TO THE FIELDS OF SHANKSVILLE
Most people in counterterrorism were talking about the likelihood of a doomsday scenario involving germ warfare or nuclear weapons. We feared that something would happen on a terrifying scale, but not that it would be done with conventional tactics—hijacking—that is reminiscent of the 1970s.
National Commission on Terrorism
On the morning of September 11, 2001, as governor of Pennsylvania, I was unaware of the drama playing out in the cloudless sky overhead. I did not know that the Pennsylvania State Police were looking for me. I was tending my garden, removing the dead stems and leaves from the daylilies, cannas, and roses in one of several raised beds I had built around our house in Erie, the working-class city of my youth. As always, whenever I escaped the capital in Harrisburg for home, I lost myself in the rocky soil and earthy details.
Three hundred miles northwest of the governor’s residence—where more than a full schedule awaited my return later in the day—I once again felt the gardener’s sense of renewal. Public service was in my blood. I loved being governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and still had much to accomplish before my second and final term ended. But the garden was another matter altogether: It was mine to create. There was nobody pulling on my coat sleeves and no political compromises in the doing, except the bargains forged with Mother Nature for suitable weather. I love the varieties and textures of plants and the cycle of garden life. They offer lessons and comfort—the planting, the blossoming, the withering away, the rebirth the following spring. In that cycle the garden mirrors the capacities of human beings. Indeed, I love the sense of optimism gardening inspires: If I plant in the spring, flowers will bloom through the summer.
Early that morning I had visited my mother at St. Vincent Hospital, where she was recovering from surgery. She suffered from a variety of ailments, but she remained a source of strength to me. No bigger than a minute—with ankle weights, coming in maybe at 105 pounds—Laura Ridge was never a complainer. When I brought jelly donuts to her room, I asked how she felt. Although eighty-one at the time and obviously frail, she quoted in answer the classic American folk tune: "The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be."
I’d return to the hospital, I thought, once my gardening duties were completed, and still have plenty of time before the state plane, a King Air turboprop, would be sent from the capital to take me back to Harrisburg. Once there, I’d get back to the business of governing. The last thing on my mind was terrorism.
What I didn’t know that morning was plenty. The state police called the troopers assigned to me, and they gave me the startling, incomprehensible news that two commercial airplanes had flown into the Twin Towers in New York City.
I was pulling into my driveway at the time. I went into the house, turned on the television in the master bedroom, and picked up the phone. I talked to Mark Campbell, my chief of staff, as I watched horrifying images repeated over and over: passenger jets were crashing into office towers, smoke was billowing, unimaginable horrors were occurring inside.
"What do you know?" he asked.
"I know what you know," I replied. Which was very little beyond what I was watching through the lenses of network cameras.
I said, "I don’t know if there are more planes in the air and other attacks coming." I thought, well, Pennsylvania has its own share of tall buildings and historic structures, and who the hell knows where this enemy, whoever it was, could be headed. I asked Campbell to ramp up operations at the headquarters of the state’s emergency operations center outside of Harrisburg. When I hung up, I watched a report from the Pentagon by NBC correspondent Jim Miklashevski. He was reviewing what the Department of Defense knew about what had happened in Manhattan. Suddenly, there was a loud explosion behind him. He ended his report, saying he needed to find out what had happened. It was, of course, the third civilian airplane turned into a missile—a direct hit on America’s military headquarters. And soon there would be a fourth, the one that would hit, quite literally, home.
In the time that has passed since that day, I have often pictured myself as a passenger in the cabin of United Airlines Flight 93. With the chances of survival slim to none, I have wondered what I would have done.
The sky above Pennsylvania was in the typical flight plan of United 93. It had originated at New Jersey’s Newark Airport, then flown due west toward San Francisco en route to its ultimate destination, Tokyo. The Boeing 757-200 had rolled down the runway at 8:42 A.M., about twenty-five minutes later than usual. That the flight was late taking off due to heavy airport congestion meant that its fate, though tragic, would differ from that of the three other passenger jets hijacked that morning by a well-rehearsed team of nineteen men intent on killing themselves while carrying out their stunning assault on America.
It appeared to air traffic controllers that United 93 was flying according to plan until 9:28 A.M., near the Ohio border, when the craft unaccountably went into a brief descent—seven hundred feet—and then: "Mayday" and "Hey, get out of here! Get out of here! Get out of here!" was heard and recorded at the FAA’s Cleveland Center facility.
By that point, it was clear that our country was being attacked by an enemy that used a far different strategy than any we had ever faced or even contemplated. This enemy hadn’t gone to the trouble of outfitting itself with ground troops equipped with mortars and supported by tanks, helicopters, and an aircraft carrier battle group. They had the ingenious and horrific idea of turning passenger planes, filled with humanity and thousands of gallons of jet fuel, into weapons of mass destruction.
By 9:15 A.M. American Airlines Flight 11 and United Flight 175, both out of Boston, had already hit the upper floors of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, and another plane, American Flight 77, out of Washington Dulles International Airport, was headed for the Pentagon. The attack had by then brought destruction, death, and a state of national shock on a scale that immediately invited comparisons to that "date which will live in infamy," December 7, 1941.
Passengers on those three planes had been unaware that the hijackings were intended for a much different purpose than those they’d read about or seen on the news. Since the 1960s, when the phenomenon began with flights being diverted to Cuba, hijacking was used primarily as a bargaining tool. The hijackers held those aboard as hostages for ransom to secure the release of comrades held in prison, or other similar purposes. That was the era before the widespread phenomenon of the suicide bomber.
But to passengers aboard United 93, it appeared that a suicide bomber was aboard. Of the four men seated in the first-class section—Saeed al-Ghamdi, Ahmed al-Nami, Ahmad al-Haznawi, and Ziad Jarrah—who conspired to take over the cockpit by using their box cutters and knives, one also had a device strapped to his body. From the cockpit, Jarrah, the native of Lebanon who sat in the pilot’s seat after the attack on the cockpit crew, told the thirty-seven passengers over the intercom, "Ladies and gentleman, ladies and gentlemen. Hear the captain. Please sit down, keep remaining seating. We have a bomb on board, so sit." The other three hijackers on United 93—as were most of the nineteen involved that morning—were Saudi Arabians. But to the passengers flying over Pennsylvania, such distinctions were pointless.
Soon all aboard knew the deadly intentions of these men, if not their ultimate destination. Planners of the hijackings, it became clear in the days that followed, intended for the planes to hit their targets within minutes of each other. But United 93’s delay in taking off from Newark had meant there was a lag time—time enough for the news of the hijackings of earlier flights to reach the cockpit and the passenger compartment.
As the flight progressed—as Jarrah turned the plane south and then southeast over Pennsylvania and toward the nation’s capital—many aboard made emergency calls to relatives and friends using cell phones or the Verizon Airfones stored on the back of seats. In these emotional conversations passengers gave blow-by-blow descriptions, and they revealed at least three people had been killed: the captain, the first officer, and a flight attendant. The passengers learned about the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and so knew that they were aboard what had become a deadly weapon. They may have concluded that it was headed for Washington. They certainly were aware that if they didn’t act, another key target would be hit. (Later evidence indicated it likely would have been the White House or the U.S. Capitol.)
One of the passengers in first class, Tom Burnett, called his wife and said, "Don’t worry. We’re going to do something." Another in coach, Todd Beamer, tried to make a credit card call and was given the customer-service representative, who heard him say the words that became the American rallying cry: "Are you guys ready? Let’s roll."
Armed with information after calling their loved ones, discovering what had transpired, and knowing their fate was all but certain, they decided their deaths wouldn’t be in vain. In spite of the absolute horror and fear—what a monstrous emotional hurdle to overcome—they harnessed the energy, the commitment, and the will to fight back.
The black box, ultimately recovered, revealed that it is likely the passengers never were able to reach the cockpit. But as they were breaking down the door, Jarrah rolled the airplane to the left and right, attempting to knock them off balance. Then, sensing that the passengers were about to attack him, Jarrah, shouted in Arabic, "Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest!" and put the plane into a steep dive. When United 93 hit the Pennsylvania countryside outside of the town of Shanksville, only twenty minutes from its Washington, D.C., target, it was descending at a forty-degree angle and traveling at 580 miles per hour.
The Erie airport was uncommonly quiet. No aircraft were taking off because the FAA had ordered every plane out of the air. By the time I got to the small terminal that serves private flights, I learned there could be a long wait. That induced a great sense of frustration. In telephone conversations, I heard some of the basics about the four doomed flights from staff members. Tim Reeves, my press secretary, told me what he knew about United 93, that it had gone down outside of Shanksville. But even as a governor of a state involved in all this, I didn’t know any more than an average citizen watching television. And I wondered what else was to come. How many hijackings in all and what other attacks had been planned or might be underway? These questions were on the minds of every government official, at every level, at that moment.
I reviewed a mental catalogue of potential targets in my state, including the historical icons of Philadelphia, such as Independence Hall, Pittsburgh’s skyscrapers, and the capital’s leafy campus of government buildings. I obviously needed to get back to Harrisburg, and my staff was working with authorities to try to get an exception to the FAA ban. At 9:00 A.M., there had been 3,900 civilian aircraft in U.S. airspace. Two hours later, there were none. Only one large aircraft was aloft, Air Force One, carrying President George W. Bush from Strategic Air Command in Nebraska, where he had been taken as a precautionary measure, back to Andrews Air Force Base. However, by that time, there were more than a hundred military aircraft deployed in the effort to protect large metropolitan areas.
I’ve never considered myself a control freak, but I always crave information. I learned another expression for it later—situational awareness. The staff back at the capital was doing its best to keep me informed, and I knew that our emergency response team, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA), was already at work. That gave me some comfort because I had seen this team perform many times. The agency was composed of professionals extensively trained in emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. Most of the experience had come from extreme weather—blizzards, tornados, and floods. We had periodic exercises around different emergency events, but never a terrorist attack. PEMA had always responded quickly and with great efficiency because it always erred on the side of overpreparation. In addition, PEMA officials were connected; they had forged bonds with local officials all around the state, as well as with key figures in business and industry. It was the model for an emergency response plan that I later tried to advance in Washington. But of course, on that beautiful late summer morning in 2001,I saw that our vulnerability as a country extended beyond any limits we had ever anticipated.
To that point, like most Americans, I was naïve and relatively uninformed about terrorism dangers. The bombs that had gone off in the World Trade Center’s garage in 1993 and outside the federal building in Oklahoma City two years later seemed like aberrations in an otherwise orderly society, not a sign of things to come. The authorities arrested and convicted a blind sheikh, and most Americans, including me, thought this was the individual act of an isolated fanatic, not part of a larger and longer, threat. Similarly, Timothy McVeigh was arrested and convicted. His was the act of a twisted and demented mind. But as we learned later, even American citizens are quite capable of joining a network that specializes in horror.
Yet in all my conversations with fellow governors over the years at our semiannual meetings I don’t recall a single session devoted to domestic terrorism or to Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (the man behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing), radical Islam generally, or Al Qaeda in particular. As we later learned, we were not alone in our ignorance or dismissal of this developing, malignant force. Information that emerged after 9/11 revealed the Central Intelligence Agency had tried to get the threat of imminent terrorism on the agendas of the White House and the FBI, with limited success. Neither the term "Al Qaeda" nor the name bin Laden was widely known until after the 1993 attack. (Indeed, Richard A. Clarke, former national coordinator for security and counter terrorism wrote in his memoir Against All Enemies that most administration officials hadn’t heard of Al Qaeda at the time of the four hijackings.) Apparently, by the night after the attack some members of the Bush counterterrorism team had already begun to question Al Qaeda’s ability to execute such a sophisticated attack and suggested that it had to be state sponsored. That investigative path led to a dead end. What history doesn’t record is whether the mind-set led to other conclusions that affected our ability to kill or capture bin Laden.
As governors, we of course knew of deadly attacks on ordinary citizens in other countries. The most frightening for those of us who had taken oaths to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our citizens was the attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 when domestic Japanese terrorists used sarin gas to kill a dozen commuters and severely injure many more. But that incident, as well as the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, as well as the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, seemed far away. And they were, geographically. We did not comprehend at the time that the latter two were literally attacks on America. Our collective anxieties were usually limited to a crumbling infrastructure or chaos and danger to residents in the wake of blizzards, tornados, or floods, and the threats posed by career criminals—and not those who take their own lives and those of a vast number of innocents in quest of eternal reward from Allah.
But I also thought back to an omen, and my last visit to the World Trade Center, in December 2000. On the weekend of the annual Pennsylvania Society gathering (a tradition begun by Andrew Carnegie and the Mellon family), I held a luncheon for my supporters at Windows on the World, the celebrated restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower. After greeting the guests, I walked the perimeter of the room and looked out over the city. What a stunning view it was, in all directions! And yet, a dark vision emerged. My internal governor’s voice asked, "What will happen if the elevators don’t work, and there is an emergency? How would people get out? It would be a real life-and-death version of Towering Inferno. I told a couple of staff members to take one last look around because this would be the final ingathering for us in this place; the next time we assembled it would be somewhere much closer to the ground. Even so, I had never imagined the frightful images that every American remembers from that second date of infamy.
After two hours of waiting in the Erie airport, I learned that the state police had finally received permission from the FAA to carry me back to Harrisburg in one of their helicopters. I knew that as soon as I got to Harrisburg the people of Pennsylvania would expect me to be in front of the cameras. In fact, Tim Reeves, my communications director, had scheduled a press conference even as he and other members of the staff were making plans for all of us to get to the site of the crash.
Press conferences were, of course, nothing new to me. As governor, and as a congressman before that, I had participated in or presided over many, usually without trepidation. However, as any person in public office will tell you, these events can be, in a word, uncomfortable. Reporters often ask tough questions that have no easy answers, and afterward sound bites or written quotes are presented without proper context. This press conference would be very different. I’d be talking about events about which I knew virtually nothing not available to anyone else who had access to a television set. I was also carrying in my heart and head the same range of emotions that my fellow citizens were experiencing—shock, anger, disbelief, sadness. All the way back to my days in Vietnam, I had learned it is always important to be in control of your emotions. That’s the only way to think straight and communicate with authority. It is the only way to reassure constituents—whether a squad of soldiers or the 12 million citizens of Pennsylvania, even if the official delivering the remarks needs his own reassurance. As it turned out at that press conference, I faced the most difficult question I’d ever had to answer.
"What," Rick Wagner, a television anchorman for a local ABC affiliate, wanted to know, "should Pennsylvania parents tell their children about the events of today?"
I stood there stone-faced, but my insides were churning. I thought of my own kids, and thousands of other children, who had by then viewed those horrible images from the Twin Towers over and over. Many thoughts and images came to mind. I knew that, on the one hand, I had to acknowledge what had happened and how vulnerable we all felt, but on the other it was important to offer some sense of comfort, to affirm that in time we’d recover from this, and justice would be done. I stood silently in front of the cameras for about fifteen seconds—which in television terms is almost a lifetime. (Later aides told me that they thought they saw me tear up for the first time.) I responded, finally, more in terms of a dad than as a governor:
It’s pretty difficult to explain to your kids that there are people in the world who would kill innocent men, women, and children and subject them to the enormous terror associated with these events to advance a cause. There’s nobody that’s claimed, as I understand to date, responsibility for these acts. Whether they do or not, we will find them.
After this conference, I boarded another helicopter—a Chinook provided by the Pennsylvania National Guard—a model I’d flown in many times in Vietnam. As we descended at Shanksville, I looked out over the open hatch to the landscape. I had never before been to this rural community of 245 people, eighty miles southeast of Pittsburgh. I had never seen its downtown, with Beaner’s Marine, Ida’s Country Store (a gift and craft shop), the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department, and Methodist and Lutheran churches. I had never seen what seemed to me a scene out of a Norman Rockwell illustration—flagpoles in front of every house in the rolling countryside. Yet it was a town that, like Lockerbie, Scotland, fourteen years earlier, the site of the crash of Pan Am Flight 103, would become notorious just for being where it is, and for what happened there beyond its control; indeed, beyond its comprehension.
Excerpted from The Test of Our Times by Tom Ridge with Lary Bloom.
Copyright 2009 by Tom Ridge.
Published in September 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.