The sheer bafflement of America's air traffic control network during the two hours when America was under attack on 11 September 2001 was put on vivid display yesterday with the release of complete audio-tape recordings of increasingly frantic communications as the crisis accelerated.
The tapes, which also carry the voices of commercial pilots, military aviation officials and fighter pilots, were originally meant as part of a comprehensive audio history of that day for consideration by the 9/11 Commission, but the panel disbanded before it was completed and the tapes have never been available in their entirety before.
They show air traffic controllers in the eastern United States struggling to grasp what they were witnessing as one by one aeroplanes smashed into their intended targets or, in the case of United 93, into a Pennsylvania field. They also confirm that civilian controllers had difficulty reaching military counterparts to get fighters into the air.
A civilian controller in New York is heard trying to alert a manager at the Federal Aviation Authority in Herndon, Virginia. "Do you know if anyone down there has done any coordination to scramble fighter-type airplanes?" he asks after the first Twin Tower has been hit. "We have several situations going, going on here. It is escalating big, big time and we need to get the military involved with us."
A Herndon voice responds: "Why, what's going on?"
"Just get me somebody who has the authority to get military in the air, now," the controller says.
The tapes were put together by the Rutgers University Law School with help from Miles Kara, a retired Army colonel and investigator for the 9/11 Commission. The often chilling results of their scholarship were posted on the university website. Though some of the tapes have been heard publicly before, Mr Mara says the collection of recordings and transcripts offers a wider view of what happened in the skies of the east coast that morning. "The story of of 9/11 itself is best told in the voices of 9/11," he said.
The tapes remove any remaining doubt that assertions by the country's leaders after the attack, including then Vice-President Dick Cheney, about fighters being sent in the air promptly and shadowing the hijacked planes, was not true. Military commanders had nine minutes' notice before one of the planes hit its target but had no notice at all before the crashes of the other three.
Two sections of the tapes are still not available, one carrying the cockpit recordings of United 93 in its final 30 minutes, and another reportedly featuring a conference call between leaders, including Mr Cheney and former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Transcript: What happened as the jets flew in – as heard from the ground
08:13 A Boston sector air traffic controller makes several failed attempts to reach American Airlines Flight 11.
08.19 Betty Ong a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles, speaks to the airlines' reservations office and Nydia Gonzalez, an operations agent, using a phone from the jump seat at the back of the plane.
BO Number 3 in the back. Um, the cockpit's not answering. Somebody's stabbed in business class, and we can't breathe in business and um I think there is Mace that we can't breathe. I don't know, I think we're getting hijacked.
AA What is your name?
BO OK, my name is Betty Ong. I'm Number 3 on Flight 11.
BO And the cockpit is not answering their phone and there's somebody stabbed in business class and there's... we can't breathe in business class. Somebody's got Mace or something.
AA Can you describe the person, that you said someone is what in business class?
BO I'm, I'm sitting in the back, somebody's coming back from business. If you can hold on for one second, they're coming back. [Inaudible] Anyone know who stabbed who?
Background [Inaudible] I don't know, but Karen and Bobby got stabbed.
BO Our, our Number 1 got stabbed. Our purser is stabbed. Ah, nobody knows who stabbed who and we can't even get up to business class right now because nobody can breathe. Our Number 1 is... is stabbed right now. And our Number 5. Our first-class passenger that, ah first ah class galley flight attendant and our purser has been stabbed and we can't get to the cockpit, the door won't open. Hello?
BO Our Number 1 has been stabbed, and our 5 has been stabbed. Can anybody get up to the cockpit? Can anybody get up to the cockpit? We can't even get into the cockpit. We don't know who's up there.
AA Well if they were shrewd, they would keep the door closed, and...
BO I'm sorry?
AA Would they not maintain a sterile cockpit?
BO I think the guys are up there. They might have gone there – jammed their way up there, or something. Nobody can call the cockpit. We can't even get inside. [Silence].
08:21 Nydia Gonzalez relays her conversation with Betty Ong to American Airlines Emergency line.
NG What's going on, honey? OK, the aircraft is erratic again. Flying very erratically. She did say that all the first-class passengers have been moved back to coach, so the first-class cabin is empty. What's going on on your end, Craig?
AAEL We contacted Air Traffic Control, they are going to handle this as a confirmed hijacking, so they're moving all the traffic out of this aircraft's way.
AAEL He turned his transponder off, so we don't have a definitive altitude for him. We're just going by – they seem to think that they have him on a primary radar. They seem to think that he is descending.
NG What's going on, Betty? Betty, talk to me. Betty, are you there? Betty? [Inaudible] Do you think we lost her? OK, so we'll like – we'll stay open. We – I think we might have lost her.
08:24 A Boston air traffic controller hears an American 11 hijacker speaking
BATC Is that American 11 trying to call?
Mohamed Atta [Inaudible] We have some planes. Just stay quiet and we'll be OK. We are returning to the airport.
BATC And, uh, who's trying to call me, here? American 11 are you trying to call?
MA Nobody move, everything will be OK. If you try to make any moves, you will injure yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.
08:37 An air traffic controller named
Joseph Cooper in Boston calls Sgt. Jeremy W Powell of North American Aerospace Defense Command alerting them of a suspected hijacking of American 11.
JC Hi, Boston Center, TMU [traffic management unit], we have ah... a... problem here, we have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New... New York and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there to help us out.
JWP Is, Is this real world or exercise?
JC No, this is not an exercise, not a test.
08:46 American 11 crashes into the North Tower
09:02 Air traffic controllers observe a plane in a rapid descent, then United 175 hit the World Trade Center.
Unknown Hey, can you look out your window right now?
Unknown Can you, can you see a guy at about 4,000 feet, about five east of the airport right now, look's like he's...
ATC Yeah, I see him.
Unknown Do you see that guy, look, is he descending into the building also?
ATC He's descending really quick too, yeah.
Unknown Well that's...
ATC Forty five hundred right now, he just dropped 800 feet in like, like one, one sweep.
Unknown That's another situation.
Unknown What kind of airplane is that, can you guys tell?
ATC I don't know, I'll read it out in a minute.
Background Another one just hit the building.
Background Wow. Another one just hit it hard. Another one just hit the World Trade.
ATC The whole building just ah came apart.
Background Oh my God.
Unknown Holy smoke. All right, I guess you guys are going to be busy.
09:06 Federal Aviation Administration confirms that the hijacker on American 11 said "planes", not "plane."
09:28 Sounds of a struggle are heard in a transmission from United 93.
ATC United 93, that traffic for you is one o'clock, 12 miles eastbound, three-seven-zero.
UA93 Negative contact, we're looking, United 93.
UA93 Hey! [Hijack begins, screaming]
ATC Somebody call Cleveland?
09:32 A hijacker on United 93 is heard saying "Keep remaining seating. We have a bomb on board."
Ziad Jarrah Please sit down and keep remaining sitting, we have a bomb on board, so...
ATC Ah. Calling Cleveland Center, you are unreadable, say again slowly.
09:38am A military cargo plane tells controllers at Reagan National Airport (DCA) that it has seen American 77 crash into the Pentagon.
MCP Yes sir, that aircraft is down, he's in our 12 o'clock position, ah, look's like it's just to the, uh, north-west of the airfield at this time, sir.
DCA Gofer eight-six, thank you. Descend and maintain 2,000.
MCP OK, We are down to 2,000. And, uh, this is Gofer zero six, it looks like that aircraft crashed into the Pentagon, sir.
10:00 Another pilot in the air sees United 93 rocking its wings; it is believed the hijackers were trying to keep the onrushing passengers off balance.
10:03 United 93 crashes.
Sources: Rutgers Law School, New York Times