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How 9/11 looked from the air-traffic control center that saw it coming

The air-traffic controllers in 'Boston Center' – the facility that oversaw Flight 11 – speak of what happened on 9/11, from the confusion of the first moments to the frustration that military jets could not get to New York City faster.

By Staff writer / September 10, 2011

American Airlines Capt. Michael Grant walks out of the 9/11 Memorial at Logan International Airport in Boston Friday. United Flight 175 and American Flight 11, the two aircraft flown into the World Trade Center's twin towers by hijackers, originated at Logan.

Stephan Savoia/AP

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The first person on the ground to know that American Airlines Flight 11 on Sept, 11, 2001, was in big trouble was a lone air traffic controller, sitting in the perpetual half-darkness of the windowless flight-operations bunker in Nashua, N.H., known as "Boston Center."

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His eyes fixed on the flight’s icon, which had begun to move erratically across his radar screen, he radioed Flight 11 to adjust its course and climb at 8:14 a.m. Ten minutes later, Flight 11 finally radioed back: "We have some planes. Just stay quiet, and you’ll be okay. We are returning to the airport.”

By 8:46, Flight 11 had crashed into North Tower of the World Trade Center. The attacks of 9/11 had begun.

Less than 12 hours after the attacks, two controllers at Boston Center spoke anonymously to the Monitor – the first verified report of events and transmissions from the Flight 11 cockpit. Today, the controller who personally handled Flight 11 and tried in vain to contact it until it hit the North Tower, declines to speak about the experience, still burdened a decade later by the weight of the day’s events.

But his colleagues, who also worked that day, and who were part of the team that responded by notifying US military authorities and closing US air space, bringing hundreds of passenger jets to a quick, safe landing, also remember vividly what happened. Gradually, the anguish occasioned by the memories of that day has subsided, but the mark remains.

There is anger at the persistent conspiracy theories about why military jets weren't scrambled sooner. There is pride at having overcome tremendous logistical hurdles to get other airliners out of the air and at having done all they could to foil the hijackers. And there is sadness that their efforts were not enough.

“I was very proud, intensely proud of my coworkers and the entire aviation community, the pilots, what they had done to secure the nation’s airspace so quickly,” says Tom Roberts. “It was a proud moment, but at same time bittersweet because of the loss of life. That’s the way it still is for me.”

On Sept. 11, Mr. Roberts was at his screen working a nearby sector of air space that Flight 11 was supposed to traverse over Albany, N.Y. But the flight did not show up, and he soon realized a major crisis was emerging.

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