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Photo look up at the World Trade Center against a blue sky

11 unknown facts about the 9/11 terrorist attack

Image: Carlos Gandiaga /

September 11th was a bleak milestone of the modern age. Many think of it as the day on which the 90s ended, and the 21st century really began. While the images of New York’s stricken skyline are seared into the collective consciousness, here are some facts you might not know about 9/11.

1. Ground Zero burned for 99 days

The combination of jet fuel and combustible matter, such as office documents and furniture, meant that the wreckage of the World Trade Center burned non-stop for 99 days. Firefighters tended to this seemingly endless inferno around the clock.

One firefighter later said: “You couldn't even begin to imagine how much water was pumped in there. It was like you were creating a giant lake.”

2. Michael Jackson was almost a victim

The night before 9/11, Michael Jackson put on a lavish concert in New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden. He then stayed up late chatting to his mother and sister. He stayed up so late, in fact, that he overslept and missed a meeting scheduled to take place at the Twin Towers the next morning.

“We only discovered this when mother phoned his hotel to make sure he was OK,” Michael’s brother Jermaine recounted.

3. Seth MacFarlane also narrowly escaped

Another celebrity who had a near-miss on 9/11 was Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. He had a seat booked on Flight 11 but missed the departure by 10 minutes. Hungover, he decided to take a nap at the airport, waking up 45 minutes later to the surreal news that the plane he should have been on had crashed into the North Tower.

4. A woman survived 27 hours in the wreckage

Miraculously, several people were pulled alive from the scorched wreckage of the World Trade Center. The last to be saved was Genelle Guzman-McMillan, a young migrant from Trinidad and Tobago who worked as an office assistant in the North Tower.

She had been making her way down a stairwell when, as she later described, “the walls burst open and the rubble came falling down”. Somehow surviving a skyscraper collapsing on top of her, Genelle remained buried for 27 long hours before firefighters finally came across her.

5. Many British people died

Other than the US, the country that sustained the most casualties on 9/11 was the United Kingdom. No fewer than 67 Brits perished that day, and many others narrowly survived. One of the lucky ones was Scottish ex-pat Andrew Cullen, who worked in the South Tower. He owed his survival to disobeying official instructions to stay put while authorities worked out what was going on.

6. The terrorists used elaborate codenames

The 9/11 attackers referred to some of their targets using elaborate codenames. They called the Pentagon ‘the Faculty of Fine Arts’, while the North Tower of the World Trade Center was ‘the Faculty of Town Planning’.

The attacks themselves were referred to as ‘the first semester’, while the 19 terrorists were dubbed ‘19 certificates for private education’.

7. A chance encounter on a train was key

The 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta and several of his accomplices had originally planned to undertake their jihad by battling Russian forces in Chechnya. But, while travelling on a train in Germany in 1999, the group was approached by a stranger who was affiliated with Al Qaeda. As a consequence of this meeting, Atta’s group was introduced to Osama bin Laden, paving the way for 9/11.

8. One company lost the majority of its staff

Many firms based in the World Trade Center were decimated by the attacks, but none more so than investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald. The company’s offices were situated above the plane’s impact site, meaning that nobody present at work that day survived.

Of its 960 New York employees, 658 were killed. The CEO, Howard Lutnick, survived because he was taking his son to school that morning, but his younger brother Gary was among the dead.

9. The co-creator of Frasier was killed

David Angell, Emmy Award-winning co-creator of the classic sitcom Frasier, was on board American Airlines Flight 11 with his wife Lynn when it struck the North Tower. By eerie coincidence, in a 1997 episode of the show, Dr. Frasier Crane receives a phone call from someone flying in on ‘American Flight 11’.

10. One of the intended targets is still a mystery

Three of the planes hijacked on 9/11 hit their intended targets: the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. The fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, was brought down after the passengers bravely rose up against the hijackers.

To date, we still don’t know for certain where the plane was heading. It’s likely to have been either the White House or the US Capitol, but experts have long disagreed on which of these iconic buildings had been on the terrorists’ radar.

11. A much bigger terrorist plot was initially proposed

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of 9/11, originally wanted to have nine planes flown into a variety of targets, including nuclear power plants. A tenth plane would have then been landed at an airport, where all male passengers would have been killed in a grisly media spectacle. This plan was deemed too complex and scaled back to “just” four planes.

For more articles about 9/11, check out our September 11th attacks hub