9/11 Controller Finds Family in Tragedy

Danielle Howell directed planes on 9/11, side-by-side with future husband.

Sept. 9, 2011 — -- The air traffic controller who was the last person to speak to the crew of hijacked American flight 77 ten years ago will be back at her post this Sept. 11, still unnerved by what she witnessed on her radar screen on that fateful day.

"It will, I'm sure, raise the hairs on my arm to think, here I am again working departures on 9/11," said Danielle Howell, who was working at the Dulles Airport tower outside Washington, D.C., when four planes were hijacked in the most devastating terror attack in U.S. history.

But in the midst of the horror of that day, Howell found something else -- love with the man who literally sat beside her through it all. Tom Howell, who also worked for the F.A.A., was in the same control tower and together they worked with air traffic controllers across the nation to safely land more than 5,000 planes in the midst of the chaos.

While what they witnessed side-by-side that morning brought years of nightmares -- reliving and rehearing that takeoff -- it also brought them closure neither had expected. The two were married in 2002 and today they live in Virginia with their 3-year-old daughter, Tiffany, and Danielle's two teenagers, mindful but not overwhelmed by the day that brought them together.

"I'm sure as much as the firefighters that survived in New York, as much as the folks that responded at the Pentagon, those that responded in Pennsylvania, there's just an unwritten bond," said Howell. "Something that you could never describe because you were there, you saw it together, you experienced it together."

In an interview to be broadcast tonight on ABC News' "Nightline", the air traffic controller recalls her final conversation with the pilots of American 77 and then the realization that the plane had diverted from its course and was headed back to Washington. Minutes later, it would crash into the Pentagon, killing all 59 passengers on board and 125 people on the ground.

Howell and her future husband sprung into action in the midst of the unprecedented attack, steadily working their radios to alert pilots that they needed to get their passengers to the ground safely as quickly as possible.

"We were in territory that the air traffic control system had never conceived," Howell said.

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While she took years off as an air traffic controller to make sure she was "ready for duty" and to have Tiffany, Howell returned to work this June, partially because of the pride she says the job brings her. And raising Tiffany, she said, brought her back to the innocence she and the nation lost on Sept. 11.

"Tiffany is a glimmer of hope," said Howell. "So I hope that our nation also finds themselves feeling that way. That there is hope. That there is positive yet to be had in the world. And yes we do need to remember, because we learn from the past."

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