the stairwells on missions of hope.

Pasquini and the crowd around him were momentarily paralyzed by the sight, but as the massive cloud of debris seemed to be moving toward them, they ran toward the Hudson. Some jumped onto a police boat. Pasquini moved toward another building, a harbor restaurant with a large glass wall facing the water. His face was pressed against the glass when the debris reached ground level, thickening the air with ash. He took off his shirt and wrapped it around his face and head and started banging on the window with two other men, trying to figure out a way inside the restaurant. Now he could barely breath and could not see. His eyes felt as if they were on fire.

On the other side of the glass, he saw a hand pointing to the left, and he and the others moved that way toward a door. He was inside. Tablecloths were being ripped off tables and glasses of water passed around. He took a pitcher and tried to help people flooding in. One man had a bloody leg; he said he had jumped through a window. They washed the blood and tied a tablecloth around the leg.

Steve Miller, free from the south tower, had been moving another direction, in a parade of survivors walking east, toward the Brooklyn Bridge. He worried whether that was the safest way home. Could the bridge be another target? But he couldn't think of a better alternative. The sidewalk was packed, everyone speed walking but not panicking, when the sound washed over them, another tremendous roar. He turned around and saw his office building, 2 World Trade Center, coming down in an avalanche, and then the cloud of smoke and ash and confusion.

"Oh, my God!" he said. His mind went immediately to his office friend, the telephone system manager, delightful Hope Romano, who went up when that elevator door closed. She must be dead, he thought.

Miller found himself in lockstep with another man. "I worked in that building,' he said.

"I'm sorry," the man said. "I saw the plane hit it."

A plane? That was the first Miller had heard of what caused all of the calamity.

One plane of terror was still in the sky then, United Airlines Flight 93 to San Francisco, which had backed out from Terminal A, Gate 17 at Newark Airport at 8:01 but apparently was stuck in runway traffic for 40 minutes before getting airborne. The plane had followed its designated path west across Pennsylvania and into Ohio toward Cleveland, according to radar, but then started doubling back south and east, taking a series of sharp turns.

Here again, the plane was a lonesome vessel, the people aboard facing their singular fate, yet it was already attached to the larger drama, connected again by cell phones. Passengers learned what had happened in New York and sent word out about what was happening to them.

Thomas Burnett, a California businessman and Bloomington, Minn., native, called his wife, Deena, four times. First, he described the hijackers and said that they had stabbed a passenger and that his wife should contact authorities. In the second call, he said the passenger had died and that he and some others on board were going to do something about it. She pleaded with him to remain unobtrusive, but he said no way. Mark Bingham, in the rear of the first-class cabin, called his mother near San Francisco and said the plane had been taken over by three terrorists. Bingham was a rugby player, calm and fearless enough to run with the bulls in Pamplona. He sounded calm but scared, as though he knew how this might end.

Jeremy Glick called his wife, Lyzbeth, in Hewitt, N.J., with details of the hijackers: Middle Eastern, wearing red bandannas, with knives and a box they said was a bomb. He said some of the bigger men were talking about taking on the hijackers. They would try to storm the cockpit and take on their captors. As Glick talked, Lyzbeth could not stand the anxiety and passed the phone on to her father. A final call came into the Westmoreland County 911 Center in Pennsylvania from a man who said he was locked in the lavatory. We're being hijacked, he said. This is not a hoax. The recorded time was 9:58.

Ten minutes later, in the hamlet of Shanksville, Pa., Rick King sat in his gray clapboard house watching the disaster coverage on TV and talking with his sister on the telephone. "Rick," said his sister, Jody Walsh. "I hear a big plane ... I think it's going to crash!" The words seemed implausible to King, the assistant chief of the volunteer fire department. What did Shanksville have to do with any of this? But he dashed to the porch to get a look for himself, and now his sister was more insistent. The plane was nosediving, falling like a stone. "Oh, my God, Rick ... It's going to crash!" King heard a shattering boom in his right ear, over the phone, and in his left ear, he heard the rumblings from four miles away, where Flight 93 fell.

Rick King suited up in firefighting gear with three other men, jumped into Big Mo, the nickname for their 1992 truck carrying 1,000 gallons of water, and started screaming up Lambertsville Road. "This is going to be something we haven't seen before," he told his men. Big Mo turned off Lambertsville onto a gravel road leading to a defunct strip mine that was now a large field of dry golden grass surrounded by woods. It was 10:20. King braced himself again for awful carnage. But what he saw left him feeling strangely calm and vacant: A few scattered fires. Some debris hanging from trees. Small chunks of yellow honeycomb insulation. No pieces of fuselage. No bodies. Over in the woods, 50 yards away, he could see some shirts, pants, loose papers.

Clinging to hope

By 10:25, Melissa Turnage had left her teaching job at St. Paul's School and was home in Cockeysville, Md., watching TV with her husband, an Episcopal priest, along with other friends and family. She had not heard from her son, Adam White, the young mountain climber and Cantor Fitzgerald broker. Much of the TV coverage had been so calm and distant that even with such an intense focus it was not completely clear how awful it was, or had been, for people trapped on those top floors.

Melissa had visited Adam at his office there and had never felt comfortable with him working in that place. The thought had unavoidably crossed her mind: How on earth would you get out of here? She had mentioned that fear to him, and Adam, so full of energy and goodwill, had put his arm around her shoulder and laughed and said, "It's OK, Mom.'

She was watching at 10:28 when the north tower collapsed, the steel giving way in 1,000-degree heat, her son's office and all the others folding down one upon the next. She wanted to believe that he had somehow already made it out.

A reunion

By the time Steve Miller reached Brooklyn, whitish flakes were falling from the sky, ash concentrate from the blast. His hair and clothes were soon covered. The image of his office building collapsing kept playing like a film in his mind. He passed a construction crew of guys wearing masks and asked whether they had an extra. Nope. He passed Atlantic Avenue, by his dentist's office, then down another dozen blocks or so until he reached home. His street was roped off. Bomb scare, an officer told him. He kept walking until he saw a buddy running east along Union, away from the roped-off area.

"Will!" he shouted. "Will!"

Will stopped, turned around.

"Where's Rhonda?" Miller asked.

Around the corner. He ran ahead and saw his wife running toward him. They hugged and kissed.

"Oh, my God, you're alive," she said. "I thought you were dead!"

"I'm alive. Here I am. I love you." Now she was crying and hugging him and kissing him all over his face.

A few hours later, he was back home and talking to his boss, Wayne Schletter. Was everyone at the office OK? It seemed so. And Hope? Did Hope get out? That haunting sight of the elevator closing, going up. Yes, his boss told him. Hope was alive.

Resignation

Melissa Turnage would wait and wait but get no such news about her ebullient young son, Adam White. A phone call at midafternoon gave her a glimmer of hope that some Cantor Fitzgerald people had made it down, but there was nothing after that, and slowly the resignation of unspeakable loss set in. Most of the firm's 1,100 workers are still missing.

She imagined how he might have reacted in those minutes of terror. He was resourceful and dexterous, and she saw him in her mind's eye doing everything possible for the people around him. She grieved not as a war victim seeking vengeance, but as a mother in search of some deeper human understanding.

The awareness and acceptance of life-changing news comes in stages. As Candy Glazer, wife of the businessman on American Flight 11, watched the news reports all morning, it only gradually entered her consciousness that a plane had come from Boston, that it was American, that it may have been the flight her husband of 11 years had called her from at 8 o'clock with those simple reassuring words, "Hi, hon, I made it." When reality hit, she screamed. She became hysterical, overcome for two hours until an airline official called with the official word.

The Glazers were new to their neighborhood, but neighbors came over quickly and stayed with her and put up yellow ribbons. She was exhausted but kept watching TV until well after 2 a.m., finding it somehow therapeutic to see the pictures from New York where her husband actually was. She dozed for a time and then her 4-year-old son, Nathan, came bounding into the room and jumped on his father's side of the bed. She hadn't told him anything yet.

"Honey," she said, pierced with a pain she had never imagined possible. "Daddy's been in an accident.'

Nathan looked at her. "What do you mean?'

"Daddy's dead."

The boy started sobbing. "Can't we fix him?' he asked.

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