‘Smoke seemed to have an odd bloom’: On 9/11, a Nasa astronaut saw attacks from space
On September 11, 2001, planes crashed into New York City's World Trade Center, the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and a field in Pennsylvania shocking the United States and the world alike. Nasa astronaut Frank Culbertson saw the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy from orbit from the International Space Station (ISS) as “smoke seemed to have an odd bloom to it at the base of the column that was streaming south of the city”. "It's horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point," he wrote. "The dichotomy of being on a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on the earth and watching life being destroyed by such willful, terrible acts is jolting to the psyche."
Frank Culbertson was widely called at the time as the “only US citizen not on earth” when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred 20 years ago. On 9/11, 19 al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes to carry out devastating suicide attacks against the United States. They flew two planes into the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center which then collapsed, a third plane was flown into the Pentagon, while crew members and passengers on a fourth plane forced hijackers to crash in Pennsylvania. The 9/11 attacks killed 2,977 people, the single largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil.
Culbertson was about 400km above Earth inside the still-under-construction ISS with two Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Tyurin and Vladimir Dezhurov when he saw the huge column of smoke streaming from Lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers fell. Culbertson captured video and photos of the 9/11 site from space for Nasa, while satellites also tracked the attack site from orbit.
The Nasa astronaut wrote about his experience the next day. “Well, obviously the world changed today. What I say or do is very minor compared to the significance of what happened to our country today when it was attacked by .... by whom? Terrorists is all we know, I guess. Hard to know at whom to direct our anger and fear…” Frank Culbertson said.
A flight surgeon told Frank Culbertson “they were having a very bad day on the ground” and “described the situation to me as best he knew it”. “I was flabbergasted, then horrified. My first thought was that this wasn't a real conversation, that I was still listening to one of my Tom Clancy tapes. It just didn't seem possible on this scale in our country. I couldn't even imagine the particulars, even before the news of further destruction began coming in,” Culbertson said.
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He said he tried to explain to Tyurin and Dezhurov “as best I could the potential magnitude of this act of terror in downtown Manhattan and at the Pentagon”. “They clearly understood and were very sympathetic.”
The Nasa astronaut said he found a window that would “give me a view of NYC and grabbed the nearest camera. It happened to be a video camera…” “The smoke seemed to have an odd bloom to it at the base of the column that was streaming south of the city. After reading one of the news articles we just received, I believe we were looking at NY around the time of, or shortly after, the collapse of the second tower. How horrible…”
Culbertson said it was “pretty difficult to think about work after that”. “It all looked incredible from two to three hundred miles away. I can't imagine the tragic scenes on the ground,” he wrote.
“Other than the emotional impact of our country being attacked and thousands of our citizens and maybe some friends being killed, the most overwhelming feeling being where I am is one of isolation,” he added.