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CNN Live Today

Air Traffic Controllers' Tales of 9/11

Aired August 12, 2002 - 12:30   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: In the 11 months since the nightmare of September 11, thousands of people have told thousands of stories. Victims, witnesses, responders, each have unique experiences that paint a fuller picture of that horrible day.
Well, today, CNN's Miles O'Brien is up in New York and heard the stories of the air traffic controllers working on that day.

Miles, I can't imagine just the emotion that you must have heard from these people.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's a very emotional thing, Carol, and it's a story I think we all have been anxious to hear in this 11 month period since the 9/11 attacks. If you think about it, the first U.S. forces to respond to this enemy, this enemy of terrorism and al Qaeda, first U.S. forces to do that were right in buildings like this one. That's an FAA facility here in Westbury, New York, on Long Island. The first people were these air traffic controllers, and their battlefield, if you think about it, was the skies over the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.

Inside these radar control rooms, those blips on those screens told a story; they just didn't understand it right away. When the transponders (UNINTELLIGIBLE) inside -- those transponders which enhance the radar signals of those airlines -- they immediately assumed it was a hijacking. Well, in fact it was a hijacking, but not the kind they ever anticipated.

They started clearing out a corridor of airspace. They started notifying airports -- for example, Newark -- that an airplane might, in fact, be arriving there, a hijacked aircraft. It wasn't until the controllers were watching actually CNN and saw that that first flight, American Airlines Flight 11, had flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center -- it wasn't until then that they realized something more sinister was underway.

Let's listen to one of the veteran air traffic controllers we heard from today, Mike Mccormick.


MICHAEL MCCORMICK, FAA AIR TRAFFIC MANAGER: I knew at that time this was, in fact, an attack. We knew the World Trade Center was a target of a previous attack. And this was, in fact, another attack.

At the same time, as we were coordinating from this attack, is when United 175 was hijacked. We lost communication with that aircraft. We tracked that aircraft as it turned southbound and then back northeast bound, back toward Manhattan. I assumed at that point that that target of that aircraft was in fact the World Trade Center.


O'BRIEN: Mike McCormick assumed that United Airlines would head for the same tower that American Airlines 11 hit. He didn't explain necessarily why, except to say he felt that the second flight would be designed to bring down the tower. Of course, as we know, it only took one airliner to bring down each tower. Instead, 175 went for the south tower. And he describes the 11 minutes of that realization, knowing that plane was headed in that direction, as most painful of his life. Let's listen.


MCCORMICK: Probably one of the most difficult moments of my life was the 11 minutes from the point I watched that aircraft, when we first lost communications until the point that aircraft hit the World Trade Center. For those 11 minutes, I knew, we knew, what was going to happen, and that was difficult.

It was difficult for the men and women in New York center. But one thing that did not surprise me, through the entire morning and several days after that, the one thing that was not a surprise to me, was how the men and women in New York center handled that situation. Consummate professionals. Remaining calm and in control.


O'BRIEN: And under unprecedented circumstances, they were doing their work. For example, the people in the Newark control tower actually witnessed United Airlines 175 fly right into the south tower of the World Trade Center. The folks in the control tower at Washington National Airport saw American Airlines 77 go right into the Pentagon. And still these controllers stayed on their posts for about 2 1/2 hours to see the orderly transition from a normal day of air traffic control in the United States to the unprecedented decision to ground each and every flight in this country.

About 4,600 flights brought down safely in the course of a 2 1/2 hour period. Truly, if you are looking for heroes on that day, this is a group that would be counted in that category, and one we haven't heard from that much to date -- Carol.

LIN: That's really amazing, Miles.

In the aftermath of this -- it's been 11 months now -- have you heard whether any of these air traffic controllers have needed to receive any counseling, you know, just coping on it on a personal level. Or have they just simply marched forward?

O'BRIEN: We asked them about that. Many of them have had to deal with this, and they have had to seek counseling. Counseling has been provided. Of course, you know being an air traffic controller is a high stress job anyway. The people who sign up for this type of work are people that kind of thrive in that environment. Nevertheless, there's been ongoing counseling for everybody who has been involved in this, who has wanted it, ever since the day of that attack.

LIN: Good for them.

Thank you very much, Miles, for that report.