Ten Years Later: The September 11 Attacks
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American Airlines Flight 11

American Airlines Flight 11 was a Boeing 767-223ER that was the first aircraft to crash into the North Tower of the World Trade Center complex in New York City on September 11, 2001. The pilot of the aircraft was John Ogonowski, a 52-year-old Vietnam veteran from Massachusetts, and its First Officer was Thomas McGuinness. Flight 11 departed from Boston's Logan International Airport nearly 14 minutes late, at 7:59 a.m., bound for Los Angeles International Airport. It carried slightly more than half its capacity of 181—81 passengers and a crew of 11—and had a full load of 23,980 gallons of aviation fuel at takeoff, which was routine.

The leader of the terrorist team, and its designated pilot on board Flight 11, was Mohamed Atta. Atta and other members of the hijack team—Satam al-Suqami, Waleed al-Shehri, Wail al-Shehri, and Abdul Aziz al-Omari—had bought first-class seats, which research conducted on other flights convinced them gave them the best opportunity to seize the cockpit and gain control of the aircraft. Two of the hijackers sat near the cockpit and two near the passenger section. Atta sat in 8D from whence he could command both teams.

The hijackers had little trouble passing through checkpoint security. American Airlines' security checkpoints at Logan International Airport were operated by a private company, Globe Security, which operated these checkpoints under a contract with American Airlines. Because American Airlines' desire was for passengers to be harassed at checkpoints as little as possible, the hijackers had no difficulty in passing through the checkpoints carrying box cutters and mace.

Instructions had been given by Al Qaeda trainers to the hijackers to seize the aircraft by force within 15 minutes of takeoff. Around 8:14, they did so, killing two attendants and a passenger, Daniel Lewin, immediately. Lewin, formerly an officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit of the Israeli military, was seen as a threat. The hijackers, who had apparently identified him as a potential air marshal, killed him as soon as possible. To allay suspicions, the hijackers lulled the passengers and crew into a false sense of hope by giving the impression that the plane would land safely and that the passengers would be used as hostages, a successful tactic of hijackers in the past.

Air traffic controllers received information from the cockpit via Ogonowski's radio, over which they heard a conversation between the pilot and a hijacker in the cockpit that made it evident that a hijacking was in progress. More ominously, they also learned from a hijacker's comment about plans to seize control of other aircraft. This information was the first indication of a plot to hijack numerous aircraft in flight.

The first concrete information about the hijacking came from Betty Ong, a flight attendant on Fight 11, who contacted the American Airlines Flight Center in Fort Worth, Texas, and related that two flight attendants had been stabbed and that another was on oxygen. A passenger, she said, had been killed, and the hijackers had gained access to the cockpit, using some type of mace-like spray to neutralize the crew.

Once the hijackers gained control of the aircraft, they took precautions to control the passengers, securing the first class section by intimidation, mace and pepper spray, and threats to detonate a bomb. The rest of the passengers, in coach, were led to believe a medical emergency had occurred in the first class section. The hijackers also told the passengers that the aircraft was returning to the airport. Another attendant, Madeleine Sweeney, contacted authorities and confirmed Ong's earlier message to the American Flight Services Office in Boston. She reestablished communication and was in fact on the line when the aircraft approached the North Tower of the World Trade Center. By the time the passengers realized what was happening, it was too late to do anything. Many hurriedly called their loved ones and said goodbye either by talking with them or by leaving messages.

The aircraft crashed at about 378 miles per hour between the 94th and 98th floors of the North Tower. The crew, passengers, and hijackers all died instantly from the force of the explosion and the fire that accompanied it. The force of the explosion alone shattered the aluminum wings and fuselage of the aircraft into pieces the size of a human fist.

The impact of the crash and the prolonged burning of aviation fuel weakened the structure of the North Tower, trapping those people above the 98th floor, who had no chance of escape. Those threatened by fire and smoke began to jump from the building. The North Tower collapsed on itself shortly after the South Tower fell.

Stephen E. Atkins


Further Reading
Aust, Stefan, et al. Inside 9/11: What Really Happened. New York: St. Martin's, 2001; Bernstein, Richard. Out of the Blue: The Story of September 11, 2001, from Jihad to Ground Zero. New York: Times Books, 2002; Craig, Olga. "At 8:46 AM, the World Changed in a Moment." Sunday Telegraph [London], September 16, 2001, 14; 9/11 Commission. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. New York: Norton, 2004; Trento, Susan B., and Joseph J. Trento. Unsafe at Any Altitude: Failed Terrorism Investigations, Scapegoating 9/11, and the Shocking Truth about Aviation Security Today. Hanover, NH: Steerforth, 2006; McKean, John. Architecture in Detail: Crystal Palace. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1994; The Royal Albert Hall. www.royalalberthall.com; Cameron, Robert and Alistair Cooke. Above London. San Francisco: Cameron and Company, 1986.
 

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