By Patrice Taddonio
On September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda operatives carried out the deadliest domestic terror attack in American history by hijacking four passenger airplanes and crashing two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and another into a Pennsylvania field.
As America marks the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks — which killed nearly 3,000 people and injured thousands more — revisit a selection of FRONTLINE’s reporting on the horror of that day.
1) Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero
For many people, the most difficult questions raised by the attacks weren’t about politics, military strategy or homeland security. They were questions about God, about good and evil, and about the potential for darkness within religion itself. Did what we saw on that day negate the idea of God’s existence — or was there something in the human response to the tragedy that suggested transcendence?
This classic FRONTLINE documentary explores these big — and deeply personal — questions through interviews with priests, rabbis, and Islamic scholars; victims’ families and World Trade Center survivors; writers and thinkers; and atheists and agnostics. This haunting and elegiac documentary on how Sept. 11 reshaped the religious beliefs of Americans first aired a year after the attacks, and still resonates just as deeply today.
2) The Man Who Knew
When the Twin Towers fell, among the thousands killed was the one man who may have known more about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda than any other person in America: John O’Neill.
The former head of the FBI’s flagship antiterrorism unit in New York City, O’Neill led the fight to track down and prosecute Al Qaeda operatives throughout the world. But his flamboyant, James Bond-style and obsession with bin Laden made him a controversial figure inside the buttoned-down world of the FBI. Just two weeks before Sept. 11, O’Neill left the bureau for a job in the private sector — as head of security at the World Trade Center. He died there after rushing back into the burning towers to aid in the rescue efforts. FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk’s documentary The Man Who Knew, chronicles O’Neill’s story — and offers important insights into the successes and failures of America’s war on terrorism.
3) Inside the White House on 9/11
In the summer of 2015, the National Archives publicly released never-before-seen photos of the Bush administration reacting to the Sept. 11 attacks, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request on behalf of FRONTLINE by Colette Neirouz Hanna and the Kirk Documentary Group. As this short report shows, the shock, horror and gravity of the attacks can be read on the faces of President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, their wives Laura and Lynne, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, CIA Director George Tenet and other senior Bush and Cheney staffers.
Then, in May of 2016, more never-before-seen Sept. 11 photographs – these taken by President Bush’s staff photographer — were released exclusively to FRONTLINE, in response to an additional FOIA request by Neirouz Hanna. From the initial scramble for information when Bush learned of the attack, to his meetings with senior staff throughout the day, to his return to the White House that evening to address a grieving nation, the photos are a stark glimpse of history unfolding.
4) The Weight of Dust
On the morning of September 11, 2001, eight-year-old Amy Gaines’ father, Scott, dropped her off at the school bus stop. It was supposed to be the first day of his last vacation before his retirement after 20 years as a New York City police officer. But then, news broke that a plane — and then, a second one — had flown into the World Trade Center. So Scott Gaines headed to Ground Zero, where he would continue to work for the next two months.
Like many 9/11 first responders, he would later be diagnosed with cancer. In fact, the projected death toll from illnesses potentially linked to 9/11 is larger than the number of people who died that day. In an episode of The FRONTLINE Dispatch podcast called “The Weight of Dust,” Amy Gaines — now a series coordinating producer at FRONTLINE — embarks on a deeply personal quest to understand the long arm of 9/11 through the story of what happened to her father and thousands of others diagnosed with illnesses believed to be caused by exposure to toxic chemicals at Ground Zero.
In addition to these FRONTLINE reports that deal with the day of the attacks itself, we’ve also investigated the rise of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden both before and immediately after 9/11, and in the weeks and months following. And of course, our archive of documentaries also includes dozens of seminal films that explore the attacks’ legacy — from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the rise of NSA mass surveillance, to the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques. You can find our full documentary archive here.