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Context of 'Soon After 9:09 a.m. September 11, 2001: Mistaken Report of Flight 77 Crash Causes Confusion'

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Bob Varcadipane.Bob Varcadipane. [Source: NBC News]At the air traffic control tower at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, controllers see the smoke coming from the World Trade Center in the distance and start calling other FAA facilities in the area about this. Controller Rick Tepper looks out the window of the tower across the Hudson River at New York City, and sees the huge cloud of smoke coming from the North Tower, which Flight 11 has crashed into it. He points this out to fellow controller Greg Callahan. In his office at the tower, Bob Varcadipane, the supervisor there, starts receiving a flood of phone calls reporting that a small aircraft has hit the WTC. According to author Lynn Spencer, “The assumption is that only a small plane could have gone so badly off course.” The Newark tower controllers start calling the towers at JFK, La Guardia, and Teterboro Airports, along with other air traffic control facilities in the area, to see if any of them has lost an aircraft. But none say they have; they have not yet been informed of the crash and are shocked at what they see when told to look out their windows at the burning WTC. Varcadipane calls the FAA’s New York Center to find out if they know whose plane hit the Twin Towers. He is told: “No, but Boston Center lost an airplane. They lost an American 767.” Varcadipane wonders if this 767 is the plane that hit the WTC, and says back: “I have a burning building and you have a missing airplane. This is very coincidental.” According to NBC: “a horrific realization dawns on controllers. American Flight 11, still missing from radar, finally has been found.” Word of the plane’s fate subsequently “quickly travels throughout the air traffic control world.” [MSNBC, 9/11/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 41-42] However, the FAA’s Indianapolis Center, which handles Flight 77, will reportedly not learn of the first hijackings until around 9:20 a.m. (see (9:20 a.m.-9:21 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 32]

Entity Tags: Teterboro Airport, World Trade Center, Newark International Airport, Rick Tepper, La Guardia Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport, Bob Varcadipane, Greg Callahan, New York Air Route Traffic Control Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

CNN is the first major network to show the footage of the crash site. It breaks into a commercial and anchor Carol Lin says, “This just in. You are looking at… obviously a very disturbing live shot there—that is the World Trade Center, and we have unconfirmed reports this morning that a plane has crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.” CNN then switches to Sean Murtagh, the network’s vice president of finance, who says in a live telephone interview, “I just witnessed a plane that appeared to be cruising at a slightly lower than normal altitude over New York City. And it appears to have crashed into—I don’t know which tower it is—but it hit directly in the middle of one of the World Trade Center towers. It was a jet, maybe a two-engine jet, maybe a 737… a large passenger commercial jet… It was teetering back and forth, wing-tip to wing-tip, and it looks like it has crashed into—probably, twenty stories from the top of the World Trade Center—maybe the eightieth to eighty-fifth floor. There is smoke billowing out of the World Trade Center.” [CNN, 9/11/2001; Bamford, 2004, pp. 16-17] Many reports do not come until a few minutes later. For instance, ABC first breaks into regular programming with the story at 8:52 a.m. [ABC News, 9/14/2002] Incredibly, a NORAD timeline presented to the 9/11 Commission in 2003 claims that CNN doesn’t begin its coverage of the attacks until 8:57. [9/11 Commission, 5/23/2003]

Entity Tags: Carol Lin, Sean Murtagh, World Trade Center, CNN

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Flight 77’s transponder is turned off, meaning that the aircraft’s speed, altitude, and flight information are no longer visible on radar displays at the FAA’s Indianapolis Center. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 pdf file; National Transportation Safety Board, 2/19/2002 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 9] The Indianapolis Center air traffic controller in charge of Flight 77 watched the plane go off course and head southwest before its data disappeared from his radar screen. He looks for primary radar signals along the aircraft’s projected flight path as well as in the airspace where it had started to turn, but cannot find it. [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004] He tries contacting the plane repeatedly, saying “American 77, Indy,” and: “American 77, Indy, radio check. How do you read?” But there is no response. [New York Times, 10/16/2001; New York Times, 10/16/2001]
NEADS Not Contacted - US News and World Report will later comment, “[E]xperts say that an airliner making a 180-degree turn followed by a transponder turnoff should have been a red flag to controllers.” It will quote Robert Cauble, a 20-year veteran of Navy air traffic control, who says: “The fact that the transponder went off, they should have picked up on that immediately. Everyone should have been on alert about what was going on.” [US News and World Report, 10/8/2001] Yet the Indianapolis Center supposedly does not notify NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS). According to the 9/11 Commission, NEADS will only learn that Flight 77 is missing at 9:34 a.m. (see 9:34 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 26-27]
Controller Thinks Plane Suffered Mechanical Failure - While several air traffic control centers were reportedly informed of the Flight 11 hijacking as early as 8:25 a.m. (see 8:25 a.m. September 11, 2001), according to the 9/11 Commission, the controller handling Flight 77 does not realize other aircraft have been hijacked, and he is unaware of the situation in New York. He mistakenly assumes Flight 77 has experienced an electrical or mechanical failure. [Guardian, 10/17/2001; 9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004] After he informs other Indianapolis Center personnel of the developing situation, they will clear all other aircraft from the plane’s westerly route so their safety will not be affected if Flight 77 is still flying along its original path but unable to be heard. [Freni, 2003, pp. 29; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 460; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 30]
Airline and Possibly Pentagon Learn of Flight 77 Problems - While NEADS is not alerted about the errant aircraft, a controller at the Indianapolis Center will contact American Airlines at 8:58 to inform it that contact has been lost with Flight 77 (see 8:58 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 30] And an article in the New York Times will indicate that the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center (NMCC) promptly becomes aware of the problems with Flight 77 (see (Shortly After 8:51 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [New York Times, 9/15/2001]

Entity Tags: Robert Cauble, Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

An air traffic controller at the FAA’s Indianapolis Center contacts the American Airlines dispatch office in Texas, and informs it that contact has been lost with Flight 77. The controller is a sector radar associate, whose job is to help with hand-offs and to coordinate with other sectors and facilities. He speaks to American Airlines dispatcher Jim McDonnell. [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 30; Spencer, 2008, pp. 63] The controller begins, “This is Indianapolis Center trying to get a hold of American 77.” McDonnell asks for clarification, “Who you trying to get a hold of?” and the controller replies: “American 77.… On frequency 120.27.… We were talking to him and all of a sudden it just, uh…” McDonnell interjects: “Okay, all right. We’ll get a hold of him for you.” The call comes to an abrupt end and the controller then continues trying to contact Flight 77. [New York Times, 10/16/2001; Spencer, 2008, pp. 63-64] Soon after this call, American Airlines’ executive vice president of operations, Gerard Arpey, will give an order to stop all American flight takeoffs in the Northeast US (see Between 9:00 a.m. and 9:10 a.m. September 11, 2001). By 8:59 a.m., American Airlines begins attempts to contact Flight 77 using ACARS (a digital communications system used primarily for aircraft-to-airline messages). Within minutes, some time between 9:00 a.m. and 9:10 a.m., American will get word that United Airlines also has lost contact with a missing airliner (presumably Flight 175). When reports of the second WTC crash come through after 9:03 a.m., one manager will mistakenly shout, “How did 77 get to New York and we didn’t know it?” [Wall Street Journal, 10/15/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 454; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 31] The sector radar associate at the Indianapolis Center will call American Airlines again about Flight 77 at 9:02, and again speak with McDonnell (see 9:02 a.m. September 11, 2001). [New York Times, 10/16/2001]

Entity Tags: American Airlines, Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center, Jim McDonnell

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

According to the 9/11 Commission, shortly after 9:00 a.m., Indianapolis flight control begins to notify other government agencies that American 77 is missing and has possibly crashed. For instance, at 9:08 a.m., Indianapolis contacts Air Force Search and Rescue at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, and tells them to look out for a downed aircraft. It is not clear what Air Force Search and Rescue does with this information. Indianapolis also contacts the West Virginia State Police at about 9:15 a.m., and asks whether they have any reports of a downed aircraft (see Soon After 9:09 a.m. September 11, 2001). However, they apparently do not contact NORAD, but do notify the FAA regional center at 9:09 a.m. (see 9:09 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004]

Entity Tags: North American Aerospace Defense Command, Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center, 9/11 Commission, Langley Air Force Base, Federal Aviation Administration

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

According to a book about the Federal Aviation Administration’s response on 9/11, the FAA Command Center sends a message to all the nation’s air traffic facilities at this time, announcing the first hijacking. [Freni, 2003, pp. 59] This would be two minutes after it had been informed that the Flight 11 hijackers had announced, “we have [some] planes” (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). Yet according to the 9/11 Commission, Indianapolis Center, which handles Flight 77, only learns that there are other hijacked aircraft “By 9:20” (see (9:20 a.m.-9:21 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 23-24]

Entity Tags: Federal Aviation Administration

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Indianapolis flight control reports the loss of contact with Flight 77 to the FAA’s Great Lakes Regional Operations Center. They describe it as a possible crash. The center waits 15 minutes before passing the information to FAA headquarters at 9:24 a.m. (see 9:24 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 pdf file; Washington Post, 11/3/2001; 9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004] However, American Airlines headquarters has been notified of the same information before 9:00 a.m. (see 8:58 a.m. September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: American Airlines, Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center, Federal Aviation Administration

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

When Indianapolis flight control reported the loss of contact with Flight 77 to the FAA’s Great Lakes Regional Operations Center (see 9:09 a.m. September 11, 2001), an employee at an FAA flight service station (which particular one is unspecified) picks up on the communication and mistakenly calls the Ashland, Kentucky police to report a confirmed crash. Indianapolis controllers had noted the last known position of Flight 77 as being near the Ohio-Kentucky border, so this becomes part of the employee’s report. Indianapolis Center personnel, suspecting that Flight 77 may have crashed, subsequently contact the same police office, requesting information on any crashes. (An FAA report describes them contacting the West Virginia State Police at about 9:15 a.m. Ashland, though in Kentucky, is only a few miles out of West Virginia, so this may be referring the same incident.) Using the flight service station report as an actual accident, the police mistakenly confirm the crash, even though it never actually happened. A state helicopter is even dispatched to the plane’s last known coordinates, but there is nothing there. Time is lost in all the confusion. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 pdf file; Freni, 2003, pp. 29] It is not until about 9:20 a.m., when Indianapolis Center learns there are other hijacked aircraft in the system (see (9:20 a.m.-9:21 a.m.) September 11, 2001), that it will start to doubt its initial assumption that Flight 77 crashed. [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 32] However, the report of a downed plane persists. Shortly before 10 a.m., Dale Watson, counterterrorism chief at the FBI, will say to counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke over a video teleconference, “We have a report of a large jet crashed in Kentucky, near the Ohio line.” [Clarke, 2004, pp. 13] According to USA Today, “The reports are so serious that [FAA Administrator Jane] Garvey notifies the White House that there has been another crash. Only later does she learn the reports are erroneous.” [USA Today, 8/13/2002]

Entity Tags: Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

An air traffic controller at the FAA’s Indianapolis Center, which was monitoring Flight 77 when it disappeared from radar (see 8:56 a.m. September 11, 2001 and (8:56 a.m.-9:05 a.m.) September 11, 2001), receives confirmation from American Airlines that Flight 11 was hijacked, but apparently still does not suspect that the missing Flight 77 may also have been hijacked. [New York Times, 10/16/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 24] The controller, a sector radar associate at the Indianapolis Center, called the American Airlines dispatch office in Texas five minutes earlier, and was informed by dispatcher Jim McDonnell that Flight 11 had been hijacked and that two planes had hit the World Trade Center (see 9:09 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 106] He now calls the dispatch office and again speaks with McDonnell. After introducing himself, he asks, “American 11, you guys said he departed off of, uh, New York?” McDonnell replies, “Boston.” The controller continues, “Boston, he was going to LA, and it was a hijacked airplane?” McDonnell confirms, “Yes.” The controller asks, “And you, have you heard anything from American 77?” McDonnell replies, “No,” and then adds, “I talked to a winder in the center up there, and I gave them the information I got.” (What McDonnell is referring to here is unclear.) The controller thanks McDonnell, and the call ends. [New York Times, 10/16/2001] Despite receiving this information from American Airlines, according to the 9/11 Commission it is not until about 9:20 that the Indianapolis Center begins to doubt its initial assumption that Flight 77 has crashed, and discusses this concern with the FAA’s Herndon Command Center (see (9:20 a.m.-9:21 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 32]

Entity Tags: Jim McDonnell, American Airlines, Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

According to the 9/11 Commission, the FAA’s Indianapolis Center, which was monitoring Flight 77 when it disappeared from radar (see 8:56 a.m. September 11, 2001 and (8:56 a.m.-9:05 a.m.) September 11, 2001), has learned by 9:20 a.m. that there are “other hijacked aircraft,” and begins “to doubt its initial assumption that American 77 had crashed.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 24] In fact, a transcript of air traffic controller communications will show that the Indianapolis Center was informed of the Flight 11 hijacking, and that two planes had hit the World Trade Center, at 9:09 a.m. (see 9:09 a.m. September 11, 2001); five minutes later, it received confirmation of the Flight 11 hijacking (see 9:14 a.m. September 11, 2001). [New York Times, 10/16/2001] And television networks have been covering the crashes in New York since as early as 8:48 a.m. (see 8:48 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Bamford, 2004, pp. 16-17]
Other Facilities Notified - The manager at the Indianapolis Center now discusses the concern that Flight 77 may not have crashed with the FAA’s Command Center in Herndon, Virginia. This discussion prompts the Command Center to notify some FAA field facilities that Flight 77 is lost. [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 32] Also at around 9:20, the Indianapolis Center operations manager contacts the FAA’s Chicago Center. He advises its operations manager of his concern that Flight 77 may have been hijacked, and says to be on the lookout, based on the events that have occurred in New York. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 pdf file] By 9:21, according to the 9/11 Commission, the FAA “Command Center, some FAA field facilities, and American Airlines had started to search for American 77. They feared it had been hijacked.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 24-25]

Entity Tags: Chicago flight control, Federal Aviation Administration, Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center, American Airlines

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The FAA’s Great Lakes Regional Operations Center notifies the Operations Center at FAA’s Washington headquarters of the simultaneous loss of radar identification and radar communications with Flight 77. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 32] This is almost 30 minutes after this loss of contact occurred (see 8:56 a.m. September 11, 2001), and 15 minutes after the Great Lakes regional center was informed of it (see 9:09 a.m. September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: Federal Aviation Administration

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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