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Hidden 9/11 tapes reveal airlines failed to alert pilots

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The final hearings of the 9-11 Commission were filled with explosive facts. But selected families had already learned, at a secret FBI briefing, facts that were even more heartbreaking -- and are still being hushed up.

Despite having boarded her train at 5 that morning in Washington, D.C., Rosemary Dillard's linen jacket was still creaseless, her carriage professional and crisp, as she walked down the train platform at Princeton Junction, N.J., on the morning of June 4. She dared to hope that a briefing by the FBI would clarify the mystifying story of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I'd been with American Airlines for 29 years," Ms. Dillard said with embittered pride. "My job was supervision over all the flight attendants who flew out of National, Baltimore or Dulles airports."

Who knew what, and when, about those hijackings? And what did the airlines and federal officials do about it? These were burning questions on the minds of many family members who were promised answers by the 9/11 Commission. The final hearings were, indeed, filled with explosive facts. But selected families had already learned, at the June 4 FBI briefing, facts that were even more heartbreaking -- and are still being hushed up.

High secrecy

At the closed briefing, the FBI promised to play, for about 130 family members of victims, previously unavailable calls from passengers and crew on the four infamous flights that were turned into missiles by terrorists.

For Ms. Dillard, those tapes were especially important: She herself had acted as the American Airlines base manager at Reagan National Airport on the morning of Sept. 11. She had been responsible for three D.C.-area airports, including Dulles. For the last two and a half years, she has been haunted by the fact that American Airlines Flight 77 took off from Dulles Airport that morning, with her blessing.

Her husband was a passenger on that flight. That flight became the weapon that split open the Pentagon and shattered confidence in America's ability to defend herself. The retired American Airlines manager hoped, in hearing tapes of conversations between flight crews and authorities on the ground, to be able to ease her torment.

Why, she wanted to know, when flight controllers in Boston suspected a hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11 as early as 8:13 a.m. and were certain the plane had been overtaken by hostile Middle Eastern men by 8:21, didn't either her company or the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) notify her to warn the crew of American Airlines Flight 77 of the terrorist threat in the skies? Flight 77 took off at 8:20 a.m.

But neither the tapes and cell-phone recordings Ms. Dillard heard that afternoon nor the PowerPoint presentation that took the families systematically through all four flights with neat timelines and bland conclusions helped her to connect the dots. She fled the hearing early, deeply upset.

Those present were told that the material they were hearing is evidence in the government's case against Zacarias Moussaoui, the once-alleged 20th hijacker, and in order not to compromise the case, it mustn't be disclosed.

They signed nondisclosure agreements and were not permitted to take notes. Civil attorneys and the media were barred. FBI agents filled the halls of the hotel and took any camera or recording equipment before people were admitted to the ballroom. Those who left the three-and-a-half-hour session to relieve themselves were accompanied into rest rooms by agents.

The families heard a tape that has just now surfaced. Recorded by American Airlines at its headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, even as the first hijacked airliner, Flight 11, was being taken over, the tape shows the airline's top management was made aware, beginning at about 8:21 a.m. -- 25 minutes before the impact of the first plane into the World Trade Center's north tower -- that a group of men described as Middle Eastern had stabbed two flight attendants, clouded the forward cabin with pepper spray or Mace, menaced crew and passengers with what looked like a bomb, and stormed the cockpit in a violent takeover of the gigantic bird.

Despite all the high secrecy surrounding the briefing, a half-dozen different family members were so horrified by voice evidence of the airlines' disregard for the fate of their pilots, crew and passengers that they found ways to reveal some of what they heard on those tapes, and also what they felt.

To them, the tapes appeared to show that the first instinct of American and United Airlines, as management learned of the gathering horror aboard their passenger planes on Sept. 11, was to cover up.

The response of American's management on duty, as revealed on the tape produced at the meeting, was recalled by persons in attendance:

"Don't spread this around. Keep it close."

"Keep it quiet."

"Let's keep this among ourselves. What else can we find out from our own sources about what's going on?"

click to enlarge Rosemary Dillard, flight attendant supervisor for American Airlines.
  • Rosemary Dillard, flight attendant supervisor for American Airlines.

"It was disgusting," said the parent of one of the victims, herself a veteran flight attendant for United Airlines. "The very first response was cover-up, when they should have been broadcasting this information all over the place."

"Flight 77 should never have taken off," Ms. Dillard said through clenched teeth.

Cache of information

Voices of crew members, calmly disseminating specifics to airline managers on the ground, pointed out how much was known minutes and even an hour and a half before the last of the jumbo jets had met its diabolic finish.

American Airlines officials had to know there was nothing traditional about the very first hijacking, because two of their flight attendants, Madeline (Amy) Sweeney and Betty Ong, began calmly and bravely transmitting from Flight 11 the most illuminating details anyone heard all that morning -- starting at 8:20 am.

Ms. Ong's tape was played in a public commission hearing last January, prompting family members to demand that the FBI honor their rights under the Victims Assistance Act to hear any and all calls made from the stricken planes that day.

Ms. Sweeney's name was cited only in passing at that earlier hearing. And when the president and chief executive of American Airlines, Gerard Arpey, testified, he never mentioned Ms. Sweeney or the cache of information she had provided American Airlines officials so early in the unfolding disaster.

On the American Airlines tape played at the meeting, a voice is heard relaying to the airline's headquarters the blow-by-blow account by Ms. Sweeney of mayhem aboard Flight 11. The flight attendant had gone face to face with the hijackers, and reported they had shown her what appeared to be a bomb, with red and yellow wires.

The young blond mother of two had secreted herself in the next-to-last passenger row and used an Airfone card, given to her by another flight attendant, Sara Low, to call the airline's flight-services office at Boston's Logan airport.

"This is Amy Sweeney," she reported. "I'm on Flight 11 -- this plane has been hijacked." She was disconnected. She called back: "Listen to me, and listen to me very carefully." Within seconds, her befuddled respondent was replaced by a voice she knew.

"Amy, this is Michael Woodward."

The American Airlines flight-service manager had been friends with Ms. Sweeney for a decade and didn't have to waste time verifying that this wasn't a hoax. Ms. Sweeney repeated, "Michael, this plane has been hijacked."

Since there was no tape machine in his office, Woodward began repeating the flight attendant's alarming account to a colleague, Nancy Wyatt, the supervisor of pursers at Logan. On another phone, Ms. Wyatt was simultaneously transmitting Ms. Sweeney's words to the airline's Fort Worth headquarters. It was that relayed account that was played for the families.

"In Fort Worth, two managers in S.O.C. [Systems Operations Control] were sitting beside each other and hearing it," says one former American Airlines employee who heard the tape. "They were both saying, 'Do not pass this along. Let's keep it right here. Keep it among the five of us.'"

Not responding

The two managers' names were given in testimony to the 9/11 commission by Mr. Arpey, then executive vice president of operations, who described himself as "directly involved in American's emergency-response efforts and other operational decisions made as the terrible events of Sept. 11 unfolded."

Joe Burdepelly, one of the S.O.C. managers, told Mr. Arpey at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time that they had a possible hijacking on Flight 11. Mr. Burdepelly also said that the S.O.C. manager on duty, Craig Marquis, was in contact with Ms. Ong. Mr. Arpey related that from Ms. Ong, he and the S.O.C. managers had learned by 8:30 a.m. "that two or three passengers were in the cockpit, and that our pilots were not responding to intercom calls from the flight attendants."

"After talking with S.O.C.," Mr. Arpey testified, "I then called Don Carty, the president and C.E.O. of American Airlines, at that time," who was not available. Mr. Arpey then drove to the S.O.C. facility, arriving, he says, between 8:35 and 8:40 a.m. Eastern time.

Mr. Arpey testified that by 8:40 a.m. they knew one of the passengers had been stabbed, possibly fatally, although this news was transmitted by Ms. Sweeney at least 15 minutes earlier. "We were also receiving information from the FAA that, instead of heading west on its intended flight path, Flight 11 was headed south. We believed that Flight 11 might be headed for the New York area. Our pilots were not responding to air traffic control or company radio calls, and the aircraft transponder had been turned off."

Mr. Arpey's account revealed that the American Airlines executives had attempted to monitor the progress of Flight 11 via communications with the FAA and their traffic-control officials. "As far as we knew, the rest of our airline was operating normally at this point," he said.

click to enlarge Gerard Arpey, President of American Airlines.
  • Gerard Arpey, President of American Airlines.

But Flight 11 had missed its first mark at 8:13 a.m., when, shortly after controllers asked the pilot to climb to 35,000 feet, the transponder stopped transmitting the electronic signal that identifies exact location and altitude. Air traffic manager Glenn Michael later said, "We considered it at that time to be a possible hijacking."

At 8:14 a.m., FAA flight controllers in Boston began hearing an extraordinary radio transmission from the cockpit of Flight 11 that should have set off alarm bells. Before their FAA superiors forbade them to talk to anyone, two of the controllers told the Christian Science Monitor on Sept. 11 that the captain of Flight 11, John Ogonowski, was surreptitiously triggering a "push-to-talk" button on the aircraft's yoke most of the way to New York.

When controllers picked up the voices of men speaking in Arabic and heavily accented English, they knew something was terribly wrong. More than one FAA controller heard an ominous statement by a terrorist in the background saying, "We have planes. We have more planes."

Keeping it hush-hush

Apparently, none of this crucial information was transmitted to other American pilots already airborne -- notably Flight 77 out of Dulles, which took off at 8:20 a.m. only to be redirected to its target, the Pentagon -- nor to other airlines with planes in harm's way: United's Flight 173, which took off at 8:14 a.m. from Boston, or United's Flight 93, whose "wheels-up" was recorded at 8:42 a.m.

"You would have thought American's S.O.C. would have grounded everything," says Ms. Dillard. "They were in the lead spot, they're in Texas -- they had control over the whole system. They could have stopped it. Everybody should have been grounded."

Ms. Dillard had to learn about the two planes crashing into the World Trade Center from the screams of waiting passengers in the next-door Admirals Club who were watching television.

"We all rushed back to our offices to wait for 'go-do's' from headquarters," she recalls. But headquarters personnel never contacted Ms. Dillard, the Washington base manager, to inform her that Flight 77 was in trouble. They had lost radio contact with the plane out of Dulles at 8:50 a.m. More than 45 minutes later, her assistant gave Ms. Dillard an even more devastating piece of news.

"There's a plane that hit the Pentagon. Our crew was on it."

"Was that 77?" Ms. Dillard asked.

"I think so," her assistant said.

"Are you sure it was 77?" Ms. Dillard pressed. "'Cause I just took Eddie over to Dulles," Ms. Dillard said numbly, referring to her husband. "Eddie's on that plane."

She looked at the crew list. Her heart sank. "I knew one of the ladies very well," she later remembered, "and she had kids, and the other two who were married, and another one was pregnant. It was horrible."

One of American's top corporate executives directly in the line of authority that day was Jane Allen, then vice president of in-flight services, in charge of the company's 24,000 flight attendants and management and operations at 22 bases. She was Ms. Dillard's top boss. But Ms. Dillard never heard from her until after Flight 77 had plowed into the Pentagon.

Reached at United Airlines corporate headquarters in Chicago, where Ms. Allen now works, she was asked to confirm the names of participants in the Sept. 11 phone call and why the decision was made to hold back that information.

"I really don't know what I could possibly add to all the hurt," she said.

But was it too much information, or too little, that was hurtful?

"I really am not interested in helping or participating," Ms. Allen said, putting down the phone.

"This has been the attitude all the way along," Ms. Dillard observed. "Everybody was keeping it hush-hush."

The answer is no

click to enlarge Rescue efforts at the Pentagon on September 11.
  • Rescue efforts at the Pentagon on September 11.

Mike Sweeney, the husband of Amy Sweeney, was first informed about the new tape by the U.S. attorney's office in Virginia. David Novak, an assistant U.S. attorney involved in prosecuting the Moussaoui case, told Mr. Sweeney that the existence of the tape was news to him and offered him a private hearing.

"I was shocked that I'm finding out, almost three years later, there was a tape with information given by my wife that was very crucial to the happenings of 9/11," Mr. Sweeney told me. "Suddenly it miraculously appears and falls into the hands of FBI? Why and how and for what reason was it suppressed? Why did it surface now? Is there information on that tape that is of concern to other law-enforcement agencies?"

The gut-churning question that has kept the widowed father of two young children on edge for so long is this: When and how was this information about the hijackers used? Were Amy's last moments put to the best use to protect and save others?

Now he believes the answer is no.

"We, the prosecution team and the FBI agents that have been assigned to assist us, were not aware of that tape," Mr. Novak told me. He believes the commission got the tape from the airline. "We're trying to figure out why we didn't know about this before. Is it American Airlines' fault? I don't know. Is it the way they produced it? I don't know. Is it an FBI fault? I don't know."

Mr. Novak suggested a possible explanation for the airline's personnel to hold the horrific information tightly: "I think they were trying not to get other people unduly alarmed so they could deal with the situation at hand."

But he says he is not going to defend or attack airline personnel. "That's not my job. Our job is to try to convict Moussaoui." He confirmed that the Justice Department only revealed to the families what in its judgment were the "relevant" tapes.

The FBI is holding back other recordings from some of the flights as evidence in prosecuting its criminal trial. It is the way the FBI has always done business: zealously guarding information to make its case retrospectively, rather than sharing information with other law-enforcement agencies to improve the country's defensive posture proactively. For example, tapes considered "relevant" to the families didn't include the cockpit voice recorder or the flight-data recorder from Flight 93, the final casualty.

The failure to trumpet vital news from calls placed from the first hijacked flight throughout the system and into the highest circles of government leaves families wondering whether military jets could have intercepted American Airlines Flight 77 in time to keep it from diving into the Pentagon and killing 184 more people.

That suicide mission ended in triumph for the terrorists more than 50 minutes after the first American jetliner hit the World Trade Center.

The information holdback may have arisen from lack of experience, or from the inability to register the enormity of the terrorists' destructive plans, or it may have been a visceral desire to protect the airlines from liability.

But suppose American Airlines had warned all its pilots and crew of what their families were able to see and hear from the media?

Not held accountable

At the final hearings of the 9/11 Commission last month, the American Airlines tape was never mentioned. The airlines were not held accountable.

Revelations that did surface concerned the stunning inaction that morning of FAA headquarters and the nation's military air defense that is headquartered in Colorado Springs, known as NORAD.

Flight 77, the jumbo jet carrying Rosemary Dillard's husband and a half-dozen flight attendants for whom she was responsible, was headed for California.

At 8:54 a.m., the FAA controller in Indianapolis tracking American's Flight 77 noticed it had turned abruptly south. A couple of minutes later it disappeared from his radar. He called the aircraft -- nothing. He surmised that the aircraft had a major mechanical failure and had crashed. Astonishingly, the controller had no knowledge by then that two other aircraft had been violently hijacked and already flown into the Trade Center towers. No one at American Airlines headquarters shared that information with him. Management at the FAA Command Center did not pass on the crucial news, although they had been advised at 8:28 a.m. that American 11 was hijacked and heading toward New York.

It gets worse. Once the terrorists in control of 77 reversed course and headed due east to attack America's command and control center in Washington, D.C., it flew, undetected, for 36 minutes. The FAA knew Flight 77 was lost, but didn't send out an "all points bulletin" to surrounding control centers to search for it on primary radar. Nor did the agency that controls the skies order other planes not to take off.

NORAD's military officials misinformed the commission in earlier sworn testimony. They said they were notified of the hijacking of American 77 at 9:24 a.m. In fact, the commission's investigators found, NORAD was mistakenly told by the FAA that American's Flight 11 was heading for Washington D.C. Although that plane had already incinerated inside the trade center, NORAD officials scrambled fighters to chase the phantom jet.

The military never received notice that American's 77 was missing. And no one at FAA Command Center or its headquarters asked for military assistance for 77.

click to enlarge Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, home of the nation's military air defense, known as NORAD. The agency has come under fire for its "stunning inaction" on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. - KATHY CONARRO
  • Kathy Conarro
  • Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, home of the nation's military air defense, known as NORAD. The agency has come under fire for its "stunning inaction" on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Only at 9:36 did controllers at FAA's Boston facility relay this startling news to NORAD: "Aircraft VFR [Visual Flight Rules] six miles southeast of the White House." At 9:38 fighter planes were ordered to divert from chasing [the phantom] Flight 11 and head to D.C. But the undetected Flight 77 had already pierced the Pentagon, at 9:37 am.

The instinct to hold back information, some of the families believe, may also have contributed to the doom of a fourth flight, United Flight 93. The United dispatcher was told by his superiors: Don't tell pilots why we want them to land.

Why didn't United at least warn the pilots of Flight 93 to bar the cockpit door, some of the families wanted to know?

Ed Ballinger, the flight dispatcher for United Airlines that morning, was the last human being to talk to the cockpit of Flight 93. He had 16 flights taking off early that morning from the East Coast to the West Coast. When United's Flight 175 began acting erratically and failed to respond to his warnings, he punched out the same curious message to all his planes: "Beware of cockpit intrusion."

Flight 93, the last of the hijacked planes, called him back and said "Hi, Ed. Confirmed." Mr. Ballinger said he didn't wait for his superiors or for Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta's decision to ground all flights. He sent out a Stop-Fly alert to all crews. But United dispatchers were instructed by their superiors not to tell the pilots why they were being instructed to land, he claims.

"One of the things that upset me was that they knew, 45 minutes before [Flight 93 crashed], that American Airlines had a problem. I put the story together myself [from news accounts]," Mr. Ballinger said. "Perhaps if I had the information sooner, I might have gotten the message to [Flight] 93 to bar the door."

The FBI and the FAA have also held back or, in one case, destroyed evidence in the government's possession that would tell a very different story of how the nation's guardians failed to prepare or protect Americans from the most devastating of terrorist attacks on the homeland.

Warnings ignored

Alice Hoglan's face was ashen when she emerged from the FBI meeting. The mother of one of the brave, doomed passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, Mark Bingham, a gay rugby player, Ms. Hoglan now knew even more vividly what her son had kept from her when he had called.

Along with Todd Beamer and other brave passengers, he had helped lead a passenger revolt aboard Flight 93, which was heading toward Washington and either Congress or the White House.

"It was excruciating," she said, her lips biting off the few upbeat words she could muster. "I'm just very grateful that the people on Flight 93, the heroes who were able to act, died on their feet and doing the very best they could to preserve lives on the ground."

Ms. Hoglan, who worked 29 years as a flight attendant for United, the airline on which her son was killed, was still flying for United in the summer of 2001. She had come to the briefing neatly dressed in a gray suit, her eyes bright in anticipation of deeper understanding.

Afterward, her wispy silver hair looked like it had been raked through in frustration. Her eyes sank back into a mother's face that could only be described as ravaged. She is among the 115 families who rejected the financial buyout by the federal Victims' Compensation Fund in order to preserve her right to sue the airlines and government agencies that failed to warn or protect Americans from the third terrorist bombing on our homeland.

"During the summer of 2001, there were 12 directives sent by the FAA -- which are now supposedly classified -- notifying the airlines of specific threats that terrorists were planning to hijack their aircrafts," Ms. Hoglan recalled. "The FBI gathered the evidence, gave it to the FAA, the FAA gave it to the airlines, and the airlines didn't tell us."

A Freedom of Information Act request has confirmed that the FAA sent a dozen warnings to the airlines between May and September of 2001. Those 35 pages of alerts are being exempted from public disclosure by a federal statute that covers "information that would be detrimental to the security of transportation if disclosed."

Most rational people would say that the non-disclosure of the alerts was what was detrimental to the security of transportation on Sept. 11.

"I was a working flight attendant with United the summer of 2001," Ms. Hoglan continued, "and I never heard a thing. I'm suing United Airlines, and I'm very keen on the role of the flight attendants in Sept. 11."

The same lament was sounded by Peg Ogonowski, wife of the brave pilot of Flight 11. Ms. Ogonowski was also a senior working flight attendant in the summer of 2001, for American Airlines. She had crewed many times on the 767 from which her husband transmitted vital information on the morning of Sept. 11 with who-knows-what terrorist weapon at his throat.

"I'm an insider," she said. "There was no warning to be more vigilant. We were sitting ducks. My husband was such a big, commanding man, 6 feet tall. He didn't have a shot in hell. These people came in behind him, he's sitting low, forward, strapped in -- the same with his co-pilot. No warning. If they'd been alerted to possibilities ... but people were complacent."

The families of the vanished bodies and unsettled souls of 9/11 are still waiting to have the dots connected. Until that happens, many continue to feel perforations in their hearts that even time will not heal.

A contributing editor to Vanity Fair since 1984, Gail Sheehy is the author of the forthcoming book: Middletown America: One Town's Passage From Trauma To Hope.

  • Hidden 9/11 tapes reveal airlines failed to alert pilots

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