For the first time, the full audio recordings of communications between military and civilian air traffic controllers as they were dealing with the hijackings on Sept. 11, 2001, have been made public. The multimedia document, published by the Rutgers Law Review, provides a rare real-time look at how government agencies were responding as the hijacking of the four planes was unfolding.
"We have a problem here. We have hijacked aircraft headed towards New York and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up here to help us out," a worker at Boston Center's Traffic Management Unit said at 8:37 a.m., according to the recordings. No planes had struck any targets yet.
The official on the other end of the line, unaware they were minutes away from witnessing firsthand the worst terror attack in U.S. history, asked if it was all a test.
"No, this is not an exercise, this is not a test," the worker said.
While some of the recordings had been played during the 9/11 Commission hearings in 2004, other parts had not been heard before they were transferred to the National Archives after the commission was shut down the same year.
Another portion showed the abject horror from officials as they witnessed United Flight 175 slamming into the World Trade Center.
"Hey, can you look out your window right now?... Can you see a guy at about 4,000 feet, about five East of the airport right now?... Do you see that guy -- look -- is he descending into the building also?" one official asks another. Seconds after the person on the other end of the line says yes to all the hurried questions, the plane explodes inside the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
"Wow. Another one just hit it hard. Another one just hit the World Trade," someone says in the background of the recording. "Oh my God."
The 9/11 Commission staff had started compiling the recordings and transcripts into the multimedia document released today but had not completed it in time to be released with the 9/11 Commission report.
Miles Kara, a retired Army colonel and investigator for the 9/11 Commission, aided by a team from the Rutgers School of Law whose dean is former 9/11 Commission Senior Counsel John Farmer, dug out the original electronic files and completed what commission staff called the "audio monograph".
According to the New York Times, which first reported on the release of these recordings, one key tape remains unreleased: the recording from the last half hour in the cockpit of United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania instead of its intended target in Washington DC. Though it was played at the trial for one of the plotters, the families of the passengers who took on the hijackers requested the audio not be made public.