American, United Watched and Worked In Horror as Sept. 11 Hijackings Unfolded

by Scott Mccartney and Susan Carey
The Wall Street Journal
October 15, 2001

 

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 they 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.

Mr. Marquis, manager-on-duty at American's sprawling System Operations Control center in Fort Worth, Texas, 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, Mr. 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,'' Mr. Marquis recalls.

In 22 years at American's operations center, Mr. 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 all he and other American and United Airlines officials could do was listen and watch as the systems they control spun gruesomely out of control.

"I felt so helpless," says Mr. Marquis. "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.

This is the story, recalled in detail in extensive interviews with senior executives and front-line managers, of what happened on 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 murdered 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 recalls thinking to himself.

Losing Contact

As American and United lost communications, one by one, with a total of 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, orders that pre-empted even the Federal Aviation Administration's grounding of planes and may have prevented other hijackings. Beyond that, UAL Corp.'s United and AMR Corp.'s American also had to attend to victims' relatives, secure hundreds of stranded airplanes and accommodate tens of thousands of stranded passengers and crew.

"I remember thinking, I'm in one of those B-movies, with a script so bizarre no one would believe it. It cannot be happening," says Donald J. Carty, American's chairman and chief executive officer.

Sitting in the middle of a horseshoe of desks surrounded by screens, phones and computers when his hotline began blinking, Mr. 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.

She did. This was real.

"Is there a doctor on board?" Mr. Marquis remembers asking.

"No. No doctor," Ms. 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. Ms. Ong, screaming but still coherent, said the four hijackers had come from first-class seats 2A, 2B, 9A and 9B. The fatally injured passenger was in 10B. The hijackers had hit people with some sort of spray that made her eyes burn. She was having trouble breathing, Mr. Marquis recalls her saying.

"Is the plane descending?" Mr. Marquis asked.

"We're starting to descend," Ms. Ong said. "We're starting to descend.''

Air-traffic controllers couldn't get a response to the 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 Mr. Marquis had an aide tell the FAA that American had confirmed a hijacking.

"They're going to New York!'' Mr. Marquis remembers shouting out. "Call Newark and JFK and tell them to expect a hijacking,'' he ordered, assuming the hijackers would land the plane. "In my wildest dreams, I was not thinking the plane was going to run into a building.'' Mr. Marquis says.

A Shocking Announcement

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, 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 work through a pile of issues that needed attention. The 43-year-old executive called American's operations center to say he couldn't participate in the daily 7:45 a.m. system-wide operations call.

Joe Bertapelle, the manager at American's operations center, told him of Ms. Ong's phone call that had just come in. Mr. Arpey slumped back in his chair and sat stunned for 30 seconds. "Something inside me said this had the ring of truth to it," Mr. Arpey recalls. He called the office of Mr. Carty, who was at home answering e-mails, and left word of a possible hijacking, then hurried to the operations center a few miles west.

As he walked in, he was met immediately by Mr. Bertapelle and Craig Parfitt, manager of American's dispatch operations, a 29-year American veteran nicknamed "Ice Man" for his even keel. Mr. Marquis had confirmed the hijacking, they told Mr. Arpey, and they had to open American's crisis command center, a room perched one floor up in the operations center. The facility is used in the event of crashes, military troop movements and other emergencies.

A page went out to American's top executives and operations personnel: "Confirmed hijacking Flight 11.'' The regular 7:45 CDT conference call started, but was almost immediately interrupted: "Gentlemen, I have some information here I need to relay,'' Mr. 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 it straightened. "All we knew for sure was that he's not going to LAX," said Mr. Bertapelle.

Big centers deal almost daily with unusual events, from bomb scares to blizzards to unruly passengers, 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. But they were in new territory here.

At 7:48 a.m. CDT, 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 a plane had flown into a World Trade Center tower. Someone shouted to turn on CNN but workers realized they didn't get CNN, so they switched to ABC.

Mr. Arpey was on the phone with Mr. Carty. "The press is reporting an airplane hit the World Trade Center. Is that our plane?" Mr. Carty remembers asking.

"I don't know, Don. We confirmed it was hijacked, and was headed south from Boston," Mr. Arpey told him.

Mr. Carty had a bad feeling that it was indeed his plane that had hit the north tower. But when his wife asked him point blank, he replied: "No, it couldn't be. ... In my brain, I knew. But I couldn't say it,'' Mr. Carty recalls.

Tension in Chicago

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," Mr. Barber remembers blurting out.

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.

Mr. Roy called over to the adjacent headquarters building, where Mr. 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, Mr. Studdert's secretary, took Mr. Roy's call and ran to Mr. 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.''

Mr. Goodwin remembers thinking, "This is rather bizarre," and flipped on the TV.

Mr. 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, who had said, "Oh my God, the crew has been killed, a flight attendant has been stabbed. We've been hijacked." Then, the line from the plane went dead.

"No, the information we're getting is that it was an American 757," Mr. Miles recalls protesting.

The mechanic insisted, "No, 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, and got no response. At 8:03 CDT, the group -- now assembling in the crisis room off the SOC under Mr. 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-Dulles, had turned off its transponder and turned around. Controllers had lost radio communications with the plane. Without hearing from anyone on the plane, American didn't know its location.

That raised the disaster to a whole new level. Mr. Arpey looked across the crisis room at Ralph Richardi, a vice president in charge of operations planning, and saw his eyes widen in horror. "That was the first time we realized this was something other than a hijacking,'' Mr. Richardi says.

Mr. 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 also had an airliner missing and out of contact.

"The minute we heard that, we all agreed we needed to ground-stop the whole airline," Mr. Arpey said. At 8:15 a.m. CDT, the order went out on the command center's loudspeaker: No new takeoffs. The decision, though it clearly would lead to monstrous logistical headaches, could save lives. "I never sensed any fear or panic. We were too shell-shocked," says Mr. Arpey.

Meanwhile, United was making similar decisions. Mr. 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 these 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?" Mr. Bertapelle recalls shouting.

Mr. Arpey looked at Mr. Carty, who had just arrived. "I said, 'I think we better get everything on the deck' " and shut down the whole airline.

Mr. Carty replied: "Do it.''

Bringing Them Down Quickly

American ordered planes to land at the nearest suitable airport. 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. Mr. Carty called his counterpart at United, Mr. Goodwin. Each man told the other he thought he had a second missing plane. "We focused entirely on what was transpiring -- the physical takeover of our planes," recalls Mr. Goodwin.

Mr. Carty and Mr. Goodwin also were talking on the phone with Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, who was in a government command bunker with Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Carty told Mr. Mineta that American was ordering all 162 of its planes out of the sky; United already had ordered its 122 planes down. About five minutes later, the FAA shut down the skies over the U.S. completely to all but military aircraft.

At 8:45 a.m. CDT, American lost contact with a third flight, a Boston-to-Seattle trip. Everyone in the room was convinced it was a third hijacking. But it turned out to be a radio glitch, and the panic ended when radio contact was restored in 10 minutes.

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. "We did not want to mislead families and loved ones," said Capt. Soliday. "American was really pressing us. They thought our airplane had crashed in Washington, and that both their planes had crashed at the World Trade Center. We weren't sure.'' Finally, he and Mr. Baker agreed the government should make the final confirmation.

Mr. Carty recalls quizzing Mr. Mineta for confirmation of which plane had hit the Pentagon. "I was frustrated. I remember saying, 'For God's sake, it's in the Pentagon. Can't somebody go look at it and see whose plane it is?' ''

"They have,'' Mr. Mineta responded, according to Mr. Carty's recollection. The problem, Mr. Mineta told him: "You can't tell.''

At about 8:30 CDT, 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 because of two World Trade Center crashes. One flight 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 there was no response.

In the United crisis center, managers isolated Flight 93 on the big Aircraft Situation Display screen. The plane had made a wide U-turn over Ohio and seemed to be heading 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 a knife on the crew. There also were reports that passengers were calling their families from cell phones and seatback air phones.

"This was worse because we watched it until the end of the radar track ... and then, poof," says Mr. Roy, director of system operations control. "We didn't have time to cry." That was at 9:03 a.m. CDT.

After Flight 93 crashed, Mr. Studdert dispatched Pete McDonald, United's senior vice president of airport services, to Pennsylvania. Mr. McDonald had himself been in the air on a flight that was diverted from Washington's National Airport to Dulles. Because the no-fly order made flying to the crash site uncertain, Mr. 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 squad cars met the caravan to give it a speedy escort.

After reaching the site, Mr. McDonald went up in a helicopter to take a look and all he could see was "very small pieces" of debris, since the plane itself was deep in the trench it created when it crashed.

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, they 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.

'Biting Our Nails'

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. These were nerve-racking times. United said it had to press hard on Canadian authorities and even Alaskan airport officials who initially refused to let the planes land. "Until we got the last airplanes on the ground, we were biting our fingers," CEO Mr. Goodwin recalls. "By then, we were spooked. Every time we got an unusual communication from an airplane, we thought, 'my God, is there another one?' "

Once all planes were safely on the ground, the airlines sat stunned at the logistical quagmire before them. They would have to figure out where each of their hundreds of planes were and how to get tens of thousands of stranded passengers back to their destinations. They had to instantly create new security procedures. The days would turn into a blur of conference calls to regulators. Plans constantly changed. There was no time to go home and watch TV reports, no time to reflect.

For many in the command center that day, grief was delayed for days, if not weeks, by the workload. "Some of the reality of what happened both to our country and our company didn't set in until much later," says Mr. Arpey, who stayed in the crisis center all through the night.

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 veteran with American.

Mr. Parfitt, the "Ice Man," says it didn't hit him until much later, when he began to realize that his son in the Army might be headed to war. "The grief for the people on the airplanes, for the crews, for the people of New York in the World Trade Center is all-encompassing," Mr. Parfitt says.

Mr. Bertapelle says that when he is home now he craves the Comedy Channel, hungry for a laugh. On the Friday after the hijacking, Mr. Carty came on American's intercom system, piped through its headquarters, operations center, flight academy and other facilities, to observe a moment of silence. "That's the first time I remember just stopping to think about it," Mr. Bertapelle said. "Any moment of silence is hell."

Some now are angry. Others say their emotions are frozen much like the radar image of the plane flying over New York, only to disappear.

Mr. Marquis, who talked with flight attendant Betty Ong, says he's met twice with a psychologist. He hasn't had a real night of sleep since. "It's still like a dream," he says. "I've been through lots of stuff before, but nothing like this."

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. Then, he says, "I went home and got drunk," after running several red lights in the stress of the moment. 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 man says.

It's been touch and go since. The dispatcher says he won't watch TV. "My wife had a dream she was seated on an airplane with her wrists bound, along with all of the other passengers," he says, weeping. "The hijackers were walking down the aisle, slashing throats."

The dispatcher, who has worked some days and taken off some, says he takes solace in talking to colleagues who have lost friends in wartime. "When we're busy, I like it," he says. But then he is reminded again of what happened, like when a United pilot recently told him, "Your name is all over this airline," as word spread of who handled both doomed flights.

The man wept again in the interview. "Something inside me died," he said.

Mr. Studdert, United's chief operating officer, got a call three days after the terrorist attacks from an old friend. "How you doing, kid?" the friend asked. "There is no kid left in me anymore," Mr. Studdert replied. "I'll never be the same person. We'll never be the same company or the same country."

 

Copyright 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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