Three hours that shook America: A chronology of chaos
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 provided the news media with one of
the biggest challenges in the history of journalism. Events happened with such
speed and surprise, especially in the early hours, that news organizations were
literally running to cover all the stories that seemed to be breaking minute by
To get a sense of just how frenetic the pace was, we chose seven news operations and tracked their coverage between 8:45 and 11:33 that morning. The selections are not meant to be a complete record of each group's work or to show which got the story. But they do offer a compelling illustration of how news organizations struggled to separate fact from fiction on the morning of Sept. 11.
The seven: CNN; New York's WABC-TV, WCBS-TV and WNBC(TV); and Fox's WTTG(TV) Washington and WTOP(AM)/-FM Washington. The morning's six benchmark events (the four plane crashes and the two World Trade Center tower collapses) are highlighted. The times reflect station videotape time codes and our estimates.
A plane crashes into the north tower of the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York.
8:49 CNN: 'Obviously, a very disturbing live shot of the WTC, and we have unconfirmed reports that a plane has crashed into one of the towers.'
8:52 WTTG: 'We'll go to a live picture from New York City. A plane has crashed into the WTC. We don't know whether this was an accident or some sort of planned incident.'
9:01 WABC (eyewitness via phone): 'It looked like a normal plane going over the city, and then, all of a sudden, a turn to the left, and it slammed right into the WTC.'
A second plane crashes into the WTC's south tower.
9:03 CNN: 'We've got an explosion inside. This would support the probability . that the fuselage was still in the building. That could cause a second explosion such as that. We're getting word that perhaps a second plane was involved, but let's not even speculate on that point, but perhaps that may have happened.'
9:06 CNN: 'Eyewitness says a small plane-it looked like a propeller plane-came in from the west about 20-25 stories from the top and appeared to crash.'
9:07 WABC: 'I don't know if perhaps some type of navigation system or some type of electronics would have put two planes into the WTC within-it looks like-18 minutes of each other.'
9:08 CNN (airing feed from WNYW[TV] New York): 'Some people said they thought they saw a missile, so we might keep open the possibility that this was a missile attack.'
9:10 CNN (Ira Furman, former National Transportation Safety Board spokesman, on phone): 'Absolutely inexplicable. There shouldn't be any aircraft in that area. It's just not possible for a pilot during the daytime to have taken a course that would put it right into the WTC. A second occurrence within a few minutes is beyond belief.'
9:12 WCBS: 'Thousands of pieces of what appeared to be office paper came drifting over Brooklyn, about three miles from Tower 1, according to a witness.'
9:14 WTOP: 'Clearly, this has been a morning of extremes for us here. This is the most serious of circumstances that we're monitoring in New York. Earlier today, it was euphoria in this town as we all celebrated what appears to be word from Michael Jordan that he is going to be returning to the National Basketball Association and playing his next season with the Wizards. Obviously, our coverage of that will continue at its appropriate time.'
9:15 AP: 'The FBI is investigating reports that the two crashes are the result of foul play.'
9:15 CNN: 'President Bush is informed in Florida and cancels the rest of his schedule.'
9:17 WABC: 'LaGuardia and Kennedy airports are now closed.'
9:18 WCBS: 'The UN has been evacuated as a precautionary measure.'
9:26 WABC: 'Many people see those twin towers as an example of American capitalism and as an example of American might and power. They are a very strong and very vulnerable symbol to the rest of the world-and the U.S.-and that may be why they were targeted this time. Osama bin Laden is the former Afghan freedom fighter-a billionaire by all accounts-who is maybe No. 1 on America's list of terrorism exporters. He springs immediately to mind.'
9:30 CNN (President Bush makes a statement in Florida): 'Today, we've had a national tragedy. Two planes have crashed into the WTC in an apparent terrorist attack on our country. Terror against our nation will not stand.'
9:31 CNN (on-screen graphic): SOURCES TELL CNN ONE PLANE WAS AN AMERICAN 767 FROM BOSTON.
9:32 WNBC (eyewitness via phone): 'The second plane was a larger plane because the explosion from the second plane was tenfold larger than from the first plane. May God be with all those people because this is going to be a tough day for all of New York.'
9:33 WABC (phone call from man in the WTC): 'I'm stuck on the 86th floor of Tower No. 1 on the east side. I heard a noise, felt the whole building shake, and the glass on my floor was blown from the inside out, and the interior core of part of the building collapsed.'
9:34 WCBS: 'A no-fly zone has been established over Manhattan.'
9:36 CNN (on-screen graphic): ALL NY AREA AIRPORTS CLOSED. 'Information we now have is that there are at least 1,000 injuries.'
9:36 WNBC: 'To New Yorkers, try to get out of that area to let the emergency crews do what they need to do, because there clearly are still people trapped up there and fire fighters and emergency crews still need to do a lot of work.'
A plane crashes into the Pentagon.
9:43 AP: 'An aircraft has crashed into the Pentagon, witnesses say. The West Wing of the White House is being evacuated amid terrorist threats.'
9:43 WTOP: 'We're going to interrupt the [CBS Radio News] coverage and bring it closer to home. We have some indication of fire and smoke at the Pentagon right now. We've gotten calls from people who live and work around the Pentagon who have told us that they have seen something that they have described as an explosion.'
9:43 WTTG: 'There are reports of a fire at the Pentagon. You can see the thick, black smoke. This is no trash fire, folks, so obviously something has happened.' [To producer]: 'Do we have any indication that a plane was involved here?'
9:43 CNN: 'There's a huge plume of smoke from the west side near the helicopter landing zone. The plume of smoke is enormous; it's a couple hundred yards across.'
9:45 CNN: 'We're also getting reports that there's a fire on the Mall in Washington.'
9:46 WTOP: 'We're hearing from a caller who says she is eyewitness to another hit here in town; the USA Today building may also be on fire in addition to the Pentagon.'
9:48 WTTG (terrorism expert from American University): 'It is a well-planned, concerted attack on the U.S. as the world's superpower, particularly, I would assume, because of the role it plays in the Middle East, in its hostility toward Iraq, Iran and other Arab countries, and its support, obviously, of Israel.'
9:49 AP: 'The Federal Aviation Administration has shut down all aircraft takeoffs nationwide.'
9:50 CNN: 'Bridges and tunnels into New York are closed.'
9:51 WTTG: 'Metro is shutting down its trains, possibly concerned that Metro might somehow be used in this.'
9:54 WCBS: 'A number of people were apparently jumping from windows. We saw at least five or six. The people who were standing there were absolutely horrified to watch this. Many people started screaming, many people started crying. There were people hugging each other, and, every time they saw a person jump to his death, there were people who were just grabbing hold of each other and sobbing and wiping their tears.'
9:56 CNN (on-screen graphic): CAPITOL, TREASURY, WH EVACUATED. 'This has all the appearances of an extremely well coordinated and devastating terrorist attack.'
9:56 WNBC (terrorism expert): 'This has all the worst-case scenarios put together into one. When you think of the psychological trauma that this is going to cause New Yorkers and to Americans, it's monumental, it's off the map.'
The south tower of the World Trade Center collapses.
9:59 WTOP: 'After the WTC was hit, the Pentagon's anti-terrorism unit went into action. The first thing it did was dispatch military aircraft to what is now a no-fly zone over Manhattan. These fighter aircraft, armed with guns and missiles, have direct orders to divert and, in a worst-case scenario, to shoot down any plane that seems bent on crashing into something else.'
10:00 AP: 'An explosion hits another building near the WTC.'
10:01 WABC: 'The attack on the WTC in February of 1993 was designed to bring down the towers. It appears that, this time, one of the towers is down.'
10:01 WCBS: 'Generally speaking, for a building to collapse in on itself like that, it would seem to indicate-obviously, this is just early speculation-that there could have been an explosion, a bomb planted on the ground, that would make the building collapse in on itself.'
10:02 WTTG: 'The 14th Street and Memorial bridges are shut down.'
10:06 CNN (on-screen graphic): WITNESSES SEE PEOPLE JUMPING FROM WTC TOWER. 'Some of the Secret Service patrolling the perimeter of Lafayette Park directly across the street from the White House have automatic rifles drawn.'
A plane crashes in Somerset County, Pa.; a portion of the Pentagon collapses.
10:09 WTOP (reporter near the White House): 'Another explosion has just occurred. We don't know where it happened, but it sounded like a cannon going off, and now we're seeing big billows of black smoke in the direction of the Pentagon. It's sort of organized chaos. A lot of people have had the presence of mind to whip out the old video camera and take pictures of whatever is going on here.'
10:12 CNN: 'There's a report of an explosion on Capitol Hill.' (Five minutes later, congressional correspondent says there was no explosion, but that 'the speaker and other leaders have been evacuated to a secure location.'
10:15 WNBC: 'St. Vincent's Hospital is preparing for the possibility of many more people arriving. They have what looks like a trauma center set up on the street, on the sidewalk of 7th Ave.'
10:16 WTOP: 'We've just been told that all government offices are closed and people are advised to go home. They obviously want to get people out of the downtown area and away from federal buildings, which presumably are still targets.'
10:17 WTTG (U.S. Capitol Police spokesperson): 'Ten minutes ago, we ordered a mandatory evacuation of the Capitol and all the House and Senate office buildings. We are taking extraordinary precautions to protect the leadership of the Congress.'
10:19 AP: 'The State Department is evacuated due to a possible explosion.'
10:21 WABC: 'People [near City Hall] were running out of the smoke. The street now is just littered with shoes as people literally ran out of their shoes to escape the smoke and debris. There are pieces of the plane on Church St. . what look to be large pieces of the fuselage and this, amazingly, was about three blocks away from the scene.'
10:22 WCBS: 'Doctors . expect thousands of people to be affected by smoke inhalation in and around the WTC because of that building falling in.'
10:22 WTOP: 'A plane went overhead . some sort of jet, maybe it was a military plane. But everywhere you looked, people were looking up into the sky with concern and fear on their faces that this might be another incoming terrorist attack. Just mind-boggling.'
10:23 AP: 'A car bomb explodes outside the State Department, senior law-enforcement officials say.'
10:26 WTTG: 'We're told there is another aircraft that has been hijacked and is 20 minutes outside Washington, D.C.'
10:26 WNBC: 'Looking up at the top of the building, at a rate of about one every five minutes, you see people that are jumping from the top of the building. It is an absolutely harrowing scene.'
The north tower of the World Trade Center collapses.
10:28 CNN: 'Good Lord. There are no words. This is just a horrific scene and a horrific moment.'
10:28 WCBS: 'You're looking at what there is of the Manhattan skyline. The two most prominent landmarks-the WTC-now reduced to a pile of ash and rubble, smoke billowing above the city.'
10:29 WNBC: 'They're gone. The WTC is no more.'
10:29 CNN: 'There were several people that were hanging out of windows right below where the plane crashed when suddenly you saw the top of the building start to shake and people began leaping from the windows.'
10:34 WABC: 'If you are a child watching and you do not have a parent there, I don't know what to advise you, if you can understand this. This is just so tragic that it's ridiculous to try to talk through this.'
10:37 AP: 'A large plane crashes in western Pennsylvania, officials at Somerset County airport confirm.'
10:43 CNN: 'All federal office buildings in Washington are being evacuated.'
WTTG: 'There are now fighter jets in the air as the situation continues to unfold here at the Pentagon. There are unconfirmed reports that they are concerned about Camp David as well.'
10:48 CNN: 'Military officials anticipate a second aircraft arriving at the Pentagon.' (At 11:04, it reports, 'No second plane ever materialized.')
WTTG: 'All museums and public attraction in the District of Columbia have been shut down.'
10:51 WTOP: 'A senior law-enforcement official gave information that is now being contradicted. We are now being told that the Federal Protective Services says there was no car bomb at the State Department.'
10:52 WCBS: 'We're hearing from intelligence sources that there were actually eight planes hijacked and that five are still in the air. The Air Force and military intelligence are scrambling to try to take these planes out of the air before they can do any damage.'
10:58 WCBS: 'At Newark International Airport, there are officers with shotguns blocking the road leading to Port Authority offices and the air-traffic-control tower.'
10:59 WTOP (reporter): 'I just drove in, and people are not paying attention to things like stop signs and red lights today. You have to be very careful ... it's a very dangerous situation out there.' Reporter at Washington Monument: 'There's a big crowd of people around the pay phone. Nobody can get a cell signal out, nobody can get a cell phone call in.'
11:00 CNN: 'Mayor Giuliani urges people to remain calm and at home unless they're in lower Manhattan, in which case they should 'get out and walk slowly and carefully . directly north.''
11:03 WTOP (traffic reporter): 'It's pandemonium everywhere on the highways right now.'
11:04 WNBC (NYU Downtown Hospital spokesperson): 'We've seen hundreds of people. Our entire cafeteria has been transformed into a triage area, and it is wall-to-wall people.'
11:06 WTOP: 'There are hordes of people [walking] south across the 14th St. Bridge. Some of them said they weren't comfortable using the Metro system.'
11:09 WCBS: 'There are now reports from CBS News that a plane apparently has crashed at or near Camp David, the weekend White House, if you will.'
11:11 WTOP: 'We had a report that there was an explosion here at the Capitol. That report has been discounted by both police and staffers that I have spoken to. It is a stark and unusual scene.'
11:12 CNN: 'U.S. officials' working thesis is that this is overseas terrorism, not domestic, and they can't rule out additional attacks yet to come. Despite the denial, attention will quickly turn to the bin Laden group. There are very few others that could have pulled this off.'
11:13 WCBS: 'Today is the anniversary of the Camp David peace accords, and there is speculation that perhaps, perhaps, this may be in retaliation for those accords.'
11:15 AP: 'Mayor Giuliani says, 'I have a sense it's a horrendous number of lives lost.''
11:19 WCBS: 'We have reports of major loss of life at the Pentagon. That's a development that could cripple our ability to respond to this terrorist attack in a quick fashion.'
11:23 AP: 'American Airlines says it 'lost' two aircraft carrying 156 people.'
11:23 CNN: 'The Centers for Disease Control is preparing bioterrorism teams to respond to the incidents. This, we are told, is simply precautionary.'
11:24 WCBS: 'CBS reports that, just three weeks ago, Osama bin Laden, the most wanted terrorist in the world, had promised an unprecedented attack on U.S. interests because of this country's support of the nation of Israel.'
11:27 WNBC: 'The United States Navy is dispatching a couple of aircraft carriers from Norfolk, the JFK and the General Washington. One will be stationed off of New York, and the other will be stationed in the Atlantic as close to Washington as it can get. They will be there to provide any possible military support that may be needed.'
11:31 WNBC (Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf on NBC): 'It's a very, very sad day for this country. It's really a sad day for the world as far as I'm concerned. Deterrence against terrorists is almost impossible because there are people who could care less about their own survival. The fact is that the world is getting smaller and terrorism has come to our shores.'
11:33 WTOP: 'September 11, 2001: a day that has turned into a nightmare.'