Out of the Blue
Atta: "We have some planes. Just stay quiet and we'll be ok. We are returning to the airport."
Boston Sector: "American 11 are you trying to call?"
Atta: "Nobody move, everything will be ok. If you try to make any moves, you will injure yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet."
This is the audio tape of 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta speaking with an air traffic controller in Boston on that terrible morning.
Atta and four others, armed with just box cutters, had taken over American Airlines flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles. Air traffic controllers knew there a was problem on board after losing contact with the plane shortly after takeoff. They had gotten a call from American Airlines saying they were on the phone with a flight attendant who was telling them the plane had been hijacked and people were stabbed and bleeding.
These were the very first moments that changed everything.
These audio tapes are on You Tube. You can hear the conversations among air traffic controllers, the hijacked planes, and the military as they suddenly realized they were dealing with an incomprehensible attack on four passenger jets full of hundreds of passengers. What is most striking about them is the calm and professional demeanor they all displayed under circumstances they couldn't have imagined. American 11 was the first plane to hit the World Trade Center.
Over the course of the next hour, they had to react to the second plane hitting the other tower, and the third plane that hit the Pentagon, and the fourth plane that crashed in the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania after passengers fought back against the hijackers, and forced the plane down before it could have potentially hit the White House or the Capitol.
We all know where we were that morning. I was having breakfast listening to the radio. I was the Executive Producer of the 11pm news at the CBS station in Philadelphia. When I first heard it, I assumed it was a small private plane that must have flown off course. I quickly turned on the television. I saw the first tower burning, and watched the second plane hit the second tower. My phone rang. The news director asked, "Do you see what's happening here?" I said, "Yes, I'm on my way."
That day would be followed with many 16 hour days. Sending a team of reporters and photographers to New York. Talking with members of some of the 18 families from our area who lost sons, daughters, husbands, and wives. My wife had family members who worked in Lower Manhattan, and cousins in the FDNY who spent days at the crash site. Fortunately, they were all ok.
An American Heroes Channel documentary spoke with some of the air traffic controllers and the military personnel about their memories and reaction to what happened. They were calm and sober as they described their desperate attempts to understand what was happening, and control those planes. There were some soft tears, and still looks of disbelief.
The word hero is often misused. It has lost much of its meaning because in an over-hyped society we tend to exaggerate things for attention. We all know the heroic things that firefighters, police officers, and ordinary citizens did that day. But we should also remember the very first people who were confronted with the terror that still casts a shadow over us. The pilots, the flights attendants, the passengers who fought back, and the air traffic controllers and military personnel who tried to save them.
As we approach the 18th anniversary of the attacks, there will be suitable remembrances, and the painful memories will came back. The burning tower images we can't get out of our heads. The ringing of the bell for the names of the victims read at the World Trade Center. I would suggest you take the time to listen to these tapes on You Tube. They are a tribute to all the people who went to work that bright September morning, or boarded those planes and expected an ordinary day. They showed that the true measure of our character reveals itself when we are faced with a situation that comes out of the blue.