F.A.A. Official Scrapped Tape of 9/11 Controllers' Statements
By MATTHEW L. WALD
May 6 — At least six air traffic controllers who dealt with two of the
hijacked airliners on Sept. 11, 2001, made a tape recording that same
day describing the events, but the tape was destroyed by a supervisor
without anyone making a transcript or even listening to it, the
Transportation Department said in a report today.
The taping began before noon on Sept. 11 at the New York Air Route
Traffic Control Center, in Ronkonkoma, on Long Island, where about 16
people met in a basement conference room known as "the Bat Cave" and
passed around a microphone, each recalling his or her version of the
events a few hours earlier.
But officials at the center never told higher-ups of the tape's
existence, and it was later destroyed by an F.A.A. official described
in the report as a quality-assurance manager there. That manager
crushed the cassette in his hand, shredded the tape and dropped the
pieces into different trash cans around the building, according to a
report made public today by the inspector general of the Transportation
The tape had been made under an agreement with the union that it would
be destroyed after it was superseded by written statements from the
controllers, according to the inspector general's report. But the
quality-assurance manager asserted that making the tape had itself been
a violation of accident procedures at the Federal Aviation
Administration, the report said.
The inspector general, Kenneth M. Mead, said that the officials' keeping
the existence of the tape a secret and the decision by one to destroy
it had not served "the interests of the F.A.A., the department or the
public" and could foster suspicions among the public.
Mr. Mead had been asked by Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican
who is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, to look into how well
the aviation agency had cooperated with what is widely known as the
9/11 commission, a bipartisan, independent panel investigating the
On the tape, the controllers, some of whom had spoken by radio to people
on the planes and some who had tracked the aircraft on radar, gave
statements of 5 to 10 minutes each, according to the report.
The tape's value was not clear, Mr. Mead said, because no one was sure
what was on it, although the written statements given later by five of
the controllers were broadly consistent with "sketchy" notes taken at
the time by people in the Bat Cave. (The sixth controller who spoke on
the tape did not give a written statement, apparently because that
controller had not spoken to either of the planes or observed it on
One of the central questions about the events of that morning is how the
F.A.A. responded to emerging clues that four planes had been hijacked.
A tape made within hours of the events, as well as written statements
given later, could help establish that.
A spokesman for the 9/11 commission, Al Felzenberg, said that Mr. Mead's
report was "meticulous" and "came through the efforts of a very
conscientious senator." He said the commission would not comment now on
the content of the report but that it "does speak to some of the issues
we're interested in."
The tape was made because the manager of the center believed that the
standard post-crash procedure would be too slow for an event of the
magnitude of 9/11. After an accident or other significant incident,
according to officials of the union and the F.A.A., the controllers
involved are relieved of duty and often go home; eventually they review
the radar tapes and voice transmissions and give a written statement of
what they had seen, heard and done.
People in the Ronkonkoma center at midday on Sept. 11 concluded that
that procedure would take many hours, and that the controllers' shift
was ending and after a traumatic morning, they wanted to go home.
The center manager's idea was to have the tape available overnight, in
case the F.B.I. wanted something before the controllers returned to
work the next day, according to people involved.
"It was never meant as a permanent record," said Mark DiPalmo, the
president of the local chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers
Association, who made the deal with the center manager.