Patriot Files: that day in September | Part One: Shock

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
An expanse of dark blue water rushed beneath the Boeing 767 window a woman's voice trembled through the static of the Airfone in her hands.

"I see water and buildings," she said as the airplane flew over the Hudson River, toward Manhattan, New York. "Oh my God! Oh my God!"

The last words of flight attendant Madeline Amy Sweeney were cut short as American Airlines Flight 11 smashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Sept. 11, 2001, at 8:46 a.m. The 35-year-old mother of two, along with everyone else on board, was killed instantly as the fully-fueled jet erupted into a ball of fire that showered the city in a rain of steel and debris.

Nearly 20 miles away, Manuel Fajardo sat hunched over his desk at Bayonne High School, New Jersey, trying to focus on a psychology test, when another student burst into the room - panic-stricken and out of breath.

"He said an airplane struck the tower," Fajardo said, recalling his initial reaction to the announcement. "I just assumed it may have been a small plane with a novice pilot. I was making - everybody was making speculations."

Confusion and fear began to grip the students, until someone turned on the television and flooded the classroom with images of the devastation happening in Manhattan. Fajardo said questions began circling throughout the room as they watched the North Tower burn and people on the streets run for their lives.

"I'm just about 15 blocks north of the World Trade Center right now on Seventh Avenue," said Kelley Edwards, WCBS 880 Radio Producer, during a report on the emergency response. "Fire trucks are screaming down Seventh Avenue trying to get to this fire. It looks like the fire... is about 10 stories from the top of the building. Flames are shooting out, smoke is pouring out - this gash goes from one side of the building practically all the way to the other."

In addition to the intense flames and suffocating smoke, the impact of Flight 11 severed all three emergency stairwells and trapped nearly 1,400 people who worked above the 91st floor. Helplessly, tenants inside the South Tower watched while friends and coworkers in the opposite building burned alive or perished from smoke inhalation. Minutes later, an announcement from the Port Authority, which echoed throughout the South Tower, assured tenants that their building was secure and there was no need to evacuate.

"A few minutes later, another plane hit the [South] tower," Fajardo said. "And that's when we found out that it was more than likely intentional."

Fajardo paused, as he recalled the moment when United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into floors 77 through 85 of the South Tower - killing hundreds inside the building and everyone on the plane. As he watched the tremendous plume of fire spew forth and shower the street below with molten wreckage, Fajardo said his mind began putting the pieces together.

"At first I didn't really want to speculate," he said. "I thought it was an accident, and it would be an easy cleanup. When I found out it was bigger, I got a little more concerned - and when the news came out and pointed toward terrorists I was getting angrier and angrier, and sad knowing that there may be thousands of people dead."

With all three emergency stairwells of the North Tower severed, evacuation was impossible. Inside the South Tower, the only remaining exit, above the impact zone, was almost completely blocked by debris. As hope faded, some of the trapped tenants did the only thing they could think of to escape - they jumped.

"I literally thought for a moment, 'cause he tried to open the door - and all you could feel was the heat of the fire," Florence Jones, who was one of only 18 people to escape from the upper floors of the South Tower, began. "I was like, 'oh gosh, am I gonna have to jump,' because I wasn't gonna wait for the firemen. Am I gonna have to do what I just saw people doing?"

On the ground, time seemed to stop as people looked up to see roughly 200 tenants plunge to their deaths from the Twin Towers. Trapped and with nowhere to go, they fell like marionettes without strings - as their bodies crashed on the unforgiving streets of Manhattan.

"I saw little specks just falling off the building - I didn't think they were people," Fajardo said. "My first reaction was, 'it couldn't be people,' and then they zoomed in. I saw hands and feet waving as they fell, and knew it was people. I was numb. I couldn't believe it - I was in total shock."

Editor's Note: This story is the first of a four-part series that conveys the memories and emotions of people impacted by the Sept. 11 tragedy. Information from the National September 11 Memorial & Museum was used in this story.