‘Get These Planes on the Ground’
Air Traffic Controllers Recall Sept. 11
October 24, 2001
It has taken six weeks, but air traffic controller Danielle O'Brien is now ready to talk about Sept. 11.
"It was a very normal day," she recalls. "It was a very beautiful
day in the Washington, D.C. area, crystal clear, a very nice temperature."
But it was also a day when O'Brien's calm demeanor handling aircraft at Dulles International Airport in Virginia would be put fully to the test.
O'Brien wouldn't be alone. Across the nation, air traffic controllers watched as four airliners disappeared from radar screens as they were taken over by hijackers determined to cause death and destruction.
O'Brien was assigned to the radar room, and at 8:25 a.m. she handled the routine, on-time departure of American Flight 77, the plane that one hour and 12 minutes later would crash into the Pentagon.
She asked the departing aircraft to climb to a higher altitude. And for some reason — reasons she cannot explain — she finished her instructions by saying "Good luck."
"It's chilling. It's chilling," she says. "I usually say 'Good day' as I ask an aircraft to switch to another frequency. Or 'Have a nice flight.' But never 'Good Luck.'"
Twenty minutes later, the hijacked airplanes began their deadly, coordinated missions, with the first of two strikes at the World Trade Center.
Watching in Horror
John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, says he learned what was going on just before the second plane hit the tallest buildings in New York City.
"My cell phone went off and it was an associate of mine from Boston, who asked, 'Hey, John, are you watching this on TV?' And I said 'Yeah, I am.' And he said, 'That's American 11,'" recalls Carr.
"I almost dropped my coffee. I said, 'My God. What are you talking about?' And he said, 'That's American 11 that made that hole in the World Trade Center.' That we lost that airplane. And I said, 'You're kidding me.' And he said, 'No. And there is another one that just turned south, toward New York. We lost him too.' And so basically I was watching in horror."
At the Dulles tower, O'Brien saw the TV pictures from New York and headed back to her post to help other planes quickly land.
"We started moving the planes as quickly as we could," she says. "Then I noticed the aircraft. It was an unidentified plane to the southwest of Dulles, moving at a very high rate of speed … I had literally a blip and nothing more."
O'Brien asked the controller sitting next to her, Tom Howell, if he saw it too.
"I said, 'Oh my God, it looks like he's headed to the White House,'" recalls Howell. "I was yelling … 'We've got a target headed right for the White House!'"
At a speed of about 500 miles an hour, the plane was headed straight for what is known as P-56, protected air space 56, which covers the White House and the Capitol.
"The speed, the maneuverability, the way that he turned, we all thought in the radar room, all of us experienced air traffic controllers, that that was a military plane," says O'Brien. "You don't fly a 757 in that manner. It's unsafe."
The plane was between 12 and 14 miles away, says O'Brien, "and it was just a countdown. Ten miles west. Nine miles west … Our supervisor picked up our line to the White House and started relaying to them the information, [that] we have an unidentified very fast-moving aircraft inbound toward your vicinity, 8 miles west."
Vice President Cheney was rushed to a special basement bunker. White House staff members were told to run away from the building.
"And it went six, five, four. And I had it in my mouth to say, three, and all of a sudden the plane turned away. In the room, it was almost a sense of relief. This must be a fighter. This must be one of our guys sent in, scrambled to patrol our capital, and to protect our president, and we sat back in our chairs and breathed for just a second," says O'Brien.
But the plane continued to turn right until it had made a 360-degree maneuver.
"We lost radar contact with that aircraft. And we waited. And we waited. And your heart is just beating out of your chest waiting to hear what's happened," says O'Brien. "And then the Washington National [Airport] controllers came over our speakers in our room and said, 'Dulles, hold all of our inbound traffic. The Pentagon's been hit.'"
More Work to Do
Air traffic controllers could only imagine the effect of a full speed 757 slamming into a building full of people.
"I remember some folks gasping. I think I remember a couple of expletives," says O'Brien. "No tears. Not a single tear among us. No one broke down. No one strayed from their duties."
Only once they were released, says Howell, did the reality sink in.
"You could sense something was happening when it was all going on, but when it actually did, it's just like a big pit in your stomach because you weren't able to do anything about it to stop it," he says. "That's what I think hurt the most."
A fourth airliner, United Airlines Flight 93, flying from Newark to San Francisco, crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Authorities believe a group of passengers thwarted the hijackers' plans as the plane was headed back toward Washington, D.C.
All planes were ordered grounded, which meant the air traffic controllers had a job to do.
"It was a sense of urgency, it was a sense of protectiveness. It's the same protectiveness we work these planes with every day of the year," says O'Brien. "Get these planes on the ground, get these people safe before anything else happens."
According to FAA radar records, some 5,000 aircraft were safely guided to ground in under two hours.
What Was the Target?
O'Brien went to the Pentagon to see what happened for herself, making her ever more certain that the Pentagon was a secondary target, and that the hijackers overshot or missed the White House.
"I've been down to the Pentagon and stood on the hillside and imagined where, according to what I saw on the radar, that flight would have come from," she says. "And I think that they came eastbound and because sun was in their eyes that morning, and because the White House was beyond a grove of trees, I think they couldn't see it. It was too fast. They came over that Pentagon or saw it just in front of them. You can't miss the Pentagon. It's so telltale by its shape and its size, and they said, 'Look, there it is. Take that. Get that.' They certainly could have had the White House if they had seen it."
Since the attack, O'Brien has been having nightmares. "I've sat up straight in bed many times, reliving it, reseeing it, rehearing it," she says. "And it's in the most absurd ways that only a dream could depict."
In her dreams, events unfold differently.
"The one that comes to mind most, dreaming of a green pool in front of
me. That was part of the radar scope. It was a pool of gel, and I reached into
the radar scope to stop that flight. But in the dream, I didn't harm the plane,"
she says. "I just held it in my hand, and somehow that stopped everything."
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