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

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    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.
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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."

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.

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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.

“It filtered over to me that there was a hijack,” he recalls. “We were trying to follow protocol and get communications reestablished – to see if someone was listening to our commands. That didn’t happen. Then things began to get worse.”

About then, as required, he handed over his air space to the next controller as his shift ended. But as he waited and watched, word of multiple hijackings began to emerge, he says. Other off-duty controllers began to arrive at the facility to help out.

They included Tom Morin, a founder of the National Air Traffic Controllers' Critical Incident Stress Management team, which helps controllers deal with their high-stress work environment.

“In this building we knew as soon as that guy spoke that it was a hijack and, in retrospect, I don’t think we couldn’t have done any better than we did,” says the 23-year Boston Center veteran.

Alerting the military

In the minutes after it became clear a hijack was underway – and that Flight 11 had veered off course and was headed down the Hudson River Valley toward New York City – Colin Scoggins was pulled from other duties and told to alert the military.

While Federal Aviation Administration headquarters worked through formal protocols, notifying layers of higher ups in Washington, Mr. Scoggins says he decided to circumvent standard FAA protocols. An air space procedures and military specialist at Boston Center, he instead called directly to three nearby military bases for backup.

By his recollection he made dozens of calls within the next minutes requesting jet-fighter support from the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS).

At 8:37 – 13 minutes after the terse message from Flight 11 hijackers – Scoggins was finally able to reach NEADS directly, the first notification to the US military that any plane had been hijacked, according to the 9/11 commission final report.

The report identifies only “Boston Center,” but Scoggins was the man making the calls, he says.

FAA: “Hi, Boston Center TMU [Traffic Management Unit], we have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out.”

NEADS: “Is this real-world or exercise?

FAA: “No, this is not an exercise, not a test.”

F-16 fighter jets from Otis Air Force Base – 153 miles form New York City – scrambled at 8:53, seven minutes too late for Flight 11. Ten minutes later, United Flight 175 hit the South Tower.

“As it turned out, the NEADS air defenders had nine minutes notice on the first hijacked plane, no advance notice on the second, no advance notice on the third and no advance notice on the fourth,” the 9/11 commission found.

For Scoggins, the minutes it took to scramble those jets seemed like forever. In the end, despite all his efforts, the military jets arrived too late to make any difference.

Despite criticism from conspiracy theorists and others, NEADS and FAA controllers did as well as could have been expected, the 9/11 commission concluded. That’s small solace to Scoggins.

"I still get conspiracy theorists calling me, asking why the fighter response didn't happen faster," Scoggins says. "All I know is that we all did the best we could at the time. I used to try to explain it to them, but you can't change a mind that's already made up. It doesn't bother me anymore."

The emotional toll

Like other controllers, he says he doesn't dwell on 9/11 anymore, though its memory is still tender each year.

"The first three or four years after 9/11, the anniversary would come, and it just felt like limbo, numb," says Mr. Scoggins says. "I still work there, do the same job. Each year it's still an emotional thing, though not as bad as in the past. I try to take an hour, sit outside and think. I reflect on it a little bit each time and do whatever else I can. They've asked me to come back to the high school and talk about it. So I do."

Half the controllers at Boston Center today weren't there a decade ago. Among those that were, many have mostly gotten past its emotional toll, says Mr. Morin, the stress-management expert. Even so, he says he took the attack "as a personal affront to our profession to what we do" and still recalls what he regards as the heroism of his colleagues getting hundreds of planes onto the ground safely in minutes amid the tension of not knowing whether there would be further attacks.

“I spoke to the controller who handled the flight that day, and have many times since then,” Morin says. “He still feels bad about it. But there really wasn’t any more he could have done. There wasn’t any waffling about it – he was fervent. It was: ‘I've got a you-know-what hijack.’ When he realized [what was going on, he] blurted it out – and that's heroic.”

Still, Morin's voice cracks as he recalls the moment during the height of the crisis when the Boston Center building was briefly evacuated due to false reports that a hijacked plane was headed toward the facility, he says.

“Normally you don't have emotional involvement in this job, but this was different,” he says. “I remember talking with this guy out in the parking lot away from the building and wearing sunglasses,” he says. “I had a tear coming out of one of my eyes. I remember just hoping it didn't make it down to the edge of my sunglasses.”

For Roberts, a 30-year veteran who retired last year and is now an FAA consultant, the toll of 9/11 remains.

“After 9/11, the spark to get up and go to work started dwindling for me,” he says. “It used to bother me after that. But then I finally realized there would never be another day like this. That helped."

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