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Profile: National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was a participant or observer in the following events:
TWA logo. [Source: Surfside Hawaii (.com)]TWA Flight 841, en route to New York City from Tel Aviv, explodes in mid-air. The Boeing 747 stopped in Athens for a routine layover, took off, and shortly thereafter reported an engine on fire. Soon after the report, the plane explodes and crashes into the Ionian Sea. Seventy-nine passengers and nine crew members die. A TWA spokesman in New York says that sabotage is “highly unlikely,” but a youth organization in Beirut with connections to Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal claims that one of its members surreptitiously placed a bomb on board. In general, aviation officials scoff at the idea that a terrorist would have bombed a plane. However, in May 1995, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will find that the plane was destroyed by a bomb. The NTSB’s final report will say that the “probable cause of this accident was the detonation of an explosive device within the aft cargo compartment of the aircraft which rendered the aircraft uncontrollable.” [Board, 5/26/1975 ; Werth, 2006, pp. 324-325]
Trans World Airlines Flight 514, a Boeing tri-jet 727 carrying 85 passengers and seven crew members from Columbus, Ohio, to Washington, DC, prematurely descends and slams into a 2,000-foot-high peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains, approximately 50 miles west of the nation’s capital. All 92 people on board are killed. The crash occurs near a highly classified underground installation known as Mount Weather. The incident will draw significant public attention to the secret bunker for the first time since its construction in the 1950s (see 1952-1958). A federal spokesman will refuse to answer questions regarding the complex, but will say the facility is run by the Office of Preparedness, which is responsible for “continuity of government in a time of national disaster.” The Office of Preparedness was formally known as the Office of Emergency Preparedness (see October 28, 1969).
Misunderstanding Blamed for Crash - The National Transportation Safety Board will later rule by split decision that the crash was caused by a misinterpreted instruction given to the pilots by an air traffic controller at Dulles International Airport. The controller alerted the pilots that the flight was “cleared for approach,” which the flight crew incorrectly assumed gave them a clear path to descend to 1,800 feet. Experts will tell the NTSB that the phrase “cleared for approach” is open to misunderstanding. Three of the five board members will fault the plane crew for misinterpreting the command, while the other two will place responsibility on the air traffic controller for not specifically telling the flight to maintain its altitude. [Associated Press, 12/2/1974; Associated Press, 1/22/1976; Emerson, 8/7/1989]
A close-up of the USS Greeneville, showing the gouges on her hull from the collision with the Ehime Maru. [Source: US Navy]The USS Greeneville, a fast-attack Los Angeles-class submarine, collides with the Japanese fishing training boat Ehime Maru, in the Pacific Ocean south of O’ahu, Hawai’i, sinking the vessel. Nine aboard the Ehime Maru are killed in the collision, including four high school students. [Honolulu Advertiser, 2/9/2001] The accident has political ramifications far beyond its immediate tragedy. The prime minister of Japan, Yoshiro Mori, will be forced to resign in part due to his callous response to the news. Already-fragile military relations between the US and Japan suffer further damage. And the accident is the first major foreign policy challenge for the new Bush administration. [Time, 4/15/2001] The next day Admiral Thomas Fargo, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, formally apologizes to the Japanese government and to the families of those killed in the collision. Fargo admits that the fault lay completely with the submarine, and says that the sub was surfacing after what is called an “emergency main ballast blow” when its stern collided with the fishing vessel. 16 civilians were on board, but initially the Navy fails to identify them, saying only that business leaders, lawmakers, and other notable civilians are routinely allowed on board naval vessels as part of the Navy’s community relations program. A Navy spokesman claims that the Greeneville’s mission is to support rescue operations. [Honolulu Advertiser, 2/10/2001] Secretary of State Colin Powell apologizes to the Japanese foreign minister the day afterwards; while National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice informs President Bush about the incident shortly after it happened, Bush chooses to let the State and Defense Departments handle the apologies and other official responses. [Gannett News Service, 2/11/2001] The Navy and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the collision, as will interested journalists, who will find that the Greeneville was on a mission to give what amounts to a pleasure cruise to a number of influential Republican corporate donors, mostly from the Texas oil and gas industries. Investigations find that some of those civilians were actually manning the controls of the submarine when it hit the Japanese vessel. (See February 14-April, 2001.)
A graphical depiction of the control room of the USS Greeneville, showing the standard placement of the crew during the maneuver in question. [Source: Honolulu Advertiser] (click image to enlarge)The Navy and the National Transportation Safety Board open investigations of the February 9 collision between the USS Greeneville, a fast-attack submarine, and a Japanese fishing vessel, the Ehime Maru, in which nine Japanese crew members were killed. Three days later, the Navy reveals that two civilians were at the steering controls of the submarine when it surfaced and struck the vessel (see February 9, 2001). [Associated Press, 2/14/2001] The Navy continues to refuse to release the names of the civilians on board, saying that all 16 wished to remain anonymous to protect their privacy. A spokesman for the Pacific Fleet says that the civilians were “corporate leaders—business leaders invited aboard to observe some of the training going on, see the hard-charging men in the sub force working as a team, defending their country and making sacrifices.” Later, press sources reveal that the two civilians at the controls were each at the helm and at the ballast controls, the two positions directly involved in the submarine’s sudden ascent. The Navy says it cannot confirm that the two civilians may or may not have caused the submarine to strike the fishing vessel or interfered with the submarine’s normal ascent, but claim that the civilians were under “close supervision.” [Honolulu Advertiser, 2/14/2001; Honolulu Advertiser, 2/14/2005] Investigators are puzzled when the Navy tells them that no sonar or video recordings of the incident exist. [Associated Press, 2/14/2001] A spokesman for the Japanese Foreign Ministry informs the US Pacific Fleet that “[i]f this was true, then the Japanese government will have to take this very seriously.” A former nuclear sub commander says that the civilians could not have affected the submarine’s course: “They’re not really doing anything,” he says of civilians aboard the submarine. “It’s like sitting him on a desk with a cup of coffee. It’s like he’s a passenger on a Greyhound bus watching the scenery fly by.” The first mate of the Ehime Maru crew disagrees: “A civilian wouldn’t know what to do” at the controls, he says. “I don’t know if the emergency surfacing was a drill or what, but it’s absolutely unforgivable if a civilian was operating it.” [Honolulu Advertiser, 2/14/2001] Five days after the accident, it will be revealed that the 16 civilians aboard were there at the invitation of retired Admiral Richard Macke, a former commander of US forces in the Western Hemisphere who was forced to retire in 1998 for making inappropriate comments about the rape of a young Okinawan girl. [Honolulu Advertiser, 2/14/2001] As the days go by, the identities of the civilians on board begin to be known. Several are involved with the USS Missouri restoration fund, to which Macke is connected. Houston oil executives John Hall and Todd Thoman were also on board; Hall identifies himself as one of the two civilians at the controls. [Honolulu Advertiser, 2/14/2001] “I was to the left in the control room, and I was asked by the captain if I would like the opportunity to pull the levers that start the procedure that’s called the blowdown,” Hall will tell the press. “I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to do that.’” He says that a crew member was “right next to me, elbow to elbow. I mean, what’s important to know here is you don’t do anything on this vessel without someone either showing you how to do it, telling you how to do it, or escorting you around.” Thoman tells reporters that the crew executed two complete periscope sweeps of the ocean surface before surfacing. As the submarine surged upward, Hall remembers, “there was a very loud noise and the entire submarine shuddered.” The same day that Hall and Thoman speak, the Navy confirms that the Greenville was 3,000 miles out of the designated submarine test and trial area; previously it had maintained that the sub was well within the 56-mile area. [Associated Press, 2/15/2001] As the investigation progresses, it becomes clear that at least one sailor was distracted by the civilians aboard, to the point where he was unable to completely plot the locations of surface vessels. It is also discovered that the submarine detected the Ehime Maru by sonar an hour before the collision. A former sub commander says, “If the guy was distracted, he should have spoken up and said these guys are bothering me and I can’t do my work.” However, he says, the sailor could have been intimidated by the presence of so many powerful civilians as well as the chief of staff for the US Pacific Fleet’s submarine force, Captain Bob Brandhuber, who was escorting the civilians. Another formerl naval commander says, “He should have yelled at the top of his lungs: Stop, shut up.” Still, the fact that the sub lost track of the fishing vessel is “inexcusable,” the former commander says. “The sensitivity of the sonar once you have it, you don’t lose it.…It was making noise the entire time. They should never have lost it, no matter the target angle of the ship, they could still hear it.” [Honolulu Advertiser, 2/22/2001] Commander Scott Waddle, the captain of the Greeneville, initially defends the presence of the civilians on board his sub, but in April 2001 says he has changed his mind: “Having them in the control room at least interfered with our concentration.” He also confirms that the only reason the Greeneville put to sea on February 9 was that Macke intended to treat his distinguished visitors to a submarine ride. “The program was set up by the Navy to win favor for the submarine service from Congressmen and other opinion leaders,” Time magazine reports, “and the Greeneville had made several such trips for visitors under Waddle’s command. Not only did the visitors crowd the control room, but because Waddle spent so much time with them over lunch, the ship also fell behind schedule, giving Waddle added impetus to move quickly through the series of maneuvers he had designed to impress them.” [Time, 4/15/2001] A month later, a Greeneville sailor will testify that the sub had been violating standard procedures for nearly four years by routinely using unqualified sonar technicians to track surface vessels. [Honolulu Advertiser, 3/17/2001] In late March, the editor of a journal published by the US Naval Institute in Annapolis will accuse the Navy of “stonewalling” the investigation, and says that the entire incident is a “public relations fiasco.” [Gannett News Service, 3/27/2001] Waddle will be allowed to retire instead of facing court martial, though he will be found guilty of dereliction of duty and held responsible for the accident. [Stars and Stripes, 10/22/2005] “I didn’t cause the accident. I gave the orders that resulted in the accident,” he will say in April 2001. “And I take full responsibility. I would give my life if it meant one of those nine lives lost could be brought back.” [Time, 4/15/2001] Only well after the incident is under investigation does further investigation find that many of the 16 civilians on board the submarine are highly placed members of the oil and energy industries, and many well connected to the Republican Party and the Bush family.
One passenger, Helen Cullen, owns Houston’s Quintana Petroleum and is a heavy donor to the GOP and the Bush campaign; her family has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the GOP. [Salon, 2/21/2001]
Three other passengers head the Houston-based Aquila Energy, which has financial ties to the GOP. [Washington Post, 3/26/2002]
Another passenger, Mike Mitchell, is the managing director of EnCap Energy Advisors, a Dallas firm with ties to the Bush business family. [Houston Chronicle, 9/16/2002]
John Hall is a well-known and well-connected Texas oilman who is a major player in a number of multimillion-dollar oil deals, many involving business cronies of the Bush family. And the honorary chairman of the USS Missouri Restoration Fund, the sponsor of the entire contingent of civilians, is former president and Texas oil billionaire George H.W. Bush. [Honolulu Advertiser, 2/18/2001; American Politics Journal, 2/19/2001]
It is also discovered during the investigation that the Greeneville would not have sailed that day if not for the contingent of what the Navy terms “distinguished visitors” who wanted to take a ride on a submarine. Vice-Admiral John Nathman, who will head the Navy’s board of inquiry, will say of the Greeneville’s voyage, “In my view this doesn’t fit the criteria. It doesn’t come close.…I would never get a carrier underway to support a DV (distinguished-visitor) embark. We’re going to disagree on that.” [CNN, 3/16/2001; Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 3/17/2001] An e-mail sent to the Navy’s public relations office says that the Greenville was slated to play host to “/10 or 12 high-rolling CEOs” finishing a golf tournament. Nathman will call it “Disneyland on a submarine.” [Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 3/17/2001; Associated Press, 3/22/2001] Reflecting on the accident two months later, Time Magazine will write, “The sinking of the Ehime Maru resonated around the world. It was the first major foreign policy challenge for the newly installed Bush Administration. In Japan it contributed to the fall from power of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who shocked public opinion by continuing a golf game even after he heard of the accident. The Pentagon fretted about damage to the already fragile military alliance with Japan. The Japanese families of the nine dead were left in shock and grief.” [Time, 4/15/2001]
Entity Tags: John Hall, USS Greeneville, Ehime Maru, Bob Brandhuber, EnCap Energy Advisors, Aquila Inc., John Nathman, Republican National Committee, Quintana Petroleum, Yoshiro Mori, USS Missouri Restoration Fund, National Transportation Safety Board, Naval Institute, Todd Thoman, US Department of the Navy, George Herbert Walker Bush, Scott Waddle, Helen Cullen
Timeline Tags: US Military
Before crashing into the Pentagon, Flight 77 performs a rapid downward spiral, flying almost a complete circle and descending 7,000 feet in two and a half minutes. [CBS News, 9/21/2001]
330-Degree Turn - At 9:34 a.m., Flight 77 is about 3.5 miles west-southwest of the Pentagon. But, at an altitude of around 7,000 feet, it is flying too high to hit its target. [CBS News, 9/21/2001; New York Times, 10/16/2001; National Transportation Safety Board, 2/19/2002 ] Based on an analysis of radar data and information from the plane’s flight data recorder, a 2002 National Transportation Safety Board report will describe the maneuver the aircraft then performs: “[Flight 77] started a right 330-degree descending turn to the right. At the end of the turn, the aircraft was at about 2,000 feet altitude and four miles southwest of the Pentagon. Over the next 30 seconds, power was increased to near maximum and the nose was pitched down in response to control column movements.” The aircraft accelerates to about 530 miles per hour as it closes in on the Pentagon. [National Transportation Safety Board, 2/19/2002 ]
Controllers Watch on Radar - Air Traffic Controllers at Washington Dulles International Airport follow Flight 77 on their radar screens as it performs this maneuver. Danielle O’Brien will later recall: “John, our supervisor, relayed verbatim, ‘OK, he’s 12 miles west, he’s moving very fast eastbound.… Eleven miles west.’ And it was just a countdown. Ten miles west, nine miles west.… And it went six, five, four, and I had it in my mouth to say three, and all of a sudden the plane turned away. In the room it was almost a sense of relief.” [ABC, 10/24/2001; ABC News, 10/24/2001] Todd Lewis will recall that the aircraft “was heading right towards a prohibited area in downtown Washington.… Then it turned south and away from the prohibited area, which seemed like a momentary sigh of relief, and it disappeared. But it was going away from Washington, which seemed to be the right thing.” [MSNBC, 9/11/2002] However, O’Brien will continue: “[T]he plane turned back. He continued in the right-hand turn, made a 360-degree maneuver.… We lost radar contact with that aircraft. And we waited. And we waited.” [ABC, 10/24/2001; ABC News, 10/24/2001]
Maneuver Indicates Advanced Flying Skills - According to CBS News, “The steep turn” made by Flight 77 “was so smooth… sources say, it’s clear there was no fight for control going on.” The “complex maneuver suggests the hijackers had better flying skills than many investigators first believed.” [CBS News, 9/21/2001] Aviation experts will conclude that this maneuver was the work of “a great talent… virtually a textbook turn and landing.” [Washington Post, 9/10/2002] Due to the aircraft’s high speed and the way it is being flown, Dulles Airport controllers mistake it for a military fighter jet (see (9:25 a.m.-9:37 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 9/12/2001; ABC News, 10/24/2001; MSNBC, 9/11/2002] Yet the hijacker allegedly at the controls, Hani Hanjour, was considered to be a very poor pilot at numerous flight schools he attended (see October 1996-December 1997, 1998, January-February 2001, February 8-March 12, 2001, (April-July 2001), and Mid-August 2001). [Washington Post, 9/10/2002]
At 9:39 a.m., after having maintained a maximum altitude of 41,000 feet for about two minutes, Flight 93 begins a rapid descent, going down at a rate of 4,000 feet per minute. At 9:46, it interrupts this, going up from 19,000 feet to 20,500 feet, but then resumes its descent at the slower rate of 1,300 feet per minute. At 9:59, it has reached an altitude of 5,000 feet. [National Transportation Safety Board, 2/19/2002 ] The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will later describe this as a “surprising element in the navigation of Flight 93,” since the aircraft begins its “rapid descent from cruise altitudes while still approximately 260 nautical miles [about 300 miles] from the (presumed) target.” [National Transportation Safety Board, 2/13/2002, pp. 3 ] The target of Flight 93 is later believed to be either the White House or the Capitol building. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 14] The NTSB will note that by the times Flights 11, 175, and 77 had descended below 5,000 feet, they were all within 10 nautical miles (11.5 miles) of their targets. “UAL 93, on the other hand, descended to 5,000 feet while still 135 [nautical miles] from Washington.” [National Transportation Safety Board, 2/13/2002 ]
Based on information from the plane’s flight data recorder, the National Transportation Safety Board will later determine that Flight 93’s autopilot is turned off at “about 10:00,” and remains off for the flight’s final minutes. [National Transportation Safety Board, 2/13/2002 ] Phil Bradshaw, whose wife is an attendant on Flight 93, will later hear the plane’s cockpit voice recording. Being a pilot himself, he recognizes on it the sound of the alarm that goes off when the autopilot is disconnected. [News and Record (Piedmont Triad, NC), 9/11/2002] CNN’s Kelli Arena will hear the recording during the 2006 Zacarias Moussaoui trial and will report that, shortly after this alarm sounds, “Another alarm goes off.” [CNN, 4/12/2006] According to journalist and author Jere Longman, as well as the alarm set off when the autopilot was disconnected, another alarm “would have sounded because the plane was traveling at five hundred seventy-five miles an hour in the final minutes, far exceeding the design limits of four hundred twenty-five miles an hour below twenty thousand feet and two hundred eighty-seven miles an hour below ten thousand feet.” [Longman, 2002, pp. 208] So presumably this is the second alarm described by Arena.
John McCole [Source: Robson Books]Some gruesome remains are discovered in the World Trade Center ruins:
Investigators find a pair of severed hands bound together with plastic handcuffs on a nearby building. They are believed to have belonged to a flight attendant. [Newsday, 9/15/2001]
Honorary firefighter Michael Bellone and two other recovery workers discover the body of an attendant from American Airlines Flight 11. Reportedly, the men’s digging efforts reveal “a blue skirt, then one side of a body, and finally a pair of wings still attached to the lapel of a woman’s jacket.” [Swanson, 2003, pp. 140; Daily Standard (Grand Lake), 9/11/2006] Other reports describe the discovery of the body of a flight attendant with her hands bound. Presumably they are referring to the same remains. [Guardian, 9/13/2001; New York Times, 9/15/2001]
There are reports of whole rows of seats with passengers in them being found, as well as much of the cockpit of one of the planes, complete with the body of a suspected hijacker. Police cannot confirm these reports. [Ananova, 9/13/2001; Guardian, 9/13/2001; New York Times, 9/15/2001]
Fire Lieutenant John McCole sees a body bag with a tag on it saying, “Possible Perp—pilot.” McCole later comments, “I found it pretty amazing that someone’s body could remain so intact after crashing through a skyscraper into the middle of an inferno.” [McCole, 2002, pp. 57] Yet, contradicting the claim that a hijacker’s body was found, only in February 2003 are the remains of two hijackers identified (see Late February 2003).
While all of these bodies and plane parts are supposedly found, it will be claimed that none of the four black boxes for the two aircraft that hit the WTC are ever found. A National Transportation Safety Board spokesperson later says: “It’s extremely rare that we don’t get the recorders back. I can’t recall another domestic case in which we did not recover the recorders.” [CBS News, 2/23/2002] The black boxes are considered “nearly indestructible,” are placed in the safest parts of the aircraft, and are designed to survive impacts much greater than the WTC impact. They can withstand heat of up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour, and can withstand an impact of an incredible 3,400 G’s. [ABC News, 9/17/2001] However, in 2004, it will be reported that some of the black boxes are found in the weeks after 9/11, but their discovery is kept secret (see October 2001).
FBI Special Agent John Adams, who is now in charge of evidence recovery at the Pentagon during the daytime, addresses how the FBI should deal with the physical evidence at the crash site. [Creed and Newman, 2008, pp. 347 and 351] As the Pentagon is a crime scene, the FBI is responsible for collecting and documenting evidence there. [Creed and Newman, 2008, pp. 177] Agents are still carefully gathering together wreckage, but there is an overwhelming amount of it to deal with. Several FBI supervisors convene and discuss what the bureau should be recovering. One of them says every airplane part is significant and needs to be treated as valuable evidence. But Adams counters: “That can’t be. We know what happened here. Do we really need to collect every piece of the airplane?” Adams goes over to some National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) crash experts at the site, who are responsible for determining what happened to Flight 77. When he asks them, “Do you guys want pieces of the plane?” an NTSB official responds: “No, it’s clear what happened here. We don’t need pieces of the wings and stuff like that. But we do need the black boxes.” [Creed and Newman, 2008, pp. 351-352]
In the weeks following 9/11, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) assists the FBI in its response to the attacks. Over 60 NTSB employees work at the scenes of the crashes—the Pentagon, Pennsylvania, and New York—and at the board’s headquarters in Washington, DC, helping to identify aircraft parts, searching for and analyzing the flight recorders, and assisting the victims’ families. [National Transportation Safety Board, 9/13/2001; US Congress. Senate. Committee on Commerce, 6/25/2002] However, unusually, none of the four planes that crashed are the subject of formal NTSB investigations. According to Vern Grose, a highly respected air disaster analyst and former NTSB member: “First of all, after any aircraft crash, the NTSB [normally] launches what they call a ‘go team’ within two hours and that go team will have up to twelve people on it. Specialists in airframe, in engines, in electronics, in human factors. And these folks all go to the scene—they isolate the scene. From that point on, it’s the NTSB’s responsibility.” But with the crashes on 9/11, Grose says, “it’s my understanding that it did not occur exactly like that. They may have launched an NTSB crew, but it never took the same course a normal investigation would have.” [Lappe and Marshall, 2004, pp. 40-41] The NTSB says that, because the four crashes were “criminal acts,” the FBI is consequently the “lead investigative agency.” [National Transportation Safety Board, 9/13/2001] Therefore, the NTSB will later state that it “did not determine the probable cause” of any of the four crashes, “and does not plan to issue a report or open a public docket.” [National Transportation Safety Board, 3/7/2006; National Transportation Safety Board, 3/7/2006; National Transportation Safety Board, 3/7/2006; National Transportation Safety Board, 3/7/2006] However, even under these circumstances, Grose calls the lack of NTSB investigation “unacceptable.” He says, “Though the NTSB statute states the leadership of the investigation will defer to the FBI, the NTSB has still completed formal investigations into crashes deemed criminal acts.” It previously did so, for example, in the case of EgyptAir Flight 990, in which a pilot crashed a plane in an apparent suicide attempt (see October 31, 1999). [Lappe and Marshall, 2004, pp. 41] The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette complains about the unconventional investigative process, specifically in relation to Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. It says that, while the NTSB is “a small government agency whose procedures are fairly open,” with the FBI instead handling the investigation, “everything, even the most minute details, are being kept under strict lock and key.” [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 11/4/2001] As well as the lack of an NTSB investigation, attempts at conducting a precise grid search of the Flight 93 crash site will be overruled by the FBI (see September 16, 2001). [Longman, 2002, pp. 262]
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]
Officials deny that Flight 93 was shot down, but propose the theory that the hijackers had a bomb on board and blew up the plane. [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 9/14/2001] Later in the month, it is reported that the “FBI has determined from the on site investigation that no explosive was involved.” [Associated Press, 9/25/2001]
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 ] 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, 2/23/2002] 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).
It is initially reported that Flight 93 was traveling fairly slowly when it crashed on September 11. Days after the attacks, the New York Times reports that Flight 93 “slammed into the ground at a speed that law enforcement authorities said might have approached 300 miles an hour.” [New York Times, 9/14/2001] Another newspaper reports, “Flight 93 slammed into the earth nose-first at over 200 mph, according to estimates by the National Transportation Safety Board and other experts.” [News Journal (Wilmington, DE), 9/16/2001] However, by 2002 it is being reported that the plane crashed going nearly 600 mph. [Longman, 2002, pp. 212] “It could have even broken the sound barrier for a while,” says Hank Krakowski, who was United Airlines’ director of flight operations on September 11. [New York Times, 3/27/2002] The design limits of the plane are 287 mph when flying below 10,000 feet. [Longman, 2002, pp. 208]
A poster to help law enforcement officers locate the missing “black boxes” in the WTC debris. [Source: FBI/Smithsonian Institution]According to two men who work extensively in the wreckage of the World Trade Center, three of the four black boxes from Flight 11 and Flight 175 are actually found during this month, but the public is not told. New York City Firefighter Nicholas DeMasi will mention the finding in a book published in 2003. He claims to drive federal agents on an all-terrain vehicle during their search and to see the found boxes himself. The Philadelphia Daily News will report on the story in 2004 when another rescue worker, volunteer Mike Bellone, backs up DeMasi’s account and claims to have seen one of the boxes as well. Spokesmen for the FBI and the New York City Fire Department will deny the claims of these two workers. [Philadelphia Daily News, 10/28/2004] In 2005, it will be reported: “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 denies that the FBI ever gave them the boxes. [CounterPunch, 12/19/2005]
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