9/11: beyond words

The 9/11 attacks may be impossible to quantify, but key words and figures help to explain their magnitude. If the horror of 11 September 2001 was immediately evident to the millions of people who were transfixed by the images on their television screens, the precise scale of it would take much longer to realise. The most indelible number of all those associated with the attacks – the death toll – was one of the slowest to emerge. Weeks after 9/11, it peaked at 6,000. Ten years later, it has settled at 2,996, including the 19 hijackers. But the remains of 41 per cent of victims, sifted from the debris of what became known as Ground Zero, have still not been identified.

Quantifying destruction that seemed unfathomable has become as important as the continuing quest to give names to the fragments of the dead. Statisticians, scientists, journalists and, less helpfully, conspiracy theorists, have taken on the challenge, mining official reports, witness testimonies and the crash sites themselves in their attempts to create a record of an event that has generated more column inches and hours of TV footage than any other.

The figure of almost 3,000 remains the most compelling, as the stories of those victims continue to be told and recorded. For the generation of children who start secondary school this week with no recollection of the day that shaped a decade, the evolving record of 9/11 is all there is.

As time fades the memories of the rest of us, the shockwaves created by the four airliners continue to be felt across the world. Anniversaries – and the spikes in coverage that they produce – add dimension to a disaster that itself became known as a number.

2,996 People died in the 11 September attacks, including 19 hijackers, 246 airline passengers and crew on four airliners and 125 people at the Pentagon.

289 Number of intact bodies pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Centre. Most families of victims received only body parts – or only death certificates.

1.5 million tons of debris removed from the World Trade Centre site. Much of it was taken for sorting to the Fresh Kills landfill at Staten Island. Artefacts retrieved after 9/11 included more than 4,000 photographs, gold from a bank vault that today would be worth almost £400m, and a faceless ragdoll.

411 Emergency workers killed, including 341 firefighters, the first of whom died when he was struck by a falling woman.

2 Age of the youngest victim. Christine Hanson was travelling with her parents to Disneyland in California when Flight 175 was hijacked. Eight children were killed in the attacks, all of them passengers on hijacked airliners.

200 People believed to have jumped or fallen from the twin towers before their collapse, according to a USA Today survey of witness photographs, videos and testimony. Some will have fallen for up to 10 seconds. The most haunting of these images, “Falling Man” by the Associated Press news photographer Richard Drew, appeared once in many US newspapers and then never again. The man has never been identified.

56 and 102 minutes. Time the burning twin towers stood.

12 seconds. Time they took to fall.

17,400 People thought to have been inthe World Trade Centre complex at the time of the attacks.

100 Rescue dogs were deployed at Ground Zero in the search for bodies and survivors.

12 Are still alive.

658 Number of employees of Cantor Fitzgerald who died in the attack. The investment bank, which occupied floors 101 to 105 of the North Tower, lost more workers than any other business and accounted for one in four of those killed at the World Trade Centre.

Only one of the hijackers is believed to have written a will.

23 People who were trapped in or below the twin towers when they collapsed were pulled alive from the rubble. The last to be rescued was Genelle Guzman-McMillan, a secretary, who was found by a search dog after 27 hours.

3:1 Ratio of men to women who died.

2,170 Deaths on US roads in the 18 months after 9/11 that would not have occurred were it not for a rise in car travel caused by the attacks, according to a study by Cornell University. Scores of travellers who were put off flying by fear or tightened security measures sought “safer” alternative transport.

3,000 Children lost a parent, including more than 100 who were not yet born.

67 The number of British victims; 372 non-Americans were killed, excluding the hijackers, from 77 countries.

2 hours. Waiting time in a queue formed by blood donors at a Red Cross office in Madison, Wisconsin in the days after 9/11. Thousands donated blood to survivors, including Yasser Arafat and nearly every member of the US congress, but more than a third of the 600,000 units collected expired and were discarded.

45 Feature films that were postponed or re-edited after the attacks. A Jackie Chan movie called Nosebleed, about a window-washer at the World Trade Centre who foils a terrorist plot, was cancelled.

25% Increase in alcohol consumption recorded in Manhattanafter 9/11.

26 Days that passed before the US began bombing Afghanistan.

16.4 million Peak British television audience on 11 September (at 6pm). In the days before social networks and smartphones, or even reliable news websites, televisions were the sole source of news on the day of the attacks. The BBC and ITV screened rolling coverage all afternoon and evening, and 3 million people were still glued to their screens at midnight.

3,519 Days that passed between the attacks and the killing of Osama bin Laden, on 1 May this year.

$100 million Estimated value of art destroyed in the World Trade Centre, including Picassos, Hockneys and a mural by Joan Miró.

20,629 Combined number of results of searches on Amazon UK’s books department for “9/11” and “September 11”.

672 English language books published on the subject of 11 September in the year after the attacks.

$25 million reward offered by the US government immediately after 9/11 for information leading to the capture or death of Osama bin Laden.

20% Reported increase in the number of births at some New York hospitals nine months after the attacks. Statistics never supported anecdotal evidence that New Yorkers had more sex in the days after 9/11.

The disaster in quotes

“The World Trade Centre is a living symbol of man’s dedication to world peace… a representation of man’s belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men and, through cooperation, his ability to find greatness.”

Minoru Yamasaki, architect of the twin towers, in a speech at the opening ceremony for the World Trade Centre in 1973.

“The cockpit is not answering, somebody’s stabbed in business class —and I think there’s Mace — that we can’t breathe — I don’t know, I think we’re getting hijacked.”

Betty Ong, a flight attendant on board American Airlines Flight 11, the first to be hijacked, in a phone call to the airline’s operations centre before the aircraft was flown into the North Tower.

“Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.”

Todd Beamer, a passenger on the United Airlines Flight 93, before he helped to overpower the hijackers. The plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

“A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.”

White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card whispers in the ear of President George W Bush, while the President reads to children at a school in Florida.

“Terrorism against our nation will not stand.”

President George W Bush, 11 September 2001.

“The number of casualties will be more than most of us can bear.”

Rudy Giuliani, Mayor of New York City, 11 September 2001.

“This mass terrorism is the new evil in our world today. It is perpetrated by fanatics who are utterly indifferent to the sanctity of human life and we, the democracies of this world, are going to have to come together to fight it together and eradicate this evil completely from our world.”

Prime Minister Tony Blair, to delegates of the Trades Union Congress, just over an hour after the attacks.

“Thank you for coming, friend.”

President George W Bush to Tony Blair in Congress, 20 September 2001.

“And just as your beautiful skyscrapers were destroyed and caused your grief, beautiful buildings and precious homes crumbled over their owners in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq by American weapons… Americans should feel the pain they have inflicted on other peoples of the world, so as when they suffer, they will find the right solution and the right path.”

President Saddam Hussein, Iraq, 15 September 2001.

“America has been hit by Allah at its most vulnerable point, destroying, thank God, its most prestigious buildings.”

Osama bin Laden, 7 October, 2001.

“This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.”

President George W Bush, 16 September 2001.

The conspiracy theories

Some 14 per cent of people questioned in an opinion poll, carried out this year by Gfk NOP for BBC’s The Conspiracy Files, did not believe the official explanation that al-Qa’ida was responsible for the attacks, preferring to believe that the US government was involved in a conspiracy.

Selected conspiracy theories

Theory: President Dick Cheney ordered the military not to intercept hijacked airliners.

Truth: The failure to intercept any of the four airliners owed more to a lack of preparedness and communication between air traffic control and the military.

Theory: The twin towers were destroyed by controlled demolitions.

Truth: Columns supporting the towers were weakened by intense fires caused by jet fuel. The huge weight of collapsing higher floors created an irresistible downwards force.

Theory: The Pentagon was struck by a US missile, not American Airlines flight 77.

Truth: Eyewitness accounts, security video tapes and the remains of passengers found in the wreckage of the Pentagon support the official account.

Theory: United Airlines flight 93 exploded after it was shot down by a missile.

Truth: There were no orders to shoot down flight 93. Cockpit recordings confirm it crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers overpowered the hijackers.

Theory: Tower 7 of the World Trade Centre was demolished using explosives.

Truth: The building collapsed because of fires, sparked by the collapse of the North Tower, which burned for several hours after mains water feeding the sprinkler system was cut off.

Out of the blue

British newspaper columnists were not alone in observing the brilliant blue of the New York sky on the morning of 11 September. References in the week after the attacks included:

Who could forget the low-angle shot… of a man with one tower intact above him until the outline of a jet sliced through that pure blue sky and into its unmarked skin? (Thomas Sutcliffe, The Independent)

It was the awful beauty of those first few pictures – the plane banking against a clear blue sky, and then the sudden, slow, burst of vivid yellow – which established the sense of unreality. (Rod Liddle, The Guardian)

It came, literally, out of a clear blue sky; one of those eye-poppingly beautiful mornings when you forgive autumn for polishing off summer. (Simon Schama, Mail on Sunday)

War has been beating its drum since horror visited America out of a clear blue sky.(Andrew Rawnsley, The Observer)

For the rest of our lives we will look up at a bright blue sky and know that at any moment death could descend in a fireball.(Carole Malone, Sunday Mirror)

The next aircraft flitted across the blue, blue sky, almost unseen, before it slammed into the second tower.(Jenny Johnston, The Mirror)

Words and phrases that entered the vernacular after 9/11

9/11 The popular name for the attacks first appeared on 12 September 2001 in a New York Times op-ed piece titled “America’s Emergency Line: 9/11”.

Axis of Evil Term first used in 2002 by President George W Bush to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea, governments he accused of helping terrorism.

Shock and awe The military doctrine of “rapid dominance”, written in 1996 and used in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Guantánamo Bay The detention camp established in 2002 at a US naval base on Cuba.

Patriot Act Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.

Ground Zero Site of the destroyed World Trade Centre in New York City.

Air marshal Plainclothes law-enforcement officers deployed on US airplanes after the attacks.

Freedom fries Euphemism for French fries, promoted by Republican representatives in Washington when France resisted military force against Iraq.


By Simon Usborne

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