(LifeSiteNews) — On Saturday, America marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11. As commemorations were taking place throughout the country, Afghanistan was again plunged into chaos after falling back into the hands of the Taliban. This sad turn of events invites us to look back, remember the events and the victims, and reflect on the significance of that date, which has stood as a symbol for the struggle between Christian civilization and the Muslim world for centuries. Even after 20 years, many of the survivors are still struggling with trauma, many families are still grieving, and many victims are still being hailed as heroes according to the now well-known 9/11 motto: Never Forget.
Remembering the events, the victims, and their last prayers
New York City, September 11, 2001, 8:46 a.m.: American Airlines flight 11, a Boeing 767-200 which departed at 7:59 a.m. from Boston Logan airport bound for Los Angeles, slams into the North Tower of the World Trade Center between the 93rd and 99th floors at 465 mph. This single moment started a chain of events whose consequences still affect today’s world in many ways.
Among the victims of that day who are now being celebrated as heroes are American Airlines’ flight attendants Betty Ong and Madeline Amy Sweeney. They were on flight 11 when the plane hit the North Tower. After taking-off from Boston Logan Airport at 7:59, flight 11 was hijacked at around 8:14. Two flight attendants, Karen Martin and Barbara Arestegui, were stabbed by the hijackers who forced their way into the cockpit. First officer Thomas McGuinness and captain John Ogonowski were then forcibly removed from the controls and most likely killed.
Only five minutes into the hijacking, Betty Ong and Amy Sweeny managed to make contact with the American Airlines reservation center, after making multiple attempts to gain access to the cockpit to no avail. They communicated vital information to the ground, including the seat numbers of the five hijackers which later greatly facilitated their identification. In the last seconds before the crash, Amy Sweeney reported: “I see water … I see buildings. We’re low. We’re flying way too low!”
Right before flight 11 impacted, Betty Ong asked operations manager Nydia Gonzalez at the other end of the line to pray for her and the passengers: “Pray for us!” she said, right before the communication was cut. Following 9/11, Ong was declared a national hero and received the award for civilian bravery. The first part of her call was released to the public.
Only 45 minutes after becoming airborne and thirty minutes after being hijacked, flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, instantly killing all 92 occupants on board, as well as potentially hundreds more on the impact floors. Floors 93 to 100 were occupied by insurance company Marsh&McLennan which lost 295 employees and 65 consultants on that day.
In addition, 1,355 people from the 92nd floor up perished, either instantly or in the subsequent fire and smoke condition in the upper floors. Some 200 jumped or fell to their death, attempting to escape the fires that were raging inside the building. But many were still alive when the North Tower collapsed 102 minutes later at 10:28. Because all emergency stairwells were destroyed in the crash, not a single person above floor 91 of the North Tower managed to escape.
Within minutes of the crash, the emergency services were overwhelmed with phone calls both from within the tower as well as from witnesses on the streets below and concerned relatives of people who worked in the towers. First media reports were sketchy, and at this point America didn’t know that it was witnessing the biggest terrorist attack ever experienced by any country in history.
Less than 17 minutes after the crash of flight 11, United Airlines flight 175, also a Boeing 767-200 from Boston bound to Los Angeles, impacted the South Tower between the 77th and 85th floors at a speed of well over 500 mph, killing all 65 occupants on board. As news crews, photographers and video amateurs were already on scene, covering the first incident at Tower One, the event was televised live on air and recorded on hundreds of cameras. The world watched in horror as the plane violently maneuvered toward the World Trade Center and ploughed into the South Tower. At that moment, it became clear that what until then could have passed as an accident was in fact a deliberate act of mass murder and destruction.
Though a majority of the 7,000 occupants of the South Tower had already vacated the building by the time the second plane hit, hundreds were still inside, having either chosen to remain in their offices, or been instructed to go back to their floors in order to avoid crowding at ground level and to facilitate access for emergency services. In total, 630 perished at or above the impact floors. Hundreds of them had been waiting for an elevator on the 78th floor sky-lobby which was used as a connecting floor and happened to be directly in the airplane’s path.
Conditions in the upper floors of both towers following the crashes of American 11 and United 175 quickly became unbearable. Hundreds called 911 in hope for directions. In the North Tower, most calls came from floors 101–105, which were occupied by investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald, a company that lost 658 employees, more than any other company on 9/11. Others came from Windows on the World, one of New York’s most famous restaurants located on the 106th and 107th floor of the North Tower. Publishing company Risk Waters was holding a conference there when flight 11 impacted the building at 8:46 a.m. Assistant manager Christine Olender called the PAPD four times and reported heavy smoke: “The fresh air is going down fast I am not exaggerating!” Many people broke windows and were seen hanging from them in an attempt to get air.
Calls were made from the South Tower, as well. Perhaps the most distressing came from 32-year-old Melissa Doi who was trapped on the 83rd floor. The first part of her call to 911 operator Barnes was released to the public and played at the trial of one of the brains behind the 9/11 terror attack: French terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui.
Doi was a manager at IQ financial systems, a financial software company. She made a 911 call at 9:17 and can be heard praying the Hail Mary as she gets through to 911 operator Barnes. She told Barnes she was trapped on the 83rd floor with five other people and reported intense heat and heavy smoke on that floor. As conditions around her worsened and it became clear that help was nowhere near, Melissa asked Barnes: “I’m gonna die, aren’t I?”
Barnes tried to comfort the distressed woman and encouraged her to keep “saying her prayers.” Later during the call, Melissa can be heard praying the Our Father. Before being overcome by the smoke and losing consciousness, she asked the operator Barnes to write a message to her mother, Evelyn Alderete. “Tell her that she was the best mother a person could have,” said Doi, “and that I love her with all my heart and soul, and that I will see her in the next world.”
Soon after that, she apparently lost consciousness. But operator Barnes stayed on the phone for another fifteen minutes until the line was cut. She called Melissa’s name more than 60 times hoping to hear a reply, but none came …
Though it was hit second, the South Tower collapsed first after burning for 56 minutes. When it did, at 9:59, firefighter Orio Palmer had just reached the 78th floor sky lobby in the impact zone. The event took hundreds of firefighters by surprise, and most people who were in the building at the time of the collapse perished. Only a handful of firefighters and workers who had been in the lobby were dug out of the rubble alive hours or even days later.
Among the people who perished as a result of the collapse of the South Tower was a Catholic priest: Fr. Mychal Judge.
Judge was the chaplain of the New York Fire Department. When he learned about the attacks at the World Trade Center, he rushed to the scene to assist, and was soon seen praying for the firefighters who were going up into the burning towers, as well as over the wounded and the bodies of many victims who had died in the lobby or fallen to their death from the upper floors.
When the South Tower collapsed, Judge was in the North Tower’s lobby and was hit in the head by debris. He was the first person to be dragged out of the rubbles by firefighters, but unfortunately, he did not survive.
9/11 remains to this day the single deadliest incident for first responders. In all, 343 firefighters lost their lives, as well as 37 police officers from the PAPD (Port Authority Police Department) and 23 police officers from the NYPD (New York Police Department). Many are regarded as heroes for their selfless acts on that day.
But perhaps the most tragic stories of 9/11 is that of Irish-born architect Ron Clifford. Ron was in the lobby of the North Tower when the first plane hit. He helped a woman who had been badly burned by jet fuel that had traveled all the way down the North Tower’s elevator shafts and exploded onto the concourse. Ron escorted the badly burned woman to the lobby of the nearby Marriot hotel where they waited for an ambulance together. Ron told his story in a documentary entitled The 9/11 Hotel, recalling his interaction with the woman whose name was Jenny Ann.
“She said to me, ‘I’m going to die,’ and I said to her, ‘No you’re not, we’re going to help you through this.’ Then she said, ‘Sacred heart of Jesus, help me.’ I said to her, ‘You’re obviously Catholic,’ and she said, ‘Yes’. So, I said, ‘Look, while we’re waiting, let’s say a prayer.’ So we said the Lord’s prayer, and as I was finishing the Lord’s prayer, there was another extreme explosion.”
At that point, little did Ron know that what he had heard was the second plane: United Airlines flight 175 impacting the South Tower, or that on that plane was his sister Ruth and her four-year-old daughter Juliana.
Jenny Ann, the woman he helped, was taken to the hospital but did not survive.
Stories of survival and miracles
Stories of 9/11 are not just about those who passed away but also about the survivors. Though many of them are still struggling to cope with the trauma and injuries they sustained on that day, over the years, some have shared their incredible stories.
A number of these stories come from the South Tower where, unlike for the North Tower, some people at and above impact made it out alive before the building collapsed. Because of the angle of impact of flight 175, 18 survivors (including 12 from floor 78) managed to escape via stairwell A: The only staircase which remained, at least for a time, passable, though unknown to firefighters and to most people trapped in the upper floors.
They described their ordeal in an ABC News special documentary on 9/11.
Two survivors, Florence Jones on the 77th floor and Stanley Prainmath on the 81st floor, witnessed the plane fly directly toward them as it approached the building. Both survived the crash and escaped before the building collapsed.
“I could see straight across the floor which was all glass, and I could not figure out on a bright sunny, cloudless day, what this black thing was that was approaching the building,” Jones said.
That “black thing” turned out to be flight 175. The tip of the plane’s left wing entered the building just above Jones.
Prainmath was on the 81st floor when he saw the plane approaching: “For no apparent reason I just raised my head watching towards the statue of Liberty, and what I saw was a giant aircraft coming eye-contact, eye-level towards me, and I dove under my desk.”
His survival story is nothing short of a miracle, as the nose of the plane ploughed into his floor, a couple of feet from him, completely destroying everything around him: “This impact was so great that I got temporarily deaf, I couldn’t hear anything. It looked as if a demolition crew came in, and just knocked everything flat,” he recalled.
“The ceiling caved in and part of the 82nd floor collapsed. And I’m hiding under a steel desk, the only one that stood intact … my Bible was on top of that desk.”
Prainmath was later rescued by insurance broker Brian Clark who worked on the 84th floor. The two men became good friends and have shared their survival story many times. Both escaped the building unscathed before it collapsed.
Not everyone within the impact zone was as lucky, however. On the 78th floor elevator lobby, most of the survivors were severely injured. Some of them owe their survival to others, like Dona Spera who, after being badly injured, was assisted in her escape by fellow survivor Kelly Reyher: “I met up with Kelly, and that was a miracle because there weren’t many people that made it on that floor … None of my friends that I was with on 78 made it.”
Florence Jones relates that her decision to get down one set of stairs (from floor 78 to 77) is what saved her life: “For me, that decision was crucial because practically everybody on [the 78th floor] died. And where I would have been standing, there would have been no way I could have gotten out of the way of that airplane.”
Survivors of the South Tower’s upper floors had to work their way down 78 floors of stairs, most of them having been injured. Dona Spera recalled how she was helped by US Marshall Dominic Guadagnoli as she finally made it out of the building: “When I came out of the building, I think I was just collapsing at that point. And I remember Dominic carrying me and telling me it was going to be okay.”
A lingering trauma for survivors, as well as friends and relatives of the victims
20 years after the events of 9/11, many of the survivors still struggle with trauma, grief and guilt complex following the loss of many of their friends and colleagues. And for many families of the victims, the pain never ebbs.
In the South Tower, survivors from the upper floor saw first-hand the carnage that was unfolding in the tower next door. Some, like Florence Jones, were particularly traumatized by the sight of the people jumping from the burning tower: “To see these young men doing the sign of the cross and jumping … it had to be awful up there. And you [couldn’t] pull your eyes away as much as you [wanted] to, out of sheer dignity for them.”
British survivor Janice Brooks escaped the South Tower but lost 60 of her colleagues on 9/11. She ended a 35 minutes long testimony on Sky News by asking audiences to spare a thought for both victims and survivors: “Will you give some thought, maybe, not only to all my friends, but to everyone who died on September 11? And if I can be really indulgent, can I please ask that you spare a thought for all the survivors as well, because we’re still struggling …”
The historical significance of the date 9/11
Few people know that 9/11 was not a date chosen at random by the terrorists who carried out the attacks, but that it is also the date when the Muslim armies of the Ottoman Empire launched their attack on the city of Vienna, in 1683, in an attempt to conquer the rest of Christian Europe.
After laying siege near Vienna for more than two months, Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa marked the opening day of his attack by executing 30,000 Christian captives.
The Holy League forces were vastly outnumbered by the Turks. Though they managed to hold off the Ottoman forces on that day, they knew they could not survive another day of battle without assistance.
The tide of the battle turned on September 12, when Polish King Jan III Sobieski arrived with his cavalry. He had put his army under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, Our Lady of Czestochowa.
The arrival of the cavalry sent the Turks into retreat and in less than three hours, the Christian forces had won the battle and saved Vienna.
The defeat of the Ottoman Turks at Vienna on the September 12 was a turning point in the centuries long struggle between Christian civilization and the Muslim world. It was the last attempt by the Ottomans to expand their empire into Europe. Historians consider the Battle of Vienna to be one of the decisive battles of world history.