Air Traffic Controllers 'Did the Impossible' on 9/11

ByABC News
June 18, 2004, 3:17 PM

June 18, 2004 -- As testimony before the 9/11 commission revealed this week, American intelligence was caught off guard as al Qaeda hijackers methodically plotted their assault on America. Air traffic controllers from Boston to New York to Washington, D.C., were among the first to realize the deadly assault was under way on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

The first signal of the unfolding calamity began with a strange transmission from American Airlines Flight 11, just after its takeoff from Boston.

The voice on a transmission at 8:24 a.m., believed to be that of hijacking ringleader Mohamed Atta, says, "We have some planes. Just stay quiet, and you'll be OK. We are returning to the airport."

Commission member John Azzarrello said seconds later another transmission was received by Boston air traffic controllers. "Nobody move," the voice said, "Everything will be OK. If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet."

'We Need You Guys'

Boston air traffic controllers alerted the military regarding the hijacking in progress three minutes later. "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, to help us out." The Northeast Air Defense (NEADS) was unsure whether the call was some sort of drill or a real-world event.

Azzarello recounted the timeline of events. "F-15 fighters were ordered scrambled at 8:46 from Otis Air Force Base. But NEADS did not know where to send the alert fighter aircraft," Azzarello said, reading a quote from the NEADS controller. "I don't know where I'm scrambling these guys to. I need a direction, a destination."

American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower of New York's World Trade Center seconds later, just as controllers realized a second jet out of Boston had also been hijacked, United Airlines Flight 175.

As the controllers observed United 175's rapid descent, the radar data terminated over lower Manhattan. Just after 9:03 a.m., United 175 crashed into the World Trade Center's South Tower.

Air traffic controller Danielle O'Brien was at the Dulles Tower outside Washington, D.C., that morning.