‘Oh, my God! The plane’s being hijacked’: 9/11 air traffic controllers reveal horror of day in book detailing graphic accounts

New oral history reveals the inside events as the horror unfolded

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 11 September 2019 11:20 BST
Distress calls from 9/11 relive the trauma of the attacks

Eighteen years after thousands died in the attacks on America on 11 September 2001, a new “Oral History of 9/11” reveals graphic accounts of how the professionals in the aviation frontline responded as the horror of the day unfolded.

A total of 2,977 people died after Islamist hijackers took over four transcontinental aircraft – two departing from Boston, one from New York Newark and one from Washington Dulles.

The Boston flights, American Airlines 11 and United 175, were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, demolishing them.

The flight from Washington Dulles, American 77, crashed into the Pentagon. The Newark flight, United 93, was also targeting Washington DC, but passengers on board overpowered the hijackers and downed the plane in Pennsylvania.

Garrett M Graff, author of The Only Plane in the Sky (Monoray, £20) listened to 2,000 personal stories and has compiled the key extracts.

Peter Zalewski was the air-traffic controller at the Boston Center in New Hampshire. “When American Airlines flight 11 came to me, the pilot said, ‘Boston Center, this is American 11, climbing to flight level two-three-zero [23,000 feet]’.

“I called him many, many times.

“Then there’s these transmissions. The first transmission from the aircraft, it’s garbled to me.”

Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 19 terrorists, had killed the pilots on the Boeing 767 and taken over the flight deck. He had intended to address the passengers. But instead he spoke to air traffic control.

“I remember him saying, ‘Nobody move, please. We’re going back to the airport.’ I will never forget that feeling. Oh, my God! The plane’s being hijacked.”

The pilots on United 175 also heard Atta’s commands, and reported to New York air-traffic control: “We heard a suspicious transmission from on our departure from BOS – sounds like someone keyed the mike and said, ‘Everyone stay in your seats’.”

Ten minutes later, controllers attempted to pass on more instructions.

“United 175, do you read New York?” There was no response.

On board the Boeing 767, passengers made frantic calls to their loved ones. Peter Hanson, who was travelling with his wife, Sue, and two-year-old daughter, Christine, told his father: “I think they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building.

“Don’t worry, Dad, if it happens it’ll be very fast.”

Christine Hanson was the youngest victim on 11 September.

After American 77 hit the Pentagon, the national operations manager at the Federal Aviation Administration Command Center in Virginia, Ben Sliney, made an unprecedented order.

A new book details the accounts of air traffic controllers on 9/11
A new book details the accounts of air traffic controllers on 9/11 (Garrett M. Graff)

“I walked down to the middle of the floor, and everyone came over to me, and I said, ‘We’re going to land everyone at the nearest airport, regardless of destination’.

“I expected some pushback. Out of 4,500 aircraft in the air, I only got one request to land at an airport that was not the nearest one.

“I refused the request.”

Gerald Earwood was the captain of the second-last aircraft to land at La Guardia airport in New York: “They put us on a taxiway, pointing at the World Trade Center, watching the World Trade Center burn.”

Captain Earwood was also in command of the first aircraft to leave New York, Midway Express 7, when flights began again on 13 September.

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With the passengers onboard, someone made a bomb threat against the aircraft.

“Everyone calmly evacuated the aircraft and walked out onto the runway. At that moment, one of our military aircraft flew over, and that got our attention.”

Once the bomb scare was lifted and passengers re-boarded, Captain Earwood called the tower and said: “Confirm with us that the military knows that we’re about to be airborne here.”

After receiving confirmation, the aircraft took off.

“They sent us right over the World Trade Center. It was moving.”

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