Twenty years ago, on September 11, 2001, the United States fell victim to a terrorist attack plotted by al Qaeda.
On that seemingly normal Tuesday morning, hijackers overtook four planes flying out of Boston, Newark and Washington, D.C. Three hit their intended targets – the World Trade Center and Pentagon – but the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 fought back and diverted the plane to crash in a Pennsylvania field.
Now, looking back on the event that took 2,996 lives, according to History.com, here are some of the iconic images that will never be forgotten:
Smoke Billows From the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center
In an al Qaeda terrorist plot, hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 in the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. and United Airlines Flight 175 in the South Tower at 9:03 a.m., according to the Wall Street Journal’s timeline of events.
In the iconic image from photographer Spencer Platt, fire and smoke billows from the towers ahead of their eventual collapse on September 11, 2001.
President Bush Is Told of the Second Attack
President George W. Bush was reading a book to school-aged children on September 11, 2001, when his Chief of Staff Andrew Card leaned in to tell him a second plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
A year after the attack, Card wrote about the experience for SFGate. He revealed he told Bush that “a second plane hit the second tower,” and “America is under attack.”
He elaborated, writing, “I tried to be succinct in what I told him so that he understood the enormity of the problem. He looked up — it was only a matter of seconds, but it seemed like minutes — and I thought that he was outstanding in his ability not to scare either the American people that were paying attention to the cameras or, more importantly, the students that were in the classroom.”
Bush excused himself moments later, SFGate printed.
A Plane Crashed into the Pentagon
At 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 from Dulles Airport crashed into the west side of the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, according to the Wall Street Journal’s timeline. Per the Washington Post, the crash caused an explosion and temperatures reach 1,800 degrees.
189 people lost their lives that day, 125 military personnel and 64 airplane passengers.
Man Falls From the World Trade Center
One of the most controversial images to emerge from the September 11, 2001 attacks is the photo of a man falling from the World Trade Center. It was taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew.
“People have a reaction to this,” CNN quoted Drew. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, I don’t want to look at that.’” According to the outlet, he assumes people’s negative reactions are “because they can see themselves in that similar predicament.”
CNN reported “upward of 200 people” are believed to have fallen or jumped to their deaths after the crash.
“I was photographing the building, and an EMT said ‘Oh my gosh, look at that,’ and then we started seeing people coming down,” Drew continued. “And I just instinctively started photographing them as they were falling.”
The man’s identity remains unknown.
Rubble of the World Trade Center
Two days after the attack, on September 12, 2001, fires are still burning amidst the rubble at Ground Zero of the World Trade Center collapse.
United Airlines Flight 93 Crashed in Pennsylvania
While three of the four hijacked planes hit their intended targets, United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark, New Jersey crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania after its passengers fought the hijackers to “retake the plane,” as The New Yorker put it.
All 45 people aboard the flight died. In their final moments, the outlet reported the crew and passengers used onboard phones and cell phones to call loved ones.
D.C. Air National Guard pilot Marc Sasseville told the publication, “The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves. They made the decision we didn’t have to make.”
In the David Maxwell photo, officials examine the crater left from the crash.
Marcy Borders Covered in Dust
Marcy Borders was working in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, according to CNN. She was on the street when the World Trade Center collapsed, covering her in smoke and dust, according to the AFP. She was photographed by Stan Honda as she sought refuge in an office building.
“I had been in Lower Manhattan for about a half hour covering the attack,” Honda is quoted on CNN. “I continued to photograph, but the smoke blocked out the sun and it became like night. I was near an office building, and a police officer was pulling people in to get them out of danger. I went in, and there was a small lobby where a few people were gathered, as confused as I was about what was happening.”
He added, “It’s hard to tell what color her dress or boots are. There is obviously lots of dust in the air. The yellow color is from the digital camera being set for daylight or outside light; the indoor light comes across as yellow. In the rush to get out the photos later that day, I didn’t ‘correct’ the color. The color adds to the photo. It has an ominous feeling to it.”
Like many survivors, Borders died of stomach cancer in 2015, reported NJ.com.
Onlookers Watch the World Trade Center Burn
Spencer Platt captured an image of people gathering to watch the World Trade Center burn after two hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers on September 11, 2021, according to Getty.
Firefighters Raise the American Flag Over the Rubble of the World Trade Center
In what is perhaps the most iconic image from September 11, 2001, Thomas E. Franklin photographed three firefighters – George Johnson, Dan McWilliams and Billy Eisengrien – raising the American flag over the rubble of the World Trade Center, according to CNN.
“It represents the extraordinary courage our first responders showed that day, and that we can never forget that thousands of innocent people were murdered that day in the most horrific way imaginable,” CNN quoted Franklin, who then-worked at the Bergen Record newspaper.
As he pointed out, technology was very different then. “You have to remember there were no smartphones in 2001; I had no way to see this imagery up until this point,” he added. “While I had been in the midst of this massive story, walking on the very epicenter of ground zero, I had not seen much of the footage the rest of the world was seeing all day. It was shocking to me.”
A Firefighter Walks Away From Ground Zero
In the Anthony Correia photograph, a firefighter is seen walking away from Ground Zero covered in ash. The twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed after hijackers crashed two planes into them on September 11, 2001.
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