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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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