NEW YORK — “Did you just say somethin’ hit the World Trade Center?” an incredulous military official asked shortly after the beginning of America’s terrorism nightmare on September 11, 2001.
Minutes later, with air traffic authorities warning that another commercial jet was off course and just six miles (10 kilometers) from the White House, Washington ground control sounded in denial, saying it was “probably just a rumor.”
Moments later American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon.
The stunned reactions by authorities to first reports about 9/11, in the full exchanges between ground control, pilots and military authorities during the hijacking chaos of 10 years ago were made public Thursday. They illustrate just how unprepared the United States was for the audacious plot.
While portions of the audio recordings have circulated before, the document published by the Rutgers Law Review allows an unprecedented blow-by-blow recreation of the brief period on September 11, 2001, when four airliners were hijacked and slammed into New York, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.
The raw recordings released in the run-up to the 10th anniversary of the tragedy show air controllers desperately trying to understand what happened to the planes, where they were, and where they were going.
In one exchange, a controller at New York Center says that there were reports of a fire at the Twin Towers. “And that’s, ah, that’s the area where we lost the airplane,” the controller says.
At the same time, an unidentified pilot is asking over the airwaves: “Anybody know what that smoke is in lower Manhattan?”
At Boston Center control, a worker says: “We have, ah, a problem here, we have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New, New York and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there to help us out.”
The answer, revealing the astonishment at what was happening, is: “Is, is this real world or exercise?”
Even at 8:43, a full 19 minutes after suspected American Airlines Flight 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta broadcast to air traffic control that “We have some planes,” and nine minutes after Boston Center notifies controllers of the flight’s hijacking, Major James Fox, leader of the Northeast Air Defense Sector who is patched in to the breaking developments, expresses disbelief.
“I’ve never seen so much real-world stuff happen during an exercise,” Fox said, according to the transcript.
As millions of Americans tuning in to news broadcasts watched the second jet hitting the World Trade Center, New York air traffic controllers sounded dumbfounded at the events.
“Another one just hit, just hit the building,” a controller said, according to the transcript.
New York Center: “Wow.”
New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON): “Oh my god.”
New York Center: “Another one just hit the World Trade.”
New York TRACON: “The whole building just, ah, came apart.”
New York TRACON: “Oh my god.”
New York Center: “Holy smokes. Alright. I guess you guys are going to be busy.”
Even at 9:38, 35 minutes after the second plane hit the Twin Towers, controllers in Washington sounded skeptical about hijacked Flight 77 bearing down on the US capital.
When asked whether they knew anything about controller reports that a rogue jet was near the White House, Washington Center responded: “No, we do not and it’s probably just a rumor.
“But ah, you might want to call ah, ah, National (airport) or Andrews somebody (Andrews Air Force base) somewhere like that and find out, but we don’t (know) any thing about that.”
The recordings, which also include tragic exchanges with flight attendants on Flight 11 about how two of their colleagues had been knifed and hijackers were in the cockpit, were first reported by The New York Times on Thursday.
The full Rutgers report and audio can be accessed at: wwww.rutgerslawreview.com/2011/a-new-type-of-war/
The 9/11 Commission tasked Rutgers Law Review with piecing together the critical communications on that fateful morning, and the Review said in its preface that “the raw material that went into our reconstruction of the day was not obtained easily.”
“If we had not pushed as hard as we did — ultimately persuading the commission to use its subpoena power to obtain the records — many of the critical conversations from that morning may have been lost to history.”