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Profile: Chris Stephenson
Chris Stephenson was a participant or observer in the following events:
Chris Stephenson, head flight controller at Washington’s Reagan National Airport tower, says that he is called by the Secret Service around this time. He is told an unidentified aircraft is speeding toward Washington. Stephenson looks at the radarscope and sees Flight 77 about five miles to the west. He looks out the tower window and sees the plane turning to the right and descending. He follows it until it disappears behind a building in nearby Crystal City, Virginia. [USA Today, 8/11/2002] However, according to another account, just before 9:30 a.m., a controller in the same tower has an unidentified plane on radar, “heading toward Washington and without a transponder signal to identify it. It’s flying fast, she says: almost 500 mph. And it’s heading straight for the heart of the city. Could it be American Flight 77? The FAA warns the Secret Service.”
[USA Today, 8/12/2002] In short, it is unclear whether the Secret Service warns the FAA, or vice versa.
A group from FAA headquarters, who are apparently oblivious to the morning’s crisis, request and are given a tour of the air traffic control tower at Washington’s Reagan National Airport, until they are forced to leave there just before the time of the Pentagon attack. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 157-158] Reagan Airport is located less than a mile from the Pentagon. [St. Petersburg Times, 10/3/2001]
Tour Group Wants to See Tower - At 9:32, the tower supervisor, Chris Stephenson, receives a phone call from one of the airport’s maintenance workers. The maintenance worker says he has a group there from the FAA’s Washington headquarters that is visiting the airport to go over some maintenance issues, but they are also curious to see what goes on in the control tower. It appears the FAA personnel are unaware of the attacks in New York, and Stephenson is asked if it is okay to bring them up. Though he is busy dealing with the chaos resulting from the ground stop recently ordered by the FAA’s Command Center (see (9:26 a.m.) September 11, 2001), Stephenson reluctantly agrees. The group arrives moments later, but Stephenson tries to ignore them. According to author Lynn Spencer, Stephenson is as yet unaware that an errant aircraft has been spotted heading toward Washington (see (9:33 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 157] But according to USA Today, the Secret Service warned him about this aircraft at around 9:30 a.m. (see (9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [USA Today, 8/11/2002]
Group Ordered to Leave - Shortly after the group arrives, Stephenson is called by a controller at the TRACON and notified of the unidentified aircraft (presumably Flight 77), which is five miles west of the tower (see (9:36 a.m.) September 11, 2001). When he looks out the window, he sees it, now less than a mile away and approaching fast. Stephenson yells at the tour group: “Out! Get out!” The FAA group heads off down the stairs, but the last in the line looks out the window at the descending aircraft and asks, “What’s that guy doing?” ”Get out!” Stephenson repeats, and pushes the man into the stairwell. Soon afterwards, the Pentagon is hit (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 158]
An air traffic controller in the tower at Reagan National Airport. [Source: Rob Ballenger / NPR]An air traffic controller in the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) at Washington’s Reagan National Airport calls the airport’s control tower and alerts it to an unidentified aircraft that is approaching and heading in the direction of the White House. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 145-146, 158] The TRACON was recently contacted by controllers at Washington Dulles International Airport and notified of this aircraft, which is later determined to be Flight 77 (see (9:33 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 9/11/2001; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 33] TRACON controllers have watched it on radar as it traveled almost 10 miles south of the airport, and then turned back toward Washington.
TRACON Calls Tower - A controller in the TRACON now phones Chris Stephenson, the supervisor in the Reagan Airport control tower, and says to him, “See in the sky, five miles west of you?” Stephenson thinks he has identified the target the controller is referring to on his radar screen, but it is the wrong one. The controller clarifies: “No! The ‘LOOK’ tag! See the ‘LOOK’ tag? It’s a 757! Do you see anything out there?” Stephenson then looks out of the window and can see the plane, now less than a mile away, coming in fast. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 158] He sees it turning to the right and descending. [USA Today, 8/11/2002] A tour group from FAA headquarters is currently looking around the tower, and Stephenson promptly orders its members to “get out” of there (see (9:32 a.m.-9:37 a.m.) September 11, 2001).
Time of First Notification Unclear - According to author Lynn Spencer, Stephenson was unaware of the approaching aircraft prior to this call from the TRACON. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 157-158] But USA Today will claim he received a call at “[a]bout 9:30” from the Secret Service, telling him an unidentified aircraft was speeding toward Washington (9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [USA Today, 8/11/2002] Furthermore, after the Reagan TRACON was alerted to the aircraft, departure controller Dan Creedon quickly attached a data box to its radar track with the word “LOOK” in it, which would allow other controllers—including those in the control tower—to quickly spot it and track it on their screens. Why Stephenson had not noticed this is unclear. [9/11 Commission, 7/28/2003 ; Spencer, 2008, pp. 145-146]
After seeing the explosion from the attack on the Pentagon, air traffic controllers at Washington’s Reagan National Airport promptly alert others to the crash, with a supervisor reporting that the crashed aircraft was an American Airlines 757. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/18/2001; Spencer, 2008, pp. 158-159] Reagan Airport is less than a mile from the Pentagon. [St. Petersburg Times, 9/19/2001] In its control tower, supervisor Chris Stephenson had looked out the window and seen Flight 77 approaching (see (9:36 a.m.) September 11, 2001). He watched it flying a full circle and disappearing behind a building in nearby Crystal City, before crashing into the Pentagon. Stephenson sees the resulting fireball and a mass of paper debris that fills the air. He calls the airport’s Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) and reports: “It was an American 757! It hit the Pentagon. It was a 757 and it hit the Pentagon. American!” [USA Today, 8/11/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 158-159] Other controllers see the fireball from the crash. One of them, David Walsh, activates the crash phone, which instantly connects the control tower to airport operations, as well as fire and police departments. He yells down the line: “Aircraft down at the Pentagon! Aircraft down at the Pentagon!” [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/18/2001; McDonnell, 2004, pp. 19-20 ; Spencer, 2008, pp. 158-159] Reagan Airport controllers contact controllers at Washington Dulles International Airport, who hear over the speakers in their room: “Dulles, hold all of our inbound traffic. The Pentagon’s been hit.” [ABC News, 10/24/2001]
The air traffic control tower at Washington’s Reagan National Airport is evacuated, after it is informed that a suspicious aircraft—presumably Flight 93—is heading its way.
Warning of Approaching Aircraft - In the control tower, supervisor Chris Stephenson receives a call from the FAA’s Herndon Command Center, telling him: “You have another [aircraft] headed your way. Confirmed bomb on board.” This information also makes it to the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) at the airport. Around this time, the Command Center changes the information it has for Flight 93’s flight plan, so that it shows a destination of Reagan Airport (see 9:55 a.m. September 11, 2001). This means air traffic controllers are now able to track the flight on their situation displays. But in response to the news that the approaching aircraft has a bomb on board, the facility manager at Reagan Airport becomes concerned about the safety of his employees and decides to evacuate the control tower.
Tower Controllers Evacuated - Dan Creedon, a controller in the TRACON, tries calling the tower repeatedly, to pass on the manager’s instruction to evacuate, but he is unable to get through. He therefore leaves his post and takes the elevator up the tower. Once he reaches the control tower cab, he announces that there are to be “minimum bodies” in the tower, with only a skeletal staff remaining. Four controllers therefore volunteer to leave. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 215-216] (Seven or eight controllers usually work in the tower during a given shift, so this would mean three or four controllers remain there. [9/11 Commission, 7/28/2003 ] )
Terminal Being Evacuated - When they make it down to the airport terminal, the controllers find that it too is being evacuated. Police are yelling at the crowd: “Everybody’s got to go! There are no more flights! Leave your stuff! Just go! It doesn’t matter where you go, just get away from the airport.”
Other Controllers Head to Mobile Unit - The controllers who had remained behind decide they too should leave the tower and relocate to an emergency mobile unit. Before doing so, they temporarily turn over the command and control of their airspace to Washington, DC, police helicopters. They are then escorted by members of the Secret Service down from the tower and through the terminal. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 216]
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