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Sept. 11: One year after

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Globe and Boston.com coverage from September 11, 2001

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Farther from Sept. 11 horror, a refined view of how the plot unfolded

By Calvin Woodward, Associated Press

WASHINGTON The weapons were crude, the plot staggering in its conceit. Bring down buildings, kill, shake America to its core.

A year later the what-ifs -- the myriad ways disaster might have been averted if only certain things had happened years ago, weeks earlier, minutes before -- hang out there still, like the trails of smoke that took months to vanish from the fallen giants of New York.

Nagging questions remain about how the terror attacks unfolded over two hours and a few minutes in four airplanes on a bright blue morning. About how 19 terrorists could turn the skies so dark in airliners that ripped straight into one skyscraper, angled crazily into another, punched into a fortress and came down in a field.

Even now, U.S. officials don't know whether Osama bin Laden dispatched his terrorists or just sat back with a measure of foreknowledge and much anticipation, his ear glued to the radio. They don't know if he's dead or alive, either.

No one knows what the terrorists knew. Some, it is believed, did not know the details of their mission even as they pulled it off. U.S. officials think some did not realize they would die that day.

Yet a year of investigation has filled in more of the puzzle.

It is thought with more conviction that the plane that hit the Pentagon was meant to all along. Early theories that those hijackers might have been target-shopping, perhaps headed at first for the Capitol, are discounted.

Authorities also believe the White House was the intended target of Flight 93, the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.

In New York, the takeout of the World Trade Center spoke for itself.

Early suppositions about the significance of Sept. 11 have fallen away. There was no particular or symbolic reason for moving on that day, authorities now think. As far as the hijackers were concerned, it was just another day to enter paradise.

The what-ifs? They go on and on:

--What if lead hijacker Mohamed Atta and the accomplice traveling with him had missed their flight, as they almost did?

--What if the traffic violations that brought three of the four suspected hijacking pilots to the attention of the law had revealed something more sinister?

--What if FBI headquarters had paid more attention to warning signs from its agents?

--What if United Flight 93 in Newark, N.J., already running 40 minutes late and still on the tarmac when the first hijacking was reported, had been delayed even longer? Soon after, no airliners were allowed to take off.

Most what-ifs will never be answered beyond a doubt. Congressional inquiries and history's need to know seek answers to the most profound -- what if the government had been better prepared, had systematically gone after al-Qaida in the months or years before, had somehow been less innocent?


The hijackers came to the United States with valid papers, most a few months before the attacks. For the most part, they learned or polished their flying skills and did little more than they had to do. They were focused.

On the eve of attacks that killed more than 3,000 people, some of the terrorists ran humdrum errands and stayed in no-frills quarters. Others had prostitutes come to their splendid hotel rooms.

Atta and his companion Abdulaziz Alomari spent their last night in a plain motel off the highway in Portland, Maine, going to Wal-Mart, making bank-machine transactions. Officials postulated the pair stayed 100 miles from eight other terrorists in Boston because they would all draw less attention if split up.

At 5:45 a.m. Sept. 11, the two men passed through a checkpoint at Portland airport and just made their connecting flight to Boston. In Boston, they barely made it on to Flight 11. Atta's luggage, containing his will and more papers about his coming death, was left behind.

Five hijackers sat in first-class or business-class seats of American Airlines Flight 11, a wide-bodied 767 bound for Los Angeles. Also on the tarmac in Boston, was United Air Lines Flight 175, with five hijackers among the 65 passengers and flight crew.

Flight 11 took off at 8 a.m. with 92 people aboard. Flight 175 followed 14 minutes later.

In Virginia, American Flight 77, carrying 64 people, departed Washington Dulles International Airport at 8:21 a.m. en route to Los Angeles. Five hijackers were aboard. These were the last moments before officials were wide-eyed awake to trouble in the skies.

"We have some planes," a voice was heard saying from Flight 11 at 8:24 a.m. "Just stay quiet and you will be OK. We are returning to the airport."

Already air traffic controllers had been trying to raise the pilot, Capt. John Ogonowski, a father of three and part-time farmer who had just turned 52. But the voices they finally heard were different. "If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane," the transmission went on. "Just stay quiet."

At 8:25 a.m., the Boston control center told other centers that a hijacking was going on.

Still on the ground, having one of those infernally frequent delays, was Flight 93 in Newark.

It had been scheduled to take off at 8:01 a.m. It sat there, lightly booked for its San Francisco flight with 44 people aboard, including four terrorists. It got aloft at 8:41 a.m., about five minutes before the first plane, Flight 11, crashed into the World Trade Center.

Overwhelmed on Flight 11, Ogonowski intermittently hit the talk button so ground controllers could eavesdrop on the hijackers. Flight attendants Madeline Amy Sweeney and Betty Ong made contact with ground personnel and described the unfolding terror, even the terrorists' seat numbers.

Flight 11 came racing along the Manhattan skyline, about 47 minutes after takeoff. Authorities watched the blip on their screen reach the city, stop, vanish.

"Anybody know what that smoke is in Lower Manhattan?" someone asked in an exchange between Northeast airliners and the ground.

Flight 175 was probably the first to hear that something was amiss with the American Airlines jet.

"We heard a suspicious transmission on our departure," the pilot said. "Sounds like someone keyed the mike and said everybody stay in your seats."

Within minutes, his plane, too, was overrun.

Hijackers used box cutters to take over the cockpits.

A flight attendant reached United's maintenance center in San Francisco and said the crew and another attendant were dead. Passenger Peter Hanson, flying with his wife and young daughter, called his parents.

Theirs were rare voices from the flight that dashed, with shocking certainty, the thought that the first hit on the trade center might have been an accident. America was under attack.

When the United airliner plunged into the south tower, about 48 minutes after leaving Boston, two F-15 fighter jets from Massachusetts were screaming toward it. They were eight minutes or 71 miles away at the time of impact. But President Bush had not yet authorized the shooting down of threatening civilian planes.

American Flight 77 took off from Washington as chaos was breaking elsewhere. It was up for about 78 minutes. The first half hour was apparently normal. Close to the Ohio-Kentucky line, it turned around.

Barbara Olson, a lawyer and TV commentator, twice called her husband, U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, and told him of the hijacking.

At 9:24 a.m, a little more than an hour after the plane took off, the North American Aerospace Command was told by aviation authorities that Flight 77, too, had been seized.

Three F-16s armed and ready at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., roared aloft six minutes later on a mission to protect Washington. They were 12 minutes or 105 miles away when the jetliner came in low, hard and straight into the Pentagon.

United and American, then all airlines under a federal order, worked furiously to clear the U.S. airspace.

Military planes now were authorized to shoot down any threatening airliners and were told to safeguard the White House no matter what.

As if the real danger was not enough, there were false alarms. Even as Pentagon survivors scrambled to safety, the barked-out warning of another incoming plane made everyone scatter, just one more rumor piled on a day of wicked fact.

Only Flight 93 was left -- the one with the storied "let's roll" plan.

The passengers, in their heartbreaking phone calls to the ground, not only told what was happening but learned what had gone on elsewhere. The flight crew received word of other hijackings and a warning to guard against cockpit intrusion.

Still the cockpit was breached and, just south of Cleveland, Flight 93 swung back east.

"I know we're all going to die," passenger Thomas Burnett told his wife, Deena, on the ground, she recalled. "There's three of us who are going to do something about it."

One theory held by officials and conveyed to family members was that the passengers might have battered into the cockpit with a food cart. Cockpit transmissions, still sealed as evidence but played for the families, revealed shouts, commotion, an apparent struggle.

After about 80 minutes in the air, Flight 93 plunged into a western Pennsylvania field with no survivors, but the White House and the rest of Washington were safe.

The jets from Langley and others over Washington were dedicated to protecting the capital. Had the airliner made it closer to the city, those fighters would have been after it.

What if Flight 93 had left on time, 40 minutes earlier?

Washington would have been less prepared for attack. The passengers could not have known the fate of the other hijacked planes and might not have revolted.

That what-if came down in America's favor on a day when the rest were resolved with destruction and death.

Today's news:
Ceremony at Ground Zero
Mass. remembers victims
Silence, tears mark day at Logan
Under alert, Mass. carries on
Bush faces day with resolve
World remembers attacks in US
Memorial in Shanksville, Pa.
Updated wire coverage

Photo galleries:
Families mourn, remember
Ceremony at Ground Zero
Ceremony at the Pentagon
Ceremony at Pa. crash scene
Remembrances worldwide
Remembrances in Boston

NECN RealVideo:
Moment of silence observed
Ceremony at State House
Gettysburg Address read
Procession at Ground Zero
A somber travel day at Logan
Images of Sept. 11, 2001



Preparing for the worst
Security has become the new norm in Greater Boston.


Fear and children
Children's responses may shed light on human anxiety, resiliency.


Muslim minds
The US effort to win over Muslim hearts and minds is failing.


Science vs. terrorism
New chemical, biological threats spur nation's top minds.


For those deported after Sept. 11, the losses are wrenching.


A special Magazine issue
A Sept. 11 narrative by former Massport chief Virginia Buckingham, plus an essay by Christopher Hitchens.

A special Arts section
How culture has changed since Sept. 11, including a gallery of art inspired by the attacks.

A special Focus section
A look at how the lives of six Americans were altered.

Everywhere USA
Terrorism comes to God's country.


Where is Al Qaeda?
How have bin Laden and his terrorist group eluded US forces?


Two cities
New York and DC one year later.


America remembers
The US looks back at the terrorist attacks.

Victims and survivors
A year later, still hurting.

A time for bells and remembrance
A clash of views on terror
Limited damage to the economy
Families build support system
NYC's healing process
Finding comfort in the kitchen
Bailey: A day of atonement

From the Associated Press:
Tribute paid with tattoos
Charities changed by 9/11
White House calls home
9/11 stole innocence, love
Man escaped earthquake, 9/11
Update on 9/11's famous faces
Firemen still burying dead
A mother's note to a lost son
9/11 created heroes in death
Voice mails bring comfort
Little things hold memories
87th floor survivor copes
Sampling of 9/11 memorials
Pentagon survivors move on
Moments of silence on Sept. 11
Survivors try to move forward
Families cling to chances
Sept. 11 widow trying to forgive
Widow becomes an advocate
Workplace response varies
Graphic: Funds offer relief

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