To the Minute, Panel Paints a Grim Portrait of Day's Terror
New York Times, June 18, 2004
By ERIC SCHMITT and ERIC LICHTBLAU
WASHINGTON, June 17 At 9:36 a.m. on Sept. 11, halfway through America's most calamitous morning, military air defense officials learned that American Airlines Flight 77 was just six miles and little more than a minute away from the White House.
An air defense commander in upstate New York ordered three Air Force fighter jets to intercept the third airliner hijacked that morning. But he soon discovered that the Virginia-based fighters were not heading north toward Baltimore as instructed, but streaking east over the Atlantic Ocean. "I don't care how many windows you break," the commander barked, ordering the jets to turn around and "crank it up" to the White House.
At that moment in Washington, Secret Service agents were hustling Vice President Dick Cheney to a secure underground White House bunker. In Sarasota, Fla., President Bush's motorcade was speeding away from an elementary school, initially headed in the wrong direction, to rush the president to the airport and up into the sky, to safety.
The nation has relived that morning countless times since Sept. 11, 2001, but never with the harrowing detail and minute-by-minute drama of the staff report released Thursday by the independent commission investigating the attacks.
The 29-page report recounts a frenetic 149 minutes unlike anything ever faced by the nation's aviation and military defenses. And it details moments both of unflinching calm, like actions by the air traffic controllers who managed to orchestrate the landings of all 4,500 flights aloft, and of maddening miscommunications, mangled coordination and broken chains of command.
The account shows civilian air traffic controllers and regional air defense officers improvising a defense for a disaster for which they had never trained, and senior administration officials struggling to sift certainty from sheer confusion, at times learning more from television news than from classified intelligence reports.
Throughout the morning, the Federal Aviation Administration had virtually no contact at the national command level with the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or Norad, which is responsible for defending the nation's airspace. And the Secret Service resorted to coordinating its own shoot-down policy regarding hijacked airliners with a National Guard general at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, outside the normal protocol.
"There were a lot of people who should have been in the loop who weren't in the loop," Thomas H. Kean, the commission's chairman and a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said after Thursday's hearing. "There were a lot of things that should have been done that weren't done."
The late-summer day began like any other at Logan Airport in Boston, as American Airlines Flight 11, bound for Los Angeles with 81 passengers and 24,000 gallons of jet fuel, began its takeoff roll at 8 a.m.
The last moment of normalcy came at 8:13 a.m., when air traffic control instructed the plane to turn to the right, according to the commission report. The pilot quickly acknowledged the transmission.
Just 16 seconds later, when the controller directed the plane to climb higher, the line went dead. After failing to make contact using emergency frequencies, the controller told supervisors that "he thought something was seriously wrong," the report said.
Confirmation came at 8:24. The plane had already changed its route when a chilling voice - believed to be that of Mohamed Atta, the lead plotter - was heard to say: "We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you'll be O.K. We are returning to the airport."
Aviation officials in Boston began sending word to supervisors in Herndon, Va., that Flight 11 had been hijacked and was heading to New York City. But it was not until 8:37 that Norad officials in Rome, N.Y., responsible for defending the Northeast, were notified.
"We need someone to scramble some F-16's or something up there," an F.A.A. manager said.
"Is this real-world or exercise?" a military official asked.
"No, this is not an exercise, not a test," came the response.
Two F-15 jets at Otis Air Force Base, some 150 miles from New York City, were airborne at 8:53. But Flight 11 had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center six minutes earlier.
Meanwhile, United Airlines Flight 175, which had left Boston at 8:14 for Los Angeles with 65 passengers, had already begun acting erratically. No one on the ground noticed, however, because the controller responsible for that flight was also handling the hijacked Flight 11.
At 8:48, an F.A.A. manager in New York, unaware that Flight 11 had already crashed, reported that an attendant on that flight had been stabbed.
By about 9 a.m., aviation officials had realized that a second hijacked plane was heading for New York City. "Heads up, man, it looks like another one coming in," the F.A.A. reported.
Moments later, United Flight 175 crashed into the south tower. Military air defenders were only just getting word at that time that a second plane had been hijacked. In a vexing pattern seen throughout the morning, the aviation defense system was steps behind the hijackers and unable to catch up.
In Sarasota, meanwhile, President Bush was visiting some second graders at 9:05 when Andrew H. Card Jr., his chief of staff, whispered to him that a plane had hit the second tower.
The president had been told minutes earlier about the first crash, but Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, who was on the trip, said initially that the plane that crashed was a twin-engine aircraft. When the second plane hit, however, White House aides said they knew it was no accident.
In the classroom, reporters' pagers and phones started ringing. President Bush showed little emotion, telling the commission later that "his instinct was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis," the report said.
He remained in the classroom another few minutes. Shortly before 9:15, he returned to a holding room, where he was briefed by staff members, watched television coverage and called Mr. Cheney and others. Mr. Bush prepared to return to Washington - a decision that worried aides would later persuade him to reverse.
No one in the White House traveling party had any indication by then that any other planes had been hijacked, the report said.
But by 9:21, aviation officials had realized that a third plane - American Airlines Flight 77, which had left Dulles International Airport outside Washington at 8:20 - was missing. Controllers lost sight of it near Indianapolis and did not realize it had turned back toward Washington.
Minutes later, just as the president was preparing to leave the school, the F.A.A. cleared the airspace over Manhattan and the fighter planes patrolled the skies above the city.
But the threat then was not in New York City, where the twin towers were in flames; it was at the Pentagon, where Flight 77 was headed. The plane traveled undetected toward Washington for 36 minutes, the report found.
At 9:32, aviation officials in Washington finally spotted what turned out to be the missing plane. The F.A.A. contacted the Secret Service, and controllers at Reagan National Airport sent an unarmed National Guard C-130H cargo plane to follow the suspicious jetliner. Once again, it was too late. At 9:38, the National Guard pilot reported to the Washington tower that it"looks like that aircraft crashed into the Pentagon, sir."
Military officials did not even know about the frantic search for Flight 77, the report said. Instead, the military was searching for a ghost plane headed to Washington. The F.A.A. had erroneously reported that American Flight 11 - the plane that had crashed into the north tower of the trade center more than half an hour earlier - was still airborne and heading for Washington, the report said.
By 9:37, the Pentagon had opened a high-level teleconference, called the Air Threat Conference call, which would last more than eight hours. Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other senior officials from across the government would participate at various times during the day.
Conspicuously absent for the crucial first 40 minutes of the call was a representative from the Federal Aviation Administration, which controls all civilian air traffic. The official who ultimately joined the call at 10:17 had no familiarity with hijackings, no access to senior agency decision makers, and none of the information available to senior F.A.A. officials by that time, the report said.
Even as officials were meeting in Washington to grapple with the situation, three F-16 fighters from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia were racing toward Washington, and the final hijacking was playing out aboard United Airlines Flight 93.
Just minutes before the crash at the Pentagon, Flight 93, flying from Newark to San Francisco, went off course near Cleveland. An air traffic controller there and pilots of other aircraft flying nearby heard over a radio transmission what sounded like screams and a struggle.
By 9:38, controllers in Cleveland had moved several aircraft out of the way of Flight 93, and soon after that the hijacked flight reversed course over Ohio and began heading toward Washington.
Four minutes later, a top F.A.A. operations manager, Ben Sliney, ordered all F.A.A. sites to direct all airborne aircraft to land at the nearest airport, the first such action in the nation's history. About 4,500 aircraft soon landed without incident.
Meantime, aboard Flight 93, passengers had gotten cellphone calls about the other hijackings, and some of them rushed the cockpit. At about 10:03, Flight 93 crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa., 125 miles from Washington.
Despite the numerous discussions among F.A.A. officials about Flight 93, no one at the agency's headquarters ever requested the military's help. Just before 10 a.m., officials in Washington were ordering additional steps. Stephen Hadley, Mr. Bush's deputy national security adviser, requested that the Pentagon provide fighter escorts for Air Force One, which was just leaving Florida; combat air patrols over Washington; and help carrying out the continuity of government procedures, the doomsday rules under which cabinet members and Congressional leaders are whisked to undisclosed locations in a national emergency.
By 10:10, the F-16's that had been over the Atlantic arrived in Washington, but were told by the Norad commander in Rome, N.Y., that they were not cleared to fire on any hijacked airliner threatening Washington.
But at the same time, Mr. Cheney, still in the White House bunker, ordered the shooting down of any threatening airliner. Before the order went out, Joshua Bolten, Mr. Bush's deputy chief of staff, suggested that Mr. Cheney call Mr. Bush again to confirm the order.
Neither Mr. Bolten, nor I. Lewis Libby, Mr. Cheney's chief of staff, nor Lynne V. Cheney, his wife, all of whom were in the bunker, said they recalled a phone call minutes earlier that Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush said they had had authorizing the drastic action. At 10:20 a.m., officials on Air Force One confirmed Mr. Bush's authorization of a shootdown order.
At 10:31, the order was relayed to air defense commanders over a military chat log, but military officials down the chain of command expressed confusion about the directive and never passed it on to the pilots circling Washington and New York.
Even as the pilots were waiting for instructions, Brig. Gen. David F. Wherley Jr., commander of the District of Columbia Air National Guard's 113th Wing, heard secondhand reports that the Secret Service wanted fighters airborne over the capital, and offered his fighter jets based at Andrews Air Force Base, the report said.
Based on Mr. Cheney's authority, the first fighters were airborne at 10:38 a.m. Four minutes later, General Wherley issued orders that the pilots from Andrews were operating "weapons free," meaning the decision to shoot down any hijacked planes rested with the lead pilot.