"Listen, and listen to me very carefully. I'm on Flight
11. The airplane has been hijacked," said the voice on the other end.
The caller was Amy Sweeney, a flight attendant on board American
Airlines Flight 11, which had just been hijacked on its way from Boston
to Los Angeles.
Over the next 25 minutes, Sweeney, a 13-year veteran with the
airline, calmly relayed information to Woodward that would later be
crucial in helping the FBI identify the men who hijacked the plane and
flew it into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
Another flight attendant, Betty Ong, who had been with American Airlines for 14 years, also called colleagues on the ground.
Seat Numbers Identified Hijackers
Flight 11 had taken off from Boston's Logan Airport at 7:59 a.m., with a
light load of 81 passengers. There were 11 crew on board: a captain, a
first officer, and nine flight attendants.
A few minutes into the flight, five men got up from their
seats and made their way to the cockpit, soon taking control of the
Sweeney and Ong were in the coach section of the plane. Using
crew telephones, they made the calls to their colleagues on the ground,
Sweeney to Woodward, a flight services manager at Logan Airport, and
Ong to the airline's reservations line.
Woodward said Sweeney spoke "very, very calmly... in a way
which was quick but calm." She gave him the seat numbers for four of
the five hijackers, allowing airline staff to pull up their names,
phone numbers, addresses — and even credit card numbers — on the
reservations computer. One of the names that came up was Mohamed Atta,
the man the FBI would later identify as the leader of all 19 of the
Sept. 11 hijackers.
Sweeney told Woodward the hijackers seemed to be of Middle
Eastern descent and said they had gone into the cockpit with a bomb
with yellow wires attached.
She said they had stabbed the two first-class flight
attendants, Barbara Arestegui and Karen Martin, whose station at the
front of the plane likely made them the first crew members to confront
the hijackers. She said they had also slashed the throat of a business
class passenger, who was bleeding severely.
The flight attendants gave the injured people oxygen, and made
an announcement over the PA system asking if there was a doctor or
nurse on board. Sweeney told Woodward the passengers in the coach
section were calm and that they believed there was some type of medical
emergency at the front of the plane.
Flight Attendants Gathered Information
Ong's call came through to Vanessa Minter, an
agent at the airline's reservation center in Raleigh, N.C. Minter
conferenced in Nydia Gonzales, whose responsibilities include dealing
with security issues.
Betty Ong (ABCNEWS.com)|
Ong told the two women the hijackers had sprayed something in
the first-class cabin to keep people out of the front of the plane. The
two women could hear that other flight attendants were going back and
forth in the coach section to relay information to Ong. "There was
total teamwork," said Gonzales. Ong said the hijackers had not made any
The first four minutes of Ong's call were recorded, but the
FBI has not released the tape to the public. Sweeney's phone call was
not recorded, but Woodward took notes that would later become crucial
to the FBI's investigation. Without Sweeney's calm reporting, the plane
might have crashed with no one certain the man in charge was tied to al
About 15 minutes after the women first called, the plane suddenly
lurched, tilting all the way to one side, then becoming horizontal
again. Ong said the plane was flying erratically, and Sweeney said it
had begun a rapid descent. "For a flight attendant to say rapid
descent, it's rapid and it's quick. We don't use those terms very
loosely," said Woodward.
They were now nearing New York and the World Trade Center, but
on board the plane it was quiet. "You didn't hear hysteria in the
background. You didn't hear people screaming," said Minter.
Woodward asked Sweeney to look out of the window and see if
she could tell what was going on. "I see the water. I see the
buildings. I see buildings," she told him.
On the line to Raleigh, Ong said over and over again, "Pray
for us. Pray for us." Gonzales and Minter assured her they were
Sweeney told Woodward the plane was flying very low. Then, he
said, "She took a very slow, deep breath and then just said, 'Oh, my
God!' Very slowly, very calmly, very quietly. It wasn't in panic."
Those were the last words Woodward heard. "Seconds later," he said, "there was a very, very loud static on the other end."
While Woodward was still holding the telephone, hoping Sweeney
would come through, his operational manager came into the room and said
that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center.
Woodward did not make the connection immediately. "I almost at
that point said, 'Not now, we have a serious situation here,'" he said.
But moments later, he realized that Sweeney's flight was the one that
hit the World Trade Center.
Professionalism and Courage
The ground staff who spoke to the two flight attendants were astonished by their professionalism and courage.
Gonzales and Minter said Ong showed no fear at all during the
25-minute conversation. "It was never about 'Help me, pray for me,'"
said Gonzales. "It was about 'Pray for us, help us.' That's a totally
A Madeline "Amy" Sweeney Memorial Golf Classic to benefit the
families of Sept. 11, 2001 will be held on Friday, Sept. 20 and
Saturday, Sept. 21, 2002 in Lynnfield, Mass. The proceeds will go to
families being assisted by the Massachusetts 9/11 Fund, Inc.
(www.massfund.org). For more information, please contact The Madeline
A. Sweeney Foundation at 978-688-4292 or via email at