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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 77’s autopilot is disengaged. The plane is flying at 7,000 feet and is about 38 miles west of the Pentagon. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 9] Information from the plane’s recovered flight data recorder (see September 13-14, 2001) later will indicate the pilot had entered autopilot instructions for a course to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (which is nearby the Pentagon). [9/11 Commission, 1/27/2004]

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The Flight 93 crater later in the morning. Notice the destruction of the airplane is nearly total.The Flight 93 crater later in the morning. Notice the destruction of the airplane is nearly total. [Source: Associated Press]Numerous individuals who see the Flight 93 crash site describe a lack of plane wreckage:
bullet Jon Meyer, a reporter with WJAC-TV, says, “I was able to get right up to the edge of the crater.… All I saw was a crater filled with small, charred plane parts. Nothing that would even tell you that it was the plane.… There were no suitcases, no recognizable plane parts, no body parts. The crater was about 30 to 35 feet deep.” [Newseum et al., 2002, pp. 148]
bullet According to Mark Stahl, who goes to the crash scene, “There’s a crater gouged in the earth, the plane is pretty much disintegrated. There’s nothing left but scorched trees.” [Associated Press, 9/11/2001]
bullet Frank Monaco of the Pennsylvania State Police says, “If you would go down there, it would look like a trash heap. There’s nothing but tiny pieces of debris. It’s just littered with small pieces.” [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/12/2001]
bullet Scott Spangler, a photographer with a local newspaper, says, “I didn’t think I was in the right place. I was looking for a wing or a tail. There was nothing, just this pit.… I was looking for anything that said tail, wing, plane, metal. There was nothing.” [Newseum et al., 2002, pp. 149]
bullet According to Ron Delano, a local who rushes to the scene after hearing about the crash, “If they hadn’t told us a plane had wrecked, you wouldn’t have known. It looked like it hit and disintegrated.” [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 9/12/2001]
bullet Gabrielle DeRose, a news anchor with KDKA-TV, views the crash site from a hill overlooking it. She says, “It was very disturbing to think all the remains just disintegrated…. There were no large pieces of airplane, no human remains, no baggage.” [Sylvester and Huffman, 2002, pp. 160-161]
bullet Local assistant volunteer fire chief Rick King, who sees the crater at the crash site, says, “Never in my wildest dreams did I think half the plane was down there.” King sends his men into the woods to search for the plane’s fuselage, but they keep coming back and telling him, “Rick. There’s nothing.” [Longman, 2002, pp. 216]
bullet Bob Craig of the FBI’s evidence-gathering team later explains what is supposed to have occurred: “Turn the picture of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center on its side, and, for all intents and purposes, the face of the building is the strip mine in Shanksville [where Flight 93 crashed].” [Longman, 2002, pp. 260] When the plane’s two black boxes are later discovered (see September 13-14, 2001), they are reportedly found 15 and 25 feet inside the crater. [Longman, 2002, pp. 217; Washington Post, 5/12/2002]

Entity Tags: Gabrielle DeRose, Frank Monaco, Scott Spangler, Ron Delano, Jon Meyer, Mark Stahl, Rick King

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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

After Flight 77’s flight data recorder is recovered from the Pentagon wreckage (see September 14, 2001), Fox News reports that investigators say they are getting “good, solid readings” from it. According to this data, “the plane was going 345 miles per hour when it crashed.” [Fox News, 9/15/2001] Firefighters involved in the Pentagon recovery effort are also told the flight data recorder showed Flight 77 was traveling at 345 mph when it hit the Pentagon. [Washington Post, 9/19/2001] However, days later, CBS News reports that it has seen “new radar evidence” pertaining to Flight 77, and quotes unnamed sources describing the plane’s descent toward the Pentagon. CBS says the aircraft had “plowed into the Pentagon at 460 mph.” [CBS News, 9/21/2001] But when the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) publishes its “Flight Path Study” for Flight 77 in February 2002, this gives a significantly higher speed. The NTSB study is “based on information obtained from various sources of recorded radar of the subject aircraft,” along with “information from the flight data recorder.” It states, “The airplane accelerated to approximately 460 knots (530 miles per hour) at impact with the Pentagon.” [National Transportation Safety Board, 2/19/2002, pp. 2 pdf file] The 9/11 Commission will later accept this figure in its final report. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 10 and 455] Yet this is 185 mph faster than the speed earlier claimed to have been revealed by the flight data recorder. The reason for this discrepancy is unknown. All of these alleged speeds are above the Federal Aviation Administration’s speed limit of 287.5 mph for aircraft flying below 10,000 feet. [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2/24/2002]

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The FBI allows relatives of passengers on Flight 93 to listen to the 31-minutes of tape from the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and see a written transcript of the recording. About 70 relatives do so. They are allowed to take notes, but not to make recordings because the tape might be used in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. [CNN, 4/19/2002; Guardian, 4/19/2002; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 4/21/2002] The San Francisco Chronicle responds: “Is there even a dollop of logic in that explanation? It’s like saying we can’t watch video of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center because that video might be used in a trial.” [San Francisco Chronicle, 6/3/2002] Much of the tape is reportedly unintelligible. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “the voices were muddled and the ambient noise of the wind rushing by the speeding plane often made it impossible to distinguish individuals, even when they were yelling.” [Daily Telegraph, 4/20/2002; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 4/21/2002] New York Times reporter Jere Longman writes the book Among The Heroes based in part on interviews with relatives who hear the cockpit voice recording, along with several government officials and investigators. The recording reveals new details of the passengers’ struggle on board Flight 93, but the government still has not officially stated if it believes they took over the plane or not. [Washington Post, 4/19/2002; MSNBC, 7/30/2002; Daily Telegraph, 7/31/2002]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Zacarias Moussaoui, Jere Longman

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The cockpit voice recorder tape from United 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania (see (10:06 a.m.) September 11, 2001), is played at the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui (see March 6-May 4, 2006) just before the prosecution rests its case. Translations are displayed on a screen along with information taken from the plane’s flight data recorder, such as speed, altitude, and steering yoke position. [Associated Press, 4/12/2006; London Times, 4/12/2006] The recording is sealed by the judge and a transcript is made available to the public. [US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006] This is a big media event and it receives lots of coverage. CNN, for example, calls it “an absolutely spellbinding, unforgettable day in court.” Many of the passages are unintelligible, but the recording seems to indicate that the hijackers murdered a flight attendant. [CNN, 4/12/2006; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006 pdf file] Some of the victims’ relatives previously heard the recording at a private meeting (see April 18, 2002).

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline


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