The Age (Australia - http://www.theage.com.au
http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/ ... oreStories
Inquiry reveals chaotic 9/11 response
By Oliver Burkeman
June 19, 2004
A harrowing new account of the crucial first minutes of the September 11 terrorist atrocity has emerged, revealing a tale of panic and confusion.
The investigating commission points out how America's air defence system had been "unsuited in every respect" for dealing with such an emergency.
Radio transmissions believed to be from the lead hijacker, Mohamed Atta, were played in public for the first time on Thursday, portraying the US response as a panicked jumble of delays and arguably fatal breakdowns in communication.
Fighter jets were scrambled to intercept an airliner believed to be heading for Washington more than half an hour after it had slammed into the World Trade Centre, the commission found.
One plane disappeared from military radar for eight minutes because of a software glitch, and news of another plane's hijack did not reach the military until after it had crashed.
Vice-President Dick Cheney had wrongly believed that two hijacked aircraft had been successfully shot down.
One of the first alerts came in transmissions from American Airlines flight 11, which hit the World Trade Centre's north tower. As relatives of the dead listened, investigators played a tape in which a man believed to be Atta told passengers: "We have some planes. Just stay quiet, and you'll be OK. We are returning to the airport... Nobody move please. We are going back to the airport. Don't try to make any stupid moves."
Not long after, United Airlines flight 175, which later crashed into the south tower, began to behave erratically.
But the same air traffic controller was assigned to monitor both aircraft, the commission's report found, so "these changes were not noticed for several minutes, because the controller was focused on finding American 11".
The Federal Aviation Administration, which operates air traffic control, never told NORAD, the air space defence wing of the military, that flight 175 had been hijacked.
Only after Atta's plane had crashed did the full ramifications of what he had said sink in.
Meanwhile, in the skies above Washington, American flight 77 had begun to diverge from its course. But for 13 minutes, investigators said, a software anomaly meant that radar information did not reach air traffic control. Military commanders, unaware that flight 77 was missing, became convinced that it was flight 11 - which had already crashed - that was heading for the capital.
The confusion grew deeper. Fighter planes were sent to intercept the plane, but the pilots were never briefed on why they were being sent, and ended up over the Atlantic.
The lead pilot told the commission: "I reverted to the Russian threat... I'm thinking cruise missile threat from the sea. You know, you look down and see the Pentagon burning, and I thought, the bastards snuck one by us."
At NORAD, a mission commander was told an unidentified plane was 10 kilometres from the White House. "OK, we're going to crank it up," he ordered. "Run to the White House."
Discovering they were 240 kilometres out at sea by now, he ordered them back at top speed. "I don't care how many windows you break," he said. "Damn it. Push them back."
The military learned that flight 77 was missing only four minutes before it hit the Pentagon. A cargo plane was all they had time to send to follow it.
George Bush was reading with children in Florida when his chief of staff interrupted.
Though he was widely accused of fleeing, "all witnesses agreed that the President strongly wanted to return to Washington and only grudgingly agreed to go elsewhere".