The day dawned at 6:33 that morning. Looking east across the Hudson River, the rising sun shone behind the North and South Towers, leaving two vertical silhouettes along the lower Manhattan skyline. As the auburn sky turned a sparkling blue, it revealed a ceiling that was cloudless and visibility unlimited. It was the second Tuesday of September, and it began as many a day before it had – until it was a day like no other.
On September 11, 2001, as millions of Americans awoke and began their day; thousands made their way to work at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Thirty-three airline crew members headed to Boston’s Logan Airport, Dulles in Washington D.C., and Newark International, where they and their passengers boarded two American and two United airliners bound for the west coast. Suddenly, between the hours of 8:46 and 10:03 a.m., the bright skies over the Eastern Seaboard and Mid-Atlantic darkened, and the promise of the new day descended into one of tragedy and devastation, as the four airliners were overtaken by 19 al Qaeda militants and used as weapons of destruction in a coordinated attack of terrorism against the United States.
In the course of one hour and 17 minutes, two Boeing 767 jetliners were used as fuel-laden missiles to target and topple each of the Twin Towers. A Boeing 757, then deliberately crashed into the Pentagon. One hour later, a fourth airliner, also a 757, crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as its passengers stormed the cockpit door in an attempt to regain control of the airplane and foil the hijackers next targeted attack, presumed to be the United States Capitol.
Ultimately, nearly 3,000 innocent men, women and children were killed, and thousands injured, as America suffered the worst foreign attack on U.S. soil in its history. According to the World Trade Center Health Program and 911Memorial.org, on the day of the 9/11 attacks, and as a consequence of the recovery effort, hundreds of thousands of responders, survivors, workers, and residents were exposed to toxins in the air around the World Trade Center site and the Pentagon, resulting in chronic illnesses and the deaths of over 3,500 more people in the following 20 years. Many others continue to be affected.
The astonishing force of events that morning sent shockwaves throughout the country and the world, but despite its staggering impact, the American people came together as a nation, with a unity of purpose – to grieve and mourn their losses, and, ultimately, to rebuild. The images of first responders, rescue workers, first-hand witnesses, and survivors are etched into the collective memory of all who are of the age to remember where they were, or what they were doing that day.
Tom Murphy is an aviation industry consultant, author, and the director of the Human Resiliency Institute at Fordham University. Throughout the 1990s, he trained 30,000 air travel employees at airports and airlines, including some in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. Through his close relationships with aviation officials and employees in the industry, many of his friends and colleagues perished on September 11, or were directly impacted by the events of that day. In the aftermath of the attacks, Murphy grappled with the complexity of how a nation recovers from that enormity of loss. He wondered what his friends and colleagues were doing that morning when, as aviation professionals, they were ‘suddenly thrust into front-line positions’ and confronted with the sobering realization that their industry was used as the means to carry out the atrocities of 9/11.
In 2006, Murphy authored, ‘Reclaiming the Sky – 9/11 and the Untold Story of the Men and Women Who Kept America Flying’; a book that sheds light on the inside story of those working in the aviation industry, and how they responded to the events of September 11. Murphy noted that, ‘’In complement to the actions and courage of fire, rescue and emergency personnel, is the often-obscured fact that, among those who died, as well as those who lived and continue to live, are many thousands of aviation professionals with names, families, lives, and individual experiences that are an important part of the 9/11 story.” In writing the book, Murphy sought to discover, from an aviation perspective, how to move from loss to healing. His roadmap to recovery came through the personal stories and interviews with aviation professionals who rose up under great duress, to meet the challenges of that day and of the weeks and months that followed, by acting from core beliefs around duty, courage, and selflessness in support of each other and the public they were charged with protecting.
A central figure in ‘Reclaiming the Sky,’ is Sue Baer, the former general manager of Newark International Airport, who was at the controls of the airport on 9/11. With a clear view of the World Trade Center from the fourth-floor window of her office, Baer saw billowing smoke pouring out from the North Tower, only six miles away from where she stood. Moments later, she witnessed the second airplane as it crashed into the South Tower. Erasing any possibility of this being an accident, Baer called up her staff and immediately shut down Newark, stopping all departures from the airport, where Flight 93 had recently departed from. Managers at JFK and LaGuardia Airports then followed her lead. With the enormous responsibility of protecting the 50,000 travelers who were at Newark that day, Baer instinctively and decisively halted operations, 14 minutes before the Federal Aviation Administration’s shut down of airports nationwide. Baer then led the effort to restart airport operations in the apprehensive days that followed, later saying, “We hit bottom on 9/11. That was as hard as it got. Everyday, you figured something else out. You were figuring a lot of it out alone.” With that, Tom Murphy asked Baer how she was able to make it through. She answered, “When you’re hurting, find something you can do for someone else, and do it.”
Baer’s words resonated with Murphy and showed him the importance of action. He then found that those who were doing better with ‘under the radar suffering’, were those who had found a purpose, a way to come outside themselves and move forward by doing for others. Among the many men and women who inspired him was Anne MacFarlane, an information agent at Boston’s Logan Airport, who lost her daughter Marianne, on United Airlines Flight 175, the airplane that struck the South Tower at the World Trade Center. That night, while coping with the crushing loss of her daughter, Anne went to the hotel where families who lost a loved one gathered, to do what she could to comfort them. When the airport reopened, Anne returned to work.
Mary McKenna, a flight attendant for American, lost friends on Flight 11 out of Boston and recalled the extraordinary bravery of her colleagues. One of them was flight attendant Madeline Amy Sweeny, who took an extra shift on 9/11 to fill in for a colleague. In the midst of the hijacking, Sweeny, called AA Flight Service and reached Logan Airport service manager Michael Woodward. She relayed information to him about the hijacking. Her final words were, “I see water, I see buildings. We’re flying low, we’re flying way too low.” The airplane was the first to strike, into the North Tower at the World Trade Center. With the help of her colleagues, MacKenna was later able to deal with her issues of loss.
After American Flight 77 deviated from its assigned course, turning south with its transponder turned off, Indianapolis Air Traffic Control and dispatchers repeatedly tried and failed to contact the aircraft. Realizing that this was the second American Airline airplane in trouble, Executive VP, Gerard Arpey ordered all American Airline flights in the Northeast that had not yet taken off, grounded. Within moments, flight attendant Renee May called her parents to say that her flight was hijacked and asked them to alert American, prior to its crash into the Pentagon, which they immediately did.
On United Flight 93, flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw called the Airline to report its hijacking, and then she called her husband who recalls his wife saying that passengers were getting hot water out of the galley to throw at the hijackers. Just before hanging up, she said that everyone was running up to First Class, and that she had to go. Minutes later the airplane crashed into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
In addition to the flight crews of the hijacked airplanes are the many courageous aviation professionals who rose above the turmoil at airports all across the USA, air traffic controllers; airline employees; support staff on the ground… they all worked together to organize emergency directives, diverting airplanes away from the hijacked aircraft. Pilots and flight attendants worked to calm passengers while taking cautionary action against potential attacks onboard their aircraft. Dozens of airborne commercial flights from Europe were forced to divert to Gander International Airport after the Federal Aviation Administration shut down U.S. airspace.
In Tom Murphy’s 2006 interview with Mary McKenna, now a licensed psychotherapist, she said, “That was the thing that really got to me. It seemed that nobody gave aviation people credit for how brave they were that day. I know regular people, travelers, were afraid to fly after 9/11 – but aviation workers went right back up into the air. They did it because it was their duty.”
After Sue Baer became the Director of Aviation for the NYNJ Port Authority, Tom Murphy asked Baer, who passed away in 2016, why she chose aviation as her career. Baer then answered, “To be a part of the spectacle.” “The spectacle?”, Murphy inquired. She then walked with him to the window of her office in Newark as a 747 was lifting off the runway and said, “The engineers can tell us why that happened aerodynamically, but the real reason that airplane is able to lift off and be successful and take people to other cities, is because of all the people who came together to support that action. And that’s why I call it the spectacle. I wanted to be, from the earliest time, a part of that spectacle…a part of all the people who came together to make aviation possible.”
With the approach of the 20th anniversary of the aviation industry’s most calamitous day, the stories of the men and women who came together before, during and after 9/11, serve as enduring figures of strength and courage…those who died, as well as those who lived and continue to live, the many thousands of aviation professionals with names, families, and individual experiences, who rose up to the challenges and endured a day like no other. And at dawn the sun rises again each morning, with a sky reclaimed, whether obscured by gray, or by the promise and clarity of a new day.
1 The 9/11 Commission Report