On 9/11/2001, the US was subjected to a deadly terrorist attack organized by Al Qaeda (Credit: Courtesy Asset/ lrn.usace.army.mil)

September 11, 2020, marks the 19th anniversary of the most brazen and deadly terrorist attacks on American soil. The unprovoked act of violence, planned by Islamic extremist organization Al Qaeda, killed 2,977 innocent people and changed life as we knew it forever.

What happened on September 11, 2001?

The chain of events leading to the unprecedented attacks was set in motion early on September 11, 2001. Nineteen terrorists split into four groups, each with a trained pilot, and took control of four commercial flights - United Flight 93 from New Jersey, American Flight 77 from Washington DC, and United Flight 175, and American Flight 11 from Boston. The four flights were flying cross country — either to Los Angeles or San Francisco — and, therefore, had enough fuel to cause the maximum possible damage.

While passengers aboard the airplanes knew they had been hijacked shortly after takeoff, the rest of the world remained blissfully unaware until 8:46 AM (EST). That's when American Flight 11 was seen heading towards New York City's tallest buildings — the World Trade Center's (WTC) Twin Towers. Before anyone could react, the aircraft struck the North Tower, creating a massive impact hole from the 93rd to the 99th floor.

The World Trade Center's Twin Towers before 9/11 (Credit: Sander Lamme / CC-BY-3.0/ Creativecommons.org)

Experts initially assumed that the crash was an accident caused by pilot error or airplane malfunction. However, they were proved wrong when United Flight 175 plunged into the South Tower at 9:03 AM (EST). About half an hour later, at 9:37 AM (EST), American flight 77 hit the Pentagon — the United States Department of Defense headquarters — in Virginia, and shortly thereafter, United Flight 93 crash-landed in an empty field on the outskirts of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. By now, it was evident that America had experienced an orchestrated terrorist attack.

The aftermath of the attacks was tragic, especially for those inside the majestic Twin Towers. The intense fires caused by the crashing of the well-fueled airplanes weakened the steel support trusses that attached each of the 110 floors to the building's exterior. This, combined with the aircraft's initial impact hole, caused both buildings to crumble into a giant heap of cement and steel in less than two hours.

The World Trade Center site 17 days after the 9/11 attacks. The. buildings surrounding the collapsed towers had to be fitted with mesh to prevent further damage (Credit: Andrea Booher / Public domain/commons.wikimedia.org)

Thanks to the rapid response from local firefighters, paramedics, and police, most of the estimated 16,000 to 18,000 people that were in the WTC complex had been safely evacuated by then. However, the first responders themselves were not as lucky, and most did not make it out. While the Pentagon building was able to sustain the crash, the aircraft's initial impact killed 184 people.

The death toll would have been even higher if the brave passengers and crew of United Flight 93 had not managed to take control and divert the airplane — believed to be heading to the US Capitol building in Washington, DC —to the empty Shanksville field. Though none of the 40 survived the crash landing, their courage saved the country from an even bigger catastrophe.

One World Center, New York's tallest structure, was built on the site of the terrorist attacks (Credit: By FOX 52 - Own work/CC BY-3.0/ Commons.wikimedia.org)

What has happened since?

Soon after 9/11, the US and its allies declared a "Global War on Terror." Despite their best efforts, it took them a decade to finally locate and assassinate Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the Twin Towers attacks, and other terrorist activities around the world. Unfortunately, it has made little difference in stopping the organization, which has spawned several offshoots, the most deadly one of which is ISIS.

Memorials honoring the victims

Today, "Ground Zero," as it is often called, boasts four new towers, including the gleaming One World Trade Center, or "Freedom Tower." Standing at a symbolic 1,776 feet (541 meters) high — the year the US Declaration of Independence was signed — it is the tallest building in New York City and the entire Western Hemisphere. Adjacent to the Freedom Tower lies an elegant memorial featuring twin reflecting pools with the names of all the victims etched into the bronze-paneled edges. The National September 11 museum, located alongside, is built where the towers fell. It features several artifacts from the tragic day, including the steel beams from the two collapsed buildings.

The Pentagon has created 184 illuminated stainless steel benches to honor the 125 government employees and 59 crew and passengers of American Flight 77 who died. In Shanksville, visitors can view exhibits commemorating the 9/11 tragedy and hear playbacks of messages left by the passengers of United Flight 93 to their loved ones before it crashed.

The World Trade Center memorial pools have the names of every 9/11 victim etched on the side (Credit Cadiomals / CC BY-SA-3.0/ Creativecommons.org)

September 11, 2001, was a tragedy of epic proportions — one that will never be forgotten. However, it has also made us more resilient and determined to continue living without fear. On this September 11 — or Patriot Day, as it is now called — take a few minutes to pay your respects to not just the thousands of innocent lives lost on that fateful day, but also the brave soldiers who have sacrificed, and continue to sacrifice, their lives in the never-ending "Global War on Terror."

Resources: Wikipedia.org, VOA.com, CNN.com