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At 5 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 2001, Adoul-Karim Traore got out of bed at his home in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, dressed and headed out to his first job of the day, delivering USA Today newspapers.
When he was finished with the newspapers, Traore took the subway to the World Trade Center and went up to the Windows on the World restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower. He began his 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift as a chef at the landmark eatery.
Traore, 41 and a father of three, got the job at Windows of the World after coming to New York from Ivory Coast with his wife, Hadidjatou, in 1992. He was working at the restaurant in 1993, when the explosion of a terrorist bomb in the underground parking garage killed six people.
As Traore was arriving at his restaurant job on the morning of September 11, Stephen Siller was finishing his shift at FDNY’s Park Slope firehouse in Brooklyn.
The 34-year-old firefighter, who lived on Staten Island, was looking forward to spending the afternoon playing golf with his brothers. The weather was perfect on this late summer day. The sky was a crisp blue, the temperature was in the mid-70s and there was no humidity.
Siller was the youngest of seven children. By the time he was 10, both of his parents had died. He was raised by his brothers and sisters. Siller and his wife, Sally, had five children of their own.
At 7 a.m., as Traore began his cooking chores and Siller was loading his gear into the back of his pickup truck, Mohamed Atta arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport on a small commuter flight from Portland, ME. Carrying only a shoulder bag, he slowly walked to the gate for American Airlines Flight 11, bound for Los Angeles.
Atta, 33, was born in a small town in Egypt’s Nile Delta. He studied architecture at Cairo University, graduating in 1990, and went on to take engineering courses at the Technical University of Hamburg in Germany. While he was in Hamburg, he met Marwan al-Shehhi, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Ziad Jarrah. The three men convinced Atta to travel with them to Afghanistan, where in early 2000 he was introduced to Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden also had an interest in architecture and engineering, which he studied in London before joining his father’s construction company in Saudi Arabia. He knew how a skyscraper was put together and he knew how it could be taken apart. Bin Laden said he wanted Atta to learn an additional skill: how to fly a passenger jet. He said he had a special mission for Atta and his friends from Hamburg.
In November 2000, Atta graduated from the Accelerated Pilot Program at Huffman Aviation School in South Florida. He had obtained his instrument ratings and trained on simulators. Later, his instructors recalled he was keen to learn how to maneuver an aircraft, but not particularly interested in takeoffs or landings.
In 2001, there were about two dozen Muslims employed by Windows of the World as waiters, chefs, banquet managers and kitchen help. When it was time to pray during work hours, the men usually did not have a long enough break to make their way to a Muslim prayer room that had been set up on the 17th floor of the South Tower.
Instead, the restaurant workers placed a tablecloth on a concrete landing in the stairwell between the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower. They flattened cardboard boxes from food deliveries and used them as prayer mats.
In August 2001, Mohamed Atta sat in front of a computer in the William Paterson University Library in Wayne, NJ. He purchased several one-way tickets on American Airlines’ Boston to Los Angeles flight, and seats on a commuter flight to Boston from Portland, all for September 11. He picked a Tuesday morning because the cross-country flight normally would not be full of passengers on that day. He knew he would bring no baggage to check. He also knew his carry-on shoulder bag would not be scrutinized at Portland’s small airport.
At 7:35 a.m. on September 11, 2001, Atta took his seat on Flight 11. There were 92 people onboard the Boeing 767 and 15,000 gallons of jet fuel in its wings, more than enough for the scheduled flight to Los Angeles.
Atta rose from his seat shortly after takeoff. He and his co-conspirators overpowered the American Airlines crew by attacking them with box cutters Atta had hidden in his shoulder bag. At 8:19 a.m., flight attendant Betty Ong contacted American Airlines from Flight 11 via an airphone. “The cockpit is not answering, somebody’s stabbed in business class—and I think there’s Mace—that we can’t breathe—I don’t know, I think we’re getting hijacked,” she said. Then she told them two flight attendants had been stabbed.
When Atta stepped into the cockpit and sat down in the pilot’s chair, the Egyptian remembered what Osama bin Laden said to him sitting next to a campfire in the Afghan hills.
Their goal was not simply to kill infidels, bin Laden explained. They would do much more than that. Their goal was to convince the Western powers that modern civilization, based on multi-cultural humanism, was doomed. They would prove that the bonds that had developed between people of different origins and religions in these countries were false and illusory. Their goal was to crush the American vision of a world united in freedom and replace it with a malevolent order that imposed its will on everyone without mercy or exception.
At 8:24 a.m., Atta pushed a button on the 767’s control panel. He believed it would let him talk to the passengers. Instead, he sent a radio transmission from Flight 11 which was overheard by air traffic controllers in Boston. “We have some planes,” Atta said. “Just stay quiet, and you’ll be okay. We are returning to the airport.” A few seconds later, Atta’s voice said, “Nobody move. Everything will be OK. If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.”
Looking at the control panel from the pilot’s seat, Atta remembered what he was taught in Florida. He executed a 100-degree turn to the south and put Flight 11 on a course heading toward New York City.
At 8:44 a.m., flight attendant Amy Sweeney called the American Airlines Flight Services Office in Dallas from an airphone onboard Flight 11. “Something is wrong. We are in a rapid descent,” she said. “We are all over the place.” A minute later, she was asked to describe what she saw out the window. She responded, “I see the water. I see the buildings. I see buildings…” After a short pause, she reported, “We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low.” Seconds later she said, “Oh my God, we are way too low.”
While Sweeney was making her call, the Northeast Air Defense Sector of NORAD was notified by air traffic controllers in Boston that Flight 11 had been hijacked. NORAD scrambled two F-15 fighter jets from Otis Air National Guard Base in Cape Cod and ordered them to intercept Flight 11. But because Atta had turned off Flight 11’s transponder, the pilots did not know the location of their target.
Atta eased Flight 11 down the Hudson River, lowering its altitude to about 1,000 feet, skimming the airspace over the rooftops of office buildings in Lower Manhattan. There was no turbulence on this bright summer morning, the surface of the river looked smooth as glass. Atta could see New Yorkers driving in their cars, walking on the sidewalks. Many of them were looking up at him, wondering why the large airplane was flying so low.
As the jet approached the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Atta pulled on the throttle and brought the Boeing 767 up to its maximum speed, 500 m.p.h.. He leveled the wings and aimed Flight 11 for the middle of the tower, a few floors below the top of the building.
At 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, between the 93rd and 98th floors. The aircraft entered the tower mostly intact, plowing into the building core and slicing through all three gypsum-encased stairwells. Then it exploded with the force of 480,000 pounds of TNT, sending a powerful shock wave down to the ground and up again.
As Stephen Siller was driving to the golf course in Staten Island, the scanner mounted on the dash of his pickup truck barked out the news that a passenger jet had crashed into the World Trade Center. Siller turned the truck around and headed for the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.
When he arrived at the tunnel, Siller saw that it had been sealed off by the city. The scanner reported that another aircraft had crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in what was now believed to be a terrorist attack.
Siller pulled over at the tunnel entrance. He got out of the truck and put on his fire gear, which weighed about 65 pounds. Then he jumped up onto a catwalk in the narrow, white-tiled tunnel and sprinted through its entire length to Manhattan, more than a mile. Siller was last seen at West and Liberty streets, across the street from the Twin Towers.
As Stephen Siller ran through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, Hadidjatou called Adoul-Karim Traore on her cell phone. She called him ten times. She could not get a connection.
We know the terrorists succeeded in destroying the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. We know they succeeded in crashing a passenger jet into the Pentagon and were forced by patriots to crash another in a field in Shanksville, PA, before it could reach the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington. We know the terrorists succeeded in killing thousands of people.
We will never forget the horror that descended upon us ten years ago on a bright Tuesday morning.
But we also know the terrorists will never achieve their goal.
We know this because at 10:28 a.m. on September 11, 2001, as the North Tower of the World Trade Center began to crumble, we can see Adoul-Karim Traore in the 106th floor stairwell praying for salvation. And we can see Stephen Siller racing up the steps of the same stairwell, trying to save him.