Fall and Rise | Mitchell Zuckoff

Summary of: Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11
By: Mitchell Zuckoff


Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 is a riveting account of the unimaginable attacks that shook the world on September 11, 2001. This summary delves into the origins of the terrorist plot, meticulously planned by Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and its tragic execution. It captures pivotal moments and key players, from the experiences of civilians and first responders to the miscommunications and missteps within government and military organizations. Through the harrowing stories of survival, heroism, and loss, gain a deeper understanding of one of the most devastating days in modern history.

Unveiling 9/11 Attacks’ Genesis

The September 11 attacks were meticulously planned over the years, led by Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The Planes Operation was the basis for the attacks, which involved recruiting individuals knowledgeable in Western culture and language, among other skills. These individuals, including tactical commander Mohamed Atta, carried out extensive flight training and blended into American society while diligently studying routines of airport security and airline crews. The attack on American soil was decided by Atta in the latter half of 2001, and executed to devastating effect.

Unraveling the genesis of the September 11 attacks, we find ourselves in 1998, when Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States through a fatwa, a religious decree. Although bin Laden was previously on U.S. intelligence agencies’ watchlist due to activities in Yemen and Somalia, a large-scale terrorist attack was unfathomable for most at that time.

The 9/11 attacks were an outcome of strategic and comprehensive planning. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the attack’s chief architect, initially imagined hijacking ten planes and simultaneously targeting both coastlines. After bin Laden approved a more simplified version of the Planes Operation in 1999, Mohammed sought recruits who spoke English, were familiar with Western culture, and could enter the United States through valid travel visas.

Mohamed Atta, an Egyptian al-Qaeda recruit studying in Germany, was entrusted as the Planes Operation’s tactical commander. Atta and his cohorts embraced Western attire and eventually traveled to Florida in 2000 for pilot training. Meanwhile, bin Laden personally selected 16 additional operatives. Among them, one served as the fourth pilot, while the others were responsible for overpowering passengers and crews on the targeted flights.

Entering the United States in 2001, they integrated themselves into American society. As time passed, bin Laden grew increasingly impatient for the operation to commence. However, Atta was focused on understanding airport security and flight crew protocols. Ultimately, he selected the second Tuesday in September for the infamous attacks, though the choice’s underlying significance remains unknown.

Once the date solidified, Atta’s operatives made calculated arrangements—securing plane tickets and motel rooms in Boston, Newark, and Washington, DC. On September 10, they readied themselves for the final act that would forever change history.

Speed: The 9/11 Attacks’ Backbone

On September 11, 2001, 45-year-old Betty Ong, a 14-year flight attendant veteran, prepared for her routine trip from Boston to Los Angeles, completely unaware of the tragic events that were about to unfold. Speed and coordination were crucial to the terrorists’ plan, ensuring that the world remained unaware and unprepared for the events that were about to transpire.

American Airlines Flight 11, piloted by Betty Ong, set off at 7:59 a.m., unknowingly accompanied by ten other crew members, 81 passengers, and a group of terrorists led by Mohamed Atta. Just 20 minutes into the journey, Atta’s group started their hostile takeover of the aircraft. Betty, quick to realize the danger, reached out to American Airlines’ reservation line, providing vital details about the hijacked cockpit, a stabbed business class passenger, and the use of mace on the remaining passengers and crew.

As the terrifying revelation began to unfold, United Flight 175 and American Flight 77 took off from Boston and Washington, each carrying their own set of crew, passengers, and hijackers. Unlike the passengers and crew aboard Flight 11, no one aboard United 175 or American 77 knew what was happening on the initial hijacked flight.

The terrorists relied heavily on the element of speed. The swiftness of the attacks left the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), airlines, and military overwhelmed with confusing and conflicting information, making it nearly impossible for them to respond effectively. The nature of the hijackings further contributed to the confusion—a scenario where the hijackers themselves pilot the planes had never been considered.

The last plane to depart that fateful morning, United Flight 93, carried 33 passengers, seven crew members, and for hijackers, bound for San Francisco from Newark. By the time of its departure at 8:42 a.m., word had spread about the first two hijackings. Only minutes later, at 8:46 a.m., American Flight 11 collided with the North Tower of the World Trade Center in a devastating crash, unveiling the full extent of the terrorists’ meticulous plan.

The 9/11 attacks changed the course of modern history, underscoring the importance of speed and coordination in executing such operations. Ultimately, these events reshaped global security and the aviation industry forever.

Hindered Military Response

On September 11, Major Kevin Nasypany, the mission control commander at the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), was preoccupied with a training exercise. However, his plan for the day changed when his team had to address a real-world emergency. Miscommunication and a lack of information led to a delayed military response to the attacks. As air traffic controllers at Boston Center lost contact with American Flight 11, they initially believed it was a technical malfunction. But after hearing a suspicious transmission, they deduced the plane had been hijacked.

During the next several minutes, Boston Control tried to communicate with the pilots, assuming a traditional hijacking situation. At 8:34 a.m., they sought military aid, bypassing normal channels and calling bases directly. This connected them with Major Nasypany’s NEADS post. He quickly obtained permission to launch two F-15 fighter jets from Otis Air National Guard Base. However, the challenge now was accurately directing the fighter jets to the hijacked plane; Flight 11’s disabled transponder made this difficult.

Moreover, NEADS’ radar system differed from the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA), causing confusion and misinterpretation of information. When Flight 11 hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., Major Nasypany found out about the crash through a CNN news report. Still unaware of the other hijacked planes, the two fighter jets continued their futile search for a plane that no longer existed. The miscommunication and lack of effective information-sharing between the FAA and NEADS led to an untimely response to the tragic events of September 11.

Confusion in the Twin Towers

Amidst the chaos of 9/11, occupants of the Twin Towers received mixed information on how to respond to the attacks. At 8:46 a.m., American Flight 11 hit the North Tower, trapping over 1,300 people on the 92nd floor and above. Stan Praimnath, in the South Tower, experienced conflicting directives during the emergency. Rescuers struggled to reach trapped victims as the stairwells were blocked. Although Stan survived, the attacks claimed the lives of significant numbers on American Flight 11, United Flight 175, and the World Trade Center area.

The moment American Flight 11 struck the North Tower at the World Trade Center, around 17,000 people were plunged into chaos. The crash instantly killed everyone on the plane and an unknown number in the tower while simultaneously blocking all three emergency stairwells. Approximately 1,355 individuals on the 92nd floor and higher found themselves trapped in a dire situation.

Those inside the towers encountered conflicting information regarding the attacks. For example, Guyanese immigrant Stan Praimnath, working on the South Tower’s 81st floor, was initially unaware of the North Tower explosion. As he attempted to evacuate alongside temporary worker Delis Soriano, a security guard mistakenly informed them that the emergency didn’t affect their tower, suggesting they return to their office.

Unfortunately, due to increasing panic and desperation, many trapped individuals dialed 911 for assistance, overwhelming the emergency lines. Victims were assured that help was on its way even though the smoke and flames were gradually engulfing them. The blocked stairwells prevented any means of escape, and many broke windows to access fresh air, eventually falling or jumping to their deaths.

Stan eventually returned to his workspace, where a Chicago colleague frantically called him, urging him to evacuate. Dismissing her warning, he continued to work until he spotted United Flight 175 flying rapidly toward him. He took cover under his desk only seconds before the plane collided with the South Tower. Astonishingly, Stan survived the impact.

The immense destruction was a daunting sight as Stan pushed forward through the rubble. A glimmer of light caught his attention, revealing fellow survivor Brian Clark. The two strangers became “brothers for life” as they navigated their way to safety.

Though Stan and Brian managed to escape unscathed, the 9/11 attacks resulted in numerous tragic losses. In the World Trade Center area alone, 2,606 lives were lost, in addition to the passengers of American Flight 11 and United Flight 175.

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