9/11/ 2001 was one of the darkest days in US history (Credit: NPS.edu)

On September 11, 2022, Americans will mark the 21st anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attacks in US history. The unprovoked act of violence was planned and executed by members of the Islamic extremist organization al-Qaeda. The tragedy resulted in the deaths of 2,977 innocent people and altered life as we knew it forever.

What happened on September 11, 2001?

On September 11, 2001, nineteen terrorists split into four groups, each with a trained pilot, and took control of four commercial flights. They included United Flight 93 from New Jersey, American Flight 77 from Washington, DC, and United Flight 175 and American Flight 11 from Boston. The aircraft were headed cross-country to Los Angeles or San Francisco. This ensured they had enough fuel to cause the maximum possible damage.

The terrorists hijacked four flights on September 11, 2001 (Credit: Visual Capitalist/ CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Passengers aboard the airplanes knew they had been hijacked shortly after takeoff. However, the rest of the world remained unaware of the situation 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.

Experts initially thought the crash was caused by pilot error or airplane malfunction. However, that notion changed when United Flight 175 crashed into WTC's South Tower at 9:03 AM (EST). About half an hour later, at 9:37 AM (EST), American flight 77 hit the Pentagon in Virginia. Shortly after that, United Flight 93 crash-landed in an empty field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. It was evident that the US had suffered a series of well-orchestrated terrorist attacks.

The aftermath of the attacks

The intense fires, caused by the fueled airplanes crashing into the buildings, weakened the steel support trusses that attached the WTC Twin Towers' 110 floors to the building's exterior. This, together with the aircraft's initial impact hole, caused both towers to crumble into giant heaps of cement and steel in less than two hours. While the estimated 18,000 survivors in the WTC complex had been safely evacuated by then, many first responders were not as lucky.

The World Trade Center Twin Towers collapsed soon after the airplanes struck them (Credit: MesserWoland/ CC- BY-SA 3.0/ Wikimedia Commons)

While the Pentagon building survived the crash, the aircraft's initial impact killed 184 people. The death toll would have been even higher if the brave passengers and crew aboard United Flight 93 — destined for the US Capitol building in Washington, DC — had not forced the aircraft to crash in Pennsylvania.

What has happened since?

"Ground Zero," as it is now called, boasts four new towers. The flagship is the gleaming One World Trade Center, or "Freedom Tower." Standing at a symbolic 1,776 feet (541 meters) high, 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 9/11 victims etched into the bronze-paneled edges. The National September 11 Museum and Memorial built alongside features several artifacts from the tragic day.

The Twin Towers memorial in New York City (Credit: Mntransplant,/CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons)

The Pentagon has built 184 illuminated stainless steel benches to honor the 125 government employees and 59 crew members and passengers of American Flight 77 who died. In Somerset County, visitors can view exhibits commemorating the 9/11 tragedy at the Flight 93 National Memorial. They can also hear recordings of messages left to loved ones by the passengers and crew before it crashed.

September 11, 2001, was one of the darkest days in US history and will never be forgotten. However, it has also made Americans more resilient and determined to live without fear. This September 11 — or Patriot Day — take a few minutes to honor the thousands of innocent lives lost during that difficult time.

Resources: Wikipedia.org, 9/11memorial.org, History.com