Twelve years ago, on September 11, 2001, two hijacked jets rammed into the World Trade Center in New York City, toppling both towers in a fiery explosion of smoke, ash, and glass, while a third hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon in Virginia.
The worst terrorist attacks in American history were coordinated. All the airplanes were filled with fuel en route to California, and their departures were spaced within an hour and 40 minutes.
American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 from Boston bound for Los Angeles, plowed into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. Sixteen minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the south tower.
American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757, left Washington's Dulles International Airport and hit the western side of the Pentagon, the U.S. military headquarters, at 9:37 a.m. United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 flying from Newark to San Francisco, crashed near Pittsburgh.
The south tower of the World Trade Center completely collapsed at 10:05 a.m., and the north tower crumbled at 10:28 a.m. The Federal Aviation Administration shut down all air traffic in the United States.
Within an hour, the United States was on a war footing. The military was put on the highest state of alert, National Guard units were called out in New York and Washington, and two aircraft carriers were dispatched to New York harbor.
The White House, the Pentagon, the CIA and the Capitol were evacuated, except for the Situation Room in the White House, where Vice President Dick Cheney took charge. President George W. Bush remained aloft in Air Force One, following a secret route before landing at 7 p.m. in Washington.
Bush vowed the United States would “hunt down and punish” those responsible for the "evil, despicable acts of terror.” "These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat, but they have failed," he stated in a speech from the Oval Office at 8:30 p.m.
"The search is under way for those who are behind these evil acts. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks. But their sophistication and scale led many experts to point to Osama bin Laden, the radical Islamic leader of al Qaeda, a terrorist network operating out of Afghanistan.
In New York, the day of terror achieved a level of destruction known only in war. The financial capital of the world, the nation’s largest city, was virtually closed down. Transportation into Manhattan was halted, parts of downtown were without power, all stock exchanges were closed, and primary elections for city offices were canceled.
Millions of workers, released from their offices, set off on foot in streams down the avenues and across bridges under a crystal clear blue sky, surrounded by the wail of sirens. Thousands of New Yorkers lined up outside hospitals to donate blood.
"I have a sense it's a horrendous number of lives lost," said NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. "Right now, we have to focus on saving as many lives as possible."
More than 400 rescue workers, including 343 firefighters and 60 NYC police officers, died. Today, their names are emblazoned on plaques in firehouses, police stations, and in memorials throughout the city.
On the 12th anniversary of 9/11 in 2013, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and their wives paused in silence outside the White House to remember the victims. The Justice Department also held a moment of silence.
In southwestern Pennsylvania, where United Flight 93 crashed into a field near Shanksville, a bell tolled after the name of each of the passengers and crew members was read. Another moment of silence was held in New York at 9:03 a.m., when the second jetliner crashed into the World Trade Center's south tower.
And at the Pentagon, where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed, Obama laid a wreath and spoke at a private observance for family members of the 184 people who died there. "Our hearts still ache,” he said, “for the futures snatched away.”