American 11 hit the World Trade Center at 8.46 am. At first it was taken as nothing other than an accident.
At the White House, the usual 9 am meetings were kicking off at various departments and since there was nothing yet to suggest that the crash was anything other than an accident, those meetings proceeded on schedule.
Richard Bruce ‘Dick’ Cheney, America’s Vice President, had just sat down to a meeting when his assistant told him to turn on the TV because a plane had just hit the North Tower of the WTC. Cheney testified to the 9/11 commission that when he heard of the crash, he remembered wondering,’ How the hell could a plane hit the World Trade Center?’ this coming from the chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the one who oversees the domestic and foreign intelligence gathering of the entire United States of America.
It would take another twenty minutes to establish that the aircraft that had just hit the North Tower of the WTC was a jet airliner.
Ten time zones to the east, in an Industrial town south-east of Mumbai, India, an outside sales guy was tying his shoe laces in preparation to leaving for work. It was me and I was leaving early as I had to pick up a colleague before hitting the Bombay-Pune Highway. We were going to visit the world’s largest two-wheeler manufacturer, Bajaj Auto, in a satellite town called Chinchwad. The bastards were taking their time approving a tooling system we had proposed for all their hardened gears, in spite of a zillion trials that showed we beat Kennametal hollow in tool-life.
CNN was running on TV and I was reaching for the remote to switch it off, when a breaking news flash came on. A small plane had just hit the WTC, it said. There was no video, only a file photo of the World Trade Center on a cloudless day, probably pasted on from their archives. The channel was requesting anyone who had filmed or photographed the event, to call in.
Anything aeronautic had always piqued my curiosity and that day it made me pause, lean back against the bean bag I was sitting on and stare at the screen. By now it had been established that the plane was not a small one but a large jet airliner. I decided to hang on and keep watching.
Video now began streaming in live and I could see smoke billowing up from one of the towers, it’s upper floors shrouded in it, reminding me of the way that the 28000ft Kanchenjunga had looked when as little boy, I once stared up at it from a distance. Beside the stricken tower stood the other WTC tower, tall and firm, like it was reassuring it’s stricken neighbour, “Hang in there, bro. Must be some ars—le who doesn’t know how to drive a f—in’ plane.”
I suddenly realized that my colleague could be waiting for me out by the Tilak Road/Swargate crossing. I called him on his mobile.
“Anoop, it’s me, I may be late by 10-15 minutes…” I said.
“Shit! Why couldn’t you call me before I came down into this f—in’ hellhole?” Anoop had a right to be pissed off. In India, standing around the curb-side can be hazardous to your health, so horrendous is the pollution belching traffic. This is no ordinary exhaust smoke, this is Zyklon-B. But most ordinary Indians are conditioned to the daily gas onslaught. I bet an Indian would have traipsed out of one of those Auschwitz gas chambers not only alive but trilling,’ tennis anyone?’
Across most of the eastern United States, Tuesday September 11, 2001, had dawned as a clear day, with blue skies stretching as far as the eyes could see, as millions of Americans got ready to go to work. Some took the metro to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, while others joined the freeway to reach office at that five-cornered building in Arlington, Virginia, the airspace over which is restricted for 1000 sq miles all around. It is known as The Pentagon. Across the Potomac in Washington, janitors had just finished readying the hall of the United States Congress for the morning’s session. Yet others, wide-eyed tourists, stood in line waiting for the gates of the White House to open for the first tour of the day.
A thousand miles to the south, in Sarasota, Florida, the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush, was on the last leg of his morning jog. He was a very fit guy and while he appeared to breeze through his run, his Secret Service detail huffed and puffed to keep up with him. From time to time, he paused to allow them to catch their breaths. The President was well known among the agents as a warm, down-to-earth and considerate man, though his demeanor appeared a bit contrived after a while. Even so, it was better to have a friendly President than a grumpy one, like Jimmy Carter and Nixon. If only George W wouldn’t insist on wearing them down so early in the day, with that fitness mania of his.
In another hour, the President had showered and tucked in a filling breakfast of one toast spread over with peanut butter and honey and a burger (medium rare), on a bun with lettuce and tomato on the side. It would take him through most of the day.
Afterward, his motorcade drove him rapidly to the Emma E.Booker Elementary School, where he was scheduled to attend a reading of The Pet Goat by the second-graders. Accompanying him were Senior Advisor, Karl Rove and his Chief of Staff, Andrew Card. As ABC’s Peter Jennings put it, ‘Rarely had there been a starker superimposition of evil over innocence, than on that morning.’
During the course of the next two hours, those seven-year olds might not have comprehended what Islamic terrorism meant, but they knew when an adult’s face was telling them something was wrong. They were struck by the devastating change in the President’s facial expression when Andrew Card stooped and conveyed to him the news of the second hit, whispering into his ear, “Sir, America is under attack.”
Seeing the President’s face, 7-year old Lazaro Dubrocq’s heart had started racing. He immediately assumed they were all in trouble, with no less than the Commander in Chief, but he didn’t know why. Now 22, Dubrocq reminisces, “In a heartbeat, he leaned back and he looked flabbergasted, shocked and horrified. I was baffled. I mean, did we read something wrong? Was he mad at us?”
Similar fears ran through Dubrocq’s class-mate, Mariah Williams’ head. Years later, interviewed as a late-teen, she recalled, “I don’t remember the story we were reading — was it about pigs? But I’ll always remember watching his face turn red. He got really serious all of a sudden. But I was clueless. I was just glad he didn’t get up and leave, because then I would have been more scared and confused.”
After Card stepped back, the President leaned forward again and continued listening to the kids reading from the book by turns, a faint smile, as if painted, on his otherwise tense face.
1400 miles to the north, at a Starbucks inside Boston’s Logan International Airport, two men sat impassively facing each other, not a word passing between them, as they waited for the departure call for American Airlines Flight 11, Boston to Los Angeles non-stop. They were 33-year old civil engineer, Mohammad Atta from Khafr el Sheikh, Egypt, and 36-year old Abdul Aziz Al Omari, graduate in Islamic Studies from the Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University and native of Asir, an arid impoverished province in South-western Saudi Arabia, bordering Yemen. While Atta was single, Omari had a 3-year old daughter and a wife back home who had no clue as to where he was or what he was about to do.
“Boss? Are you there?” I was gaping at the TV screen and didn’t hear Anoop trying to draw my attention over the phone. He waited another few seconds and hung up. Cellphone minutes used to cost the earth in those days. My phone was free, provided by the company but his was his personal phone.
“Yes, I…Oh my God. Anoop, listen…..Anoop? Are you there?” I realized he had hung up.
The reason for my suddenly invoking the name of the Almighty was a dark grey shape that had streaked across the live TV screen like a flash and slammed into the other tower of the WTC, at an angle. I watched open-mouthed as the plane’s fuel tanks ignited on impact and flames leapt out of the other side of the tower. The aircraft would later be identified as United Airlines Flight 175, a Boeing 767 similar to the American Airlines Flight 11.
For years after, conspiracy theorists would argue that even after the impact and destruction, the plane’s Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), had continued receiving messages, which they claim proved that the aircraft that hit the WTC was not the United 175 at all. The ACARS is a device used to send messages to and from an aircraft. Similar to cell phone networks, the ACARS network has remote ground stations installed around the world, to route messages between Air Traffic Control, an aircraft and the airline.
If this had all been planned in advance by ‘shadowy figures in the American and Israeli establishment’, as most conspiracy theorists claim, then the culprits would have had to be imbeciles not to have thought of the ACARS system. This immediately brings to mind the assorted pings that searchers claim that their sensors received on their sonar scopes when they were looking for Malaysian MH370. Albeit the casualties were less but no one is going overboard with conspiracy theories on that one.
When the second plane hit, the camera crews were ready and they zoomed in. Of all the videos that I watched over the next two days, that first CNN video had been the clearest. It revealed the belly of the jet quite clearly. The plane had appeared dark grey and devoid of any markings whatsoever – another point that conspiracy theorists have tried to make – how come there were no markings on the plane?
I did some viewing of the second hit, on YouTube. The really clear videos showed only the underbelly of the aircraft and passenger aircraft have only very tiny markings on their underbelly, no large ones that could have been distinguished on a shot taken from a distance, however fine the resolution might be.
The point of impact on the side of the WTC was this neat airplane shaped hole on the side of the tower that looked to me a bit like that movie ‘Who framed Roger Rabbit’, where the Roger Rabbit suddenly vamooses right through the wall, leaving a neat rabbit-shaped hole.
I called Anoop once more. “Hey, listen, did we tell the gear line guys that we were coming this morning?”
“So they aren’t expecting us, right?”
“You’ve got to see this. Catch an auto and come on over, like right now.”
“What’s going on?”
“Two planes just crashed into both World Trade Centers in New York.”
“Oh my God, what happened?”
“I don’t know yet but I have a pretty good idea. CNN says they had been hijacked.”
“Okay, hang on, I’m coming.”
For Anoop and me, the day went by, both of us sprawled out in front of the TV, with peanut masala and beer and biryani delivered from the nearby Blue Nile. By the time Osama Bin Laden’s name was being thrown around we were sozzled. We rounded off the day with ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ at the Alka Talkies.
We should have been mourning, but then one man’s catastrophe is another’s entertainment.