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Controllers' tale of Flight 11

(Page 2 of 2)

"Then the plane turned [south toward New York], and then they heard the transmission with the terrorist in the background," the controller says. "The voice upset him [the controller] because he knew right then that he was working a hijack. Several other people heard the voice, and they could tell by the sound of it, intuitively, that this was a bad situation."

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Another controller at the Nashua center confirms these events, adding some of what the hijacker was saying. "One of the pilots keyed their mike so the conversation between the pilot and the person in the cockpit could be heard," a second controller says. "The person in the cockpit was speaking in English. He was saying something like, 'Don't do anything foolish. You're not going to get hurt.' "

This controller also says that someone in the cockpit may have said something about guiding the plane toward Kennedy or LaGuardia airport in New York. But the controller, who was not handling the plane himself, is unsure whether the pilot or hijacker was speaking. If the latter, it may have been a ruse to make the pilot believe the plane was being diverted to an airport, not to a murder-suicide mission at the World Trade Center.

Not understood by controllers at the time, one of them says, was an ominous statement by the hijacker that sounded something like: "We have more planes. We have other planes."

The controller speculates that the hijacker may have deliberately deactivated the plane's transponder to keep the pilot from notifying the ground of a hijack. The Nashua facility never received a special four-digit emergency code a pilot would ordinarily send at the faintest whiff of a hijack situation. But the controllers already knew a hijack was in progress because of the pilot's radio transmission.

The other controller also speculates that anyone knowledgeable enough to cut off the transponder might also have pulled the circuit breaker for the cockpit voice recorder in the so-called black box, deactivating it, to minimize information available to authorities.

The final 17 minutes

At about 8:28 a.m., the controller handling the plane and back-up support watched the jet's radar signal turn over eastern New York and head south along the Hudson River. Although radio transmissions from the plane could be heard most of the way, transmissions were very intermittent, one of the controllers says, and he is not sure how many minutes of cockpit communications were recorded. Transmissions continued off and on for at least 10 minutes after the turn, he says.

There was another communication to the ground.

A flight attendant is reported to have made a frantic call, saying several passengers had been stabbed.

What flight controllers were saying seems to match the first clues about the identities of the Flight 11 hijackers. Massachusetts authorities have identified five Arab men as suspects and have seized a rental car containing Arab-language flight-training manuals at Logan Airport, according to two Boston newspapers.

Controllers interviewed by the Monitor did not know when the US military was contacted, though doing so is routine after a hijacking is known to be under way. Typically, the Air Force scrambles interceptor jets in the case of hijackings, one controller says.

Two F-15 jets were reportedly dispatched from Otis Air Force Base. Just before or after the military planes got off the ground, however, the controllers report they lost site of Flight 11's radar signal over Manhattan. The controller who had handled the plane from the beginning of the ordeal was stunned.

A few minutes later, the Nashua controllers heard reports that a plane had crashed into a building. They did not know which one.

At 8:45, about 17 minutes after its southward turn toward New York City, Flight 11 - with its 92 passengers and crew - began America's second day of infamy by slamming into the World Trade Center's north tower.

The last minutes of American Airlines Flight 11 have taken a huge emotional toll on the controllers in the Nashua facility. "The guys who handled that flight were traumatized," one says. "You have a special relationship with everyone, every plane you work. They heard what was happening in the cockpit, and then they lost contact."