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‘It's About 20 Minutes Outside Of Pittsburgh ... Good Luck’: Former Mayor Tom Murphy Reflects On The Morning Of 9/11

flight 93 memorial 9-11 september 11 sept 2001 terrorist attack (20).JPG
Laura Tsutsui
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh’s former mayor Tom Murphy wasn’t in his city office when he learned about the first attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I was actually at a breakfast with the Black ministers of Pittsburgh. It was at a breakfast at Mt. Ararat church,” he said. “And one of the people making the breakfast came in and said a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

The first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m.

He told WESA’s The Confluence that, at the time, it was unclear if this first attack was an accident.

Murphy quickly returned to his office where the city’s public safety officials were having a meeting. Then, almost immediately after getting into the office, the second plane hit the South Tower. He says at that point they realized this was an organized attack.

Flight 93 took off from Newark International Airport before the North Tower was struck.

Shortly after Flight 93 was hijacked Murphy says calls start rolling into Westmoreland and Allegheny county 911 systems from passengers saying their plane was taken over. He says officials figured the plane was somewhere around Erie.

“The FAA calls us and said, ‘There’s a plane going towards Cleveland, and it’s coming around Cleveland,’ and, in effect, they said, ‘it’s about 20 minutes outside of Pittsburgh coming towards us. Good luck.’”

Murphy says that the city quickly began organizing evacuations.

“We don't think that their target is Pittsburgh, but we call the managers of all the major buildings, Oxford [One Oxford Centre] and the U.S. Steel, and say, ‘You got to get people out of the building.’”

But, the attempted evacuation caused gridlock downtown. At the time, roughly 150,000 people worked in the city center according to Murphy.

“Twenty years later,” he says, “even a year later, you can look back and say it's pretty clear what was happening. But then at the moment, it's not clear at all. And so you make the best decisions you can.”

Flight 93 went down in Stonycreek Township at 10:03 a.m., bypassing Pittsburgh, Murphy describes his feelings as a mixture of relief and sadness.

When he thinks back on that day 20 years ago, he says, “I value my friends and family a lot more because it's a reminder once again of how uncertain life is.”

Rebecca Reese is a production assistant for The Confluence.