Photo Op Panic: 911 Calls Reveal Terror during NYC Air Force One Flyover

Air Force estimates photo op cost at over $328,000.

April 27, 2009, 11:37 AM

April 28, 2009— -- 911 calls just released by a New Jersey emergency office communicate chilling on-the-ground scenes of the panic and terror that besieged many eyewitnesses of yesterday's botched Air Force One promotional photo op over Lower Manhattan.

"Oh my god," one caller says again and again, later telling the operator, "They are following an aircraft, a big aircraft coming like the 9-11."

Also this afternoon, the Air Force released an estimate of the cost of the NYC flyover - $328,835. The estimate includes fuel, personnel costs and maintenance and was calculated over the life of the aircraft and did not necessarily occur yesterday.

Click here to hear some of the 911 calls released.

One woman in Jersey City, NJ says in a call, "we don't know what's going on because there's like planes going inside the building so everybody's outside going crazy."

The 911 operator responds, asking, "There's what?"

The caller repeats, "It looks like planes are trying to go in the building. And everybody's outside going crazy." She said no one knew what was going on and ran out of their office building and "went their own separate ways." Later in the call, the plane's engine can be heard overhead.

Another caller from Staten Island, NY says the planes were flying so low that he expected them to land in the water.

The calls were released this afternoon by the 911 office in Hudson County, NJ, just across the river from Manhattan.

The Department of Defense photo shoot involved a Boeing 747 used as Air Force One and one fighter jet flying at low altitude in the area around Ground Zero.

Residents and workers in Lower Manhattan and New Jersey, unaware of the photo op, ran into the streets, traumatized by memories of 9-11 and afraid of another attack. Emergency offices in both cities were inundated with hundreds of frightened calls. "It scared a couple of million people," one airport official said.

Click here to look at photos sent in by readers.

Late Tuesday, the Air Force said the planes flew as part of a training mission: "The hours would have been flown regardless and the expenses would have been accrued on a different mission," a statement said.

President Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had not been told about the photo op, were both infuriated by the incident.

Bloomberg called it "ill-conceived" and a "waste of taxpayers' money." A White House official told ABC News that President Obama was "furious" when he found out, and the Director of the White House Military Office, Louis Caldera, who approved the photo op, was called into a meeting with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina.

"It didn't sound like a fun meeting," the White House official said.

White House Apologizes for NYC Air Force One Photo Op

Later, Caldera apologized in a statement, saying, "Last week, I approved a mission over New York. I take responsibility for that decision. While federal authorities took the proper steps to notify state and local authorities in New York and New Jersey, it's clear that the mission created confusion and disruption. I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused."

At a Tuesday photo op with FBI Director Robert Mueller, President Obama said, "It was a mistake, as was stated. It was something we found out about along with all of you. And it will not happen again." The President did not answer a follow-up question on whether or not Caldera is the right man for the job.

Later, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that President Obama ordered that Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina conduct an internal review, which will take a couple of weeks to complete.

"The President will look at that review and take any appropriate steps after that," Gibbs said.

Click here to watch Bloomberg and Gibbs speak about the flyover.

During a press briefing Tuesday, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said the photo op over New York was a "mistake" and a "mishandled, misguided mission." He said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was unaware of "this flying photo-op, but once he found out, suffice it to say, he was surprised and not very pleased."

Morrell did say that others in the building did know about the photo shoot in advance and the preference would have been for one of them to "raise their hand and say this is not a good idea…Unfortunately, that did not happen."

Morrell said the White House Military Office was behind this photo-op and punted questions to the White House about the rationale behind it. The flight, he said, "was first and foremost a training mission and that they decided to take advantage of it by conducting these photos simultaneously." He had no information on the cost of the mission.

Officials Say System Broke Down

Although the shoot was authorized, the normal system of public notification broke down, multiple officials said.

Bloomberg said he was so furious he wasn't told about the photo op, that before he talked further to his own staff and agencies about the lack of notice to him, he wanted "to calm down."

"Poor judgment would have been a nice way to put it," Bloomberg said of the government flyover.

A New York City employee was disciplined for failing to pass on the FAA fly over information when it arrived on the employee's desk at City Hall.

According to city officials the employee was "reprimanded" and a "letter was placed in his file."

No information was immediately available on what if any discipline was meted out at the NYPD, where a second FAA notice was received last Thursday.

Witnesses told that they were "shocked" and "running scared" when the planes flew overhead.

Elena Zaccario, who works at an office building near Battery Park, said she was too startled to grab her camera until the planes' third fly-by.

"Needless to say, everyone was concerned and upset about not being notified like in previous 'military fly-overs,"" she said. "Other offices on other floors fled the building in panic. Not acceptable!"

According to officials, the flight -- authorized by the FAA -- came in as low as 1000 feet to 150 feet above the city as it made a large circle over Manhattan, Staten Island, and New Jersey. The plane used was the back-up presidential plane.

Self-evacuations of buildings in lower Manhattan and New Jersey, including the New York Mercantile Exchange, took place during the fly over.

According to multiple agencies, they were notified of the flyover last week, however the general public was not notified.

The Defense Department conducted the photo opportunity over the Hudson River. The planes flew over Lower Manhattan and in the vicinity of the Statue of Liberty during a 15 minute, pre-planned flight.

NYPD Says It Was Told to Keep Quiet About Flyover

Local authorities were told not to disclose information about this morning's flyover, the New York City Police Department said in a statement.

"The flight of a VC-25 aircraft (the military version of the 747) and F-16 fighters this morning was authorized by the FAA for the vicinity of the Statue of Liberty with directives to local authorities not to disclose information about it but to direct any inquiries to the FAA Air Traffic Security Coordinator," police said.

Other officials noted that they were led to believe the flight would be limited to the area near the Statue of Liberty, however the flight pattern was above a much larger portion of New York and at an extremely low altitude.

Dan Matlack, in Jersey City, NJ across from Manhattan, said people were running to get away, with flashbacks to 9-11.

The plane was "really close to the ground and banking hard and 'seemed' like it was heading for the Goldman Sachs building in [Jersey City] to us on the ground," Matlack told

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said the flyover "borders on being cruel or very, very stupid."

After 9-11, he said, 'If you're going to see large jets flying low over New York City, people are going to panic."

Erin Keohane, Jake Tapper, Sunlen Miller and Richard Esposito contributed to this report.

Click Here for the Investigative Homepage.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events