Remembering The Second Plane's Strike

Audie Cornish talks to NPR's Don Gonyea in the moments leading up to 9:30 a.m., when United Airlines flight 175 struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

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President GEORGE W. BUSH: President Lincoln not only understood the heartbreak of his country, he also understood the cost to sacrifice...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BUSH: ...and reached out to console those in sorrow.

AUDIE CORNISH, host: Applause here for here for former President George W. Bush.

BUSH: In the fall of 1864, he learned that a widow had lost five sons in the Civil War, and he wrote her this letter.

(Reading) Dear Madam, I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you're the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom. Yours, very sincerely and respectfully, Abraham Lincoln.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: Former President George Bush, the reading from Abraham Lincoln.

PETER NEGRON: My name is Peter Negron. My father worked on the 88th floor of the World Trade Center. I was 13 when I stood here in 2003 and read a poem about how much I wanted to break down and cry. Since then I've stopped crying, but I haven't stop missing my dad. He was awesome.

My brother, Austin, had just turned two when he passed. I've tried to teach him all the things my father taught me; how to catch a baseball, how to ride a bike and to work hard in school - my dad always said how important it was.

Since 9/11, my mother, brother and I moved to Florida. I got a job and enrolled into college. I wish my dad had been there to teach me how to drive, ask a girl out on a date and see me graduate from high school, and a hundred other things I can't even begin to name.

He worked in the environmental department and cared about the Earth and our future. I know he wanted to make a difference. I admire him for that and I would have liked to talk to them about such things. I've decided to become a forensic scientist. I hope that I can make my father proud of the young men that my brother and I have become. I miss you so much, Dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CELLO MUSIC)

CORNISH: That was Peter Negron. He was 11 when his father, also named Peter, died in the collapse of the World Trade Center. His father worked for the Port Authority as an environmental engineer. He died at the age of 34.

At this point in the program, here at ground zero, we're hearing a performance by Yo-Yo Ma, who also performed on the one-year anniversary of 9/11.

You're listening to live special coverage of the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Jeffrey Donald Bittner.

Albert Balewa Blackman, Jr.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Christopher Joseph Blackwell.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Carrie Rosetta Blackburn.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Susan Leigh Blair.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Harry Blanding, Jr.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Janice Lee Blaney.

CORNISH: As is the annual tradition, members - family members of 9/11 victims come forth on the stage and read names of all the victims throughout the day.

We're actually going to be moving in a few minutes to the Pentagon where there's going to be another ceremony there.

To recap in New York, the program began with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus performing "The National Anthem." And Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York introducing a citywide moment of silence, first at 8:46 to observe American Airlines Flight 11 striking the North Tower. And then later in the program, at 9:03, there was a moment of silence observing United Airlines Flight 175, which struck the South Tower.

Tom Gjelten is here in the studio with me.

And, Tom, you were there at the Pentagon that day on 9/11 10 years ago. Can you talk about what that was like?

TOM GJELTEN: That's right, Audie. Well, of course, by this time, this is about the time that I entered the Pentagon that morning, roughly 9:15. Of course, I'd already heard and seen on television the attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York. As soon as I came into the Pentagon, I stopped. A couple of things caught my attention. One, the alert level was normal, even 15 minutes after.

It showed, I think, that symbolized in a sense how unprepared we were for that moment. It was so hard to believe that a terrorist attack had been carried out against the World Trade Centers in New York, that even at the Pentagon officials there were sort of slow to grasp the significance of what had happened, and to raise the alert level at their own installation.

That morning, I stopped and was briefed by a military officer whom I knew. He told me it had been confirmed that what had happened in New York was, in fact, an act of terrorism. I raced down the hall to the NPR booth. By then, we were into live coverage that day. And I went on the air and I reported what they were saying at the Pentagon

And, of course, as you mentioned, while we were on the air, while I was on the air from the NPR booth at the Pentagon, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building, but on the exact opposite side.

And the Pentagon is a huge, massive place. I was probably about 400 yards away from the point of impact, and I neither felt nor heard nothing. And there was - Audie, there was kind of embarrassing few moments there where people here, back at NPR headquarters, sort of knew more about what was going on at the Pentagon than I did sitting there. You know, on that morning...

CORNISH: Which turned out to be not that unusual that day.

GJELTEN: Well, as I was going to say there were so many rumors...

CORNISH: Yeah, that the same happened to the FAA. You know, the same happened to many other agencies that day as they tried to locate these essentially hijacked and, for those moments, lost planes.

I just want to make sure we're describing it correctly here. For the Pentagon, it was American Airlines Flight 77...

GJELTEN: Right.

CORNISH: ...which took off from Dulles International Airport, just outside of Washington, D.C., and was bound for Los Angeles. It had 64 passengers on board; among them were five hijackers.

As you said, Tom, you ended up being on air that day. And I want to play a piece of tape from a man that you ended up meeting after you evacuated, when you were outside the building. His name was Brian Pardue and he actually heard the crash that morning from his house, which was just a few blocks away.

BRIAN PARDUE: I was upstairs watching TV about, you know, the bombing or the plane crash at the World Trade Center and all of a sudden I heard a very low-flying plane. And there's no way it could have been a single engine plane. There's no way it could have been a single engine plane. And I knew it crashed because I heard the noise and the windows shook in my house.

And, you know, I'm like, I've got to get out of here. I mean, I'm sure, like, you know, everyone else close by is, you know, it's around them. Like it's, I mean, it's really scary...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PARDUE: ...really scary.

CORNISH: This is archival tape.

Tom Gjelten, did you ever run into Brian Pardue again?

GJELTEN: Actually, I went back looking for him. The way I found Brian Pardue is that day, I was anxious to get on the air - I'd been evacuated from the Pentagon. And I just went to a residential street and went pounding on doors until I found someone who was at home, who would let me use his phone and that was Brian Pardue. That's how I met him.

I went back to see him another day but he wasn't home, Audie.

CORNISH: Right now, we're waiting for ceremonies to begin at the Pentagon. In the studios with me is NPR's Tom Gjelten.

And we're also joined from our New York studios by Steve Coll. He's president of the New America Foundation, a public policy Institute. He's also a contributor to The New Yorker magazine. Steve Coll, welcome.

STEVE COLL: Good morning.

CORNISH: You've written extensively about al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, and the American actions in Afghanistan. Now, as we're waiting for the ceremony to begin, what are your prevailing thoughts going into this day, 10 years after the 9/11 attacks?

COLL: Well, I think we've all probably wrung as much interpretive meaning out of this week, as we can. And, of course, this morning we're just left with grief and the remembrance of the victims and their families. And here, in New York, so many communities have just holes blowing right through them; families clustered together, first responders, but also community communities in the World Trade Center Towers themselves, coworkers, entire companies wiped out.

And so, that's my main impression this morning. One does reflect on the history that brought us here. And I think there, listening to Tom talk so strikingly about his experience that morning, I reflect on the fact that the United States really was at war - not to overstate the metaphor, but the United States was at war with al-Qaida on that morning. It's just that most Americans didn't know it.

And it was for a small group of people who had been engaged in that struggle. And it had manifested itself in attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa and an attack on the USS Cole. But the extent and persistence of al-Qaida, in its plans to attack the United States directly, was just something that most Americans weren't aware of.

CORNISH: And we're talking to Steve Coll. He is from The New Yorker magazine, a contributor to The New Yorker magazine and president of the New America Foundation.

We are actually awaiting the ceremonies at the Pentagon, where there's going to be a wreath laying and other dignitaries there.

You're listening to live special coverage of the September 11 attacks on NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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