two photos from 9/11, showing the WTC on fire and firefighters carrying a wounded person

Left: The Twin Towers on September 11, 2001; right: Firefighters carrying a wounded colleague

Robert Giroux/Getty Images (Twin Towers); Matt Moyer/Corbis via Getty Images (Firefighters)


Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.2, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.9, W.6-8.2, SL.6-8.1

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Remembering 9/11

Twenty years later, the shock waves of a single morning’s unimaginable events are still shaping Americans’ lives—and the nation’s future.

As You Read, Think About: How did the events of 9/11 bring Americans together? 

Every September, you likely hear adults talk about it: 9/11. Still, if you’re like many young people, you probably have just a hazy understanding of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the deadliest in our history. For most Americans in their late 20s and older, however, memories of September 11, 2001, remain remarkably clear.

This September 11 marks the 20th anniversary of that day. On that fateful morning, the U.S. experienced a series of events so unexpected, so shocking, they changed the nation—and the world—forever.

Mark Lennihan/AP Images

Firefighters work amid the ruins of the towers.

Terror From the Sky

September 11, 2001, started as a routine Tuesday morning for millions of Americans. But at 8:46 a.m., a low-flying jet with more than 90 people aboard crashed into one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, a huge office complex in New York City.

On a typical day, some 50,000 workers filled its offices, and 200,000 visitors from all over the globe flocked to its shops, restaurants, and sky-high observation deck. At 110 stories each, its matching silver skyscrapers were a famous symbol of the nation’s power and prosperity.

When the plane hit the North Tower, it initially appeared to be a tragic accident. But then, as people began to evacuate the towers and surrounding office buildings—and as firefighters, EMTs, and police officers rushed to the scene—a second plane roared overhead and crashed into the South Tower.

Molly Riley/Reuters

The Pentagon after being attacked

With that, it became clear that the acts had been deliberate—the U.S. was under attack. The world would soon learn that terrorists had hijacked the planes and turned them into weapons. Half an hour later, a third plane struck the Pentagon (headquarters of the U.S. military) in Arlington, Virginia, just outside the nation’s capital. Then a fourth plane—which may have been headed for the U.S. Capitol or the White House in Washington, D.C.—crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. (Passengers, realizing what was happening, had bravely battled the hijackers and kept the plane from reaching its target.)

Back at Ground Zero—as the World Trade Center site in Manhattan soon would become known—first one tower and then the other collapsed. The eruptions of smoke, soot, and debris caused the already panicked crowds in nearby streets to run for their lives.

A terrorist group called Al Qaeda, led by a man named Osama bin Laden, soon claimed responsibility for the attacks (see “What You Need to Know,” below).

What You Need to Know

The New York Times/Redux

Al Qaeda fighters training in the North African country of Algeria

Al Qaeda: A terrorist group founded in the late 1980s by Osama bin Laden, a millionaire from Saudi Arabia (a country in the Middle East). Al Qaeda follows an extreme form of the Islamic religion—one that the vast majority of Muslim people (those who practice Islam) do not agree with. The group has vowed to “punish” certain countries, particularly the U.S., for what it considers crimes against Islam. In addition to the 9/11 attacks, Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for violent acts against a number of countries around the world. In 2001, Al Qaeda was primarily operating out of Afghanistan, where it was protected by the Taliban, an extremist group then in control of that country’s government.

An Eyewitness to History

Nearly 3,000 people died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But thousands of others survived, and their stories of the event are a powerful reminder that big historic events are made up of countless individual experiences.

One of the people who escaped from Ground Zero that day was Richard Viglione Jr. At the time, he was 26 years old and worked at an investment bank in a building across the street from the Twin Towers.

Courtesy of Nancy Comodo

Christian Comodo was 11 when he interviewed Richard Viglione for JS. Now 14, he’s a high school freshman in New York City.

In 2018, his cousin’s son, Christian Comodo, then a sixth-grader in New York City, interviewed Viglione for Junior Scholastic’s annual Eyewitness to History contest. “Everyone’s life was affected in some way from that day,” Viglione told Christian. “This is just my story.”

Here is Viglione’s account, excerpted from Christian’s interview. It has been shortened and edited.

September 11 started as a beautiful Tuesday morning. I was at work by about 7:15. The stock market opens at 9:30, and there is a lot to do to get ready for it.

At about 8:45, we heard a loud bang. Like those huge metal plates in the streets during construction when a big truck drives over them—that big “ba-boom!” sound. 

Then the phones started ringing, and you saw people looking around, by the windows. Friends and family members started calling and asking, “Did you see what happened?” Then a few minutes later, we got word that we had to evacuate the building.

orey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

A police officer helping a woman on the street

When we got outside, it was probably 9:01 or 9:02. You look up and you see a big hole in the North Tower, about 90 floors up. And you’re like, “How does a plane go into a building? That’s gotta be a really, really bad mistake.” All of a sudden we hear a plane, and it sounded like it was only 200 feet off the ground—right over our heads—and it went right into the other tower! It was so loud. You know when it’s so loud you can’t even look up and you go like this? [He looks down and covers his ears, scrunching his face.]

We all ran! As soon as it hit! Because there was a big fireball coming out of the side of the building and pieces of the plane fell within 100, 200 feet of us. It was chaos. Everybody went in different directions because you just wanted to get away.

Then we knew something was wrong. Two planes don’t go into a building by mistake. But at the time, we couldn’t figure out who was attacking us.

"Some people lost everything that day. I was lucky. I lived."

—Richard Viglione Jr.

Thomas E. Franklin/The Record via USA TODAY NETWORK

Raising a flag at Ground Zero

I felt so far from home and so scared. Nobody knew what to do. Nobody had experienced anything like this before.

At about 10:00, we’re standing about five or six blocks away, and all of a sudden, the South Tower starts to collapse. It just crumbled down and you see a white cloud. 

A few minutes later, the cloud gets to us and you can’t see anything. You try to open your eyes, but you can’t see. You just hear people yelling and screaming. Eventually you can see again—and there is white soot everywhere. That’s when we decided it was time to go home. After we started walking, the other tower fell.

There were no trains running, no buses. All the roads were closed. No cell phones worked. The closest cell tower fell when the buildings collapsed. But strangers were helping each other. People were scared and disoriented. But some would say, “Where do you live? Follow me, I’ll help you.”

I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with two people who were strangers to me. I heard them talking about walking to Brooklyn, and I asked if I could walk with them. We comforted each other and walked home with each other and got each other through that experience.

Around noon, after hours of walking, I was finally able to use a pay phone to call home and tell my family I was alive. Then someone gave me a ride to my street. I was so happy to be home, I ran so fast.

All of my family and friends were there to see that I was OK. They cried, I cried, it was very emotional. They hadn’t heard from me for a long time after the buildings were already gone. And I didn’t know if I would ever see my family again.

Some people lost everything that day. I was lucky. I lived.

As the nation united in the wake of tragedy, lives were profoundly changed.

Shaun Best/Reuters

Mourning lives lost in the attacks

A Lasting Impact

Tens of thousands of stories similar to Viglione’s unfolded in New York City that day. But not all of them had as fortunate an ending. In the coming days, people around the globe held candlelight vigils in memory of the nearly 3,000 people who died in the attacks. News reports included tales of heroism—of firefighters who had charged into the burning towers to try to save people and of office workers who had carried injured colleagues down smoke-filled stairwells.

As the country was reeling, President George W. Bush mobilized the U.S. military. Within a month, U.S. forces began bombing and raiding Afghanistan, where bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members were believed to be hiding. This was the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, the longest-running conflict in U.S. history (see “Key Moments,” below).

New federal, state, and local laws were quickly passed to protect against future terrorist attacks. Many are now familiar parts of our lives, such as having security officers check every bag before letting us get on a plane or enter an arena.

But in many ways, the events of 9/11 also brought Americans together. Countless volunteers joined search-and-rescue efforts, helped first responders, and provided aid and comfort to people who had survived the attacks or lost loved ones. As the nation united in the wake of the tragedy, many lives were profoundly changed—including Viglione’s.

In 2000, he told Christian, he’d turned down a chance to join the New York Fire Department because he liked his bank job. “They called again in 2003,” he said. “After what I saw on 9/11—police and firemen risking their lives to save people—I wanted to make a better life with more meaning to it. So I decided to take the test for the Fire Academy.”

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Each year on September 11, lights beam from the World Trade Center site in New York City.

Two decades have passed since the horrific events of 2001. The world is a very changed place. But once again, Americans are coming together to heal from a time of pain and loss: the Covid-19 pandemic.

This September 11, as on every anniversary of the attacks, two tower-like beams of light will rise from the World Trade Center site in New York City. Visible for miles around, those beams will stretch high into the night sky. They will serve as a stark reminder of what our nation lost 20 years ago—and how that loss shaped our future. The lights also symbolize a powerful truth: that Americans are strongest when united, and that ours is a nation of hope and grit that no tragedy can destroy. 

This article was updated on 8/18/21.

Write About It! How did the events of 9/11 affect Richard Viglione Jr. and other Americans? Write an informative essay that explains one of the impacts of the terrorist attacks.

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