A Loss of Control

In air-traffic center, they could only watch as disaster unfolded

by Sylvia Adcock
September 10, 2002


The final 12 seconds were the toughest.

They already had lost one plane. The World Trade Center was on fire. And now another jet - marked on the radar screen with the letter I for "Intruder" - was heading for Manhattan, low and fast.

Every 12 seconds the screen updated the altitude, the amount of time it takes for the radar to sweep around 360 degrees. Now the plane was at 2,200 feet, just above the city's skyline.

"He's going in," someone said.

"The trade center is at 1,500 feet," a supervisor said.

Twelve seconds, and the slash on the screen representing United Flight 175 disappeared.

It was 9:03 a.m. In Area B of the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center in Ronkonkoma, there was nothing but silence in the darkened room as the staccato of the controllers' voices suddenly stopped.

"That was like an eternity," said controller Mark Merced. "No one said a word for like four or five seconds. Everything went into slow motion."

At the low-slung building, known as the New York center, or ZNY to pilots, the air traffic controllers who guide high-altitude planes over the region are used to being in control.

"You've got to understand, when we talk, things happen," said controller Jim Bohleber, who also works in Area B.

On Sept. 11, it didn't happen that way.

It began, as it did for everyone, as a beautiful September morning. Traffic in Merced's sector was light when he heard the controller next to him say, "Who is this?" about an aircraft on the screen he couldn't identify. It was headed south.

Controllers in the Boston center, who control high-altitude flights just north of New York center's airspace, had called to say they had lost American Flight 11 as the plane headed west over upstate New York. The controllers didn't know it, but the hijackers had turned off the transponder when they took control of the cockpit. The transponder normally gives the airline and flight number, the type of plane and altitude. Without it, no one could be sure where American 11 was - or the identity of the plane headed south.

Its last known altitude was 29,000 feet, so Merced sent a nearby American Eagle over the location of the unidentified plane to see if the pilot could identify it.

The commuter pilot told Merced he couldn't see anyone below. Flight 11 had begun its deadly descent toward Manhattan and the Boeing 767 was too low for the American Eagle who was flying at 31,000 feet to see. Another controller sent a Delta flight to look; again, he couldn't see anything. Merced was preparing to get a nearby Federal Express Corp. plane to do the same thing when the target on the radar screen disappeared over Manhattan. At 8:46, American 11 blasted into the north tower.

About the same time, the transponder code suddenly changed on United Flight 175, which was flying near the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border. The hijackers had taken over the plane, and the jet began to head back east. This time, the controllers could read the altitude because the hijackers hadn't turned the transponder off; instead they had just changed the code.

But now the jet was headed into the path of other aircraft.

Chris Tucker was working Yardley sector, a busy slice of space, when he saw the United jet turn toward the path of a Delta Boeing 737, which was headed southwest at 28,000 feet. Tucker told the Delta pilot that the aircraft was a suspected hijacking and he didn't know what it was going to do next. The United plane continued to turn. "Delta 2315 turn left immediately heading two zero zero," Tucker said. He had to guess; he didn't know which way the hijacked plane was headed, or if it was going to climb or descend. Just below and four miles behind the Delta was USAir Flight 542, another Boeing 737. Tucker turned him left, too.

The hijacked jet began to speed up and turn toward the northeast, and as the radius of its turn became wider and wider, it came closer to both planes. Tucker told the Delta to take evasive action. On the USAir jet, an on-board collision alert system sounded an alarm as the planes came closer and closer.

"I thought they were going to hit," Tucker said later.

They didn't. The closest they got was half a mile. But the relief was short-lived. United Flight 175 was descending fast and heading for the city.

At first everyone thought the plane might be headed for Newark, maybe for an emergency landing at the airport.

"No, he's too fast and low, he'll never make Newark," said Bohleber.

Was the plane headed for LaGuardia? He was lined up for Runway 4. "No, he's coming down too fast. It's six thousand feet a minute," Bohleber said, calling out the rate of descent. "Now it's eight. Now ten."

"Oh my God," said Tucker. "Oh my God." And the radar blip on the screen was gone.

Mike McCormick, the air traffic supervisor, and other supervisors moved quickly to relieve the controllers. Counselors were called. A nurse from the FAA's aviation medicine division came. An Episcopal priest. Tucker remembers smoking five cigarettes in a row.

"No one in the building, if they weren't in that room that morning for those 20-25 minutes - no one knows ... ," said Bohleber, who took a week off work.

Tucker took two weeks off. When he came back to the radar scopes, it was hard not to see the United jet turning into the path of other planes.

Mark Merced came home from work that day and found he had lost a cherished friend, firefighter Benjamin Suarez of Ladder Co. 21, who lived in Brooklyn. Merced was out for 59 days on traumatic leave. It was difficult coming back, he said. "The terrorists took our buildings and they took my friend but they're not going to take my job."

After the planes hit, Bohleber continued working Kennedy arrivals for a few minutes. The pilots had perfect views of Manhattan. "They were asking over and over, what's burning in Manhattan. What's that fire," Bohleber said. "It was such a clear day."

Then one of them asked Bohleber, "Was that a small plane that hit the World Trade Center?"

"I said, 'That's negative,' " Bohleber said. "There was silence. No one said a word."

The Critical Minutes

How the terrifying moments before the attacks unfolded at the New York Center in Ronkonkoma:

8:00 American Flight 11 takes off from Boston.

8:14 United Flight 175 takes off.

8:40 FAA notifies North American Aerospace Defense Command about suspected hijacking of Flight 11.

8:41 Flight 175's pilot tells controllers he heard "suspicious transmission" from another aircraft

8:42 Traffic controllers find target believed to be Flight 11and begin tracking it.

8:43 FAA notifies NORAD of suspected hijacking of Flight 175 after plane's transponder code is changed.

8:46 Flight 11 crashes into WTC's north tower.

8:47 Police summoned to guard New York Center.

8:51 Controllers try to contact Flight 175 as aircraft begins to head toward Manhattan.

9:03 Flight 175 crashes into south tower.

9:06 FAA officials in New York ban all flights through the center's airspace.

9:26 FAA officials in Washington ground all civilian aircraft nationwide.

9:45 FAA orders all aircraft to land at nearest airport.


Copyright 2002 Newsday, Inc.

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