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Context of 'September 14, 2001: Investigators Find Flight 77 Black Boxes, but Accounts Conflict over Details'

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Flight 93’s flight data recorder, found at the crash site in Shanksville.Flight 93’s flight data recorder, found at the crash site in Shanksville. [Source: US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division]Around 4:50 p.m. on September 13, investigators discover the flight data recorder from Flight 93, one of the plane’s two “black boxes.” It is buried about 15 feet down in the main crater at the crash site, near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Around 8:25 p.m. the following evening, the other ‘black box’—the plane’s cockpit voice recorder—is found about 25 feet below ground in roughly the same spot. [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/13/2001; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/15/2001; Longman, 2002, pp. 217] The flight data recorder monitors airplane functions like its speed and altitude, while the cockpit voice recorder picks up conversations in the plane’s cockpit. [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/14/2001] Both are mounted in a plane’s tail. They are encased in very strong materials, like titanium, and insulated so as to withstand a crash impact. [BBC, 9/15/2001] Wells Morrison, the FBI’s second in command at the Flight 93 crash scene, later comments, “It was strange. The black boxes are right next to each other on the aircraft, but one was found thirteen feet deeper into the crater than the other.… We were surprised, quite honestly, that we didn’t find them sooner.” [Kashurba, 2002, pp. 109 and 115] The cockpit voice recorder is sent to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Washington, and then on to its manufacturer, Honeywell, to try to extract information from it. [CBS News, 9/16/2001; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 11/4/2001] It is supposedly the only one from the four hijacked flights to have survived the crash impact and ensuing fire. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 456] In April 2002, the 31-minute recording from it is played in private to victims’ relatives (see April 18, 2002). It will be played in public for the first time in April 2006, during the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui (see April 12, 2006). [CNN, 4/13/2006]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wells Morrison, Honeywell, RobertMoomo

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Flight 77’s damaged cockpit voice recorder.Flight 77’s damaged cockpit voice recorder. [Source: FBI]At around 3:40 a.m., investigators at the Pentagon recover the two “black boxes” from Flight 77. [Washington Times, 9/14/2001] These boxes are the plane’s flight data recorder and its cockpit voice recorder. [BBC, 9/15/2001] Some news reports claim they are found by two Fairfax County firefighters, Carlton Burkhammer and Brian Moravitz, as they comb through debris near the impact site. [Washington Post, 9/19/2001; Newsweek, 9/28/2001] But according to Arlington County spokesman Dick Bridges, members of the FBI’s evidence response team find them. [PBS, 9/14/2001; Washington Post, 9/14/2001] Authors Patrick Creed and Rick Newman will later clarify that Burkhammer and Moravitz find an object initially believed to be one of the black boxes, but closer inspection reveals it to be just “a charred chunk of machinery.” Subsequently, FBI photographer Jennifer Hill finds the cockpit voice recorder in a stack of rubble while assisting searchers. Thirty minutes later, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) expert locates the flight data recorder in the same area. [Creed and Newman, 2008, pp. 396-397 and 400-402] But Allyn Kilsheimer, a structural engineer who helps coordinate the emergency response at the Pentagon, later claims he had “found the black box,” which, he says, he had “stepped on… by accident.” [GW Magazine, 3/2002; Popular Mechanics, 3/2005] Washington FBI agent Christopher Combs says, “Somebody almost threw [the black boxes] away because they didn’t know what they looked like.” [Disaster News Network, 10/30/2002]
Conflicting Accounts of Where Boxes Are Found - According to Dick Bridges, the two recorders are discovered “right where the plane came into the building.” [Associated Press, 9/14/2001] But the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Pentagon Building Performance Report, released in 2003, will claim that the flight data recorder was found “nearly 300 ft into the structure.” [Mlakar et al., 1/2003, pp. 40 pdf file] In Creed and Newman’s account, the recorders are found in the Pentagon’s middle C Ring, near the “punch-out” hole made by the impacting aircraft. [Creed and Newman, 2008, pp. 400-402]
Boxes Taken Away for Analysis - The boxes are taken to the NTSB’s laboratory in Washington, where data is extracted from the flight data recorder, but they are reclaimed by the FBI later on in the morning. [Washington Times, 9/14/2001; Creed and Newman, 2008, pp. 402] A flight data recorder tracks an airplane’s flight movements for the last 25 hours, while the cockpit voice recorder contains radio transmissions and sounds from the cockpit for the last 30 minutes of its flight. Both are mounted in the tail of an aircraft and are encased in very strong materials like titanium. According to American Airlines and United Airlines, the black boxes aboard Flight 77 and the other hijacked planes were modern solid-state versions, which are more resistant to damage than older magnetic tape recorders. [Associated Press, 9/15/2001; BBC, 9/15/2001] FBI Director Robert Mueller later says that Flight 77’s data recorder has provided altitude, speed, and other information about the flight, but the voice recorder contained “nothing useful.” [CBS News, 2/25/2002] The 9/11 Commission will describe the cockpit voice recorder as being “badly burned and not recoverable.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 456] According to CBS News, preliminary information shows that the cockpit voice tape “appears to be blank or erased.” [CBS News, 9/16/2001] The two black boxes from Flight 93 are also recovered around this time (see September 13-14, 2001).

Entity Tags: Brian Moravitz, Carlton Burkhammer, Allyn Kilsheimer, Chris Combs, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Jennifer Hill, RobertMoomo, Dick Bridges

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Logo of the New York State Emergency Management Office.Logo of the New York State Emergency Management Office. [Source: New York State Emergency Management Office]Investigators searching the debris of the collapsed World Trade Center towers are reported to have detected a signal from one of the black boxes from the planes that crashed into the WTC on September 11, although government officials will later say that these two planes’ black boxes were never found. [New York State Emergency Management Office, 9/18/2001 pdf file; Philadelphia Daily News, 10/28/2004] The two “black boxes” carried by all commercial aircraft—the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder—can provide valuable information about why a plane crashed. [CBS News, 2/25/2002; PBS, 2/17/2004] A report published today by the New York State Emergency Management Office states that “[i]nvestigators have identified the signal from one of the black boxes in the WTC debris.” [New York State Emergency Management Office, 9/18/2001 pdf file] Furthermore, a team from the Army’s Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) arrived at Ground Zero on September 13 “and scoped the area using classified signal equipment,” according to Federal Computer Week magazine, and according to Toni Quiroz, chief of the computer networking branch at CECOM, “The team managed to get some signals that could have emanated from the black boxes.” Quiroz will add, however, that “it was never determined if they were the recorders.” [Federal Computer Week, 9/16/2002] But a report published by the New York City Office of Emergency Management on September 25 will state that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been “[u]nable to detect any ‘pinging’ from either ‘black box’” at Ground Zero. [New York City Office of Emergency Management, 9/25/2001 pdf file] A firefighter and a volunteer who are involved in the recovery effort at Ground Zero will say they helped federal agents find three of the four black boxes in the WTC debris (see October 2001). [Swanson, 2003, pp. 108; Philadelphia Daily News, 10/28/2004] But the 9/11 Commission Report will state that the black boxes from the planes that crashed into the WTC “were not found” and the FBI will, in 2004, make the same claim. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 456; Philadelphia Daily News, 10/28/2004]

Entity Tags: Toni Quiroz, Federal Aviation Administration, Army’s Communications-Electronics Command

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

A poster to help law enforcement officers locate the missing ‘black boxes’ in the WTC debris.A poster to help law enforcement officers locate the missing ‘black boxes’ in the WTC debris. [Source: FBI / Smithsonian Institution]Three of the four black boxes from Flight 11 and Flight 175 are found this month, according to two men who work extensively in the wreckage of the World Trade Center, but the public is not told. New York City firefighter Nicholas DeMasi will mention the discovery of the black boxes in a book published in 2003. He will claim to have driven federal agents on an all-terrain vehicle during their search and state that they found three of the four missing black boxes. The Philadelphia Daily News will report on the story in 2004 when another recovery worker, volunteer Mike Bellone, backs up DeMasi’s account and claims to have seen one of the black boxes. Spokesmen for the FBI and the New York City Fire Department will deny the claims of these two workers. [Swanson, 2003, pp. 108; Philadelphia Daily News, 10/28/2004] But in 2005, CounterPunch will report: “A source at the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency that has the task of deciphering the data from the black boxes retrieved from crash sites—including those that are being handled as crimes and fall under the jurisdiction of the FBI—says the boxes were in fact recovered and were analyzed by the NTSB. ‘Off the record, we had the boxes,’ the source says. ‘You’d have to get the official word from the FBI as to where they are, but we worked on them here.’” An NTSB spokesperson will deny that the FBI ever gave the NTSB the black boxes. [CounterPunch, 12/19/2005] On September 18, it was reported that investigators had detected a signal from one of the black boxes in the debris at Ground Zero (see September 18, 2001). [New York State Emergency Management Office, 9/18/2001 pdf file] But the 9/11 Commission Report will state that the black boxes from Flight 11 and Flight 175 “were not found.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 456]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mike Bellone, New York City Fire Department, Nicholas DeMasi, RobertMoomo

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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