Air Traffic Controllers Recall 9/11

It has taken six weeks, but air traffic controller Danielle O'Brien is now ready to talk about Sept. 11.

"It was a very normal day," she recalls. "It was a very beautiful day in the Washington, D.C. area, crystal clear, a very nice temperature."

But it was also a day when O'Brien's calm demeanor handling aircraft at Dulles International Airport in Virginia would be put fully to the test.

O'Brien wouldn't be alone. Across the nation, air traffic controllers watched as four airliners disappeared from radar screens as they were taken over by hijackers determined to cause death and destruction.

'Good Luck'

O'Brien was assigned to the radar room, and at 8:25 a.m. she handled the routine, on-time departure of American Flight 77, the plane that one hour and 12 minutes later would crash into the Pentagon.

She asked the departing aircraft to climb to a higher altitude. And for some reason — reasons she cannot explain — she finished her instructions by saying "Good luck."

"It's chilling. It's chilling," she says. "I usually say 'Good day' as I ask an aircraft to switch to another frequency. Or 'Have a nice flight.' But never 'Good Luck.'"

Twenty minutes later, the hijacked airplanes began their deadly, coordinated missions, with the first of two strikes at the World Trade Center.

Watching in Horror

John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, says he learned what was going on just before the second plane hit the tallest buildings in New York City.

"My cell phone went off and it was an associate of mine from Boston, who asked, 'Hey, John, are you watching this on TV?' And I said 'Yeah, I am.' And he said, 'That's American 11,'" recalls Carr.

"I almost dropped my coffee. I said, 'My God. What are you talking about?' And he said, 'That's American 11 that made that hole in the World Trade Center.' That we lost that airplane. And I said, 'You're kidding me.' And he said, 'No. And there is another one that just turned south, toward New York. We lost him too.' And so basically I was watching in horror."

At the Dulles tower, O'Brien saw the TV pictures from New York and headed back to her post to help other planes quickly land.

"We started moving the planes as quickly as we could," she says. "Then I noticed the aircraft. It was an unidentified plane to the southwest of Dulles, moving at a very high rate of speed … I had literally a blip and nothing more."

O'Brien asked the controller sitting next to her, Tom Howell, if he saw it too.

"I said, 'Oh my God, it looks like he's headed to the White House,'" recalls Howell. "I was yelling … 'We've got a target headed right for the White House!'"

At a speed of about 500 miles an hour, the plane was headed straight for what is known as P-56, protected air space 56, which covers the White House and the Capitol.

"The speed, the maneuverability, the way that he turned, we all thought in the radar room, all of us experienced air traffic controllers, that that was a military plane," says O'Brien. "You don't fly a 757 in that manner. It's unsafe."

The plane was between 12 and 14 miles away, says O'Brien, "and it was just a countdown. Ten miles west. Nine miles west … Our supervisor picked up our line to the White House and started relaying to them the information, [that] we have an unidentified very fast-moving aircraft inbound toward your vicinity, 8 miles west."

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