The 9/11 commission played tapes from the fateful morning today. They are gripping, even in print, reflecting the confusion and terror of the day. Here are some highlights from a commission summary, which provides a narrative of events and quotes from key tapes (the notes in italics are mine):
After American Airlines Flight 11 was hijacked following departure from Boston:
The controller checked to see if American Airlines could establish communication with American 11. He became even more concerned as its route changed, moving into another sector's airspace. Controllers immediately began to move aircraft out of its path, and searched from aircraft to aircraft in an effort to have another pilot contact American 11. At 8:24:38, the following transmission came from American 11:
AMERICAN 11: We have some planes. Just stay quiet, and you'll be O.K. We are returning to the airport.
The controller only heard something unintelligible; he did not hear the specific words "we have some planes." Then the next transmission came seconds later:
AMERICAN 11: Nobody move. Everything will be O.K. If you try to make any moves, youll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.
Hearing that, the controller told us he then knew it was a hijacking.
Shortly thereafter, the FAA's Boston Center contacted the Air Force:
At 8:37:52 a.m., Boston Center reached NEADS [Northeast Air Defense Sector]. This was the first notification received by the military at any level that American 11 had been hijacked:
FAA: Hi. Boston Center TMU, we have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out.
NEADS: Is this real-world or exercise?
FAA: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.
The same air-traffic controller who was tracking American 11 also was responsible for United 175, which was hijacked a few mintues later.
At 8:47 a.m., at almost the same time American 11 crashed into the North Tower, United 175's assigned transponder code changed, then changed again. These changes were not noticed for several minutes, because the controller was focused on finding American 11, which had disappeared. At 8:48 a.m., a New York Center manager provided the following report on a Command Center teleconference about American 11, including information that had been relayed by the airline:
MANAGER, NEW YORK CENTER: Okay. This is New York Center. We're watching the airplane. I also had conversation with American Airlines, and they've told us that they believe that one of their stewardesses was stabbed and that there are people in the cockpit that have control of the aircraft, and that's all the information they have right now.
The New York Center controller and manager were unaware that American 11 had already crashed.
At 8:51 a.m., the controller noticed the change in the transponder reading from United 175. The controller asked United 175 to go back to the proper code. There was no response. Beginning at 8:52 a.m., the controller made repeated attempts to reach the crew of United 175. Still no response. The controller checked that his radio equipment was working and kept trying to reach United 175. He contacted another controller at 8:53 a.m., and worried that "we may have a hijack" and that he could not find the aircraft.
Events cascaded quickly.
Between 9:01 a.m. and 9:02 a.m., a manager from New York Center told the Command Center in Herndon:
MANAGER, NEW YORK CENTER: We have several situations going on here. It's escalating big, big time. We need to get the military involved with us . . . . We're, we're involved with something else, we have other aircraft that may have a similar situation going on here. . . .
The "other aircraft" New York Center referred to was United 175. Evidence indicates that this conversation was the only notice received prior to the second crash by either FAA headquarters or the Herndon Command Center that there was a second hijack. While Command Center was told about this "other aircraft" at 9:01 a.m., New York Center contacted New York terminal approach control and asked for help in locating United 175.
TERMINAL: I got somebody who keeps coasting but it looks like he's going into one of the small airports down there.
CENTER: Hold on a second. I'm trying to bring him up here and get you ... there he is right there. Hold on.
TERMINAL: Got him just out of 9,500, 9,000 now.
CENTER: Do you know who he is?
TERMINAL: We're just, we just we don't know who he is. We're just picking him up now.
CENTER (at 9:02 am.): All right. Heads up man, it looks like another one coming in.
The controllers observed the plane in a rapid descent; the radar data terminated over lower Manhattan. At 9:03:02 a.m., United 175 crashed into the South Tower. Meanwhile, a manager from Boston Center reported that they had deciphered what they had heard in one of the first hijacker transmissions from American 11:
BOSTON CENTER: Hey you still there?
NEW ENGLAND REGION: Yes, I am.
BOSTON CENTER: I'm gonna reconfirm with, with downstairs, but the, as far as the tape seemed to think the guy said that "we have planes." Now, I don't know if it was because it was the accent, or if there's more than one, but I'm gonna, I'm gonna reconfirm that for you, and I'll get back to you real quick. Okay?
NEW ENGLAND REGION: Appreciate it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE VOICE: They have what?
BOSTON CENTER: Planes, as in plural.
BOSTON CENTER: It sounds like, we're talking to New York, that there's another one aimed at the World Trade Center.
NEW ENGLAND REGION: There's another aircraft?
BOSTON CENTER: A second one just hit the Trade Center.
NEW ENGLAND REGION: Okay. Yeah, we gotta get ... we gotta alert the military real quick on this.
It was too late for anyone to do anything about the Trade Center towers. Time also proved too short for the military to react to the two planes headed for Washington, D.C., either. The 9/11 commission described the reaction by the FAA and military to the attacks as confused and clumsy. And we know, in retrospect, that government agencies could – and should – have been more alert to the possibilities of such an attack, based on intelligence information that was available during the summer of 2001. However, reaction to surprise attacks is rarely smooth and controlled. That's the "surprise" part.