Like many in the Bay Area, Stacy Phillips of Oakley and Nora LaPointe of Walnut Creek rose early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 to get ready for work. Instead, they were confronted with unsettling news: The North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City was on fire.
From New York-based news reporters to U.S. presidential aides, most people monitoring the disaster on live TV initially assumed the disaster involved a freak accident, a small plane had hit the 94-story tower at 8:46 a.m., New York time.
That assumption was shattered 17 minutes later at 9:03 a.m. — or 6:03 a.m. PST. Video, broadcast on TV screens around the world, showed United Airlines Flight 175 rapidly descend over lower Manhattan, then, with unmistakable deliberation, strike the South Tower. That act told the world that hijackers had seized control of commercial airplanes in an unprecedented, game-changing attack on the United States.
“That is when the mind-bending horror kicked in, and I knew life in America would never be the same,” Phillips said.
“We watched from the TV camera’s point of view, when there was suddenly debris and smoke flying from the South Tower,” LaPointe added. “We didn’t see the plane impact — we saw it later from other camera locations — but we both knew an attack was happening before our eyes.”
Twenty years later, 9/11 is seen as the turning point in U.S. life and the “hinge on which all recent American history would turn,” author Garrett M. Graff wrote this week in The Atlantic. After 9/11, the United States launched its War on Terror and its protracted campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, rewrote its global alliances, reconfigured its government and initiated security and surveillance programs that changed our daily lives, Graff wrote.
But whether you were in New York or the Bay Area, 2,900 miles away, the seismic shift was unmistakable. Even the 3-year-old daughter of Concord’s Jennifer Len knew something wasn’t right when she saw the TV footage. As the plane hit the South Tower, she asked her mother, “That’s not supposed to happen, right Mommy?
Bay Area residents, sharing their still-vivid memories of 9/11, explained how they came to understand America’s new reality at around the same time as their commander in chief.
President George W. Bush was visiting a Sarasota, Florida elementary school that morning. Just before he entered the classroom, aides told him that pilot error had probably caused a small plane to strike the North Tower. But at 9:05 a.m., chief of staff Andrew Card rushed into the classroom to whisper in the president’s ear, as he was famously sat in front of the young students: “A second has hit the second tower. America is under attack,” Card recounted to the BBC.
Elizabeth Rosa of Gilroy had a similar feeling. “When the second plane crashed, my thought changed to, this is not an accident. This is an act of war.”
Terror had already descended on the more than 1,300 people immediately trapped in the North Tower after it was hit by the first hijacked plane, later identified as American Airlines Flight 11. Within 10 minutes, debilitating smoke rose to the upper floors and fires broke out, while more than 1,000 first responders rushed to the World Trade Center in what would be the largest rescue operation in New York City’s history.
In the new Netflix documentary, “Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror,” Stephen Kern, a Port Authority executive, said he escaped the North Tower by descending 62 floors but suffered another shock when he learned the South Tower had been hit. “It just felt like the world was falling apart,” he said
Stephanie La Torre, then a Berkeley high school junior, felt some of that shock from a distance while watching the news at home with her father. “Watching the second plane hit made it clear we were under attack,” La Torre said. “It was very scary, a sad day, not knowing how many other targets were planned, how many people hurt. A new reality of our world sunk in for me that day, and I just wanted to be with my family.”
La Torre and other Bay Area residents watched more horrors unfold in quick succession, cementing their sense of a new reality. Some said they gasped when they saw people jump or fall to their deaths from the North Tower.
Ed Johnson of Sunnyvale said he was trying to make sense of events as he watched the news at a northern Virginia hotel near Dulles Airport. A third hijacked plane, American Airlines Flight 77, had departed from Dulles Airport at 8:10 a.m, bound for Los Angeles. At 9:37 a.m., it crashed into the Pentagon, 22 miles away.
Like others, Johnson saw video of the South Tower collapse at 9:59 a.m., killing more than 800 people in and around the building. He then learned about United Airlines Flight 93 crashing near Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m., killing 40 passengers and crew members. It soon emerged that passengers and crew, including a number from the Bay Area, had stormed the cockpit to stop the four hijackers from possibly flying the plane into the White House or the U.S. Capitol. Twenty-five minutes later, the North Tower collapsed, killing 1,600 people in and around the building.
“Shock, sadness and confusion affected us all,” said Johnson, who drove partway across the country to get home after Federal Aviation Administration grounded all flights at 9:42 a.m. “Then the towers collapsed along with some nearby buildings. What else might happen?”