It’s hard to believe it, but this week marks 16 years since the September 11th terror attacks. A long time may have passed, but for many of us, that fateful tragic day is still raw in our minds. Close to 3,000 people lost their lives the day America fell under attack and the impact of 9/11 has continued to be felt as the years have gone by, mostly because those exposed to the toxic debris as the towers fell went on to contract lung cancer and other serious illnesses. Heartbreakingly, the death toll from those escaping Ground Zero on September 11th has steadily risen to this day.
The sheer scale of the attacks had the world glued in horror and made America believe that many more states and landmarks could be next. I was only 11 years old when the news broke, but I remember feeling terrified for the U.S. and feeling as if the world itself was being threatened. 16 years on, many of us can recount where we were when we heard the news and have a good idea as to what actually happened that day. But many details about 9/11 were not fully disclosed until months and years after the tragedy.
In the wake of the horrific events, the priority for brave servicemen and women was to find survivors and help New York and the U.S. get back to some kind of normality again. It wasn’t until years later that inquiries and reports into 9/11 uncovered truly sad and unexpected facts relating to that day. We found 15 facts about 9/11–both odd and heartbreaking–that you may never have heard before.
15. The Illness-related Death Toll Is Nearing Those Killed On 9/11
Other than when the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks comes around again, the world is reminded of the horrendous events of that day every year because the death toll is still climbing more than a decade later. A total of 2,996 people lost their lives on the day itself as a result of the attacks. But as the years have passed, thousands of people have also died as a result of breathing in the toxic debris and smoke when the towers fell.
In what has been dubbed as the “9/11’s Second Wave,” many people who were exposed to toxic levels of debris at Ground Zero–firefighters, ambulance workers, and civilians–have since died from lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses. As of March 2017, 1,319 people have died as a result of being exposed to the toxic environment at or near Ground Zero. Famously, the 9/11 survivor Marcy Borders, known as ‘Dust Lady’ from her iconic photo taken on the day, died of stomach cancer in 2015.
14. Only 20 People Were Pulled Out Of the Rubble Alive
In the aftermath of the unbelievable events of September 11th, the real work began when hundreds of firefighters and rescue workers began the arduous task of searching for survivors in the rubble where the twin towers had once stood only hours before. Miraculously, as the towers fell, some people managed to somehow survive in air pockets of the wreckage and in surviving parts of the stairwell. What’s particularity tragic about the number of survivors is that of the 2,996 lives lost that day, only 20 people were ever recovered alive.
Brave servicemen and women worked tirelessly for days following the terror attacks, and after sifting through tons of debris, 20 survivors were found in the rubble. Two of the people found were a couple of Port Authority policeman who had been trapped under heavy debris for around 21 hours. Whilst rescue workers searched for survivors in the mass of steel debris, they came across a total of 435 body parts. Horrific!
13. Some Of The Hijackers Were Issued Visas Without Being Interviewed
To apply for a U.S. Visa today, a number of steps are usually necessary for you to be accepted. I.D. checks and an initial appointment are required. It seems unthinkable for Visas to be handed to travelers with little or no security checks beforehand. Unfortunately, this lax approach to travel security was apparent between 1999 and 2001 when a State Department Official approved visas for 12 of the 19 soon-to-be hijackers. Astonishingly, a few of these visas were issued without even interviewing the applicants first.
The actions of U.S. official Shayna Steinger were reportedly challenged by a work colleague at the embassy who believed Steinger was far too lax in her duties. As much as her colleagues tried to prevent her, Shayna went ahead with her approach and unwittingly sealed the fate of many innocent lives that day. Reports into the hijacker’s visa applications later showed many red flags that should have been acted upon and would have resulted in denied visas for many of the men traveling that day.
12. Steve Buscemi Stepped In As An NY Firefighter
Long before he played goofball comedy characters and gangsters, Steve Buscemi previously worked as a firefighter with the New York fire department. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the quirky actor joined the team of rescue workers at his old firehouse to help look for missing firefighters and civilians. Buscemi worked 12-hour shifts every day for a week searching the debris at Ground Zero for survivors.
Buscemi trained as a firefighter when he was just 18 and worked in downtown Manhattan with the New York fire department for several years throughout the 1980’s before pursuing a career in acting. Lucky for the people of New York City, Buscemi immediately felt the call of duty and jumped back into his role to help with the rescue and recovery operation that followed the devastating terror attacks. Hardly any photos or interviews exist of Buscemi’s rescue efforts because he declined them, stating that he had a job to do, not a publicity opportunity. Great guy!
11. The Ground Zero Fires Raged For Nearly 100 Days
In the wake of 9/11, the shock at the sheer scale of the tragedy and the immense loss of life made the initial cleanup and recovery operation at Ground Zero so hard to deal with. What must have made things even harder for the scores of brave firefighters and rescue workers, though, was the fact that their search and rescue operation was hindered by billowing smoke and flames that lasted more than 3 months after the events of September 11th had taken place.
From the day the towers were first engulfed in flames after the planes hit to the day the fires finally went out, a staggering 99 days had passed. Throughout this time, rescue workers did all they could to search for survivors and human remains among thick clouds of smoke and fire pockets. As one firefighter, Tom Manley, put it, so much water was sprayed almost constantly at the flames that “it was like you were creating a giant lake.” The fires finally ceased on December 19th, 2001.
10. Many Celebrities Cheated Death
You may not be aware, but many famous figures had a narrow escape on the morning of September 11th, 2001. Many celebs including Mark Wahlberg, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, and Michael Jackson came close to being victims of the terror attacks. Pop legend Michael Jackson was due to have a meeting in one of the WTC towers that morning but had overslept. Jackson sadly passed away less than 8 years later in June of 2009, but he was spared the truly horrific death that those trapped in the towers were made to face.
Actor Mark Wahlberg and comedy writer pal Seth MacFarlane were both supposed to fly that morning on Flight 11 and Flight 93, respectively. MacFarlane was hungover and missed his scheduled flight by about 10 minutes. Wahlberg decided impulsively to see an old friend in Toronto, leaving Boston a week earlier than planned. Outside the showbiz world, a royal life was nearly snuffed out on 9/11. Sarah ‘Fergie’ Ferguson, the ex-wife of Prince Andrew, was due to hold a meeting in the World Trade Center for her children’s charity but an interview on the TODAY show overran and she was late.
9. British Nationals Represented The Second Biggest Loss Of Life
Second to the countless American civilians who lost their lives that day, people of British nationality were the next biggest group to have been killed in the 9/11 terror attacks. A total of 2,605 U.S. citizens were killed as a result of the terrorist attacks and next up on the list of fatalities from other countries were the UK with 67 reported deaths. Although al-Qaeda’s main target was the United States, foreign nationals from a total of 61 countries were victims of the attack (372 foreign fatalities overall).
Not only was 9/11 the worst terror attack on American soil, it was and remains the worst terror incident for UK nationals as more British citizens lost their lives on September 11th than in any other single act of terror—including as the Lockerbie Bombing in 1988 (43 deaths) or the 7/7 bombings in London (52 deaths). 16 years on, the impact of 9/11 is still felt strongly in the UK.
8. Nuclear Power Plants Were Initially Targets
Long before al-Qaeda settled on American landmarks in New York and the capital as the place to carry out terrorist attacks, their original target for September 11th had planned to be nuclear power stations. In a 2002 interview for al-Jazeera Television, the al-Qaeda military commander spoke with a journalist about how the military committee initially made plans to strike nuclear facilities on the day they call ‘Holy Tuesday’, but decided against it for fear it would “get out of control.”
Military commander Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said that the attacks were designed to cause as many deaths as possible, so nuclear power plants were swapped for “holy raids” upon Washington and New York. Thanks to the bravery of the Flight 93 passengers, al-Qaeda never got to carry out their planned attack on the capital, but it’s terrifying to consider where else in the country they had thought to target that day.
7. Gwyneth Paltrow (Inadvertently) Saved Someone’s Life
This really is a case of being in the right place at the right time. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Gwyneth Paltrow was driving down West Village street in New York, headed for an early Yoga class when she narrowly avoided hitting a woman named Lara Lundstrom Clarke. When Clarke stopped to look at the Mercedes SUV and realized Paltrow was behind the wheel, the pair stopped briefly to greet each other before Paltrow drove on and Clarke headed for the subway to get to work.
Lara was headed to World Trade Center 2, where she worked on the 77th floor. Because of this small but life-changing meeting, she missed her usual train and stepped off the platform just as the first plane hit. Clarke got in contact with Gwyneth Paltrow a decade later to thank her for the chance encounter that saved her life. Paltrow since commented that Clarke’s near-miss “still gives me chills.”
6. James Woods Reported “Suspicious Activity” To FBI, But Was Not Taken Seriously
In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, lots of stories emerged about near-misses and warning signs that could have prevented the attacks. One of these warnings came from actor James Woods who spotted two men acting suspiciously on a flight one week before the September 11th terror attacks. Woods was reportedly flying from Boston to Los Angeles in first class with four other middle-eastern-looking men.
Woods recalls feeling uneasy about their behavior. Apparently, for the entirety of the flight, none of the men ate, drank, or slept. They only spoke to each other in low hushed voices. Woods passed his concerns onto the FBI, but these were later shrugged off. At the time, this may not have seemed worthy of attention, but in hindsight, James Woods’ hunch about these men may have helped foil one of the hijacking plots. The FBI never confirmed whether or not the four men spotted were some of the 9/11 hijackers.
5. The Steel From The WTC Was Sold Before Being “Properly Tested” For Evidence
The cleanup operation at Ground Zero lasted nearly a year following 9/11 (officially ending in June of 2002), and a lot of that time was focused on finding survivors and eventually sifting through human remains before any of the building frameworks could actually be removed. When the time came to deal with the remnants of the tower structure, the U,S. authorities apparently removed the leftover steel from the site before it had been properly tested for evidence.
The American people were outraged at the authorities for this, but New York City’s former Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, defended the decision by saying, “Just looking at a piece of metal generally doesn’t tell you anything. That’s in this day and age what computers do.” All 185,101 tons of steel heaped at Ground Zero were moved soon afterward; some were kept aside to use at memorial sites across the U.S., but most of the steel was sold on to China and India.
4. The Man Who Grounded All Planes Did So On his First Ever Day On The Job
Nobody has an easy time during their first day of a new job, but spare a thought for Ben Sliney, the chief of air traffic control on the day of the September 11th terror attacks. It was Sliney’s first ever day on the job at the FAA command center in Herndon, Virginia, and he made the risky but ultimately heroic call to have all 4,000 planes grounded to prevent any further risk of hijacking. Sliney also instructed that all airborne planes were made to land safely at nearby airports until further notice.
Although Mr. Sliney had 25 years experience in air traffic control under his belt, nothing could have prepared him for the scale of danger and risk of that fateful Tuesday in September. The decision to ground all planes was entirely his, and he made it as soon as the news reached the command center about Flight 93’s path for Washington. Sliney was later asked to play himself in the 2006 Paul Greengrass movie United 93.
3. Freedom Fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud Was Assassinated Days Before 9/11
For those unfamiliar with the name Ahmad Shah Massoud, I strongly advise that you look him up because this guy did some awesome things before his untimely death, just days before the September 11th terrorist attacks. Massoud was an Afghan political and military leader who dedicated his life to bringing democracy to Afghanistan. In a bid to quash the Taliban’s rise to power, Massoud campaigned tirelessly and warned of terrorism on U.S. soil in a speech made months before 9/11.
Unfortunately, this warning speech to the European Parliament in Brussels back in April of 2001 is thought to be the reason why he was assassinated in a suicide attack. Massoud was killed on September 9, 2001 when the helicopter he was traveling in exploded. The explosion also killed United Front official Mohammed Asim Suhail and injured two other men. Massoud has since been posthumously honored with a day of remembrance every year by former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.
2. A WTC Meeting About Terrorist Prevention Was Postponed on The Day Of The Attacks
In a very creepy and ironic account of the day, a meeting was due to be held on the 88th floor of the North tower to discuss what could be done in the event of a terrorist attack. A group of investors were due to appear at the meeting and could well have joined the death toll that day if it weren’t for the fact that the meeting was canceled because one member couldn’t make it. The investment group was led by property investor Larry A. Silverstein who, together with another private investor, had invested $125 million in the twin towers.
Because of the terrorist attacks, Silverstein and each of his investors lost almost everything in financial terms, but they must have surely felt relieved at how incredibly lucky they were to escape. Like other mentions on this list, 9/11 was filled with so many close-calls in terms of who could have been in the towers when the planes hit that it’s really quite stomach-churning to think about.
1. Pilot Heather Penney Agreed To Suicide Mission To Stop Fourth Plane
On the morning of September 11th, the fourth hijacked plane was headed for Washington with the aim of targeting the White House or Capitol Hill. But because of the incredible bravery of the passengers on Flight 93, the plane was taken off course and crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Hours before, two pilots–including rookie F-16 pilot, Lt. Heather Penney–made the horrifying decision to fly a suicide mission towards Flight 93 to stop it in its path of destruction.
Seeing the Twin Towers and the Pentagon targeted, Lt. Penney and her superior, Col. Marc Sasseville, weren’t taking any chances and decided to become kamikaze pilots and fly their jet into the cockpit or wing of Flight 93. There was no time to load the plane with ammunition, so it was faster to stop the plane themselves. Later on, of course, the passengers held hostage on the hijacked flight showed the same heroism when they brought the plane down in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
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