Sept. 11, 2001, was a fateful day for the United States. Four airliners were hijacked by young Arabs. One airliner was flown into the World Trade Center South Tower, another into the North Tower, the third into the Pentagon, and the fourth, heading toward the nation's capital, crashed into a Pennsylvania field.
After three years of interviewing many people involved in the tragedy, in "Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama That Unfolded in the Skies Over America on 9/11” (Free Press, $26),
author Lynn Spencer tells the full story of that day's chaos, confusion and heroism. Much of this was not included in the 9/11 Commission Report.
At the time of 9/11, air defense of the U.S. was lax. At the cold war's height, the Air Force had 175 jets on alert, fully armed and ready to launch at a moment's notice. On this day, the number of National Guard jets had dwindled to 14, some of them with only training ordnance on board.
Before having a hijacked airliner shot down by fighters, due to protocol, military commanders must have authority all the way up to the president. There was no such authority given for more than an hour after the first hijacking. The president was reading to schoolchildren in Florida, the vice president was being moved to a bunker under the White House, and the defense secretary was helping evacuate the Pentagon.
Lacking guidance from above, the Federal Aviation Administration, military, airline pilots and air traffic controllers improvised and performed remarkably well under difficult circumstances.