Day of Horror
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KWAME HOLMAN: With chilling audio tapes of the hijackers confronting their victims as a back drop, the 9/11 Commission painted a portrait of confusion and poor official communication throughout the frenzied morning of Sept. 11 2001. In the final day of hearings, the commission staff reported on the response by the Federal Aviation Administration and the military’s North American Defense Command or NORAD. The staff said neither agency was prepared to react to hijacked planes that would become weapons.
PHILIP ZELIKOW: In sum, the protocols in place on 9/11 for the FAA and NORAD to respond to a hijacking presumed that, one, the hijacked aircraft would be readily identifiable and would not attempt to disappear. Two, there would be time to address the problem through the appropriate FAA and NORAD chains of command and, three, the hijacking would take the traditional form, not a suicide hijacking designed to convert the aircraft into a guided missile. On the morning of 9/11, the existing protocol was unsuited in every respect for what was about to happen. What ensued was the hurried attempt to create an improvised defense by officials who had never encountered or trained against the situation they faced.
KWAME HOLMAN: The staff played air traffic control recordings of the hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 11, destined to strike the first world trade center tower. This is believed to be hijacker Mohammed Atta.
HIJACKER: We have some planes. Just stay quiet, and you’ll be okay. We are returning to the airport. Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try and make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet. Nobody move please. We are going back to the airport. Don’t try to make any stupid moves.
KWAME HOLMAN: It was the day’s first indication to air traffic controllers that a hijacking was underway. The staff said controllers alerted FAA headquarters of a possible hijacking, but were told by the FAA officer on duty that an emergency conference call already was underway. However, the Boston-based controllers of Flight 11 were not satisfied military help was on the way and called the Northeast Air Defense Sector, or NEADS.
SPOKESMAN: Hi, Boston center T.M.U., We have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to… we need someone to scramble some f-16s or something up there, help us out.
VOICE: Is this real-world or exercise?
SPOKESMAN: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.
JOHN AZZARELLO, 9/11 Commission Staff: NEADS promptly ordered to battle stations the two f-15 alert aircraft at Otis Air Force Base, about 153 miles away from New York City. The air defense of America began with this call.
At NEADS, the reported hijacking was relayed immediately to battle commander Colonel Robert Marr. After ordering the Otis fighters to battle stations, Colonel Marr phoned Major General Larry Arnold, commanding general of the first air force and the continental region. Marr sought authorization to scramble the Otis fighters. General Arnold was instructed to “go ahead and scramble the airplanes and we’ll get permission later.” General Arnold then called NORAD headquarters to report. F-15 fighters were ordered scrambled at 8:46 from Otis Air Force Base.
But NEADS did not know where to send the alert fighter aircraft. “I don’t know where I’m scrambling these guys to. I need a direction, a destination.” Because the hijackers had turned off the plane’s transponder, NEADS personnel spent the next minutes searching their radar scopes for the elusive primary radar return. American 11 impacted the World Trade Center’s north tower at 8:46:40.
KWAME HOLMAN: The FAA had given nine minutes warning before the impact, the longest warning time it would provide before any of the four crashes. There was similar confusion about the other hijacked planes– United Flight 175, American Flight 77, and United Flight 93. According to the commission staff, the FAA failed to report one of the planes as having been hijacked, and believed American Flight 11, which had struck the World Trade Center, was still in the air.
SPOKESMAN: Military, Boston center. I just had a report that American 11 is still in the air, and it’s on its way towards… heading towards Washington.
SPOKESPERSON: Okay. American 11 is still in the air?
SPOKESPERSON: On its way towards Washington?
SPOKESMAN: That was another… it was evidently another aircraft that hit the tower. That’s the latest report we have.
SPOKESMAN: I’m going to try to confirm an ID for you, but I would assume he’s somewhere over… either New Jersey or somewhere further south.
SPOKESPERSON: Okay. So American 11 isn’t the hijack at all then, right?
SPOKESMAN: No, he is a hijack.
SPOKESPERSON: He… American 11 is a hijack?
SPOKESPERSON: And he’s heading into Washington?
SPOKESMAN: Yes. This could be a third aircraft.
KWAME HOLMAN: When Cleveland air traffic controllers heard screaming and sounds of a struggle aboard United Flight 93, FAA Headquarters was slow to respond.
SPOKESMAN: At 9:49, 13 minutes after getting the question from Cleveland Center about military help, command center suggested that someone at headquarters should decide whether to request military assistance.
VOICE ONE: They’re pulling Jeff away to talk about united 9 3.
VOICE TWO: Do we want to think about scrambling aircraft?
VOICE ONE: Oh, God, I don’t know.
VOICE TWO: That’s a decision somebody’s going to have to make probably in the next ten minutes.
VOICE ONE: Oh, you know, everybody just left the room.
KWAME HOLMAN: Moments later, Flight 93 crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, key FAA officials still were missing from a defense department teleconference on the crisis that started just before 9:30 am.
DANA HYDE: Operators worked feverishly to include the FAA In this teleconference, but they had equipment problems and difficulty finding secure phone numbers. NORAD asked three times before 10:03 to confirm the presence of FAA on the conference, to provide an update on hijackings. The FAA did not join the call until 10:17. The FAA representative who joined the call had no familiarity with or responsibility for a hijack situation, had no access to decision makers, and had none of the information available to senior FAA officials by that time.
KWAME HOLMAN: As FAA and NORAD officials fought through confusion, senior officials accompanying President Bush to an elementary school in Florida were scrambling as well. According to the commission staff, the president and Vice President Cheney had agreed to permit military jets to shoot down any airliner that did not respond to radio calls, but tapes of conversations between air controllers and the Northeast Air Defense showed confusion about the order.
VOICE: You need to read this. The region commander has declared that we can shoot down aircraft that does not respond to our direction. Copy that?
VOICE TWO: Copy, that sir.
VOICE: So if you’re trying to divert someone and he won’t divert…
VOICE TWO: They’re saying no.
VOICE: It came over. Do you have a conflict on that direction?
VOICE TWO: Right now no.
VOICE: You read that from the vice president, right? The vice president has cleared us to intercept traffic. We can shoot them down if they do not respond.
JOHN FARERM: In the interviews with us, NEAD’s personnel expressed considerable confusion over the nature and effect of the order.
KWAME HOLMAN: Joint chiefs chairman Richard Myers, a former commander of NORAD, was today’s first witness. He was asked about a frequent topic of the hearings, the August 2001 memorandum to the president warning of a strike on the U.S. by Osama bin Laden.
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Had you received such information tying together the potential reflected in the Aug. 6 memorandum that was titled “bin Laden Determined to Strike in the United States” together with this additional information, might you have followed up on a training scenario at the least, such as the positive force training scenario where a hijacked plane was presumed to fly into the Pentagon, a proposal that was made and rejected in the year 2000?
GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Well, a couple of things. I don’t know that we would have because exercising alone is not enough if you look at all, and you have, you’ve looked at all the policy guidance we’ve gotten through the ’90s into early 2000 – 2001 — all the policy guidance was that we treat terrorism primarily as a criminal event and the role of the Defense Department was to defend our forces primarily. It was force protection, anti-terrorism, not counter-terrorism. Counter-terrorism responsibilities domestically were FBI — externally were the CIA.
KWAME HOLMAN: But the commission staff concluded that earlier warnings would not have allowed the military to intercept the hijacked planes. Commissioner James Thompson asked the current commander of North American Defenses about that.
JAMES R. THOMPSON: Would it have been physically possible for the military to have intercepted those three aircraft before they completed their terrible mission?
GEN. RALPH EBERHART: Sir, our modeling, which we’ve shared with the staff, reflects that giving the situation you’ve outlined, which we think is the situation that exists today because of the fixes, the remedies put in place, we would be able to shoot down all three aircraft — all four aircraft.
KWAME HOLMAN: FAA witnesses said the agency had not practiced for such a scenario. Today, an FAA official said the focus on Sept. 11 was on getting hundreds of thousands of airline passengers safely to the ground.
MONTE BELGER: At 9:45 A.M., When the order was given to land all aircraft immediately at the closest airport, over 4,500 aircraft were in the system. Our focus at that time was to safely land those hundreds of thousands of passengers. By 12:16 P.M., for the first time in the history of the FAA, our U.S. airspace was empty of all aircraft, except for military and central emergency flights. Over 4,500 aircraft and hundreds of thousands of passengers were safely landed under unique and highly stressful conditions. Roughly one flight every two seconds under those stressful conditions landed throughout the country. FAA controllers, supervisors, pilot, flight crew, dispatchers and the automation equipment they used all performed flawlessly.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Commissioner Bob Kerrey criticized the FAA for allowing an inexperienced staffer to coordinate the key conference call between government agencies.
BOB KERREY: How in god’s name could you put somebody on the telephone who joined the call with no familiarity or responsibility for hijack situations, had no access to decision-makers, and had none of the information available to senior FAA officials at that time? What the hell is going on that you would do such a thing?
MONTE BELGER: I did not specifically ask this question. One of the millions of questions I wish I would have asked that morning, but I didn’t.
KWAME HOLMAN: After Chairman Tom Kean brought the hearing phase of the commission’s work to a close, he and co-chairman Lee Hamilton met with the press. They disclosed that President Bush himself was affected by communications troubles on Sept. 11. Mr. Bush had appeared in private before the commission.
LEE HAMILTON: Keep in mind, they’re trying to understand what happened, and they’re trying to get the motorcade going and they’re trying to get to Air Force One as quickly as they can. The president is on the phone and Andy Card is on the phone and a half dozen other people are on the phone calling a variety of people in Washington. So there was a real communication jam; at some point I think we heard that the president was using a cell phone. Is that right, Tom? I think I remember that.
THOMAS KEAN: Yeah, he was trying every way, as were his aides, to communicate. Here is the commander-in-chief, and there are decisions to be made and America is under attack and the commander-in-chief can’t get through to the nation’s capital. I mean, that’s a serious problem.
KWAME HOLMAN: The commission plans to issue its final report on the events of Sept. 11 and recommendations by the end of next month.