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Probe reconstructs horror, calculated attacks on planes

By Glen Johnson, Globe Staff, 11/23/01


American Airlines Flight 11
First plane to strike the World Trade Center

United Airlines Flight 175
Second plane to strike the towers

American Airlines Flight 77
Struck the Pentagon

United Airlines Flight 93
Passengers foiled hijackers' efforts

WASHINGTON - In some cases, the attacks were swift and ruthless, the hijackers slitting the throats of passengers and stabbing flight attendants to gain immediate control of the cabin. They probably used the universal "Boeing key" to unlock the cockpit door and kill the pilots before they could even touch their radios.

In other cases, the suspects appear to have preyed upon the time-tested US response to hijackings by deceiving the pilots into believing that everything would be OK if they just obeyed orders. The hijackers even got on the intercom, telling passengers - and their enforcers in back - that it would be so, not realizing they were alerting authorities to their takeover by broadcasting over an air-traffic-control frequency.

"Who's trying to call me?" one controller asked in vain.

In the days since four planes that took off as commercial flights came crashing back to earth as terrorist missiles, investigators have been able to weave together a vivid picture of what happened in the Northeast skies on Sept. 11.

Nineteen hijackers took over four airliners carrying another 213 passengers, 25 flight attendants, and eight pilots. They worked with legal instruments: box cutters and homemade knives fashioned with blades shorter than the FAA limit of 4 inches. They were efficient, a product of practice runs, when they videotaped crew routines and even rode in cockpit "jumpseats" usually reserved for legitimate airline pilots.

Within two hours, they were dead.

They struck the the two World Trade Center towers and knifed into the Pentagon, killing all the passengers on board and thousands on the ground. They lost control of a fourth plane, which was apparently headed for Washington; it crashed into a reclaimed strip mine outside Pittsburgh.

In the intervening minutes, a story unfolded that was graphic and horrifying. It also was full of heroics.

American Flight 11
Plane was 1st to make fatal turn

American Airlines Flight 11 was a nonstop from Boston to Los Angeles that was flown using a Boeing 767, an aviation workhorse.

The captain was John Ogonowski, a 52-year-old man from Dracut. His first officer was Thomas McGuinness, 42, of Portsmouth, N.H. Also aboard were nine flight attendants and 81 passengers, for a total of 92 people on the flight manifest when the plane pushed back from Gate 26 at Logan International Airport.

The flight took off uneventfully at 8 a.m., and the last routine conversation occurred at 8:13 a.m., when the pilots were given instructions to turn 20 degrees to the right, said a federal official familiar with transcripts of the air-traffic-control conversations of all four flights.

"20 right, AAL11," the pilot working the radio responded, using the simple flight code of repeating an instruction and providing an airplane's call sign.

Almost immediately, the controller told the pilots to climb to 35,000 feet, but that instruction met with silence.

According to the FBI, there were five hijackers aboard the flight, led by Mohamed Atta, an Egyptian and the believed mastermind of the Sept. 11 plot. The other four were Abdulaziz Alomari, a citizen of Saudi Arabia; Satam M. A. Al Suqami, from the United Arab Emirates; Waleed M. Alshehri, a Saudi; and Wail M. Alshehri, a Saudi. All but Al Suqami were trained pilots.

One of the clearest ideas about what happened aboard the plane came from a call that flight attendant Amy Sweeney, a 35-year-old mother of two from Acton, made to a ground worker in Boston. A transcript of the call was confirmed by the Globe.

Sweeney called flight services manager Michael Woodward and said she saw only four of the five hijackers believed to be aboard. She described them as Middle Eastern and said they had stabbed two flight attendants.

"A hijacker cut the throat of a business-class passenger, and he appears to be dead," she added. The hijackers stormed the front of the plane and "had just gained access to the cockpit."

Almost immediately, the plane changed direction and began to descend. Sweeney tried to call the cockpit, but got no response. The plane also stopped transmitting a signal from its transponder, which enhances its radar signature and gives controllers information, such as its flight number and altitude.

When they are hijacked, pilots are taught to key the transponder with an emergency hijacking code. The hijackers could have known that and shut it off. They also could have turned it off because the absence of a signal would make it harder to track the plane as it turned south from Albany, N.Y., and headed toward New York City.

In the roughly 10 minutes between the last radio call and the next transmission from Flight 11 heard by controllers, aviation observers believe, hijackers gained control of the cockpit through a mixture of surprise and exploitation.

The four hijacked planes were all Boeing aircraft, and every one of the company's planes has a standard cockpit key, the so-called Boeing key. Perhaps the hijackers grabbed the key off one of the wounded flight attendants and barged into the cockpit. Perhaps they already had copied the key, having studied Boeing flight manuals and taken simulator rides in Boeing aircraft. Perhaps they opened the door with a box cutter to the neck of one of the flight attendants.

A flight attendant's body was found at one of the crash scenes with thin wire bound tightly near her manicured hand.

Under any scenario, it appears that the hijackers' entry was surprising enough that the pilots did not have a chance to broadcast a traditional distress call. Apparently at least one of the pilots on Flight 11 remained alive and at one of the cockpit's two control sticks, because he intermittently keyed the microphone button on the yoke so controllers could hear his conversation with a heavily accented hijacker.

It also appears a pilot tried to employ terrorist-training tactics that had proved effective for US pilots before Sept. 11.

"The traditional method of dealing with the traditional model of a hijacking was to accommodate, negotiate, and do not escalate," said John Mazor, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, the world's largest pilot union. Since most hijackers just wanted to go some place or achieve some political aim, crews were taught to give them what they wanted.

The transcript of the air-traffic-control conversations shows that at 8:24 a.m., a controller heard a suspicious broadcast from Flight 11. Apparently, one of the hijackers confused the aircraft's radio with its public-address system.

"We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you will be OK. We are returning to the airport. Nobody move," the speaker said.

"Who's trying to call me?" the controller responded.

There was no response. Then came another radio broadcast, the transcript shows.

"Everything will be OK. If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet," the speaker said.

Air traffic controllers and American Airlines officials sent radio and text messages to the cockpit, but got no response. Ogonowski's relatives say it is unclear whether he and McGuinness were alive when the plane hit the World Trade Center.

Investigators say they believe Atta was flying the plane when it crashed.

American Airlines and United Air Lines made their senior aviation personnel available to The Wall Street Journal, and the people who staff the airlines' system operations centers offered a chilling account of a call that Betty Ong, a flight attendant from Andover onboard Flight 11, made to airline officials.

As the hijacking unfolded, Ong punched the number 8 on a seatback GTE Airfone and got through to an American reservations agent. The agent called the system operations control center in Fort Worth at 8:27.

"She said two flight attendants had been stabbed, one was on oxygen," said Craig Marquis, the manager on duty. "A passenger had his throat slashed and looked dead and they had gotten into the cockpit."

Ong said the four hijackers had come from first-class seats: 2A, 2B, 9A, and 9B. She said the wounded passenger was in seat 10B.

The flight attendant also said the hijackers had hit passengers with some sort of spray that made her eyes burn. She said she was having trouble breathing.

"Is the plane descending?" Marquis asked.

"We're starting to descend. We're starting to descend," she said.

In her conversation with Woodward, Sweeney, the flight attendant, relayed much the same information, including crew numbers, slightly different seat numbers, and the fact that they were descending.

Sweeney's last statement was chilling: "I see water and buildings. Oh my God. Oh my God."

At 8:33, controllers heard another, almost polite transmission.

"Nobody move please. We are going back to the airport. Don't try to make any stupid moves," the speaker said.

There is widespread speculation in law enforcement about whether all 19 hijackers were planning to commit suicide.

Atta clearly was ready to die, as evidenced by the will he left in luggage that did not make the connection to Flight 11. But investigators have said that other hijackers had papers urging them to prepare themselves for prison.

William H. Webster, the former FBI and CIA director, told reporters last month that it "would not surprise me" if some of the hijackers had been duped like the flight crews.

At 8:45 a.m., the jetliner sliced into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

United Flight 175
Probe sees similarities in tactics

United Air Lines Flight 175 had much in common with American Flight 11: Both were flown with Boeing 767s and were early-morning, nonstop flights from Boston to Los Angeles.

Investigators say the hijackers picked the flights deliberately.

As the first flights of the day, there was little chance they would be delayed. With a 3,000-mile transcontinental trip ahead of them, each of the planes could have been loaded with up to 24,000 gallons of jet fuel - a mighty explosive punch.

Because it was a Tuesday, their passenger loads would have been relatively light, something to consider when a handful of men is planning to seize control of the jetliner.

And the 767s shared a common cockpit design with the other two planes hijacked Sept. 11, a pair of Boeing 757s. That meant the hijackers had to study only one set of instruments to learn how to fly either plane.

The crew of Flight 175 was led by Captain Victor J. Saracini, 51, of Lower Makefield Township, Pa. His first officer was Michael R. Horrocks, 38, of Glen Mills, Pa. The flight carried seven flight attendants and 56 passengers, a total of 65 people when the plane pushed back from Gate 19 at Logan Airport.

The plane took off at 8:14 a.m., and according to the FBI, had five hijackers among the passengers. The crew was led by Marwan Al-Shehhi, a citizen of the United Arab Emirates who was so close to Atta they considered themselves cousins.

Two of the other hijackers had flight training, Fayez Rashid Ahmed Hassan Al Qadi Banihammad, a Saudi, and Mohand Alshehri, another Saudi. The other two hijackers, likewise Saudis, were Ahmed Alghamdi and Hamza Alghamdi.

The plane had a routine climb, but at 8:37 a.m. it received an unusual call. A controller asked whether the pilots could see the earlier American flight.

"Affirmative, we have him, uh, he looks, uh, about 20, yeah, about 29, 28,000 [feet]," a pilot responded, according to the transcript from air traffic control.

The controller told the crew to make a right turn to avoid the American plane.

At 8:41 a.m., just four minutes before Flight 11 slammed into the World Trade Center, one of the United pilots radioed back to the controller.

"We heard a suspicious transmission on our departure from B-O-S," the pilot said, using the three-letter airport code. "Sounds like someone keyed the mike and said, `Everyone, stay in your seats.' "

Within 90 seconds of that transmission, however, Flight 175 itself veered from its course over northern New Jersey. It briefly continued south before making a U-turn to the north, for New York City.

There were no more conversations with the ground, and as with Flight 11, the plane's radar-enhancing flight transponder was shut off.

While little is known about what happened aboard Flight 175, because there wasn't the array of radio transmissions or cellphone calls, one member of the crew managed to get a message to the ground.

Around 8:50, Rich "Doc" Miles, the manager of United's system operations center in Chicago, received a call from an airline maintenance center in San Francisco that takes in-flight calls from flight attendants about broken items.

The mechanic said a female flight attendant called and said: "Oh my God. The crew has been killed, a flight attendant has been stabbed. We've been hijacked." Then the line went dead.

Miles, who by that time was aware of the American hijacking, answered, "No, the information we're getting is that it was an American 757."

The mechanic insisted, "No, we got a call from a flight attendant on 175."

A dispatcher who was monitoring the flight then sent messages to the plane's cockpit computer but got no response.

Howard Dulmage, a Houston aviation attorney and a captain for one of the nation's major airlines, which he did not wish to identify, speculates that some of the crews on Sept. 11 fell prey to surprise attacks, as appears to have happened with the pilots aboard Flight 175.

"The most likely scenarios are something that was swift, where the pilots couldn't have changed their transponder code and called the controllers," Dulmage said. "You think four times in one morning one of those crews would have done that. That means they had to be upon them before they could react."

The similarity of the attacks on all four planes hints at the training undertaken by the hijackers.

They launched their attack by killing a passenger or stabbing a flight attendant. Either action would have instilled fear in their hostages. On at least one flight, United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, the hijackers claimed they had a bomb, an easy means for an outnumbered group to gain control over the passengers.

In August, actor James Woods had an unsettling experience on American Flight 11. Woods said he was alone in first class with four men who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent. During the six-hour flight, he noticed the men spoke to one another only in whispers and never ate, drank, or slept.

When the flight landed, Woods told a flight attendant and the authorities about what he had seen. He was interviewed after the crashes by the FBI, his agent said.

On other occasions, some of the hijackers were seen videotaping crews on their flights. Other times, they asked for cockpit tours.

Two also rode in the cockpit of the planes of one national airline, said a pilot who requested anonymity. The practice, known as "jumpseating," allows certified airline pilots to use a spare seat in the cockpit when none is available in the passenger cabin. Airlines reciprocate to help pilots get home or to the city of their originating flight.

FBI and Justice Department officials have told the Globe they do not believe any of the hijackers were jumpseating on Sept. 11, but in the aftermath of the attack, the Federal Aviation Administration banned the practice unless a pilot works for the airline in whose cockpit he wants to ride.

In the case of Flight 175, authorities believe Al-Shehhi - the man Atta considered a cousin - was at the controls when the aircraft struck the southern World Trade tower at 9:03 a.m.

American Flight 77
Family recalls a meticulous pilot

American Flight 77 had the same destination as Flights 11 and 175, but a slightly different profile: It was a smaller Boeing 757. The plane can carry up to 11,300 gallons of fuel, less than half that of the 767, but still enough to deliver a blow.

Flight 77 was scheduled to fly from Dulles International Airport in suburban Washington to Los Angeles. The captain was Charles F. "Chic" Burlingame III, 51, and the first officer was David Charlebois, 39. They were joined by four flight attendants and 58 passengers, giving a total of 64 aboard when the plane took off at 8:20 a.m.

Burlingame was known as a perfectionist, a graduate of the Naval Academy and the "Top Gun" fighter pilot school. One copilot who flew with him recalled how Burlingame would carry a set of small paint brushes to dust off the instruments.

The crew received a series of routine clearances and asked for a flight level of 35,000 feet, possibly after reports of smoother skies. About 8:50, however, Burlingame and Charlebois stopped responding to radio calls, just after controllers in Indianapolis had given them instructions to fly toward a radio beacon in Falmouth, Ky.

At 8:56, the jet's transponder was shut off.

According to the FBI, the five hijackers aboard Flight 77 were led by Hani Hanjour, a Saudi who had a commercial pilot license.

Two of the other four were the only hijackers to have been on the bureau's terrorist-alert list: Khalid Almihdhar, and Nawaf Alhazmi, both Saudis. The other two hijackers were identified as Majed Moqed and Salem Alhazmi, both Saudis.

Employees at Advance Travel Service in Totowa, N.J., told The Star-Ledger of Newark that Hanjour and Moqed bought single, first-class tickets for Flight 77 on Aug. 31. Hanjour spoke little English, the employees said, so Moqed did most of talking.

The two tried to pay with a credit card, but it did not get an authorization. They then tried to pay with a check, but were refused. A short time later, they returned with $1,842.25 in cash.

At the men's request, Hanjour was given a seat in the front row of first class.

Among those on board Flight 77 was a familiar face to CNN viewers: Barbara Olson, a conservative commentator and the wife of Theodore Olson, the lawyer who argued George W. Bush's election case before the Supreme Court and now serves as the administration's solicitor general before the high court.

He was sitting in his office at the Justice Department, watching the trade center drama on television, when his secretary came in and said, "Your wife is on the phone."

Olson said his wife told him "they had box cutters and knives. They rounded up the passengers at the back of the plane." In one version of the conversation, she told him both pilots were there. Olson told his wife about the Trade Center crashes. "What should I tell the pilot?" she asked.

The Olsons were cut off, but Barbara Olson called back. In between, her husband called the Justice Department's command center to alert them of the hijacking.

When Olson called her husband back, she said the plane was circling and moving in a northeasterly direction.

Burlingame's family says he would not have given up the cockpit without a fight. If he were still in the cockpit, they say, he would not have been alive as the plane circled back from southern Ohio and flew toward the Pentagon.

Burlingame's father had spent 23 years in the Navy and Air Force, and he and his wife are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, just across the highway from the military headquarters.

While a Navy reservist, Burlingame worked in the Pentagon not far from the crash site.

Because the plane's transponder was turned off, it was hard for controllers to track the plane precisely, but ultimately the controller who cleared the plane out of Dulles watched his scope as the aircraft flew back toward Washington.

Authorities contend that Hanjour was at the controls and that the plane may have been on autopilot.

Controllers say the plane crossed the Pentagon at 7,000 feet and then made a sweeping circle to the right, during which time it dropped down to near surface level.

The plane swept low over a traffic-jammed highway and slammed into the western face of the building at 9:45.

United Flight 93
Calls help foil intruders

United Flight 93 was a Boeing 757 slated to fly from Newark to San Francisco.

It was the only plane that didn't crash into a national landmark on Sept. 11, and authorities suspect two related reasons: The flight was delayed in taking off and by the time it was taken over, the nation knew it was under attack. Relatives were able to relay the information back to the plane in the frantic cellphone calls from passengers.

The captain was Jason Dahl, a 43-year-old Littleton, Colo., resident. His first officer was LeRoy Homer, 36, of Marlton, N.J. Also aboard were five flight attendants and 37 passengers, for a total of 44 on the flight. The plane pushed back from Gate 17 at Newark International Airport at 8:01 a.m., one minute after its scheduled departure.

United will not explain why, but the plane was delayed on the ground and didn't take off until 8:42. As it flew west over Pennsylvania and into northern Ohio, United transmitted a systemwide message, warning its pilots of a potential "cockpit intrusion."

The crew on Flight 93 replied by pushing a button that read out, "Confirmed."

Authorities suspect the plane was hijacked about 40 minutes into its flight. Unlike the other flights, there were only four hijackers aboard. Working in their favor was the relatively light load, the least of any of the hijacked planes.

According to the FBI, the leader and likely pilot was Ziad Samir Jarrah, a Lebanese who had received a pilot's license in Germany. He is suspected of being one of the three key players in the Sept. 11 plot, along with Atta and Al-Shehhi.

In Jarrah's apartment, he set up a three-panel, full-size replica of a Boeing 757 cockpit.

The FBI said the other three hijackers were Saeed Alghamdi, a Saudi and pilot; Ahmed Ibrahim A. Al Haznawi, a Saudi; and Ahmed Alnami, the 15th Saudi Arabian citizen among the hijackers.

The hijackers appeared to take control of the plane with lightning speed - springing up, donning red bandanas around their heads, with two forcing their way into the cockpit. One claimed to have a bomb tied to his waist.

According to the transcript from air traffic control, there were two short radio bursts, probably around the time the plane was taken over. In one, a pilot was heard saying, "Get out of here."

One government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there were at least four radio transmissions. In two, the words spoken included "bomb on board." Many of the words were not in English, the official said, but two phrases that were heard included "our demands" and "keep quiet."

As with Flight 77, the hijackers claimed they were taking the plane to another airport.

"Hi, this is the captain," said Jarrah, according to a tape of an apparent inadvertant radio transmission obtained by ABC News. "We'd like you all to remain seated. There is a bomb on board. And we are going to turn back to the airport. And they had our demands, so please remain quiet."

The bulk of the information about what happened aboard the flight, however, came from the passengers. They used Airfones and cellphones to gather information and pass on word of a planned insurrection.

One of the now-famous passengers was Todd Beamer, a 32-year-old employee of Oracle, the corporate software company. He tried to use an Airfone to call his family in Cranbury, N.J., but he couldn't get authorization for his company account. Instead, he was patched through to Lisa Jefferson, a Verizon supervisor in Oak Brook, Ill., at 9:45, after speaking briefly with another operator.

The company faxed his wife, Lisa, a summary of the 15-minute call.

Beamer told Jefferson that the pilot and copilot apparently were dead and the hijackers were flying the plane. He said one hijacker was guarding 27 passengers in the back of the plane with what appeared to be a bomb tied around his waist.

He said two more hijackers were in the cockpit, while the fourth was guarding the first-class cabin.

Beamer asked Jefferson to convey his love to his wife, due to deliver a child in January, and his two sons, ages 3 and 1. They also recited the Lord's Prayer.

Jefferson then heard Beamer ask: "Are you guys ready? Let's roll."

Lisa Beamer recognized it as a phrase her husband used frequently with their sons.

Another passenger, Mark Bingham, was a 31-year-old, 6-foot-5 rugby player. He called his mother, Alice Hoglan, who was visiting a relative in Saratoga, Calif., at 9:42.

"Mom, this is Mark Bingham," he said, nervously. "I want to let you know that I love you. I'm calling from the plane. We've been taken over. There are three men that say they have a bomb."

A third passenger, Jeremy Glick, had been a national judo champion.

Using an Airfone, he called relatives in the Catskills, where his wife, Liz, and daughter, Emerson, were visiting.

He asked his wife whether it was true that planes had been crashed into the World Trade Center, indicating how the story had already spread through the plane.

She told him they had, and he said passengers were taking a vote: should they try to take back the plane."

"Honey, you need to do it," Liz Glick replied.

Thomas Burnett Jr., 38, a businessman and father of three girls from San Ramon, Calif., made four calls home over about a half-hour.

In his fourth call, he told of the group's plans to storm the hijackers. "I know we're all going to die," he said. "There's three of us who are going to do something about it. I love you, honey."

Sandy Bradshaw, a flight attendant, called her husband, Phil, a US Airways pilot, at their home in Greensboro, N.C. She had been working in coach class, having picked up the trip late.

"Have you heard what's going on? My flight has been hijacked. My flight has been hijacked with three guys with knives," she said.

She also confessed something to her husband: She had slipped into the galley and begun filling pitchers with boiling water.

"Everyone's running to first class. I've got to go. Bye," she said.

Authorities contend the passengers, possibly armed with a fire extinguisher, may have incapacitated a hijacker who was flying in the right-hand seat, normally used by the copilot. They believe the plane flipped over on its back and speared into the ground at about 575 miles per hour.

Flight 93 crashed at 10:10 into a field in Shanksville, Pa.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com.

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