American Airlines – A sunny day on the South Shore turns tragic
Twenty years ago, on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, families were settling into the routines of the first full week of a new school year. It was a sunny, late-summer morning, the skies a brilliant blue.
Voters in half a dozen South Shore communities were casting ballots that morning in heavily contested primaries to fill the congressional seat of Joseph Moakley, who had died that May. There were seven Democratic candidates seeking the nomination and two Republicans. Quincy was holding a preliminary election that day to narrow the field of city council candidates.
The fading Red Sox were in New York, where after three straight losses to the Yankees they were rained out the night before. They were on their way to an 82-79 record and a second-place finish 13.5 games behind the pinstripes. The curse would hold for three more years.
The New England Patriots were coming off a season-opening loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, 23-17. It was their last game before Tom Brady took over as quarterback for an injured Drew Bledsoe and led the team to its first Super Bowl championship.
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A story interrupted
President George W. Bush was at Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, where he was about to read a story to a second grade class. Before Bush entered the classroom, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, a Holbrook native, told him a small plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.
As Chris Whipple wrote in “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staffs Define Every Presidency,” an aide told Card of the second crash, and he decided to inform the president immediately.
Card whispered into Bush’s right ear, “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.”
The two hijacked jetliners that crashed into the towers, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, had originated at Boston’s Logan Airport. The second crash was shown live on television during coverage of the first crash.
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Within an hour of the attacks, two other hijacked planes also crashed: American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon and United Flight 93 into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
In Boston, the city’s two tallest buildings, the Prudential and the John Hancock towers, were evacuated. The state sent non-emergency workers home, as did the federal government and many businesses.
Schools remained open, although some school officials decided to keep the news from their students. South Shore Plaza closed at 1:30 p.m. Entertainment venues canceled performances.
The reaction: Disbelief
The immediate reaction was shock.
“It’s very scary, unbelievable,” Regina Harris, of Abington, told a reporter.
On the air, television networks switched to live coverage of the events, not to return to regular programming for days. Even networks including MTV and QVC went all-news. Many radio stations broke formats. Newspapers rushed out “extra” editions, including The Patriot Ledger. The headline: “America’s day of terror.”
“In a devastating blow to the symbols of America’s economic and military might, terrorists today reduced the 110-story World Trade Center to rubble, severely damaged the Pentagon and crashed four commercial jetliners filled with passengers in a coordinated series of attacks that left hundreds dead,” began the lead story in The Patriot Ledger.
“The horrifying attack, called by some ‘a second Pearl Harbor,’ spread fear and outrage from coast to coast,” the story continued.
The skies grew quiet after the FAA ordered all domestic flights to land at the nearest airport, some 4,500 of them. Only military, law enforcement and emergency flights were allowed. Flights from Europe with 6,700 passengers aboard were diverted to the small Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland.
Commercial flights would resume on a limited basis a couple of days later. Logan remained closed until Saturday.
Friends and relatives frantically made phone calls to Washington and New York to find out if loved ones were safe. AT&T, its system overwhelmed, asked its customers not to call those two cities.
Jeffrey Curran, of Canton, was trying to locate his sister, Linda McPhilemy, an American Airlines flight attendant from Canton who regularly worked Flight 11. He found her at a hotel at Kennedy Airport in New York. She had not been on the plane.
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On the streets of New York, families posted pictures and descriptions of the missing. For some, two decades later, the search continues.
There were many stories of people who would have been in the World Trade Center that morning but for a sick child, a dentist appointment or a late start that day.
Local public safety personnel, ironworkers and medical staff headed to New York to assist. People rolled up their sleeves to donate blood, raised money for groups such as the Red Cross and swamped local flag dealers with orders.
State officials debated whether to go ahead with that day’s election, with Secretary of State William Galvin considering going to the state’s highest court to suspend the voting. Attorney General Thomas Reilly and acting Gov. Jane Swift, who had been taken to the state’s emergency headquarters in Framingham, argued the election should go forward.
“I’m convinced people will be safe, both those who work at the polls and those who exercise their rights that I hope they treasure more deeply today than any other day,” Swift said.
The balloting continued without pause. State Sen. Stephen Lynch, of South Boston, won the Democratic primary. State Sen. Jo Ann Sprague, of Walpole, was the Republican nominee. Lynch won the special election the following month and still serves in Congress.
Protecting the president
Aboard Air Force One, Card and Bush had an animated discussion about the plane’s destination. Bush wanted to return to Washington immediately, while Card and the Secret Service wanted the president to fly elsewhere until it was determined it was safe for him to return.
The president finally agreed, and the plane stopped in Louisiana and Nebraska before returning to Washington with a fighter plane escort.
Locally that night, houses of worship held well-attended special services. The added services continued through the week, and on Sunday thousands attended vigils.
Major League Baseball suspended play for 10 days and the National Football League, which was criticized for holding games two days after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, postponed that Sunday’s slate of games. Major League Soccer canceled its matches, and college football games were not played.
In the days and weeks to come, the names, faces and stories of the nearly 3,000 victims would emerge. Those who died came from 90 countries. They were honored and mourned by a nation that pledged never to forget. Security was stepped up everywhere, from airport terminals to office buildings.
The United States and its allies went to war in Afghanistan, a war which lasted nearly two decades and cost the lives of nearly 2,500 U.S troops, 3,800 American contractors and 1,150 allied military. The cost of the nation’s longest war is estimated at $2 trillion.
In 2011, U.S. Navy SEALS located and killed Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attacks, and buried him at sea.
After Sept. 11, 2001, the nation united. Two decades later, it appears broken beyond repair.
A new generation has come of age since then.
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For some who were alive on Sept. 11, 2001, the memories of that day and its aftermath have faded. For others, they never will.
Fred Hanson can be reached at [email protected]
American Airlines – A sunny day on the South Shore turns tragic