My husband kept whispering ‘I love you’ as the smoke got thicker – book reveals heart-rending witness accounts from 9/11

My husband kept whispering ‘I love you’ as the smoke got thicker – book reveals heart-rending witness accounts from 9/11

- in Usa News

IT is a story we all think we know – but what was it like to live through the horror and heartbreak of September 11, 2001?

Today marks the 18th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that killed 3,000 people as four planes crashed in New York and Washington.

On September 11, 2001, hijacked plane attacks on the US resulted in nearly 3,000 people being killed
Two planes – American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 75 crashed into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center complex in New York City
Getty Images – Getty

An American academic has meticulously pieced together testimony from those who were there, using declassified documents and having conducted hundreds of new interviews.

The resulting book is a harrowing picture of a day that changed history. Here, we share some incredible extracts . . .

TUESDAY, Sept 11, 2001, 5.43am Mike Touhey, ticket agent, Portland International Jetport:

“I saw these two fellows standing there looking around. I looked at the tickets. I go, ‘Whoa, first-class tickets’. You don’t see $2,400 tickets any more. There were less than 30 minutes to the flight. I said, ‘Mr Atta [a hijacker], if you don’t go now, you will miss your plane’.”

Over the course of the morning, 17 men check in to their flights at Boston, Washington and Newark airports. While some have their checked bags searched, the knives they are carrying are allowed under security regulations of the time.

7am Herb Ouida, World Trade Centers Association, North Tower, 77th floor, and father of Todd Ouida, Cantor Fitzgerald, North Tower, 105th floor:

“As we did every morning, my son Todd and I left our home together to travel to work. I told him, ‘Have a great day, sweetheart’. Those were my last words to Todd.”

Ted Olson, solicitor-general, US Department of Justice, husband of American Airlines Flight 77 passenger Barbara Olson:

“Barbara was supposed to travel on Monday, and my birthday was on Tuesday. She decided she did not want to be gone on the morning of my birthday, she wanted to be there when I woke up.

“She left for the airport and called me before she got on the plane.”

When was 9/11?

On September 11, 2001, a group of al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airliners.

Two planes – American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 75 – crashed into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center complex in New York City.

Another was flown into the Pentagon in Washington DC and the fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after a struggle between the hijackers and passengers.

Of the 2,996 who died on 9/11, including the 19 hijackers, 2,606 were killed at the World Trade Center and the surrounding area.

Both towers collapsed following the impact, with debris causing more deaths and injury on the streets below.

Many people including the emergency response teams lost their lives trying to save others.

It was the worst loss of life due to a terrorist incident on US soil.

8.09am Michael Lomonaco, executive chef, Windows On The World, N Tower, 106th floor:

“My glasses were in need of repair. When I hit the street in front of Tower Two, I thought, ‘Wow, it’s not even 8.15. I bet I can get the optometrist to see me and I can have my glasses this afternoon’. I made a detour.

8.19am Betty Ong, 45, a flight attendant aboard American Airlines Flight 11, calls the airline’s reservations line, reaching agent Winston Sadler:

“Um, the cockpit’s not answering. Somebody’s stabbed in business class, and, um, I think there is mace — that we can’t breathe. I think we’re getting hijacked.

“Our, our No1 [flight attendant] got stabbed. Our purser is stabbed. And our No5. We can’t get to the cockpit. The door won’t open. Hello?”

8.44am Madeline “Amy” Sweeney, American Airlines 11 flight attendant, calls American Airlines Flight Services:

“There is a bomb in the cockpit. The coach passengers don’t know what’s happening. The hijackers are of Middle Eastern descent.

“It is a rapid descent. Something is wrong. I don’t think the captain is in control. I see water. I see buildings. We’re flying low. We’re flying very, very low. Oh my God.

8.46am American Airlines Flight 11 roars south over Manhattan, traversing the length of the island before it crashes into N Tower, known as One World Trade Center, at about 465mph. William Jimeno, Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) officer:

“A shadow came over 42nd and Eighth Avenue. It completely covered the street for a split second.”

Flight 11 hits between the 93rd and 99th floors, exploding 10,000 gallons of jet fuel into offices.

A woman covered in dust as she takes refuge in an office building after one of the World Trade Center towers collapsed in New York
AFP – Getty
The harrowing moment President George W Bush was made aware of the terror attacks
AFP – Getty
It took New York City firefighters 100 days to put out all the fires ignited by 9/11
Getty Images – Getty

Harry Waizer, tax counsel, Cantor Fitzgerald, N Tower:

“My office was on the 104th floor. I was in the lift somewhere between 78 and 104.”

Richard Eichen, consultant, Pass Consulting Group, N Tower, 90th floor:

“I’m one of five survivors from the 90th floor of the North Tower. I didn’t have the key to my office, and that’s what saved my life.

“I was waiting outside, reading the Times, leaning against the wall, my coffee cup on the floor, eating a bagel.”

David Kravette, bond broker, Cantor Fitzgerald, ground-level lobby, N Tower:

“All of a sudden, jet fuel blasted out of the central lift bank and mushroomed everywhere. People were, 20 yards from me, lifted on this fireball and thrown through those lobby windows and incinerated.”

Richard Eichen:

“I saw off my left shoulder an Asian man coming toward me. He looked like he had been deep-fried. His skin was hanging like seaweed. He was begging me to help him. He said, ‘Help me, help me’, and then did a face plant right between my legs. He died between my legs.

“I looked down and that’s when I saw my shirt was full of blood. I didn’t know before that I had been hurt.

“I could see in the lift shaft floor-to-ceiling flames. I put my bagel down in the entrance and thought, ‘I have to remember when it’s over, I have to pick up the bagel and throw it away’.


Harry Waizer:

“The lift started to fall. It burst into flames. I had a brief -case and I was using it to try to beat out the flames. The lift was plummeting, then an emergency system

kicked in, because it started gliding.

“As it was going, I got hit in the face by a fireball that came through the gap between the lift doors.”

David Kravette:

“The fireball lasted three, four, five seconds at most. Everyone else in my office perished.”

Hundreds of feet below, people are still going about their day.

Michael Lomonaco, inside the shopping complex underneath the towers:

“The optometrist had left me in the examining room. He burst back in. He looked pale. He said, ‘Something happened. We’ve got to get out of here’.”

Richard Eichen:

“I felt that my face was all bloody. The left side of my head was open, and I could put my hand in there — I could feel my skull.”

Harry Waizer:

“As I was walking down, I caught a glimpse of my arm and saw a blackened flap of skin hanging down.”

Occupants in S Tower are reassured by an official building-wide announcement over the PA system that their building is not affected.

On September 11, 2001, hijacked plane attacks on the US resulted in nearly 3,000 people being killed
Dr Emil Chynn / Caters News Agency
Of the 2,996 who died on 9/11, including the 19 hijackers, 2,606 were killed at the World Trade Center and the surrounding area
Dr Emil Chynn / Caters News Agency

Robert Small, office manager, Morgan Stanley, S Tower, 72nd floor:

“People on my floor started to leave. Then we decided to go back, call our families, let them know we’re OK — still thinking nothing was going to happen at the South Tower.”

8.55am A thousand miles south of New York, President George W Bush has arrived at Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. Karl Rove, senior adviser, White House:

“We were standing outside the school. My phone rang. It was my assistant saying that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. That’s all she had. The boss was about two feet away, shaking hands. I told him. He arched his eyebrows like, ‘Get more’.”

9am The second hijacking. Brian Sweeney, 38, passenger on United Airlines Flight 175, former F-14 pilot in the Gulf War, tries calling his wife, Jules:

“Hey Jules, this is Brian. Ah, listen. I’m on an airplane that’s been hijacked. If things don’t go well, and it’s not looking good, I just want you to know I absolutely love you, I want you to do good, have good times — same with my parents.

“I’ll see you when you get here. I want you to know that I totally love you. Bye, babe. I hope I call you.”

Peter Hanson, 32, passenger on United Airlines Flight 175 with his wife, Sue Kim, 35, and their daughter Christine, two:

“It’s getting bad, Dad. A stewardess was stabbed. They seem to have knives and mace. They said they have a bomb.

“The plane is making jerky movements. I don’t think the pilot is flying the plane. I think we are going down. Don’t worry, Dad. If it happens, it’ll be very fast. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”

What is Ground Zero?

Ground Zero originated as a term to describe the site of a nuclear explosion and later was used to refer to the point of any dramatic or violent event.

New Yorkers started calling the World Trade Center site Ground Zero shortly after suicide hijackers destroyed the Twin Towers and killed nearly 3,000 people in New York City on September 11, 2001.

They were part of a complex of seven buildings, all of which were destroyed when the skyscrapers collapsed.

Ground Zero is a 14.6-acre area in Lower Manhattan in New York City.

The site is bounded by Vesey Street to the north, the West Side Highway to the west, Liberty Street to the south, and Church Street to the east.

9.02am New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON):

“Another one just hit the building. The whole building just, ah, came apart.”

Back at the school in Florida, Andy Card, White House chief of staff:

“I whispered in the President’s ear, ‘A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack’.

Mariah Williams, pupil, Emma Booker Elementary, on the President:

“I remember him being all happy and joyful, then his expression changing to serious and concerned.”

Karl Rove:

“Eddie Marinzel, the lead Secret Service agent, came up to the President — he was sitting in one of those tiny elementary school chairs — and said, ‘We need to get you to Air Force One and get you airborne’.”

Colonel Mark Tillman, pilot, Air Force One:

“President Bush comes up the stairs. We watched him come up the stairs every day with that famous Texas swagger. That day, no swagger.

Back in DC, Dick Cheney, US vice-president:

“Radar caught sight of an airliner heading towards the White House at 500mph. My Secret Service agent said, ‘Sir, we have to leave now’. He grabbed me and propelled me out of my office, down the hall and into the underground shelter in the White House.”

The site of the World Trade Center became known as ‘Ground Zero’
Dr Emil Chynn / Caters News Agency
September 11 is now remembered as Patriot Day in America
Dr Emil Chynn / Caters News Agency

Mary Matalin, aide to Dick Cheney:

“Out of nowhere came this call, ‘Run, run, they’re headed for the White House. Run for your life’. I was in a purple pencil skirt and red patent leather Charles Jourdan spiked heels. Not the best outfit to run for your life in.”

Shortly after 9am Ted Olson:

“One of the secretaries rushed in and said, ‘Barbara’s on the phone’. She said, ‘Our plane has been hijacked’. She told me that she had been herded to the back of the plane, that they had used knives and box cutters to hijack the plane.

“She said, ‘I love you’. She sounded very, very calm. Then the phone went dead.”

9.28am First Officer LeRoy Homer, of United Airlines Flight 93, transmits a brief radio call, where he can be heard shouting, “Mayday! Mayday! Get out!”.

9.37am American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into Wedge One, the western side of the Pentagon, at 530mph. Ted Olson:

“We could see over the TV screen smoke coming from the Pentagon. I knew in my heart that it was her flight.”

John Yates, security manager, US Army, Pentagon:

“I was blown through the air, and when I landed the room was black. What’s the first thing you do? You put your hands out to try to find where you are. Everything I touched burnt me.”

Alice Ann Hoagland, at home in California, mother of United Airlines Flight 93 passenger Mark Bingham:

“The call came at 6.37am [Pacific time]. He said, ‘Mom, this is Mark Bingham’. I knew he was a little flustered because he used his last name. He said, ‘I want to let you know that I love you’.”


Deena Burnett, San Ramon, California, wife of United Airlines Flight 93 passenger Tom Burnett:

“I saw on the caller ID that it was Tom’s phone. I was relieved, thinking that if he was on his phone, he was in the airport and was fine. I said, ‘Tom, are you OK?’.

He said, ‘No, I’m not. They’re in the cockpit’. I told him about the World Trade Center. He hadn’t known about it yet.

“He relayed that information to the people sitting around him. He said, ‘Oh my God, it’s a suicide mission’.”

Linda Gronlund, United Airlines Flight 93 passenger, in a voicemail to her sister:

“Elsa, it’s Lin. Um, I only have a minute. I’m on United 93. It’s been hijacked by terrorists who say they have a bomb. Apparently, they, uh, flew a couple of planes into the World Trade Center already and it looks like they’re going to take this one down as well [sobbing].

“Mostly, I just wanted to say I love you and I’m going to miss you. I don’t know if I’m going to get the chance to tell you that again.”

Evacuating the World Trade Center, Chief Joseph Pfeifer, Fire Department of New York (FDNY), inside the ground-floor lobby of the World Trade Center:

“Groups of firefighters were coming in. One was Engine 33, which was my brother Kevin’s. I told him we thought the lowest level of fire was at floor 78. Then we spent a couple of seconds looking at each other.

“He knew what he had to do. I watched him walk away, and that was the last time I saw him.”

Herb Ouida, N Tower, 105th floor:

“Todd called his mother when the plane hit. He said to her, ‘Mommy, don’t worry. I’m going to the stairs’.

“She said, ‘What about Daddy?’. Todd said, ‘I just spoke to him. He’s all right’. Todd had not spoken to me. At the moment of great danger, he’s protecting his mother. He was 25.”

The towers were part of a complex of seven buildings, all of which were destroyed when the skyscrapers collapsed
Dr Emil Chynn / Caters News Agency
Many people including the emergency response teams lost their lives trying to save others
Dr Emil Chynn / Caters News Agency

Elia Zedeno, financial analyst, Port Authority, N Tower, 73rd floor:

“Most of my journey down the stairs was in this complete state of non-emotion.

“I remember a woman who was screaming and screaming. There was a man helping her, and he had blood on his forehead, and all he kept saying to her was, ‘We were the lucky ones. We were the lucky ones’.”

Jeannine Ali, controller, Morgan Stanley, S Tower:

“There was a fireman — he couldn’t have been more than 19 — with a hose on his shoulder. I remember looking at him and saying, ‘There is nothing you can do. Don’t go in there’. He said, ‘Lady, it’s my job. I have to do it’.”

Bodies begin to fall as desperate people jump from the towers.

Wesley Wong, assistant special agent in charge, FBI New York:

“This fireman said something to me that I didn’t understand. He said, ‘Watch out for the falling bodies’. I remember crossing West Street and thinking, ‘What did he say about falling bodies?’. As I got close to the building, this fireman yelled, ‘Run! Here comes one’. I froze and looked up into that beautiful bright blue sky. I saw a fellow spreadeagled, coming out of the sky. I couldn’t believe what I saw.”

Detective David Brink, Emergency Service Unit, Truck 3, NYPD:

“I saw daisy chains of people holding hands, leaping out of the buildings.”

Gregory Fried, executive chief surgeon, NYPD:

“You’d hear this whoosh, and then it would go crash, and then you’d hear a splat.”

It was the worst loss of life due to a terrorist incident on US soil
Dr Emil Chynn / Caters News Agency
The attacks of September 11, 2001 changed life in the United States forever
Dr Emil Chynn / Caters News Agency
Both towers collapsed following the impact, with debris causing more deaths and injury on the streets below
Dr Emil Chynn / Caters News Agency

Bill Spade, firefighter, Rescue 5, FDNY:

“There were motion-detector doors that opened up into the North Tower. These doors kept opening and closing with the bodies that were coming down.”

Peter Moog, officer, NYPD:

“One jumper actually hit a fireman. He was one of the first firemen to get killed.”

9.50am Beverly Eckert, wife of Sean Rooney, vice-president of risk management, Aon Corporation, S Tower:

“When I heard his voice on the phone, I was so happy, thinking he had made it out. He told me he was on the 105th floor. I knew right away Sean was never coming home. There was a building in flames underneath him. I will always be in awe of the way he faced death. Not an ounce of fear. He told me to give his love to his family, and then we talked about all the happiness we shared during our lives. In the end, as the smoke got thicker, he kept whispering, ‘I love you’, over and over.”

9.59am S Tower collapses. William Jimeno, inside the lobby:

“Everything started shaking. I looked back toward the lobby and I saw a fireball the size of my house coming. All I felt was my body go up in the air and get slammed.”

James Filomeno, firefighter, Marine 1 FDNY:

“People were trying to hand me their kids — ‘Take my baby. Take the baby’.

Thousands of construction workers, police officers, firefighters and others spent time working to clear the debris
Dr Emil Chynn / Caters News Agency
The cost to clean up the 1.8 million tons of debris after 9/11 was around $750 million
Dr Emil Chynn / Caters News Agency

Bruno Dellinger, principal, Quint Amasis North America, N Tower:

“In about five seconds, darkness fell upon us. There was no more sound. Sound didn’t carry any more because the air was so thick.”

Dan Potter, firefighter, Ladder 10, FDNY:

“Then it started — the rain of the debris. I dived to the floor. I figured, ‘This is it’.

Lieutenant Joseph Torrillo, FDNY:

“I got hit with a piece of steel. My head was split open. Chunks of concrete hit my body. I could hear my bones snapping.”

Monsignor John Delendick, chaplain, FDNY:

“People I was standing with were all of a sudden dead.”

Inside the White House bunker, Commander Anthony Barnes, deputy director, Presidential Contingency Programs, White House:

“The Pentagon thought there was another hijacked plane, and they were asking for permission to shoot it down. I asked the Vice-President that question and he answered it in the affirmative. I asked again to be sure, ‘Sir, I am confirming that you have given permission?’.”

Vice-President Dick Cheney:

“It had to be done. Having seen what had happened in New York and the Pentagon, you really didn’t have any choice.

Alice Ann Hoagland on the fourth crash:

“Flight 93 was in the air longer than the other flights. People on board were able to find out about the fate of the other three flights and mount an effort to thwart the hijackers.”

Of the nearly 3,000 people killed, 343 were New York City firefighters and paramedics
Caters News Agency

Lyzbeth Glick, wife of United Airlines Flight 93 passenger Jeremy Glick:

“Jeremy said there were three other guys as big as him, and they were going to jump on the hijacker with the bomb and try to take back the plane. He was joking, ‘I have my butter knife from breakfast’.

Just before 10am

Voice in Arabic: “They want to get in there. Hold, hold from the inside. Hold from the inside. Hold.”

Voice in English: “Hold the door.”

Voice in English: “Stop him.”

Voice in English: “Sit down. Sit down. Sit down.”

Voice in Arabic: “There are some guys. All those guys.”

Voice in English: “Let’s get them.”

Voice in English: “Sit down.”

Voice in Arabic: “Trust in Allah and in him.”

10.29am N Tower collapses. Robert De Niro, actor:

“I lived nine blocks north of the World Trade Center. I had my big-screen television to my left, and I had the big picture window in front of me. When I saw the North Tower start to go down, I had to look at my television to confirm what I was seeing with my own eyes.”

Later in Manhattan, William Jimeno, buried under debris:

“I remember being able to take out of my left pocket a card and my pen. I was able to etch into the card, ‘Allison, I love you’. I was hoping they would find it if they found my body.


“At around 8pm, I heard voices, ‘United States Marine Corps, can anybody hear us?’.

“They worked on me for three hours. As they pulled me out, I remember looking around and I said, ‘Where is everything?’.

“That’s when a firefighter said, ‘It’s all gone, kid’.”


  • Extracted from The Only Plane In The Sky, by Garrett M. Graff (Monoray, £20 hardback).

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