Skip to comments.Fear and disbelief at Two air control centers (United and American)
Posted on 10/16/2001 1:26:01 PM PDT by sinkspur
Across America, skies were clear, a beautiful day for flying everywhere but in Atlanta, where low clouds draped a summery landscape.
Early in the business day, American Airlines and United Airlines each had more than 100 flights in the air, a fraction of the more than 2,000 flights each had scheduled. Their top executives were digging through paperwork, meeting with other managers and answering e- mail from home.
Then, at 7:27 a.m. CDT, Craig Marquis got an emergency phone call.
Marquis, manager-on-duty at American's sprawling System Operations Control center in Fort Worth, heard a reservations supervisor explain that an airborne flight attendant, hysterical with fear, was on the phone and needed to talk to the operations center. In the background, Marquis could hear the flight attendant shrieking and gasping for air.
"She said two flight attendants had been stabbed; one was on oxygen. A passenger had his throat slashed and looked dead, and they had gotten into the cockpit," Marquis recalls.
In 22 years at American's operations center, Marquis has made split-second, multimillion-dollar decisions to cancel flights during storms, separate threats from hoaxes and set in motion the airline's response to a crash. But none of that could have prepared him for the morning of Sept. 11, when he and other American and United Airlines officials could only listen and watch.
"I felt so helpless," Marquis says. "I was along for the ride."
A little more than 20 minutes later, at United's System Operations Control center in suburban Chicago, Rich "Doc" Miles, the SOC duty manager, received equally startling news: air traffic controllers had lost contact with United Flight 175 from Boston to Los Angeles, and a flight attendant on that plane had called in word that the plane had been hijacked.
That is the story, recalled in detail in extensive interviews with senior executives and front-line managers, of what happened Sept. 11 inside the command centers of American and United, each of which lost two jets to the terrorist attacks.
It was there that normally unflappable aviation experts first started to unravel the puzzle that at first seemed too diabolical to be real. Hijackers were supposed to coerce pilots to land someplace that the hijackers wanted to go. Never had hijackers killed pilots, taken control of planes and used them as giant suicide missiles.
Jim Goodwin, United's chairman and chief executive, knew instantly that the ramifications went well beyond his airline and American.
"The enormity of this is going to change everyone's life profoundly," he thought to himself.
Confusion sets in
As American and United lost communications, one by one, with four hijacked planes, confusion set in. Managers couldn't tell right away which particular plane had been ensnared in the catastrophes that unfolded on TV sets all around them. There was an unprecedented flurry of intercompany calls; even the two chief executives spoke by phone.
Quickly, people at the football-field-size command centers began executing the biggest shutdown in commercial aviation's 80-year history, pre-empting the Federal Aviation Administration's grounding of planes and possibly preventing other hijackings.
Beyond that, United and American also had to attend to victims' relatives, secure hundreds of stranded airplanes and accommodate tens of thousands of stranded passengers and crew.
It occurred to Don Carty, American's chairman and chief executive, that this script was worse than any B- movie.
"It cannot be happening," he thought.
Sitting in the middle of a horseshoe of desks with screens, phones and computers when his hot line began blinking, Marquis didn't have time to imagine the unimaginable that was about to take place.
Calm and quick thinking, he told others in the operations center of the call he'd just received from a woman who identified herself as Betty Ong, an attendant aboard Flight 11, a Boeing 767 wide-body that had left Boston 30 minutes earlier. Fearing a hoax, he called up her personnel record and asked her to verify her employee number and nickname.
"Is there a doctor on board?" Marquis asked.
"No. No doctor," Ong said.
The plane had been headed to Los Angeles, but it turned south over Albany, N.Y., and began flying erratically, most likely when hijackers were killing the plane's two pilots.
FAA air-traffic controllers told American's operation center that they could hear arguing over the plane's radio. Ong, screaming but still coherent, said the four hijackers and fatally injured passenger had all come from first class. The hijackers had hit people with some sort of spray that made her eyes burn. She was having trouble breathing.
"Is the plane descending?" Marquis asked.
"We're starting to descend," Ong said. "We're starting to descend."
Air-traffic controllers couldn't get a response to frantic voice and text messages to the cockpit. Hijackers had turned off the plane's transponder, which identifies an airplane among hundreds of other blips on a radar, but Marquis had an aide tell the FAA that American had confirmed a hijacking.
"They're going to New York!" Marquis shouted. "Call Newark and JFK and tell them to expect a hijacking," he ordered, assuming that the hijackers would land the plane.
"Is that our plane?"
Even as the line to Flight 11 was still open, American's executives were rushing to the operations center to deal with the crisis.
Gerard Arpey, 43, American's executive vice president of operations, had been in Boston the day before for his grandmother's funeral and had arrived at his desk in Fort Worth at 7:15 a.m. CDT to go through a pile of work. He called American's operations center to say he couldn't participate in the daily 7:45 system-wide operations call.
Joe Bertapelle, the manager at American's operations center, told him of Ong's phone call.
Arpey slumped back in his chair and sat stunned for 30 seconds.
He called the office of Carty, who was at home answering emails, left word of a possible hijacking, and then hurried to the operations center, a few miles west.
As he walked in, he was met immediately by Bertapelle and Craig Parfitt, manager of American's dispatch operations, a 29-year American veteran nicknamed "Ice Man" for his even keel.
Marquis had confirmed the hijacking, they told Arpey, and they had to open American's crisis command center, a room perched one floor up in the operations center.
A page went out to American's top executives and operations personnel: "Confirmed hijacking Flight 11." The regular 7:45 conference call started but was almost immediately interrupted: "Gentlemen, I have some information here I need to relay," Bertapelle announced.
The FAA had tagged the radar blip that Flight 11 had become, and it was now isolated on an Aircraft Situation Display, a big radar-tracking screen. All eyes watched as the plane headed south. On the screen, the plane showed a squiggly line after its turn near Albany; then the line straightened.
"All we knew for sure was that he's not going to LAX," Bertapelle said.
Big centers deal almost daily with unusual events, and they hold frequent crisis drills. In those few minutes of uncertainty, American's operations experts were trying to anticipate the plane's next move.
At 7:48, the radar image stopped moving and showed Flight 11 "frozen" over New York. A blink more, the plane simply vanished from the screen.
Three minutes later, a ramp supervisor at Kennedy airport in New York called to say that a plane had flown into a World Trade Center tower. Someone shouted to turn the television on.
Arpey was on the phone with Carty.
"The press is reporting an airplane hit the World Trade Center. Is that our plane?" Carty asked.
"I don't know, Don. We confirmed it was hijacked and was headed south from Boston," Arpey replied.
Fire from the sky
Outside Chicago, at United's SOC, Mike Barber, the dispatch manager, had his eye on a large overhead screen that happened to be tuned to CNN. "My God, the World Trade Center's on fire," Barber blurted.
Bill Roy, United's SOC director, wheeled to look at the pictures.
"It looks like a small airplane," he said to the others. "Maybe they veered off the La Guardia flight path?" But within minutes, United got a call from the FAA saying it was an American Airlines jet.
Roy called over to the adjacent headquarters building, where Goodwin, United's chairman and chief executive, was having his morning session with senior officers. Today, he was sitting with Andy Studdert, 45, the chief operating officer; Rono Dutta, United's president; and three or four others.
Maryann Irving, Studdert's secretary, took Roy's call and ran to Goodwin's second- floor office, knocked and burst into the room.
"Andy," she said, "Call the SOC. An American plane just went into the World Trade Center."
Goodwin flipped on the TV.
Studdert, a former banker who joined United only six years ago, ran across the bridge between the two buildings and entered the SOC, thinking about American: "My God, what are they going to go through?" Upon reaching the command post, he barked out, "Confirm -- American into World Trade Center."
A manager at the post had other news: "Boss, we've lost contact with one of our airplanes."
A few minutes later, Doc Miles, the SOC shift manager, heard from United's maintenance center in San Francisco, which has a system to take in-flight calls from flight attendants about cabin items that need repairs. The mechanic had gotten a call from a female flight attendant on Flight 175.
"Oh my God, the crew has been killed; a flight attendant has been stabbed. We've been hijacked," the attendant had told the mechanic. Then the line went dead.
Miles protested the information he was getting. "No, the information we're getting is that it was an American 757," he said.
"No," the mechanic insisted. "We got a call from a flight attendant on 175."
The dispatcher monitoring Flight 175, a Boeing 767 from Boston to Los Angeles, sent messages by radio and to the cockpit computer but got no response. At 8:03, the group - now assembling in the crisis room off the SOC under Studdert's command - watched as a large, dark jet slammed into the second tower of the World Trade Center.
While United was trying to understand what happened to Flight 175, American's operations experts received a call from the FAA saying that a second American plane, Flight 77 out of Washington's Dulles airport, had turned off its transponder and turned around. Controllers had lost radio communication with the plane.
Arpey looked across the crisis room at Ralph Richardi, a vice president in charge of operations planning, and saw his eyes widen in horror.
Arpey instantly gave an order to ground every American plane in the Northeast that hadn't yet taken off. Within minutes, American got word that United was also missing an airliner.
"The minute we heard that, we all agreed we needed to ground-stop the whole airline," Arpey said. At 8:15, the order went out on the command center's loudspeaker: No takeoffs.
Meanwhile, United was making similar decisions. Studdert ordered all international flights frozen on the ground at 8:20. Ten minutes later, United began diverting its domestic flights and putting them on the ground.
Just as those orders were being given, the American command center heard television reports of a plane hitting the south tower of the trade center. Many in the room instantly assumed it was American Flight 77, the missing plane from Washington.
"How did 77 get to New York and we didn't know it?" Bertapelle shouted.
Arpey looked at Carty, who had just arrived.
"I think we better get everything on the deck," Arpey said.
"Do it," Carty replied.
American ordered planes to land at the nearest suitable airports. It activated crash teams to deal with the accidents and the families of passengers and began beefing up security at American's headquarters and major stations.
Carty called Goodwin, his counterpart at United. Each told the other that he thought that he had a second missing plane.
Carty and Goodwin were also talking on the phone with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who was in a government command bunker with Vice President Dick Cheney. Carty told Mineta that American was ordering all 162 of its planes out of the sky; United had already ordered its 122 planes down. About five minutes later, the FAA shut down the skies over the United States completely to all but military aircraft.
Soon, reports began pouring in that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. Maybe it was the missing United plane?
American still believed its Flight 77 had gone into the second World Trade Center tower. The command center ordered a plane readied to take crisis response teams to New York to assist investigators and relatives of passengers.
Capt. Ed Soliday, United's vice president of safety and security, talked to AMR Vice Chairman Bob Baker, trying to sort out the confusion.
"They thought our airplane had crashed in Washington and that both their planes had crashed at the World Trade Center," Soliday says. Finally, he and Baker agreed that the government should make the final confirmation.
Carty quizzed Mineta for confirmation of which plane had hit the Pentagon.
"For God's sake, it's in the Pentagon," Carty said. "Can't somebody go look at it and see whose plane it is?"
"They have," Mineta responded. "You can't tell."
Flight 93: No answer
At about 8:30, air-traffic controllers and United lost contact with United Flight 93, a 757 bound from Newark to San Francisco. The dispatcher who had handled Flight 175 had been sending messages to all 13 of his assigned flights that were airborne, instructing them to land at the nearest United station. One didn't answer: Flight 93.
The dispatcher, a 42-year veteran of United still so shaken by the tragedy he asked that his name not be used, kept firing off messages, but to no effect.
In the United crisis center, managers isolated Flight 93 on the Aircraft Situation Display. The plane had made a wide U-turn over Ohio and seemed headed toward Washington.
Everyone in the room by now knew that a flight attendant on board had called the mechanics desk to report that one hijacker had a bomb strapped on and another was holding the crew at knifepoint. There were also reports that passengers were calling their families from cell phones and seat-back air phones.
"This was worse because we watched it until the end of the radar track ... and then, poof," says Roy, director of system operations control. "We didn't have time to cry." That was at 9:03.
After Flight 93 crashed, Studdert dispatched Pete McDonald, United's senior vice president of airport services, to Pennsylvania.
Because the no-fly order made flying to the crash site uncertain, McDonald recruited 40 United volunteers at Dulles, all trained in humanitarian relief duties, rounded up eight vans and cars, and set off at noon. In Pennsylvania, two state trooper cars met the caravan to give it a speedy escort.
With each twist and turn, airline officials also had the grisly task of trying to understand who was on board and who the hijackers were.
Early on, American officials pulled up computerized passenger lists from Flights 11 and 77.
With seat numbers from their flight attendant's call, they quickly identified suspects. United, working with the FBI, did the same. Other Middle Eastern names jumped out, and as calls poured in from worried relatives, officials with the two airlines quickly realized that they hadn't gotten calls for those very passengers.
The tally: 19 suspected hijackers, 213 passengers, eight pilots and 25 flight attendants.
Within two hours, all of United's and American's domestic flights were on the ground and accounted for.
Late in the afternoon, however, United still had some planes over the Pacific. "Until we got the last airplanes on the ground, we were biting our fingers," Goodwin recalls.
Horror hits home
Once all planes were safely on the ground, the airlines sat stunned at the logistical quagmire before them.
For many in the command center that day, grief was delayed for days, if not weeks, by the workload. For most, going home brought the first real emotional shock.
"It hit me when I first looked in my kids' faces," pictures of shock and sorrow, says Kyle Phelps, manager of administration for the operations center and a 27-year American veteran.
The United dispatcher who handled both Flight 175 and Flight 93 stayed at his post on Sept. 11 and helped the remaining planes under his watch land.
"I went home and got drunk," he says.
It's been touch and go since.
He took three days off and availed himself of a company counselor. When the counselor said, " 'It's OK to cry,' I broke down." The dispatcher says he won't watch TV anymore. And his wife had a nightmare in which she was seated on an airplane, her wrists bound as hijackers walked down the aisle slashing throats.
Word quickly spread through the company that he was the man who handled the doomed United flights.
"Something inside me died," the man, weeping again, said.
An old friend called Studdert, United's chief operating officer, three days after the attacks.
"How you doing, kid?" the friend asked.
"There is no kid left in me anymore," Studdert replied. "I'll never be the same person. We'll never be the same company or the same country."
For education or discussion only.
I think that's true for most of us. It took a chunk out of my heart that will never completely heal. May God bless those people (the ones working at the airlines and control towers who had to helplessly watch) with mercy and strength.