Air Traffic Controllers Recall 9/11

ByABC News
October 23, 2001, 3:26 PM

Oct. 24 -- 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."