Eyewitness Accounts of the Attacks
On September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston’s Logan International Airport struck the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. United Airlines Flight 175, also from Boston, crashed into the south tower at 9:03 a.m. Less than 35 minutes later, American Airlines Flight 77 from Washington Dulles crashed into the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked plane, United Flight 93 from Newark, crashed southeast of Pittsburgh at 10:02 after passengers, hearing of the previous terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, fought with hijackers; the plane crashed in a field about 20 minutes flying time from Washington, D.C., where the hijackers had planned to fly into another symbol of the United States, either the Capitol or White House.
The attack on the World Trade Center is vividly etched in the minds of eyewitnesses. Lakshman Achutan, an economist, was attending a meeting on the ground floor of the north tower when it was attacked. He described the initial impact, his escape, and his view of the second plane as it approached the south tower in an interview conducted on October 31. On her way to work in Greenwich Village, Kristin Vogel saw the first tower collapse, one of the events she tearfully recounted in her interview.
Carol Paukner, a New York Transit Police Officer, was stationed one block away from the World Trade Center in the subway system when she received a call about “unknown conditions.” She described in an interview the scene as she emerged from the subway, her efforts to assist victims, and the aftermath of the second plane’s impact with the south tower. College student Denise Weiss was evacuated from her school near the World Trade Center and saw the north tower in flames and an airliner slam into the south tower.
Terry Benczik witnessed the burning towers of the World Trade Center from a train nearing Newark Penn Station.
The train was nearing Newark Penn Station, where I would then switch to a PATH train that would take me inside the World Trade Center. All of a sudden, I heard a sound that I had never heard human voices make before. The noises were a mix of surprise, revulsion and something else I still cannot name. Did the train car strike an animal? A person? People on the train were looking out the window and making the strangest noises. There weren't words spoken, just a rush of air being taken in and finally lots of "noooooooooo!"
I realize now that they had seen an airplane hit Tower Two of the World Trade Center. We went to the window and saw both towers on fire.
“I work there.” I explained. I had tears in my eyes. My stomach was tight. “My friends are inside there. I've worked there about 12 years. My friends are there.”
We had no idea what was happening. I was remembering how awful the bombing in 1993 was. Back then I was in the mail concourse, a few feet away from the glass entrance into Building One. About 70 feet away from me the bomb had blown out the wall and filled the air with thick dust as it shook the ground. Six people died that day. Looking at the towers, seeing the flames from across the Hudson River, I knew this was much worse than 1993 had ever been. The site [sic] of all the smoke and flame filling the air made me shudder for those inside. I had no idea if everyone I worked with was gone or not. I kept hoping that like me, everyone was inexplicably late for work. . . .
In the train station Mathangi and I sat near the platform. People drifted up to us in a state of semi-shock. Most of them said, “I work in the Trade Center but today I was late.” We asked several of them to sit on the bench with us. I felt it was important to tell one woman that she was safe and had to sit with us. She just looked so lost. Mathangi lent me her cell phone. I called my mother and I had never heard such hysteria in Mom’s voice. “I’m okay, Mom. I’m okay. Tell Sis. Let her know. I’ll be home soon as I can. I love you.” Mathangi passed her cell phone around to perfect strangers on the platform. People were saying the same things to the people they loved.
Excerpted from “Narrative by Terry Benczik”
Listen to portions of two or more of the audio interviews cited above, focusing on the parts that provide eyewitness accounts of the attacks and of events in New York City in the days that followed the attacks.
- What events does each of the eyewitnesses recount? How are their accounts different? How are they similar?
- What role did technology play in how the eyewitnesses experienced the events of September 11? In what ways, if any, did technology help people? In what ways, if any, did technology fail to help people?
- What emotional responses do the eyewitnesses describe? Which emotions seemed to be the most commonly experienced immediately after the attacks? Which were most common days or weeks after the events?
- How do the eyewitness accounts add to your understanding of what you previously knew about the events of September 11, whether from seeing the events on television, reading about them, or learning about them in school? Describe what you believe to be the unique value of eyewitness accounts of major historical events.
- What do these accounts reveal about the values of the individuals describing the events of the morning of September 11? How might these values affect the way in which they recall the events? What other factors might affect their recollection of the events?
American Airlines Flight 77 from Washington-Dulles International Airport crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. William Lagasse, Chadwick Brooks, and Donald Brennan were Pentagon police officers on duty at the time of the attack. Lagasse was in the process of refueling his police car when the American Airliner flew past him so low that its wind blast knocked him into his vehicle. In an interview conducted in December 2001 , Lagasse described the secondary explosions and the search and recovery of injured Pentagon personnel. Brooks saw the hijacked plane clip lampposts and nosedive into the Pentagon and described the ensuing scenes of chaos in his interview, taped November 25, 2001.
The third officer, Donald Brennan, described standing in jet fuel amidst
the wreckage and bodies of the deceased. In his interview
on November 18, 2001, he told of how he attempted to rescue people in
a section of the Pentagon before it collapsed.
Search the collection using the search term Pentagon police for additional eyewitness accounts of the crash and rescue efforts.
- What was the scene at the Pentagon as described by the eyewitnesses?
- What similarities do you find between these eyewitness accounts and descriptions of the situation in New York? How similar are the descriptions of psychological effects of the attacks? Do you think police officers faced more serious psychological effects than civilians? Why or why not?
- What did the police officers have to say about heroism and unity in the wake of the attack on the Pentagon? Were you surprised by any of their comments? If so, why?
- What relationship did the interviewer have to the police officers? Do you think this relationship might be significant in terms of analyzing the stories shared with her? Why or why not?