The events of September 11, 2001 both stunned and united this country, when terrorists hijacked four air planes, plowing them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The fourth plane was brought down in a Pennsylvania field after heroic passengers rushed the cockpit, preventing further loss of life.
Universal outrage followed the action by 19 Islamic al-Qaida extremists. While the disaster was perpetrated on the East Coast, its effect was felt in Alaska and around the world. In Chugiak-Eagle River, a heavy silence was noticeable after all air traffic was grounded.
One Alaskan lost his life when hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 flew at full throttle into the Pentagon. E1 Ronald J. Hemenway, 37, was born in Cordova and moved to the Matanuska Valley with his parents, Bob and Shirley Hemenway. He graduated from Wasilla High School in 1982. Enlisting in the Navy in 1994, he served aboard the USS LaSalle. While stationed in Italy, he met and married Marinella, a local girl. The couple had two children, a son Stefan and a daughter Desiree.
In 2000, Hemenway applied for an opening at the Pentagon and was accepted. He was on duty at 9:37 a.m. that fateful morning when the Boeing 727-223 was flown into the building, creating an inferno. His remains, along with those of four others, were never recovered. Benches bearing his name, along with others honoring those who died, are in the 9/11 Memorial outside the restored Pentagon. A bronze battlefield marker—a rifle with bayonet fixed in the combat boot base, with a helmet on the butt—has been placed in his memory at Wasilla High School.
The Pentagon death toll was 189 souls: 125 who were in the Pentagon and 53 passengers of Flight 77, the five hijackers and six crew members.
Collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York claimed by far the most of that day’s victims. It appears that 2,606 people died after hijacked passenger planes slammed into the buildings. Six thousand others were injured and hundreds more still may die of its effects. Both of the majestic structures collapsed from the searing heat and damage caused by the deadly missiles. It is estimated that 90% of those who died were trapped above the impact levels. Tragically, among the other 10% were 343 first-responders who perished while trying to render aid.
Self-proclaimed planner of the attack was the 17th among 52 children of Mohammed Bin Laden, a wealthy Yemen-born man who owned the largest construction firm in Saudi Arabia.
Osama Bin Laden was the founder of al-Qaida—translated as “the Base” —a jihadist organization aimed at unifying the Middle East into an Islamist state. He was not trusted by the Saudi royal family, and his passport was pulled. He managed to escape to Afghanistan and continued his activities there. The group’s first attack was in 1989, the bombing of a hotel in Yemen that killed two Australians, followed by other atrocities in Somalia and elsewhere. Bin Laden was believed to be connected to the 1996 bombing of the World Trade Center. After the 9/11 attack, he boasted that the result had been just as he calculated.
A “most wanted” person sought by international authorities for nearly a decade, Bin Laden took refuge in a complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan. On May 2, 2011, a team of U.S. Navy Seals stormed the compound and killed the terrorist organizer. He was buried at sea.
Perpetrators of the 9/11 attack were from four different countries, although 15 of the 19 were Saudis. One was Egyptian, two were from the United Arab Emirates and one was Lebanese.
Those who were to pilot the planes and two others arrived in the United States a year before the attack. Only two pairs traveled to this country together, the others flying solo. One, Hani Hanjour, already possessed a commercial pilot’s license. He took a refresher course while three others took flying lessons. The remaining terrorists arrived at different times during the five months prior to the attack. All six had been coached on how to “fit in” in America.
The hijacked flights were all bound for the West Coast and carried full loads of fuel. Also, they were known to carry fewer passengers. Using mace, knives and box-cutters, the terrorists took over the airplanes. They were able to break into the cockpits and kill the crew, a terrorist taking the controls and shutting off electronic tracking devices while confederates guarded the passengers.
Commander of the terrorists was an Egyptian national, Mohamed Atta, 33, who took control of American Airlines Flight 11 and flew it into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. The flight left Boston and was headed for Los Angeles. His four accomplices, all Saudis, were aged 22, 25, 28 and 22.
United Airlines Flight 175 also took off from Boston bound for Los Angeles.
Its controls were taken over by 23-year-old Marwan al-Shehri of the United Arab Emirates. The plane struck the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. His accomplices were 22, 24, 20 and 22 years of age.
American Airlines Flight 77 left Dulles enroute to Los Angeles. It was flown into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. by Hanjur, 29. His companions were 28, 24, 25 and 20 years of age.
United Flight 93 was taken over by Ziad Jarrah, 26, of Lebanon, and three others ages 23, 20 and 21.
That flight was enroute from Newark, N.J. to San Francisco and departed late enough so that its passengers became aware of the Trade Center attacks. Expecting to die, flight attendants and several passengers thwarted an attack against either the Capitol or the White House. It is believed that Jarrah intentionally crashed the plane into a field at Shanksville, Penn.
There were no survivors from any of the planes. In all, 246 innocent people were murdered aboard aircraft converted into missiles in a plan hatched by bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Mohammed later was captured, admitted his part in planning the 9/11 attack and is being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Stronger security procedures might have prevented the disaster.
When one of the intended pilots commented that he was only interested in learning how to maneuver an aircraft, not land it, the instructor alerted officials. Two of the men were on no-fly lists, but got through, although the intended 20th hijacker was stopped overseas. Lack of coordination and follow through were to have awful consequences.
In response to 9/11, security measures have been tightened and coordination between federal agencies improved. While passengers are inconvenienced as a result of the measures, there have been no U.S. airborne terror-related disasters since, although a shoe-bomber’s attempt failed.
Conspiracy theories about 9/11 abound.
That a lease for the World Trade Center was signed just six weeks before 9/11—whose insurance arrangement compensated the lessors many millions of dollars twice (for losses due to separate aircraft striking the buildings)—was seen as suspicious.
A third building, WTC 7, collapsed at 5:21 p.m. It was determined that debris from the twin towers had started fires that led to its destruction. Some theorize it could not have been downed by fire but by a controlled explosion. In its August edition, Popular Mechanics magazine reported that the National Institute of Standards and Technology “conclusively rebuts those claims.” A group called “Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth” arranged for University of Alaska Fairbanks Prof. J. Leroy Hulsey and his students to conduct a two-year study to determine whether fire or an explosion was the cause. That report was due to come out last month.
To honor those who died, the eight-acre Trade Center site has been made into a 9/11 Memorial and Museum with 110,000 square feet of exhibition space.
Twin reflecting pools were created in the footprint of the two towers. The memorial opened on the tenth anniversary of the attack and offers exhibits and guided tours to the public. It has a historical exhibition, a memorial exhibition and a massive hall displaying a wall section and column salvaged from the original buildings.
It was an event indelibly inscribed on the minds of those who watched that day unfold. It was America’s worst day since Dec. 7, 1941, when nearly as many lives were lost in another sneak attack. May it never happen again.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: [email protected].