Thursday, August 15, 2002

Sept. 11 tension vivid to controller

Radio transmissions gave sounds of cockpit struggle, hijacker's voice

By M.R. Kropko
The Associated Press

        OBERLIN, Ohio - Air traffic controllers believed they had a hijacked plane in the air over Ohio on Sept. 11. They just didn't know which plane.

        During tense moments that morning at Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center, the first guess was that Delta Flight 1989 was hijacked, not United Airlines Flight 93.

        “We knew right away we had a problem. The first thought was, "Is that Delta 1989?' ” said Rick Kettell, manager of the Federal Aviation Administration's busiest regional center.

        Mr. Kettell talked Tuesday about the drama of the day for the air traffic controllers who had the last contact with United Flight 93 before it crashed in Pennsylvania.

        The center, about 35 miles southwest of Cleveland, guides planes at high altitude as they fly over portions of seven states: New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan.

        The center's controllers were concerned about the Delta flight because it had departed Boston five minutes behind United Flight 175, which crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York.

        “We knew the magnitude of what we were dealing with,” Mr. Kettell said. “We knew what happened in New York before our involvement became very keen.”

        Shortly after Delta Flight 1989 checked in with the Cleveland Center while over Syracuse, N.Y., the center's controllers heard two transmissions that sounded like a cockpit struggle.

        Meanwhile, Flight 93 had climbed to 41,000 feet over the Cleveland Center, and then over nearby Elyria turned 120 degrees to the southeast, a move that surprised controllers.

        “We were finally able to deduce by the airplanes talking back to us which was the airplane not talking to us, and that was Flight 93,” Mr. Kettell said.

        While there was still no confirmed problem with the Delta flight, the center expressed concerns to Delta's headquarters in Atlanta, which instructed the plane to land at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. It was brought in moments before the Cleveland Center received an order to ground all planes.

        Meanwhile, two more transmissions came in with a terrorist's voice speaking to passengers. By then, controllers knew for sure that it was the United flight that had been hijacked.

        “What we don't know was whether one of the pilots keyed the frequency so we could hear it or if (terrorists) hit the wrong button not knowing the equipment,” Mr. Kettell said. “My thoughts are that probably the pilot was trying to help us.”

        Later that tense day, after most planes had landed, Oberlin police warned the center of a small plane still flying and headed toward the center. That warning resulted in a brief evacuation except for essential employees. Mr. Kettell said that plane simply flew past and was never identified.

        In June, the center dedicated a memorial on its grounds to recall those who died when the hijacked plane crashed. Etched in stone are the words: “In honor of the men and women of the Cleveland Center and those aboard Flight 93 for their heroic actions on September 11, 2001.”


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