Nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives on 9/11 at the hands of 19 hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon, with another plane crashing into the fields of Pennsylvania.
Chuck Rosenberg, head of the Drug Enforcement Agency and former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, spoke to Scott Air Force Base on Sept. 11 about how he and the FBI’s prosecution team helped convince a jury that one person, Zacarias Moussaoui, could have prevented the attacks from ever occurring.
Along with his presentation, Maj. Gen. Thomas Sharpy, Air Mobility Command deputy commander and former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, briefly spoke about that day in a surreal fashion. As he took shelter under the grounds of the White House, he said he remembered one of the most pivotal moments of that day.
Had Moussaoui told the truth on Aug. 16 of 2001, when he was first arrested by the FBI in Minneapolis—had he told the truth, we could have stopped 9/11.
Chuck Rosenberg, head of the Drug Enforcement Agency and former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia
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“I saw (senior leaders) come walking in with briefcases strapped to their wrists in service dress, and when they walked into that conference room, everyone, including the president of the United States, stood up. I knew then that we were a nation at war.”
Since 2001, the death toll of military members who have fought in the War on Terror has more than doubled that of those who died on the 9/11 attacks. For many of the nearly 50,000 first responders, they remain casualties of that day, whether due to suffering from respiratory illnesses, increased risk of cancer, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yet, to this day, Moussaoui remains the only person to have ever been convicted of federal crimes related to 9/11.
“Had Moussaoui told the truth on Aug. 16 of 2001, when he was first arrested by the FBI in Minneapolis—had he told the truth, we could have stopped 9/11,” said Rosenberg.
The prosecution presented evidence of a stolen passport that Moussaoui used to wire and receive money from multiple overseas Al Qaeda contacts, including Ramzi bin al-Shibh. According to the prosecution, bin al-Shibh was a financial coordinator for the conspiracy and also allegedly a member of a terrorist cell that included one of the hijackers who flew American Flight 11 into the World Trade Center.
The information Moussaoui had at the time of his arrest, which included names, account numbers, phone numbers, and addresses, would have helped the FBI identify at least 11 of the terrorists weeks prior to the attack and created heightened security protocol in airports across the country said Rosenberg.
All 12 jurors found Moussaoui guilty of conspiracy. He will spend the rest of his life in a Florence, Colorado maximum security prison.
Despite the unanimous guilty verdict of Moussaoui, a single juror kept Moussaoui from the death sentence.
Overall, 2,700 died in New York City, although they’ve only positively identified 1,641 remains, and they are still identifying more today, said Rosenburg. He said Moussaoui, who testified on April 13, 2006, showed no signs of remorse.
“He actually laughed when he heard about children who were murdered that day,” Rosenberg said.
THE VICTIMS & HEROES
Fifty of the roughly 1,500 families of victims were willing to testify during the trial, and those personal accounts helped lead to a guilty verdict.
“If you ask me, what I really cared most about was telling the victim’s story,” said Rosenberg, as he prepared to share the stories of a select number of those who perished that day.
▪ Sarah Low. Low was a 28-year-old flight attendant who was known for being the star at everything she did. She was inspired to become a flight attendant while flying around in her father’s small plane throughout her childhood. She died on American Airlines Flight 11. “Very recently we found a little piece of Sarah at the World Trade Center,” said Rosenberg, “I think this is the fifth time we’ve traveled to the World Trade Center to retrieve a piece of his (Mike Low’s) daughter.”
▪ Vamsi Pendyla and Prasanna Kalahasti. Pendyla and Kalahasti fell in love after their arranged union and later married. Pendyla was on American Airlines Flight 11 and perished on his way to see Kalahasti. “On Oct. 29, she killed herself,” said Rosenberg, who said Kalahasti intended to stand trial. She left a note that her brother found. Rosenberg paraphrased her suicide note: One of two things must be true—that either there’s an afterlife, in which case Kalahasti will see her beloved Vamsi again, or there is nothing, in which case she will be out of her pain.
▪ The Hansons. The family was on Flight 93. Their daughter, 2-year-old Christine Hanson, was the youngest person to die in the attacks. They were on their way to Disneyland in California before they perished.
▪ Kevin Williams. Williams was working his first job in finance at the World Trade Center. His father drove to New York City the morning of the attacks, and, due to traffic, had to run seven miles on foot to reach the towers. However, his son did not survive.
▪ Khang Nguyen. Nguyen’s wife told jurors that her son said he wanted to be an astronaut so he could see his father in heaven. “I also ask people to remember Sept. 12, too,” Rosenberg said. “Because on Sept. 12, New Yorkers lined the streets and cheered as firefighters and police officers drove down to the rubble to try and begin the recovery process and the collection of evidence.”
▪ Trisha Smith. Smith was a police officer who died when she ran into one of the towers on the morning of the attacks.
▪ Danny Suhr. Suhr was a firefighter who died after someone jumped out of the World Trade Center. “It wasn’t just dangerous to go into the buildings, it was dangerous to try to get to the buildings,” said Rosenberg. “We lost several people that morning who were struck by jumpers.”
▪ Terry Hattons. A captain for the New York City Fire Department for 20 years, Hattons opted to enter the towers to help civilians escape, despite having the seniority to stay in the truck. He was killed in the collapse of the tower.
“About a week after he died, and I believe they did finally identify his body, Beth (Hatton’s wife) learned she was pregnant with now their only child,” said Rosenberg.
▪ Maj. John Thurman. He entered the Pentagon three times to try to save his coworker, trapped under a filing cabinet. “Finally on the third attempt he barely managed to get himself out and collapsed on the lawn,” said Rosenberg as he showed an image of Thurman receiving medical care.
▪ Maj. Heather Penney. She was the F-16 pilot who was prepared to down a civilian plane (United Airlines Flight 93) through suicide mission. At the time, no F-16s were armed to down another plane in air-to-air combat. She was well aware that her father, who was a United Airlines pilot, could have been flying that aircraft.
▪ Maj. LeRoy Wilton Homer Jr. He was the first officer of Flight 93. Sharpy served alongside him and recounted the days he embraced Homer’s wife and newborn daughter two days after the attacks. “I’ll never forget LeRoy Homer,” said Sharpy.
“And I ask you not to forget as well.” Investigators never ran tests to see which of the Flight 93 passengers were in the cockpit of the plane. These passengers overtook the hijackers and possibly prevented a greater loss of life. As far as they’re concerned, said Rosenberg, every one of those passengers are heroes, just as thousands were on one of the darkest days in America’s history.