Return to Transcripts main page

CNN The Point

Tracking the Terrorists: Bioterrorism -- Is the U.S. Ready?

Aired October 09, 2001 - 20:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: "THE POINT: Tracking the Terrorists." As the bombs continue falling, Al Qaeda makes new threats. Tonight, Al Qaeda's continued defiance. Anthrax exposure in Florida, the full-scale investigation into how one man was exposed and another became infected. And reaction from inside the building that is now the focus of the probe.


DAVID PECKER, AMERICAN MEDIA: This is now -- obviously, is a very, very difficult time for all our employees.


ANNOUNCER: We'll also take you into the lab, where the highest- level work on contagious diseases takes place in the United States.

Four weeks since strategy struck U.S. soil. Tonight, 20 minutes, a chilling look at what happened in the time that elapsed between the first World Trade Center strike and the second. The 20 minutes that made the difference between life and death.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Those first minutes were absolutely crucial.


ANNOUNCER: And the scare heading to Chicago.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They tied his hands, they tied his feet and they literally carried the man back in the back section away from the cabin door.


ANNOUNCER: We'll talk with the passenger who documented the incident with his own camera. "THE POINT: Tracking the Terrorists." Now, from Washington, Greta Van Susteren.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: They are not giving up. They are even declaring a Holy War. Will anyone listen to their call to arms? As U.S. jets conducted a third day of raids against Afghanistan, an Arabic news network broadcast a new, defiant, statement from Al Qaeda. CNN's Mike Boettcher is standing by in Atlanta to take us through it.

Mike, first, when reference to the statement by the Al Qaeda spokesperson, what do we know about this spokesperson?

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, our international desk here has been working hard here at trying to find a background on this person. Frankly -- and I've been looking at Al Qaeda a long time, he came out of the blue. His name is Suliman Abu- Ghaith. We are told that he is a Kuwaiti, that he was a teacher in Kuwait and recently had written an article, according to Kuwaiti authorities, very inflammatory. He was about to be arrested -- and I'm paraphrasing the charge here -- but basically trying to insight the public in Kuwait against the Kuwaiti government. He fled before the arrest and presumably went to Afghanistan. So this is the person.

Now in the statement -- it is different from past statements -- usually the voice has been Osama Bin Laden or Ayman Zawahri, who was the number two of Al Qaeda. This is the video that was released a couple of days ago and there's Zawahri on the right, of course, Bin Laden in the middle with the assault rifle in between them. And there is Mr. Ghaith on the left, speaking. He introduced the statement yesterday.

In this most recent statement, he basically exhorted the Islamic world to Holy War. He said those that flew the planes into the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon did a good thing. And he also indicated that, for them, this war is long from over -- Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: Mike, it was interesting, I thought, in the statement, there still is no admission or confession either by Osama Bin Laden the other day or today by this spokesperson but -- that they are responsible, the Al Qaeda network is responsible for the terrorism in the United States.

BOETTCHER: Well hey, that's very consistent through all of the attacks are blamed for -- Khobar Towers, the Cole, this most recent attack, the African embassy bombings. Credit is never claimed. The way these videotapes come out is that the videotapes usually precede an attack rather than come after the attack. And that has been the pattern in the past, not to take credit, but to perhaps get some indication that an attack is to come -- Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you think -- it's a little bit odd, though almost, Mike, at least from my perspective. You think that it -- that since they do call for a Holy War in this statement and they do cast praise for those who caused terrorism here in the United States and at least they would take some sort of credit for causing the terrorism. But it's never there in these statements.

BOETTCHER: Well, this is my feeling. I've been studying terrorism for almost 25 years now. I don't consider myself an expert but I study it. And in the past, credit was needed to raise the profile of an organization so people would look at cause and know what it was, like the Palestinian issue in the '70s. These people don't need that kind of credit; don't need to raise their profile up. It gives them plausible deniability while everyone who is a supporter of Al Qaeda winks and nods and knows yes, they did it. They really don't need to claim credit. There's no reason to do for them.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you this is ratcheting it up a little bit because this is call to arms praise for the terrorists. Is Osama Bin Laden's organization, do you think, is looking for more trouble?

BOETTCHER: Yes, I believe that they had anticipated that there would be such a reaction to -- the Al Qaeda organization, if you look at the testimony in the various trials. They're very methodical in the way they plan out their operations. They're thinking several steps ahead of the road. Their learning curve is very high. You have to believe that they know what the U.S. would do if planes were flown into the World Trade Center that there would be a declared war against terrorism. And you have to believe if you look at their past behavior that they've planned out steps two, three, four and five.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, thanks tonight to Mike Boettcher in Atlanta.

Be sure to keep watching next hour. Larry King will have an exclusive interview with the editor and chief of Al Jazeera, that's the Arabic TV network that has provide some of the video from inside Afghanistan.

For more perspective on the Al Qaeda statement, I am joined by Samer Shehata, an assistant professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

Samer, what do you make of this statement that was released today, a new strategy or more of the same by Osama Bin Laden?

SAMER SHEHATA, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: More of the same but if I could say something regarding the earlier statements. I think that both -- in the statement on Sunday that we saw, that Osama Bin Laden himself made, and in the statement today that we saw on Al Jazeera, that there is an implied taking of credit for the attacks on the United States on September 11.

VAN SUSTEREN: But why not just say it? I mean they sort of beat around the bush. I mean what's the point of not just -- they praise those who commit the act, which is unusual.

SHEHATA: And they pray that they will go to heaven.

VAN SUSTEREN: And they pray they will go to heaven and they also invite other Muslims to take up the cause against Americans. Why not take the credit?

SHEHATA: Well, I don't think the point for them is really to kind of boast that -- look what we have done to the United States. It is in part, but it's known. Everyone knows now, I think, despite the Bush administration not releasing evidence that Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden are responsible. VAN SUSTEREN: What's the effect in the Arab world when they hear this?

SHEHATA: Well, I think the effect in the Arab world is not so much a reaction to the statements that Osama Bin Laden and Suliman Abu-Ghaith make. The reaction, I think, has to do with the bombing of Afghanistan. And as we saw in the streets of the West Bank yesterday, and in the streets of Pakistan and elsewhere, Arab and Indonesia today, Arab and Muslim public opinion, I think is fairly unified although diverse against the bombing of Afghanistan.

VAN SUSTEREN: And the strategy seems to be rather consistent. In the statement today, it talks about America get out of the Middle East, America quit helping Israel and America, you caused all these problems in Iraq, so as to sort of divide the Arab world from the western world.

SHEHATA: That's right. And the very sad part about all of this is that many of the things that we read in the statement and saw, you know, in the Al Jazeera broadcast, are quite reasonable and legitimate concerns that many people in the Arab world and elsewhere would hold -- a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, some kind of modifications for ending of the sanctions on Iraq.

VAN SUSTEREN: But do they -- but do they praise the terrorism in the United States or is there a public condemnation?

SHEHATA: No, I think...

VAN SUSTEREN: Which is something that -- at least we have the praising here.

SHEHATA: This is, I think, what's very important to understand and this is the difficult situation that the Bush administration finds itself in and that is, that I think, the condemnation of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda and the terrorist attacks on September 11 in the Muslim world and Arab world are widespread and universal. But at the same time, these issues are -- have been burning issues and are seen and are quite, in many cases, just issues separate from Osama Bin Laden's tactics and this is the problem. It really comes down to America's foreign policy in the Middle East, the specifics of what -- how America conducts itself in the world.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, there's a -- in Osama Bin Laden's report, he seemed to have great -- in his statements, seemed to take great pleasure in fear created in the United States and again, here there's now a call to create more trouble for the United States. Do you think people listen to him? Does he have that much of base outside of Afghanistan?

SHEHATA: Well, you're right, that's what's quite scary especially in the statement today that the idea is to kind of take war to the United States and United States interests all over the world. I don't think that regular people, Muslims and Arabs in the Muslim and Arab world and in the United States are affected by this kind of rhetoric. They're not going to become radicalized as a result of Osama Bin Laden. So I don't see that as being a successful strategy.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, Samer Shehata, thanks very much for joining us this evening.

SHEHATA: Thank you.

VAN SUSTEREN: Our next stop is Florida. By tomorrow, the FBI should be done collecting samples at the building where traces of Anthrax were found on a computer keyboard. Robert Stevens, who worked there, died of Anthrax last week. Ernesto Blanco, another employee who worked in that same building, tested positive for exposure to the bacteria, but is not sick.

This afternoon, officials said more than 700 people, employees and visitors to the building, have been screened and treated with antibiotics, just as a precaution. Also, health officials announced no traces of Anthrax turned up at the dead man's home.


DR. JEAN MALECKI, DIRECTOR, PALM BEACH COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT: I'm happy to say that there's no evidence at all of Anthrax in the residence of Mr. Robert Stevens. And thereby, we were able to take the family of Mr. Stevens off all prophylactic antibiotics. And that's the good news for today, that we were able to successfully rule out the residence as an area of exposure. And I can tell you that the family is elated over this.


VAN SUSTEREN: This afternoon, President Bush praised the way federal and state health authorities have handled the Anthrax scare.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: An incident obviously came up in the form of a sick male who unfortunately passed away and the local authorities along with the CDC responded very quickly. There is a system in place to notify our government and governments in the case of -- in the case of some kind of potential biological incident or chemical incident. And the system worked.


VAN SUSTEREN: The CDC, President Bush mentioned is the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. CNN medical correspondent Rhonda Rowland is there with a closer look at what they do.

Rhonda, give me a timeline on what happened in this case with the CDC?

RHONDA ROWLAND, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we're told by the CDC is Wednesday night health officials from Florida contacted the CDC. By Thursday morning, blood samples from the first victim were here at the CDC. They were tested. Apparently by looking for antibodies in the blood, they can come up with a diagnosis for Anthrax very quickly. By 2:00 that afternoon, a team of 12 CDC scientists were dispatched to Florida to investigate this further.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, what is this team supposed to do? Are they essentially disease detectives?

ROWLAND: Disease detectives, that's an excellent explanation for them and that's what they do. They go and they reconstruct how this could have occurred. They look at the extent of the exposure, how it was disseminated and that's what they're trained to do. And I think that the American public can feel quite secure that they have gone all over the world tracking disease outbreaks. So these are some of the best minds who are sent to do this.

We talked to experts outside of the CDC. They say this is the job, the role of the CDC.

VAN SUSTEREN: Rhonda, I read today that they're doing nasal swabs down in Florida to test people, to see whether or not they have been exposed and it takes several days to determine whether or not they have. Why not do the blood samples like was done originally so it can be done in hours rather than days?

ROWLAND: Well, with the blood test, you can look for antibodies if you actually have the disease of Anthrax. And the first victim did indeed have full-blown Anthrax. The second person, who was diagnosed as being positive for it, did not actually have Anthrax. This person just tested positive for it and that's picked up with a nasal swab. And with a nasal swab, as you mentioned, it does take longer to do the test because they have to culture it. But unless you actually have the full-blown disease, this way you would pick it up.

And what we understand is the samples have been sent up here to CDC and officials here are working around-the-clock to test these samples. We're also told by the CDC if they do indeed find another case where someone tests positive that everyone will be alerted.

VAN SUSTEREN: And if they're alerted, is there a stockpile of antibiotics available to address the problem?

ROWLAND: There certainly is. The CDC runs a national pharmaceutical stockpile program and this is a situation where there are warehouses around the country stocked with antibiotics, anecdotes and medical supplies that can be dispatched within 12 hours' notice, to wherever they're needed for a biological or chemical attack.

What we're told by the CDC, that the team that went to Florida did go with antibiotics. And we were not told how much of the supply was taken down but they assured us that it would be enough to meet whatever the needs were.

Now, again as far as what antibiotics are being used, we've heard a lot about Cipro. I talked to an emergency room physician who was consulting with the CDC on filling the stockpile and they will not say exactly what antibiotics are in the stockpile for obvious reasons. VAN SUSTEREN: But will they tell us how big that stockpile is if the problem should be something bigger than Florida, which of course, right now, is not a particular problem? But how big is that stockpile?

ROWLAND: Well, what we understand is there are eight push packs. Within these push packs; there are 50 tons of medical supplies so that's quite a bit. It's a very large stockpile, but even others outside the CDC say this is a great start. It does need to be beefed up.

And we understand in the budget for next year that the CDC is going to put a lot more into the stockpile. So one of the first priorities was to put in antibiotics where some of the biological threats that they thought were possible real threats, such as anthrax, such as plagues, such a botulism and toxins. So those were some things that could be treated with antibiotics. So that was the first course of action, the first priority, to get the antibiotics into the stockpile that could be used in case this was a real threat.

VAN SUSTEREN: Rhonda, has anyone at the CDC given you any indication whether or not this is, you know, sort of a usual occurrence or simply -- but we don't pay attention to these or whether it's bizarre that we have two instances, one with anthrax, one with exposure? Have they given you any hint into what they think is behind this?

ROWLAND: Well, I'll tell you that the director of the CDC this morning -- we did get a quote from him and he has said that as they gather more information, the two people tested positive, plus the positive samples from the building, for the fact that employees there certainly are not sorting wool or tanning hives, which that is a definite possible exposure for anthrax, that they say that this lowers the likelihood of this being a natural contamination.

So they are saying, as far as looking at this from a disease epidemiology perspective, the evidence is stacking up to look like this is not an environmental exposure, but they have not gone beyond that.

VAN SUSTEREN: And if indeed they determine that it's something sinister, do they work with the FBI? Do they reach conclusions about crimes or is that the jurisdiction of the FBI?

ROWLAND: That is definitely the jurisdiction of the FBI. The FBI, as you mentioned, is out there to track crimes. The CDC is the equivalent but in tracking disease, tracking disease outbreaks and trying to get those answers. And certainly, they're working together but they are, again, looking at the disease process, the exposure, trying to figure out what the exact agent is and they have the experts here who can figure that out, to see if this was perhaps anthrax that was grown naturally in nature and then used to be disbursed or if this was something that was gemmed up in a lab. The CDC has the capability to come up with those answers. But as far as who released or that sort of thing, of course, that goes into the realm of the FBI.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, Rhonda, thank you very much. Rhonda Rowland outside the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia.

That building involved in the Florida anthrax scare houses the offices of some of the country's best-known tabloid newspapers, "The Sun," "The National Enquirer" and "The Globe": because it is an ongoing criminal investigation, people who work there have been kept silent. But last night, the company's chief executive expressed his concerns.


PECKER: I'm just hoping that every one of our employees comes back negative. This, obviously, is a very, very difficult time for our employees.


VAN SUSTEREN: What does it feel like to get anthrax and how could a terrorist make use of it? We will get the answers to those questions and more when THE POINT returns.


VAN SUSTEREN: Is the U.S. ready to handle a serious bioterrorism threat? They're asking that question on Capitol Hill today. The answer was not reassuring. D.A. Henderson led the successful worldwide battle to eradicate smallpox. Now, he's been tapped as a chief adviser to President Bush and preparing American's health system for a biological attack. Here's what he told lawmakers.


D.A. HENDERSON, BIODEFENSE EXPERT: They need resources and they need them urgently if they are to effectively carry out even the rudimentary actions that are absolutely essential for dealing with a major infectious disease outbreak. I think it is difficult for me to exaggerate the deficiencies of our present public health capabilities.


VAN SUSTEREN: Just what is anthrax? How does it kill and how do we kill it? With me is Javed Ali. He's the author of "Jane's U.S. Chemical and Biological Defense Guidebook."

Javed, thanks for joining me and let's start with what is anthrax?

JAVED ALI, JANE'S WEAPONS EXPERT: Anthrax actually is the disease that is caused by an organism, bacillus anthracis. And there are three forms of anthrax: cutaneous, gastro-intestine...

VAN SUSTEREN: That's skin, eating or inhaling, right?

ALI: Inhaling. And in inhaled anthrax, pulmonary anthrax, the one that unfortunately Mr. Stevens came in contact with or contracted, is the most fatal or most lethal of those three forms.

VAN SUSTEREN: Now, the other two -- the skin touching or the eating, are those fatal?

ALI: Not -- sort of statistically, you know, not as much as a pulmonary form. Maybe gastro-intestinal 30, 20 percent. But with modern medicine, those numbers may even be more reduced. So...

VAN SUSTEREN: How easy is it to get this bacteria? I don't mean to contract it, but I mean to go and find it so you can do something sinister with it.

ALI: I actually think that would be a fairly sophisticated undertaking for even a knowledgeable terrorist organization or a criminal group. So I don't think -- while it may exist in nature -- and it certainly does exist in nature especially in the United States -- I still don't think it's a leap of faith to say that could, you know, sort of -- an anthrax source could then be extracted and used as a weapon.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, well, I don't want to chin up the fear or alarm because a lot of people are already alarmed in this country, but in the event that someone wanted to do something, take a crop duster plane, for instance -- we had a big scare about that -- and spray it over an area. Is it odorless?

ALI: Yes.

VAN SUSTEREN: So there's no way to detect it by smelling it that indeed the anthrax has been dropped down?

ALI: Correct.

VAN SUSTEREN: And is it vaporized? Is that the way it's done?

ALI: It would be disbursed. If you were going to use something like crop duster, it would be in an aerosol form. Now, that could be a liquid form or a dry powder form. It would all depend on how the terrorist group actually manufactured the agent. But I think that scenario that you're postulating is the far, far end of a low probability scale.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why do you say that because a lot of people are concerned about that?

ALI: Because in order to get that step of actually having enough biological material, whether it's anthrax or anything else, putting it in the right form, having it at the right concentration level and then delivering it with a sort of moving aerosol generator like a crop duster, that's a fairly sophisticated, technical undertaking.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you have to have a perfect atmosphere conditions? Is that a consideration?

ALI: That's a huge consideration.

VAN SUSTEREN: What about the -- when can you first detect whether or not you've been exposed to this? ALI: Well, it's dependent. It would depend on the health of the individuals who were exposed, the concentration of the material: in this case, whether it's bacillus anthracis and sort of those -- those sort of factors will determine how quickly someone would have the onset of symptoms.

VAN SUSTEREN: But you actually have to have the symptoms. There's no other way to detect your exposure until you actually exhibit the systems.

ALI: Correct.

VAN SUSTEREN: And at that point, of course, is it too late for antibiotics or not too late?

ALI: Well, there's a time window for pulmonary anthrax. And according to the data, the technical literature out there, that time window is probably 18-24 hours after you are systematic, that if you are given antibiotics before that 18-24 hours, you'll have a very chance, a high degree of surviving the disease.

VAN SUSTEREN: What do you make of this story down in Florida where one man has died of anthrax, another exposed and they find something on a keyboard?

ALI: It's certainly unusual. I mean obviously these types of anthrax exposures don't happen, you know, routinely. I mean there hasn't been case of pulmonary anthrax in this country for the last 25 years. So it's definitely unusual. But I still don't think there's enough information to draw any criminal terrorist inferences at this point.

VAN SUSTEREN: Give me a completely, innocent explanation -- a hypothesis of how this happened.

ALI: That's the $64,000 question but maybe one is that Mr. Stevens was out somewhere in a rural area or an area in which the bacteria is actually endemic, a region where it's endemic and somehow -- and I don't know what that somehow could be -- but somehow he came in contact with an aerosol -- a lethal aerosol challenge of the bacillus anthracis.

VAN SUSTEREN: But how can that be? I mean you said 25 years ago we had some here in the United States. That was goat skin from Haiti.

ALI: Right. Right.

VAN SUSTEREN: Now that seems -- I mean unless he comes in contact with perhaps those goat skins from Haiti, I mean -- and we're not hearing a lot about anyone coming in contact. I mean give me a hypothesis that would be innocent to how he could come in contact to sort of innocently or -- I don't mean as criminal, but I mean unsuspectingly bring back to the workplace.

ALI: Well, that's what I mean. So he may have been in place where it was endemic in the soil and somehow -- again, not knowing what the somehow or what that somehow is -- but he came into contact with a lethal dose that was aerosolized.

VAN SUSTEREN: And can you then bring it back -- can you carry it back on your body and...

ALI: Sure.

VAN SUSTEREN: ... bring back on your body and bring it back to your workplace?

ALI: Because the concentration of anthrax -- in order for a dose to be lethal through the pulmonary exposure route, it is between 8,000, 10,000, 20,000 organisms to actually cause a lethal -- or to trigger the lethal range of symptoms.

VAN SUSTEREN: How durable is the anthrax spore?

ALI: Very durable. In the soil, it could last for decades.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is there anything that will kill it in the soil, anything in the environment?

ALI: Strong intense heat over a period of time will render, neutralize or kill it.

VAN SUSTEREN: And if it's only found -- one man, a coworker, has only been exposed to it and found it on the keyboard and that's the end of the inquiry, does that just -- will we ever find out what happened?

ALI: I'm sure, at some point, there will be -- through the epidemiologic law enforcement criminal channels that are all being explored right now, we may have an answer. But I think at this point, they're exploring all of those and haven't really come up with a single definitive source yet.

VAN SUSTEREN: Saved Ali, thanks very much for joining us tonight.

ALI: Thank you.

VAN SUSTEREN: Still to come on THE POINT, a nation on edge when Tracking The Terrorists returns.


VAN SUSTEREN: Since the terrorist attacks on the United States, government officials have urged Americans to stay calm, but remain vigilant. For the most part, that request has worked. But in some cases, there has been fear or even panic.

As CNN's Susan Candiotti reports, that's especially true in Florida, where the deadly anthrax case is under investigation.


SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Across Florida, hazardous material teams kept busy all night and all day, as people panic over possible exposure to anthrax.

A man in Weston, Florida gets worried when he opens a letter containing a powdery substance and takes it to his local fire station. For 12 hours, authorities quarantine the building and the man's home where his wife and two children wait. Result, the tests indicate the substance is harmless.

In Deerfield Beach, workers at a postal distribution center get worried when they spot a package covered with dirt. After cordoning off the building, a hazmat team determines the material is dirt.

At a Palm Beach County health clinic, scared employees call for help when they spot a powdery substance covering the floor of a construction zone. Turns out to be drywall dust.

RUSS ACCARDI, DELRAY BEACH FIRE DEPARTMENT: We really need everybody to, you know, not get overly sensitive to the issue, because we're having so many calls on all these packages that are normal mail or normal packages.

CANDIOTTI: In Naples, emergency crews rush to three businesses, two banks and a law firm, after employees report a white powdery residue in mail bins. In each Florida case, a false alarm.

JAMES TOBIN, CAPTAIN, NAPLES FIRE DEPARTMENT: It's disrupting peoples' lives, regardless if it's a prank or an accident or being done on purpose, you know, it's a disruption.

CANDIOTTI: Across the country, more cases of rattled nerves. At Chicago's Sears Tower, one entrance closes for a short time when a leaking package on a loading dock shakes nerves. A hazardous materials team finds a simple explanation. The package had been sitting in a puddle. The leak? Dripping ink from pamphlets inside.

In Prince George County, Maryland, an unruly subway passenger, who refuses to pay his fare, sprays what's turns out to be cleaning solution. He fires a gun and police use pepper spray to subdue him. Other passengers complain of scratchy throats and watery eyes.

Bioterrorism experts suggest a solution to the false alarms and hoaxes.

CHARLES GARCIA, TERRORISM EXPERT: Well, you arrest people and charge them with felonies for doing these things. And other people will get the message.

CANDIOTTI: The message from federal law enforcement, we don't want hoaxes. We do want tips. Continue to be vigilant.

Susan Candiotti, CNN, Miami.


SUSTEREN: Coming up on THE POINT, exactly four weeks since the terrorist attacks, a security check from New York to Washington, when "tracking the terrorists" returns. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SUSTEREN: From coast to coast, Americans are becoming security conscious. And they've had plenty of time to think about it, like during the long waits for security checks at the Lincoln Tunnel going into New York. They are also the changes in public buildings, such as the $12 million upgrade to make the window's of the U.S. Capitol blastproof. And it's all because of what happened exactly four weeks ago today.

As the survivors of the attacks on the World Trade Center reflect on the split-second decisions that saved their lives, some of them are asking a question. Was the emergency evacuation plan appropriate for the situation on September 11?

The story from CNN's Deborah Feyerick.


DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It took just 20 minutes from the moment the first plane hit One World Trade Center, to the moment the second plane slammed into Tower Two. 20 minutes for a nation to realize it was under attack. 20 minutes that many believe for some was the difference between life and death.

SHARON SIMMONS, WTC SURVIVOR: Those first minutes were absolutely crucial. And in my view, people that were actually on the same floor located right next to us, who did not continue down with us, who turned around and went back up, or who hesitated, or who thought about it or looked out a window, who didn't make it out, I would say that those 18 or 20 minutes probably helped contributed to them losing their lives.

FEYERICK: Business analyst Sharon Simmons was in her office in Tower Two on the 87th floor, when she heard the first plane strike. It was 8:48 a.m.

SIMMONS: It was a rumbling. And it got louder and louder. And it was very loud. And when it got louder and louder, it was pretty quick in terms of how quickly it got louder and louder. And then, I can't tell you how long it took, but very soon thereafter, there was a very large, loud explosion.

FEYERICK: 14 floors down, financial analyst Robert Hickey was walking into his office at Morgan Stanley, the building's largest tenant.

ROBERT HICKEY, WTC ATTACK SURVIVOR: Right outside my window, I could see probably five, six, softball-size fireballs. Right away, you knew there was something terribly wrong.

FEYERICK: Across the hall, his colleague Richard Sunwoo, heard what he calls a rupture.

RICHARD SUNWOO, WTC ATTACK SURVIVOR: I saw the people coming out of their offices and their faces. And that's all I needed to see. And as with everyone else in the office, I went to the lobby, to the stairs.

FEYERICK: Insurance underwriter Ray Bartels had been at his desk on the 47th floor for just five minutes when Tower One was struck.

RAY BARTELS, WTC ATTACK SURVIVOR: There was small pieces of debris hitting the windows. Instinctually, I think everybody felt this was not a safe place to be.

FEYERICK: By this time, the fire department was on its way. Its chief officers setting up a command post inside Tower One. Next door, people were wasting no time, packing into elevators, snaking down stairwells.

HICKEY: It was fairly calm. No one really knew what had happened. People, you know, were really talking, just seeing exactly who they knew who was on the stairwells as well. Finally, word somehow filtered down. Someone had said a plane had hit the other tower.

FEYERICK: When they reached the sky lobby on 44, Hickey and Sunwoo stopped to figure out what was going on.

HICKEY: It was really an area where everybody kind of congregated again to say OK, I'm here, you're there, what's going on, what's the next step. And that's when we got word, you know, on what to do next.

FEYERICK: Word came over the loudspeaker. It was just after 9:00 a.m.

SUNWOO: There was an announcement on the speaker that the damage was done to Tower One.

HICKEY: They told us that it was an accident in Tower One, that the fire department was on their way, that our building was secure and safe, and that we could return to our offices shortly.

SIMMONS: They kept saying, "Repeat, building two is secure. Repeat, building two is secure. Do not panic."

BARTELS: We didn't slow down. We just ignored it, kept on moving.

FEYERICK: Simmons and a friend urged people not to turn back.

SIMMONS: We both said, "You guys, you know, don't go back up. Just come down. Your stuff will still be there. Wherever it is, will still be there if everything is OK. And if not then you're doing the right thing, but why take the risk? And people went up anyway.

FEYERICK: Michael Cherkasky helped design security at the World Trade Center after the 1993 terrorist attack. On September 11, he says, everyone followed the plan.

MICHAEL CHERKASKY, PRESIDENT, KROLL: They had one tower had been damaged. And they had the necessity to evacuate that tower and to fight that fire. And to do that successfully, you didn't want to have more people moving out of that area than necessary.

FEYERICK: People in Tower Two were told to stay put, stay out of the way of rescuers and falling debris.

BARTELS: No more than maybe two minutes after that announcement, we heard a tremendous sound similar to that of an earthquake. The announcement stopped, there was silence. We got hit.

SUNWOO: I mean the building shook -- it just knocked you right off your feet.

HICKEY: Most people either fell to the floor, dove on the floor. People were screaming.

SIMMONS: There were at least one or two explosions. The ceiling collapsed on top of us.

FEYERICK: Everyone began thinking the same thing.

HICKEY: The building was coming down. I really thought that that was it for me.

FEYERICK: Around 9:30 a.m., Hickey, Sunwoo, Simmons and Bartels all made it safely to the street.

(on camera): No one knows exactly how many people inside Tower Two turned back after they heard the announcement their building was safe. At least 700 people who had worked there and many visitors are officially missing. Those 20 minutes, between life and death, between those who raced to get out and those who stayed behind or returned, haunt the survivors.

SIMMONS: I've thought a lot about those 20 minutes. And I think a lot about the people who turned around and went back upstairs during the first 20 minutes, and where they were when the plane actually hit the building.

BARTELS: I think those people though in the building who may have had very important conference calls, meetings underway, may have heard those announcements and rationalized themselves staying in the building.

SUNWOO: I asked myself, "What if I stayed? What if on 44, I tried to go back up?"

HICKEY: If you were trapped above the plane, you didn't seem like you had a chance. If you're moving right away from the first attack, who knows?

FEYERICK (voice-over): After the 1993 car bombing in an underground Trade Center garage, several companies and hundreds of individuals filed lawsuits. Their claim? That the Port Authority, which ran the buildings, was negligent. Almost all of those cases are still pending. And plaintiffs attorneys in those cases say they've already been contacted by the relatives of victims of this latest attack. Some experts say new lawsuits would be misguided. VICTOR SCHWARTZ, LIABILITY LAW EXPERT: It's using Monday morning quarterbacking to building a claim. They would claim that it was wrong conduct, that they caused people to lose their lives because they didn't immediately -- the guards didn't immediately tell people to evacuate the building. And therefore, if they had told people to immediately evacuate the building, more people would have been alive.

CHERKASKY: It was not foreseeable. The other attack of the South tower was simply not foreseeable by anyone who was making those kind of assessments.

FEYERICK: 911 operators talking to people trapped inside the burning towers say they, too, were simply following safety protocol for a high-rise fire.

MONSITAH CORNEY, FDNY DISPATCHER: I told them to stay there. And I had no idea they weren't going to get out. Never in my wildest dreams did I think the building would fall.

FEYERICK: No one thought it. Not the police, not the firefighters, not the Port Authority workers who stayed behind.

WILLIAM DALY, SECURITY EXPERT: And they put themselves on the line. And they believed what they were doing was the right thing. And they saved thousands of lives.

FEYERICK: Giving up theirs, trapped when Tower Two, the second one hit, became the first to fall in just less than an hour.

Deborah Feyerick, CNN, New York.


SUSTEREN: Up next, a flight that didn't do much to help already edgy air travelers. THE POINT is back after this short break.


SUSTEREN: A mentally disturbed man who broke into an airliner cockpit will stay in custody for now. The incident happened yesterday on an L.A. to Chicago flight. A couple of military jets escorted the airliner to the airport.

Today, a federal magistrate put off until next week, any action in the case of 31-year-old Edward Coburn. Coburn could be sentenced to 20 years in prison if convicted of assaulting an air crew member. Coburn's father is thanking the passengers who helped restrain his son. Steven Coburn says there are no words to erase the stress and inconvenience his son caused.

One of the passengers on that flight was Bill Neff. He joins me from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A special thanks to you tonight, Bill. I know you're tired having flown in from Australia, but tell me, when did you first notice there was a problem on your flight?

BILL NEFF, PASSENGER: I noticed a problem. We were about 25 minutes out from arrival to O'Hare. And believe or not, just finally able to put the seat back fully, since we were in a first-class seat. I'd watched a movie.

And I'd noticed a rumble at the right-hand side of the plane. I heard some commotion and I immediately jumped up. And when I looked to the left, I seen about four people running like a 50-yard dash towards the front of the plane. And they say, "He's going for the cockpit."

I immediately jumped out into the aisle. And I was on the left side. And I saw the door sprung open. They spun around and did a turn and they hit the door. And I saw the cockpit door go wide open immediately.

And I immediately ran forward. And there was already man in front of me. I was right at the cockpit door behind another gentlemen. To be honest with you, I thought they were terrorists running up there. And really, I didn't know the good guys from the bad guys.

SUSTEREN: Now the good guys were fellow passengers, is that right?

NEFF: They were all passengers, but it's so fast and so quick, I would gander to say there's probably at least 10 to 15 men immediately went up. And the guys probably in back of the guy that started to run, probably first saw and they immediately probably got out of their chairs. And they started to run up to the aircraft. Off course, we were in first class. And as these men ran by, I think other men ran behind them. And every -- it seems like there was a lot men up there at the front.

SUSTEREN: Bill, did you hear the men, Edward Coburn say anything or did he indicate why he was trying to get into the cockpit?

NEFF: What I remember and basically it calmed me is once I get up there, I was right behind the man, and it was the large fellow that was front of me, these guys are bigger than I. I'm 222. So thank God we had larger men up there.

What I noticed was, when I started to calm down, we got him. And of course I was up there. There was nobody stabbing with us with knives or whatever, because it was a tight quarters. There was a lot of people up there.

Then when I basically calmed down a little bit, and was just hoping that that was the only incident. And they said it was only one person. And I went back to my seat immediately. My wife and I, we went into prayer. And as soon as I seen cockpit, in my subconscious, I said, "Lord, God, help us." He came through.

SUSTEREN: All right now, you took a picture. And when the man...

NEFF: I took several pictures. SUSTEREN: And let me put on the screen for the viewers to see the man. This is in the airplane. And it looks like he has -- he's getting handcuffed or marched out. What can you tell me about that picture?

NEFF: OK, that picture there. You see where the fellow is standing way over to the far left there?


NEFF: OK, right behind that is a lavatory. That's where the flight attendant, there was one flight attendant in there when the incident went down, when they went up through. At the very back where the light, that's where the opening to the cockpit.

That little side way in the area there is like the galley, where they prepare food and have a food cart. The fellow, the little Asian head there, that's the center aisle. So this is the left side of the aisle that leads right to the cockpit. They...

SUSTEREN: Bill, before I lose you, I have two main questions. One is, wasn't the cockpit locked? And number two, were there any sky marshals on that plane?

NEFF: I did not see any sky marshals. The reason why I come to that conclusion, we were looking for something to tie them down. And they grabbed some seat belts. I offered my belt and they went back and be grabbed the demo seatbelts. In my opinion, if there were sky marshals, you'd think they would at least have handcuffs.

Was the door locked? No, I don't believe so. They hit the door and the door sprung right open. I mean, it was like fraction of a second.

SUSTEREN: And boy, I tell you, all those passengers are lucky on that flight as well. They're really lucky for the ones who stopped that man from doing any damage in the cockpit. Tonight, thank you very much to Bill Neff for joining us, especially when he's doing so with virtually no sleep.

NEFF: Thanks, Greta.

SUSTEREN: THE POINT returns after a quick break and our MONEYLINE update.


SUSTEREN: Let me know what you think about the war on terrorism. Send an e-mail to That's one word, askgreta.

Tomorrow night, another terrorist who U.S. officials are now targeting. He's the founder of the Lebanese Islamic militia Hezbollah. CNN's Mike Boettcher will have a profile of him.

I'm Greta Van Susteren in Washington. Up next, Senators John Warner and Orrin Hatch are among the guests on "LARRY KING LIVE," along with the editor in chief of Al-Jazeera, the Arabic TV network that has been getting taped videos from al Qaeda.