The harrowing untold stories from 9/11

Aug 24, 2021 News

The harrowing untold stories from 9/11

Down the adjacent side streets everything was blanketed in ghostly grey dust, eliminating all colour save for the odd traffic light. Volunteers distributed food and water to exhausted rescue workers resting on chairs pulled from once-chic restaurants. Scraps of litter hung from blasted trees. Gone were all the yellow taxis, vendors and brash New Yorkers that had lent the city its vitality.

The stench of burnt and burning material was overwhelming. The dangers were considerable and the task Herculean. But, as I wrote at the time, ‘this army of workers battled on regardless, 24 hours a day, its indomitable spirit a negation of the terrorists’ destruction just as the giant Stars and Stripes unfurled at great risk from thegutted heights of the encircling skyscrapers, and the tiny flags stuck in the rescue workers’ helmets, exude defiance’. I was, of course, horrified by what I saw, but I also felt moved, encouraged, inspired even, by the city’s resolute response. 

I stayed on in America and spent the next three months reporting from a profoundly traumatised country. Against the background of a stunningly beautiful autumn, it faced the further horror of anonymous anthrax attacks on congressmen and media offices, and it prepared for war in Afghanistan. At the Whiteman Air Force Base in Knob Noster, Missouri, I watched B2 stealth bombers set off on 7,000-mile flights across three continents to bomb al-Qaeda and Taliban targets. Afghanistan soon segued into the invasion of Iraq and wider ‘War on Terror’.

People run from the explosions. Credit: AP

The reverberations of 9/11 have since hit every corner of the world. But a new documentary series entitled 9/11: One Day in America (read our review) has wrenched me back to that cataclysmic event of September 11, 2001, and to the extraordinary stories of all those ordinary men and women who rose and went to work as usual on that fine sunny morning 20 years ago, only to be engulfed by the deadliest terrorist attack in history.

It is harrowing viewing. Hard men, some telling their stories for the first time, crumple as they recall deaths, rescues, escapes and acts of kindness. Daniel Bogado, the British-Paraguayan director, admits that he and his team ‘cried a lot and we cried often’ as they conducted and edited those interviews. I was certainly moved to tears – not just by the death and destruction, but also by the heroism and humanity displayed on a day when nearly 3,000 innocent people were killed by a handful of evil men armed with box cutters. 

Before each of the documentary’s six episodes this warning appears: ‘The following programme shows the life and death events of 9/11, with intense scenes of suffering and trauma.’ The caution is warranted because they bring the sheer horror of that day flooding back.  Filmed over three years, it makes extensive use of contemporary footage (some never seen before) amassed by the 9/11 Memorial & Museum – of the planes smashing into the Twin Towers and exploding in great balls of flame; of people jumping to their deaths from the burning upper floors; of huge storms of dust and debris chasing terrified crowds down narrow streets as the towers collapse; of onlookers shrieking and screaming, scarcely able to comprehend what they are seeing; of weeping relatives desperately searching for loved ones. 

It uses recordings of exchanges between air traffic controllers as they realise the planes have been hijacked, of desperate calls from the passengers, and of final messages left on home telephones by those trapped in the towers. ‘Hon, I love you. I don’t know what’s going on. Tell the kids. Save this message your whole life. I love you,’ one told his wife. ‘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. Go have good times… Bye, babe,’ another said.

It was soon clear America was under attack. Credit: National Geographic

It also interviews, at length, the rescuers and the rescued, the saviours and the saved. The goal, said Bogado, was ‘to do a big series, all of it archive led, and find the most extraordinary stories and tell them as part of a grand narrative’. (Read more harrowing survivors’ stories here.)

One early clip shows Joseph Pfeifer, 45, fire chief for Manhattan’s southern tip, inspecting a mundane gas leak while a pair of brothers making a documentary about a probationary firefighter film him. As they do so, the first plane roars overhead and smashes into the North Tower 14 blocks away. ‘We heard it first, then we saw it literally zoom past us as it was flying over the Hudson River, and then I saw the plane actually aim and crash into the Trade Center,’ Pfeifer told The Telegraph

He rushed to the flaming tower and established a rudimentary command post in a lobby strewn with broken glass and full of badly burned people. Exploding jet fuel had destroyed the lifts, so he ordered his men to climb the stairs. His younger brother, Kevin, was among them. 

‘We stood there and looked at each other in silence, wondering if we were both going to be OK,’ Pfeifer recalled. ‘He didn’t say a word to me. We just glanced at each other and then I ordered him, as I told other officers, to go up to evacuate and rescue. He turned around and took his company and that was the last time I saw my brother.’

In a similar vein, Jay Jonas, a firefighter, tells how he and his colleagues paused before climbing the North Tower. ‘One said: “We may not live through today.” I said “You’re right. We may not.” And we stopped and we took the time to shake each other’s hands and wish each other good luck. Out of all those guys I’m the only one that’s alive.’

The second plane hit the South Tower between its 77th and 85th floors 17 minutes later. Stanley Praimnath, then 44, was a banker working on the 81st floor. ‘The phone is ringing. It’s a young lady on the other end. “Stan, get out.” “Why do I have to get out?”’ he recalls in the documentary.

‘Something caught my attention looking towards the direction of the Statue of Liberty. What I saw was a tiny little speck first of a plane. And within a split second, it’s getting larger and larger. Oh my God, it’s coming towards me. It’s coming for me. Eye-level contact. And as I’m watching, I can see this plane start tilting… I can hear the revving sound this engine is making like when the plane takes off… I said, “Lord, I can’t do this. You take over.” Dropped the phone, screamed, dove under the desk.’ Miraculously he survived an almost direct hit on his office.

A firefighter at the scene. Credit: Getty

Another clip shows a police helicopter hovering beside the North Tower, close enough to see the faces of people standing on upper floor window ledges to escape the raging fires inside. ‘I’m seeing mothers, I’m seeing fathers, I’m seeing brothers, I’m seeing sisters literally standing on the damaged portion of the building [with] what looked like white napkins, handkerchiefs, tablecloths, and they were waving them to let us know we need to assist them,’ Bill Kennedy, the pilot, remembers. ‘There were so many, and there’s nothing you can do.’

Far below, Pfeifer heard bodies crashing on to the canopy of the North Tower’s lobby. ‘We knew exactly what it was, every time it happened. Another life being lost.’

NJ Burkett reported as the South Tower collapsed. Credit: National Geographic

Kevin Leary, then 32, was a chef in the Greenhouse Restaurant at the foot of the Twin Towers. He was in the walk-in refrigerator when the first plane struck and heard nothing. He emerged 15 minutes later to find nothing but burning metal, luggage, aircraft seats and bodies everywhere – ‘maybe a hundred bodies broken up into little pieces. Just arms and legs and heads and everything. And then a body comes falling out of the sky and lands right in front of me. Just boom! Like loud, and just like breaks up when it hits the ground.’

Filming on mobile phones was rare 20 years ago, but a news clip shows a local TV reporter, NJ Burkett, speaking live to camera in front of the World Trade Center at the very moment that the second tower – the South –collapses with an almighty roar behind him, triggering further pandemonium. 

In the years after 9/11 many media outlets refrained from replaying the moments the planes hit the towers or people jumping from the upper floors. Bogado said he had consulted independent experts and that the documentary uses such scenes ‘with great sensitivity’, but ‘sanitising the truth or basically not showing the truth because it’s uncomfortable was something we wouldn’t consider’. 

The documentary records many tragedies, but few more heart-rending than that of Ron Clifford, then 47, a soft-spoken, Irish-born software executive who had had an important meeting moved to the World Trade Center at the last minute. 

He was in the lobby when the first plane hit. Amid the mayhem a woman stumbled towards him, arms outstretched. ‘She was very badly burnt. She was irradiated. All her clothes were burnt on to her. Her hair was burnt and her eyes were burnt shut,’ he told The Telegraph. ‘She was in shock and didn’t know where she was.’ 

He shouted for help but nobody came. He fetched water to cool her. ‘Holy Jesus, Mother of God, don’t let me die,’ she begged him. They recited the Lord’s Prayer together, and as they did so the second plane hit. Clifford covered the woman with a tablecloth and somehow managed to get her out of the building and into an ambulance. ‘You’re gonna make it. You gotta make it now,’ he told her.

Watching the nightmare from across the Hudson; a man falls to his death; police officer Mike Brennan helps a distraught survivor. Credit: Getty, PA

Hours later, when Clifford finally reached his New Jersey home, he discovered that his beloved sister, Ruth, and her four-year-old daughter, Juliana, were on the plane that had flown into the South Tower at the very moment that he was reciting the Lord’s Prayer 90 floors below. ‘For my whole life I can never understand it,’ he said tearfully. ‘It’s hard to comprehend that all those things could happen at once. If it hadn’t happened you wouldn’t believe it.’ 

Several times Clifford visited Jennieann Maffeo, the 38-year-old woman he had saved from the inferno, in hospital but she never regained consciousness. She died exactly 40 days after 9/11. ‘She was the hope I had after losing Ruth and Juliana,’ he said. ‘I was distraught.’

Watching the seven hours of the documentary, I experienced the same feeling that I felt when standing on the rubble four days after 9/11. The terror is only part of the story. What also shines through is the bravery, compassion and resilience of those caught up in it.

Ron Clifford helped Jennieann Maffeo to safety. Credit: National Geographic

There are miraculous escapes like that of paramedic Jennifer Lampert, who finds herself pressed against an unbreakable glass wall, being suffocated by dust and debris as the South Tower collapses, and thinking, ‘at least my parents are going to get my body back… I was whole, I wasn’t damaged.’ In the nick of time, a police officer smashes the glass with a pistol shot and ‘I was being yanked through and over broken glass’.

In the South Tower, Guyana-born Stanley Praimnath survives the impact of the plane but is trapped in the wreckage. He cries for help as Brian Clark, a financial broker, leads a group down the stairwell, only to find it blocked by fire. The rest of the group goes back up. Clark stays to rescue Praimnath. They embrace. They press their bloodied hands together in a sign of brotherhood. They then discover they can get down the stairs after all, and escape four minutes before the tower collapses.

‘Brian, thank you for saving my life,’ Praimnath tells Clark later. ‘He says, “No, no, Stan. Thank you. Had you not screamed I would have gone back up. I would have died.”’

Then there is the ‘Miracle of Stairway B’. As six firefighters rush to leave the North Tower following the collapse of its twin, they find Josephine Harris, 59, a bookkeeper, on the 20th floor, utterly exhausted after struggling down from the 73rd. They start carrying her. When they reach the fourth floor, the tower implodes.

They hear the booms as each floor falls. ‘I think it took about eight seconds for the building to come down,’ one recalls. ‘It was a tremendous noise and tremendous roar, tremendous vibrating. And within a few seconds it was over, and it went to total, absolute silence.’

Astonishingly, the group were all alive, trapped in a pocket. But they could see no way out. Fires crackled nearby. As debris fell, one firefighter manoeuvred himself over Harris to protect her. Then, after two or three hours, a beam of sunlight suddenly pierced the darkness as the smoke and dust cleared outside. ‘It was like something from God,’ says firefighter Mickey Kross, then 55. ‘It was like from heaven. That meant an opening above us.’ They managed to climb out and Harris was extricated on a stretcher. Nine years later, when she died, the firefighters served as her pallbearers.

Such stories abound. People fleeing down the stairwells stop to help a man with artificial legs. A boss stays behind to help his injured secretary. A bank’s security chief returns repeatedly to the office to ensure the firm’s employees have all escaped until he loses his own life. Time and again an ambulance driver ventures into the heart of the maelstrom until he finds his lost colleague.

Fire chief Joseph Pfeifer was there by chance. Credit: National Geographic

Frank Razzano, a lawyer, is rescued against all odds by Jeff Johnson, a firefighter. At his daughter’s wedding 19 months later, Razzano thanks and hugs ‘the man who led me out of the World Trade Center’ and Johnson receives a prolonged standing ovation.

In California, at daybreak on 9/11, Alice Hoagland receives a truncated call from her son, Mark Bingham, a passenger on the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, saying three men have seized control of the plane and are claiming they have a bomb. Then she sees on television that hijacked planes have hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Unable to reach her son, she leaves this brave message: ‘Mark, this is your mom. The news is that it’s been hijacked by terrorists. They are planning to probably use the plane to hit some site on the ground. If you possibly can, try to overpower these guys.’

Whether Bingham received the message will never be known, but the passengers did storm the cockpit. The plane crashed in Pennsylvania, killing all 44 people on board; the US Capitol was spared.

A particularly compelling story is that of Chuck Sereika, then 32, a former paramedic laid low by his addiction to drink and drugs. He is woken that morning by sirens. On his voicemail is a message from his sister saying, ‘I hope you’re OK. You’re probably down there helping.’ He decides to go to the World Trade Center simply so he does not disappoint her – ‘my intention was not to put myself in any kind of harm’s way’ – and finds a mountain of smoking debris.

‘I’m extremely scared of fire. I’m extremely scared of smoke. I’m extremely scared of heights,’ he says. But he takes a first step on to the rubble and just carries on up. After a while, a lone US marine hails him, and points to a hand just visible 20 foot down a hole. ‘I thought to myself, “Maybe his life is worth more than my life.” You know, my life wasn’t going very well,’ says Sereika. And so he lowers himself down.

Exhausted members of the emergency services rest among the rubble. Credit: Camera Press

Sereika spends four hours in an unstable hole so hot and smoky that he can barely breathe. The trapped man is Will Jimeno, a Port Authority police officer so convinced he will die that he has made the Braille sign for ‘I love you’ with his hands so his wife and daughter would know his last thoughts were of them. 

Sereika calms Jimeno. He gives him an IV drip. He and the marine try in vain to free him. At one point Jimeno begs him to cut his trapped leg off. Sereika promises to stay with him no matter what, and does until eventually help arrives.

Jimeno was one of the last people pulled from the rubble. Sereika helped save his life, but his own was also changed profoundly. He turned to God. He beat his addictions. He now lives in Florida and manages a Bible app. ‘I don’t consider myself a hero,’ he told The Telegraph. ‘I just think that the Lord put me there, and that he gave me the strength, the ability, the knowledge to do his will that day… It was a blessing in disguise.’ 

For better or worse 9/11 changed almost everyone caught up in it. Some considered or died by suicide. Some sought refuge in drugs or alcohol. Some lost their jobs or marriages. Others, feeling spared, sought to lead better lives. Certainly none have forgotten it. ‘The impact of witnessing trauma on that scale just can’t be overstated. It’s extreme,’ said Bogado, the director.

Burned cars at the World Trade Center. Credit: Reuters

Ron Clifford, the software executive, overcame post-traumatic stress disorder through therapy, and now lives life to the full, but says he still finds 9/11 painful to talk about and cannot watch the documentary. He prays for his sister and niece every single day.

Heather Penney was scrambled to stop the hijacked plane. Credit: National Geographic

Praimnath, the only known survivor of the South Tower’s impact zone, became a pastor and preacher. ‘I figured if God is going to hold his side of the bargain, letting me live, well then I’m obligated to hold my side of the bargain,’ he once said.

Pfeifer, the fire chief, lost 343 colleagues including his brother, whose remains were recovered five months later, but threw himself into the task of rebuilding the New York Fire Department and became its chief of counterterrorism and emergency preparedness. Now retired, he is consoled by the knowledge of what Kevin did that day. ‘I have eyewitness evidence that my brother told Engine 7 to switch from the “C” stairs to “B” stairs, the safer way down, and because of that and other units he redirected, he saved their lives.’

Leary, the chef, suffered a year of withdrawal and depression then discovered yoga. He now manages a New York yoga studio, but still speaks frequently to fellow survivors because, he says, only they understand. He still watches, obsessively, old newscasts of 9/11. ‘That day, as tragic as it was, I never felt so alive,’ he explained. ‘The adrenaline was pumping. It was almost like a high.’

Of all the stories in the series, I found that of Heather ‘Lucky’ Penney to be one of the most remarkable. She was a 25-year-old fighter pilot, a junior member of the Air National Guard based at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, DC, and one of the few pilots on duty that day. After the two planes had crashed into the towers and a third into the Pentagon, she was ‘scrambled’ for the first time in her career because at least one other hijacked plane – United Flight 93 –was believed to be heading for the capital.

There was no time to arm her F-16 or that of her superior, Colonel Marc Sasseville. They knew they could stop a hijacked plane only by flying straight into it. ‘I’ll ram the cockpit,’ Sasseville told Penney as they rushed to take off. ‘I’ll take the tail,’ she replied. ‘We knew that if we were successful this would be a suicide mission and that we would not be coming home,’ she told The Telegraph.

For four hours she and Sasseville scoured the skies for Flight 93 or other hijacked planes. She shut out all emotion, focusing totally on the job at hand. She never questioned the enormity of what she might have to do. She never doubted that she would, if necessary, destroy a civilian aircraft with 44 men, women and children on board – an aircraft that her own father, a United pilot, might have been flying.

The Stars and Stripes flag amid the rubble; an aerial view reveals the extent of the destruction. Credit: Getty, PA Photos

‘There’s no doubt in my mind that anybody would have been willing to do the same thing,’ she said. ‘The decision was easy… We knew what the terrorists were going to do. Those people [on board] were already dead. There was no changing their fate. There was nothing we could have done to save them. So the only thing we could have done was save people on the ground.’

In the event, Penney was spared. The passengers themselves took the plane down. They were true heroes, she said. ‘They did it for strangers on the ground they didn’t even know. They did it for America and what this nation stands for.’

Bogado said he hoped his documentary would give future generations ‘an idea of the scale of the tragedy and horror of 9/11, but also the scale of the humanity’.

Clifford said 9/11 ‘showed us what we are when horror happens, how we roll up our sleeves to be part of humanity and help. I do feel there was, and is, a higher level of fellowship that’s come out of this’.

Penney agreed. Invoking the first responders, the passengers of Flight 93 and that legion of ordinary people who put themselves at risk by helping others on that dreadful day, she said: ‘The heroism, the courage, the compassion and the community is the true legacy of 9/11.’

Read more stories from those who were there. 9/11: One Day in America will air on National Geographic in the UK from Tuesday 31 August across four consecutive nights. Read our review here.

Related Topics

Comment speech bubble

SOURCE