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Context of 'Shortly After 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001: FBI Arrives at American Airlines’ Command Center and Takes Charge of Crisis Response'

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Some time shortly before 9/11, American Airlines revises its crisis communications plan. According to a PR Week magazine article shortly after 9/11, “Those charged with imagining worst-case scenarios laid out contingencies for plane crashes and 1978-style hijackings.” However, “They never dreamed of terrorists turning two aircrafts into weapons of mass destruction, of coordinating disaster communication with another airline in the same predicament, or of working in the shadows of the FBI.” Tim Doke, an American Airlines spokesman, later says, “We realized that nowhere in our plan did we contemplate such a circumstance” as what happened on 9/11. When the 9/11 attacks occur, American Airlines will have to abandon “its freshly minted crisis communications plan almost immediately… because the FBI rushed to American’s Command Center and made it clear who was in charge.” (Green and Murphy 11/5/2001; Feen 1/2003)

Peggy Houck, a flight dispatcher at the American Airlines System Operations Control (SOC) center in Fort Worth, Texas, is contacted by an American Airlines flight and told that air traffic control has asked the aircraft to try to contact Flight 11. Houck is working at the desk for American Airlines’ transcontinental flights and is therefore the dispatcher responsible for Flight 11. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/11/2001, pp. 5-7; 9/11 Commission 1/8/2004 pdf file; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 9) Under FAA rules, dispatchers licensed by the agency are responsible for following aircraft in flight. Once a plane is in the air, a dispatcher must monitor its progress, relay safety information to the captain, and handle any problems. American Airlines assigns a dispatcher to each of its flights. (Morris 6/13/2002; Wald 6/14/2002; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 86) Houck will later tell the FBI that the flight that calls her has sent a message to Flight 11 stating something along the lines of, “Good morning, ATC [air traffic control] wants you on [a certain radio frequency] and requests an acknowledgment,” but received no reply. Houck has, until now, had no direct contact with Flight 11 and the communication she receives from this other aircraft is the first indication she has of any problem on Flight 11. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/11/2001, pp. 5-7; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 9) Details of the aircraft that calls Houck are unclear. Houck will tell the 9/11 Commission, in 2004, that it is a “Seattle-Boston” flight. (9/11 Commission 1/8/2004 pdf file) However, interviewed by the FBI later today, she will refer to it as “another Boston flight,” suggesting that—like Flight 11—it had taken off from Logan International Airport in Boston. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/11/2001, pp. 5-7) Houck, or another dispatcher at the SOC, will subsequently send an ACARS text message to Flight 11, but receive no response to it (see 8:23 a.m.-8:25 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 9)

Nydia Gonzalez.Nydia Gonzalez. [Source: 9/11 Commission]Nydia Gonzalez, a supervisor at the American Airlines Southeastern Reservations Office in Cary, North Carolina, joins a phone call between two employees at her office and Betty Ong, a flight attendant on the hijacked Flight 11. (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 8-9) Ong called the reservations office at 8:18 a.m. to report the hijacking (see 8:18 a.m. September 11, 2001), and has since then been talking to two employees there: Vanessa Minter and Winston Sadler. Sadler pushed the emergency button on his phone to alert personnel in the operations area of the reservations office, so that one of them could pick up the call from Ong. A colleague of Gonzalez’s initially picked up the call, but Gonzalez quickly takes over from them. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/12/2001, pp. 38-41; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 453; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division 7/31/2006) Gonzalez, Minter, and Sadler are in different areas of the reservations office, but all three of them are able to monitor Ong’s call. (9/11 Commission 11/19/2003 pdf file)
Supervisor Told of Stabbings on Flight 11 - The first thing Gonzalez says when she joins the call is: “This is operations. What flight number are we talking about?” Ong earlier told Minter and Sadler, incorrectly, that she was on “Flight 12,” not Flight 11 (see 8:19 a.m. September 11, 2001). Sadler therefore tells Gonzalez, “Flight 12.” Ong quickly corrects him, saying: “We’re on Flight 11 right now. This is Flight 11.… Boston to Los Angeles.” She also repeats information she previously gave to Minter and Sadler, saying, “Our number one [flight attendant] has been stabbed and our [number] five [flight attendant] has been stabbed.” (American Airlines 9/11/2001, pp. 3-6)
Supervisor Notifies Airline's Operations Center - Gonzalez is an operations specialist, and her responsibilities include monitoring any emergency situations with American Airlines flights and forwarding information to the American Airlines System Operations Control (SOC) center in Fort Worth, Texas. (9/11 Commission 1/27/2004 pdf file; Spencer 2008, pp. 17) She immediately realizes the seriousness of the situation on Flight 11 and therefore, while remaining connected to Ong’s call, phones the SOC on a separate line to notify it of the problem (see (8:21 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 11/19/2003 pdf file; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 9) Gonzalez will later recall that she finds Ong to be “calm, professional, and in control throughout the call.” (9/11 Commission 1/27/2004 pdf file) She will also say that during the time she is monitoring Ong’s call, she does not hear much commotion in the background. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/12/2001, pp. 69-71)

American Airlines’ System Operations Command Center.American Airlines’ System Operations Command Center. [Source: American Airlines]American Airlines managers activate the System Operations Command Center (SOCC) in order to manage the company’s response to the terrorist attacks. (9/11 Commission 1/27/2004; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 12) The SOCC is a dedicated crisis response facility located on the floor above, and overlooking, the American Airlines System Operations Control (SOC) center in Fort Worth, Texas. (9/11 Commission 11/19/2003 pdf file; 9/11 Commission 1/27/2004) Activating the command center allows the airline to isolate an event and gather together the people needed to manage it. (9/11 Commission 1/7/2004 pdf file) The SOCC is activated in emergencies, such as major accidents and hijackings, during which the airline’s top operations officials assemble there. Craig Parfitt, the managing director of dispatch operations, and Joseph Bertapelle, the manager of SOC operations coordination/air traffic systems, will serve as its directors today. (Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/12/2002; 9/11 Commission 11/19/2003 pdf file)
Accounts Unclear over When SOCC Is Activated - The exact time when the SOCC is activated is unclear. Gerard Arpey, American Airlines’ executive vice president of operations, will tell the 9/11 Commission that when he arrives at the SOC, between around 8:35 a.m. and 8:40 a.m. (see (8:30 a.m.-8:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001), he sees that Parfitt, Bertapelle, and Kyle Phelps, the manager of administration for the SOC, are setting up the SOCC. By around 8:45 a.m. or 8:50 a.m., according to Arpey, the command center is filling up with people. (9/11 Commission 1/8/2004 pdf file; 9/11 Commission 1/27/2004) But Parfitt will indicate that the SOCC is activated slightly later. He will tell the 9/11 Commission that it is being set up after the airline’s 8:45 a.m. conference call (see 8:45 a.m. September 11, 2001) and that senior managers, including himself, arrive there at around 8:55 a.m. Craig Marquis, the manager on duty at the SOC, will say that at about 8:50 a.m., he looks up and notices activity in the SOCC. (9/11 Commission 11/19/2003 pdf file) The SOC manager is the individual responsible for activating the SOCC, according to a 9/11 Commission memorandum. However, it is unclear whether Marquis makes the decision to activate the command center on this occasion. (9/11 Commission 11/19/2003 pdf file)
Airline's Key Decisions Made in the SOCC - The SOCC will be primarily responsible for dealing with the crisis. (9/11 Commission 4/26/2004 pdf file) The key decisions on the airline’s immediate response to the hijackings will be made there. American Airlines employees in the command center will provide assistance to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies involved in investigating the attacks. The SOCC will remain open 24 hours a day for the next two weeks. (9/11 Commission 11/19/2003 pdf file; 9/11 Commission 1/27/2004)

Larry Wansley.Larry Wansley. [Source: Publicity photo]At 8:45 a.m., Larry Wansley learns of the hijacking of Flight 11. Wansley is the managing director of corporate security for American Airlines, and is at the company’s headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. He is informed of the hijacking in an urgent phone call from the airline’s Command Center, located on the floor above its System Operations Control (SOC), about a mile away from headquarters (see (Between 8:40 a.m. and 8:55 a.m.) September 11, 2001). The SOC learned there was some kind of problem with Flight 11 at 8:20 a.m. (see 8:20 a.m. September 11, 2001). Since as early as 8:21, details of Flight 11 attendant Betty Ong’s emergency call have been constantly relayed to Craig Marquis, a manager at the SOC (see 8:21 a.m. September 11, 2001). Yet the 8:45 call is apparently Wansley’s first notification of the hijacking. He calls Danny Defenbaugh, the special agent in charge of the Dallas FBI office. Wansley is himself a former undercover FBI agent, and Defenbaugh is a longtime friend of his. This call is “the first step in the well-researched, secret hijack-response plan all commercial airlines have in place.” As Wansley is relaying information, he hears screaming from an adjacent conference room, as several employees watch the aftermath of the first WTC crash on television. The TV in Defenbaugh’s office has been turned on, but reportedly neither of the two men connects the images of the burning tower with the hijacking they are trying to deal with. As they continue discussing their response plans, television shows the second plane hitting the South Tower. No doubt realizing this is a terrorist attack, Defenbaugh says, “The ball game just changed.” Around this time, Wansley learns that the first plane to hit the WTC was the hijacked American Airlines flight. He will subsequently make a hurried drive to the nearby Command Center, where the FBI will already be setting up its own command post (see Shortly After 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Stowers 11/21/2002; 9/11 Commission 1/27/2004; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 14)

Shortly before 9/11, American Airlines revised its crisis plan for dealing with situations including “plane crashes and 1978-style hijackings” (see Late Summer 2001). However, on this day, “American abandoned its freshly minted crisis communications plan almost immediately, not because putting the CEO out front isn’t the best plan of action in a crisis, but because the FBI rushed to American’s Command Center and made it clear who was in charge.” (Green and Murphy 11/5/2001) Larry Wansley, the American Airlines director of security, is at the company’s headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. He had contacted the Dallas FBI about the hijacking of Flight 11 at around 8:45 a.m. (see (8:45 a.m.-9:03 a.m.) September 11, 2001). After learning of the two planes hitting the World Trade Center, he makes a hurried drive to the airline’s Command Center, about a mile from the headquarters, on the floor above its System Operations Control (SOC). Already, by the time he arrives, the FBI is setting up its own command post there, reviewing the Flight 11 passenger manifest, and replaying the recording of flight attendant Betty Ong’s emergency phone call. (Stowers 11/21/2002; 9/11 Commission 1/27/2004) Tim Doke, the American Airlines vice president for corporate communications, later recounts that the “FBI essentially gagged us from any meaningful media interaction immediately following the terrorist attacks.” (Jack O'Dwyer's Newsletter 12/4/2002) American Airlines’ first press release, issued within a few hours of the attacks, will refer all questions to the FBI. (Green and Murphy 11/5/2001)

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