Interviews with Air Traffic Controllers Working During the September 11th Terrorist Attacks

by Brian Ross and Tom Jarriel
ABC News - 20/20
October 24, 2001

Announcer: And now, from Times Square in New York, Barbara Walters.


Good evening, and welcome to 20/20.

Tonight, the tragedy of September 11th told as you have never heard it before. For the first time, overcoming their emotional trauma, two of the air traffic controllers on duty that day are able to talk about the tension in the tower and their desperation as they watched the disaster unfold, helpless to stop it. What actually happened? Chief investigative corespondent, Brian Ross with the final terrible minutes of American Flight 77.

Ms. DANIELLE O'BRIEN: It's is very normal day. I seem to recall it was a beautiful day in this Washington, DC, area. Crystal clear. Very nice temperature.

BRIAN ROSS reporting:

(VO) It has taken six weeks, but air traffic controller Danielle O'Brien is now ready to talk about her September 11th.

Ms. O'BRIEN: And that particular day I was assigned to the radar room.

ROSS: (VO) A day when her cool, calm demeanor, handling aircraft at Dulles Airport outside Washington, would be put fully to the test.

Ms. O'BRIEN: These went from planes to people. They were blips and now they were human lives.

ROSS: (VO) At 8:25 AM, she handled the routine on-time departure of American Flight 77 with 64 people on board. A Boeing 757 like this one. One hour and 12 minutes later, the plane would crash into the Pentagon.

Ms. O'BRIEN: It was just a normal flight that came through the air space.

ROSS: (VO) With what she recalls as a normal radio transmission.

Ms. O'BRIEN: 'American 77, Dulles approach, climb and maintain, 1-7,000.' And then I asked American 77 to contact the next controller. 'American 77 contact Washington center, 120.65. Good luck.'

ROSS: Good luck? Do you have any idea now why you might have said good luck?

Ms. O'BRIEN: I have no idea whatsoever. It's chilling--it's chilling. I usually say 'good day' as I ask an aircraft to switch to another frequency, or 'have a nice flight.' But never 'good luck.'

ROSS: (VO) Twenty minutes later, the hijacked airplanes began their deadly coordinated missions and air traffic controllers from Boston to New York to Washington were the first to realize what was going on.

Mr. JOHN CARR: 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.'

ROSS: (VO) John Carr is the president of the National Air traffic Controllers Association.

Mr. CARR: I almost dropped my coffee. I said, 'My God, what are you talking about?' And he said, 'That--that's American 11 that made that hole in the World Trade Center. And I said, 'You're kidding me?,' and he said, 'No, and--and there's another one that just turned south towards New York. We lost him too.' And so basically I was watching in horror expecting to see what we all eventually saw.

ROSS: (VO) At the Dulles tower, Danielle O'Brien also saw the TV pictures from New York and headed back to her post, now to help other planes quickly land.

Ms. O'BRIEN: We started moving the planes in as quickly as we could. 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. I slid over to the controller on my left, Tom Howell, and I asked him, 'Do you see an unidentified plane there southwest of Dulles?' And his response was, 'Yes. Oh, my gosh, yes! Look how fast he is.'

Mr. TOM HOWELL: And then I said, 'Oh, my, god. It looks like he's headed to the White House.' I started yelling, 'John! John! We've got a target headed right for the White House.'

ROSS: (VO) A representation of the FAA radar scope, based on information obtained by 20/20, shows the plane headed straight for what is known as P-56, Prohibited Air Space 56, which covers the White House and the Capitol, at a speed of about 500 miles an hour with no radio contact whatsoever.

(OC) Was he on a normal flight approach of any kind?

Ms. O'BRIEN: Not at all.

ROSS: Full throttle.

Ms. O'BRIEN: Full out.

ROSS: How far out was that plane?

Ms. O'BRIEN: Between 12 and 14 miles. John, our supervisor, relayed verbatim. 'OK, he's 12 miles west, he's moving very fast eastbound. OK guys, where he is now? Eleven miles west.' And it was just a countdown. Ten miles west, nine miles west. Somewhere right in this vicin--in this time frame, our supervisor picked up our line to the White House and started relaying to them the information. 'We have unidentified very fast-moving aircraft inbound toward your vicinity, 8 miles west.'

ROSS: (VO) Vice President Cheney was rushed to a special basement bunker.

Ms. O'BRIEN: Seven miles west.

ROSS: White House staff members were told to run away from the building.

Unidentified Police Officer: (From news footage) You guys please, all the way Eighth Street, please.

Ms. O'BRIEN: 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 Capitol and to protect our president.' And we sat back in our chairs and breathed for just a second. In the meantime, all of the rest of the planes are still flying and we're taking care of everything else. And the plane turned back. He continued in the right-hand turn, made a 360 degree maneuver.

ROSS: A big loop?

Ms. O'BRIEN: Correct. And we're telling the supervisor, 'He's turning back in, he's turning back eastbound.'

Mr. HOWELL: Then the turn kept going. And that's when I think I yelled to John. I said, 'Oh, my God, John, he's coming back.

Ms. O'BRIEN: We lost radar contact with that aircraft. And we waited, and we waited. And your heart's just beating out of your chest. And then the Washington National controllers came over our speakers in our room and said, 'Dulles, hold all of our inbound traffic, the Pentagon's been hit.' I remember seeing folks gasping. I think I remember a couple expletives.

ROSS: Tears?

ROSS: No, no tears. Not a single tear among us. No one broke down, no one strayed from their duties.

ROSS: (VO) But with the skies still full of planes, no one knew and no one knows to this day if more planes were about to be hijacked.

Ms. O'BRIEN: The order came, 'Get every plane on the--in the sky, in the United States, we don't care where he was going, get them on the ground.' An operations manager came to each one of us, 'Are you OK? Do you want to be relieved?' And I said, 'No. Let me stay, let me get this cleaned up. We need to get these guys on the ground.'

ROSS: You weren't too rattled?

Ms. O'BRIEN: Not at that moment. 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. But dagonnit, nobody was going to take any more. Not if we could help it.

ROSS: (VO) According to FAA radar records, almost 5,000 aircraft--the green dots--were safely guided to the ground in under two hours, leaving behind a nationwide coverage of blue dots, those are military jet fighters.

Mr. JOHN CAR: The air traffic controllers achieved the impossible. And it was something that had never been contemplated, something that had never been practiced, and yet they--they did it with professionalism and skill. I'm very proud of them.

ROSS: (VO) Since then, Danielle O'Brien has gone to the actual scene to see for herself what happened.

Ms. O'BRIEN: 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. And I think that they came eastbound, and because the 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. 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 tell-tale by it's shape and it's 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.

ROSS: (VO) In the days after September 11th, Danielle struggled hard to deal with what had happened, turning to family and then close friends for support.

Ms. O'BRIEN: I called a girlfriend of mine that evening and I got her answering machine and I said, 'You're not going to believe what I've been involved with today.' And I said, 'You know, American 77, I saw him. I saw it all. Call me.' And Tuesday evening lapsed and Wednesday lapsed and I hadn't heard from her, which was very odd. And then Thursday she called and she sounded different on the phone. She said, 'Did I understand your message right?' And I said, 'Yes. It was just--it was amazing.' And I started just blurting out everything. And she said, 'Danielle,' she said, 'Bob was at work that day. My husband was at work that day in the Pentagon and he's missing.' Last week I went to his funeral. It's real personal.

ROSS: (VO) Danielle is now taking some time off to spend with her family. She has yet to tell her two children, Kennedy and Garret, what their mother actually experienced that day.

Ms. O'BRIEN: Kennedy, do you like this one?

ROSS: So how are you doing?

Ms. O'BRIEN: I think, like the rest of the nation, we have--I have good days and bad days.

ROSS: Are there bad dreams or nightmares?

Ms. O'BRIEN: Sure, absolutely. I have sat up straight in bed many nights reliving it, reseeing it, rehearing it. The one that comes to mind most, dreaming of the--the 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, I just held it in my hand. And somehow that stopped everything.

WALTERS: Oh, Brian. Would that she could have.

ROSS: Indeed.

WALTERS: You know, the plane that the brave passengers took down in Pennsylvania, do we know now where that plane was heading?

ROSS: The theory is that plane was bound for the US Capitol and that this flight, American 77, was supposed to hit the White House, the terrorists' one-two punch in Washington.

WALTERS: Just as they had done in New York.

ROSS: Exactly.

WALTERS: You've been on top of the anthrax story, Brian.

ROSS: Yes.

WALTERS: What's the latest?

ROSS: The latest is that today the postmaster general said he can no longer guarantee the safety of the US mail. Just a handful of powder has paralyzed the mail system, stretched law enforcement way too thin and terrorized the country.

WALTERS: But we're still looking for clues?

ROSS: Urgently looking for clues all over the country right now.

WALTERS: We'll be talking about that. Thank you, Brian. And we'll be right back.

Announcer: When 20/20 returns:

TOM JARRIEL reporting:

Would you be surprised if there was an arrest on the anthrax cases based on photo evidence?

Announcer: Next.

Copyright 2001 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.

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