Sep

12

 September 11, 2001

It really was a remarkable day. I remember stopping on the sidewalk on the way into work to just look at the sky, it was crystalline and incredibly blue. Beautiful. I stepped into my place of business, a large room about the size of a football field, very dark with the constant hum of electronics and various sections filled with radar scopes. I work at the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center, NYARTCC or New York Center as we say. I had no idea that this day would turn out to be the most terrible and memorable day of my career. I had been lucky so far, dodging bullets by not being on duty when Avianca 52 went down in Great Neck, Long Island or the explosion of TWA 800 or the suicide/mass murder of EgyptAir 990. But not today. The pilots were particularly chatty that day, constantly commenting on how nice the city looked, how clear it was. It was a CAVU day. Ceilings And Visibility Unlimited.

I was plugged in and working sector 55, a radar departure sector that encompasses airspace to the southwest of New York City from 14,000 feet to 28,000 feet and I was working quite a few JFK departures westbound, several NY Metro departures southwest-bound and some arrivals into DCA and BWI that had to be descended through the climbing departures. I was getting a bit busy and asked the controller working with me to "point out" an aircraft to the sector above us (sector 42) so I could climb the flight into his airspace and basically get him out of the way. My coworker called and then hung up, incredulous, saying sarcastically "He won't take the point out, he says he has a hijack". As the controller working the sector above us had a flair for drama we didn't take him seriously and I remarked "Get a real controller over there".

But it was true. American 11 had turned off its transponder and had turned south over the Hudson River toward New York. The transponder transmits a 4 digit code along with altitude and position information so our computers can track the flight and we can see its altitude and speed. Although the flight had turned off the transponder we still had a very solid "primary" (radar reflection) target visible on the scope. So we could still see what we believed was AAL11 heading south toward New York, but we had no idea what its altitude was.

At some point I remember calling Huntress, the Northeast Air Defense Sector to give the position of the target that we believed was AAL 11. "Where is he?" the military controller asked. "About ten miles west of LaGuardia, right over the Hudson, heading south, its a strong primary target". "I'm sorry, where? I don't see him". I gave up and hung up the line. The target was gone. We did not know then that AAL 11 had crashed into the World Trade Center. A few moments later some aircraft on my frequency that had just departed JFK asked me if I knew the south tower was on fire. There was a huge column of smoke they said. Later, after listening to the tapes, we discovered that one of the pilots on my frequency had said "Maybe its that American you guys are looking for" but I hadn't heard what he said. All we knew for sure was that he was no longer on the radar and that simply meant that he was very, very low. We assumed (for some reason) that they were flying low and down the coast and headed god knows where. Someone said that a small twin engine aircraft had hit the World Trade Center, but it never occurred to us that it could possibly have been American 11. No way. Not in your dreams bud.

As this was beginning, UAL175 checked on with the controller working sector 42 and told him that they had heard a suspicious transmission on the prior frequency in Boston Center's airspace. But all eyes were on the target that we believed was AAL11. As we focused on the target, trying to figure out what was going on, the facility chief entered the room with a phone in each ear and his deputy beside him. They stood behind sector 42 and talked quietly but I was too busy to hear any of their conversation. While everyone in the room was staring at this target tracking toward New York, I heard a voice behind me say "Hey, there's an intruder over Allentown" This meant that there was a target that we call a "Mode C Intruder" that the computer wasn't tracking. Then we noticed that the computer track for United 175 had separated from its target so we assumed the intruder was UAL175 and he was showing up as an intruder because someone on the flight deck had changed the transponder code to a code that the computer couldn't identify. The intruder climbed briefly from 36,000 feet or as we say Flight Level Three Six Zero (if I recall correctly) and then as it passed over Allentown, PA it began descending and turning left to the south.

Someone said "watch this guy" to me but I was already watching, I had entered the 3321 code that the aircraft was now squawking on its transponder into to make its target appear brighter on my scope. As the target continued turning and descending I became increasingly concerned about two aircraft that I had under my control, both heading southwest and climbing. If the intruder continued the left turn and descending at the same rate it looked like they would get very close. But it was impossible to tell which way to move the traffic to get them out of the way. If the intruder turned rather tightly than he would come north of my traffic, if the turn was wide he would come south of them. As it was he turned head on into both of them.

Before the intruder had finished the turn I had issued a traffic call to both of my climbing aircraft: "Delta 2315 and USAir 542, traffic, one o'clock, one five miles turning southeast and descending, we believe it is a hijack and we don't know his intentions" (please keep in mind that these are my recollections ten years after the event and I don't have transcripts of my tapes available, but the essence is exactly as it was that day). Still, I had no idea what the intruder was going to do. Would he continue turning? Continue descending? I had to assume yes to both of these questions and it began to look as if he was heading for New York City, but for what purpose? Was he an emergency we speculated? If so it must be a dire one. No pilot would turn off course or descend without informing us first. This was crazy. We were thinking hijack but just weren't sure. Delta 2315 was level now at FL 280 (28,000 feet) and USAir 542 was about five miles behind him and leveling off at FL 260. I called the traffic again, "Delta 2315 that traffic is now one o'clock, ten miles, turning opposite direction and descending rapidly. It looks like he will be directly in your face. Take any evasive action you deem necessary." "Roger" came the reply. I called the traffic to USAir 542 again and he asked me a question that I didn't hear correctly. I thought he said "Is that the guy at our one o'clock?" and I responded "affirmative", but we later determined that what he actually said was "Is that the Delta we are following at our one o'clock?" which was not the case, I wanted him to look for the intruder that was turning head on.

By now I was becoming extremely concerned. The tension in the room was palpable. Several people were staring in disbelief at my scope as the events began to unfold. When the intruder was about 7 miles from Delta 2315 and pointed directly at him and about 1,500 feet above him, I turned both aircraft, shooting off the clearances as quickly and as clearly as I could: "Delta 2315 turned left IMMEDIATELY heading two zero zero" The pilot responded with a "roger" that sounded just a bit too nonchalant for my current state. "USAir 542 turn left IMMEDIATELY heading two zero zero". The intruders target was now about five miles from Delta 2315 and closing at right around 1,000 miles per hour. I again called the traffic to the Delta and waited to see the turns. I watched in horror as the two aircraft converged at 28,000 feet. "GOD F#&KING DAMNIT" I shouted as I jumped out of my chair, screaming at the scope. Dead silence. I could hear people breathing across the room. Shit. This was it. It takes twelve seconds for the radar to update. That was the longest twelve seconds of my life. I was focused so intensely on the radar that I thought my eyes might pop out of their sockets. Finally the targets both appeared after having passed each other by about 2 miles. But at that time it seemed like you couldn't fit a sheet of paper between them.

"USAir 542 is responding to an R.A." said the USAir pilot as he began descending, responding to an onboard collision avoidance device called TCAS. Sh*t. "Christ I'm sorry about that sir, I really thought he was going to hit the Delta", I said apologizing to the USAir flight that had come almost as close as the Delta. As it turns out, we suspect that the hijackers aboard United 175 must have heard the TCAS alerts as well because they briefly stopped descending and actually climbed to about 28,300 feet, 300 feet above the Delta. But as soon as they passed they began descending again and rapidly. This is when USAir 542 began descending as well to avoid the conflict, but the turns I had given earlier ended up doing the job, but much, much too close for comfort.

By now I was a nervous wreck and we all watched United 175 descending toward New York City. We wondered, clutching to hope, if he really might be an emergency and not a hijack and was just trying to get the aircraft down on a runway, any runway. We wondered aloud if he was trying for Newark as he was pointed right at it. "Maybe he's shooting for the 4's at Newark??" (Newark has two runways called 4, a left and a right) "No", Jimmy B. said, "He's too high and too fast". We watched as the target clipped off the miles, twelve seconds a hit. (We call each subsequent target presentation a "hit"). He was descending at five thousand feet a minute. Then six. Then seven. Unbelievable. Things were beginning to feel surreal. This wasn't actually happening was it? Yes. "Maybe he's trying for runway 4 at LaGuardia?", someone said. "No", again from Jim. "This guy is going in" And we knew. They were going to crash the plane into the city. They were pointed right at lower Manhattan and we knew it. "Two more hits" said Jimmy. "One more" And then he was gone. We had just watched a commercial airliner deliberately crashed into New York City. It didn't take long for the tears to come. There was confusion, fear, wild emotion. But we still had work to do.

I vectored aircraft on course, climbed some, descended others, I don't remember really. I remember choking back tears as I issued instructions to several pilots and talked with some about what had just happened. At some point the supervisor asked me if I needed to get up. I nodded emphatically and was relieved by another controller.

As I walked out of the area and passed the watch desk I heard the Operational Manager in Charge screaming into the phone: "I don't give a shit what they do, just get them in the air NOW!!" Must be scrambling fighters I pondered, feeling distant and disconnected. I reached over his multiple CRT's and grabbed the cigarettes out of his shirt pocket. He never noticed.

The rest is history. The controllers in my area, area B, were sequestered with a priest and a psychologist in a conference room for a while, and someone would pop in occasionally with the latest news. "The south tower just collapsed" No f#$king way I thought. They kept popping in with more bad news, bomb threats, more hijackings. I couldn't take it and got up and walked out to smoke one cigarette after another. The controller sitting next to me had just lost his best friend who was working at Windows On the World. People were in tears, everyone was afraid and angry. Unbelievably angry.

At one point they gathered us up, the controllers from Area B and we made written statements and a recording. They brought this big old reel to reel recorder in and passed around a microphone asking us to give our version of what we saw. Four or five people had already spoken when they discovered it wasn't recording and we had to start over. Later, a Quality Assurance Manager destroyed this tape and there was a bit of conspiracy theory going on about it. But this is nonsense. The tape was destroyed because the manager knew it was counterproductive and embarrassing. Not embarrassing to the FAA, but to us personally. Many people were crying, several facts were stated incorrectly, it was just a mess. And they had all the data they could possibly need with the voice recordings of all the transmissions and all of the radar data. Not only was he within his rights to destroy the tape, it was actually in his job description. Was it right? I'll leave that to you to decide. But I can tell you from first hand experience that the contents of the tape that caused such a flap were totally innocuous.

So that is what I experienced on 9/11. I hope it gives some insight, it is definitely a harrowing tale. Below are some statements from my coworkers that I retrieved from the national archives. I was unable to locate mine on the website, although I have a hard copy of it myself. I would really liked to have been able to provide a transcript of my voice recordings from that day, but I was told I have to go through a Freedom of Information procedure and just didn't want to bother. More government red tape is all I need.

Several weeks (months? who knows) after the event I spoke with a reporter over the phone about that day and he wrote a story for the Hartford Courant. A few days after it was printed he called me again with a strange request. A reader had contacted him and wanted to speak with me, could he share my number with him? I said sure and the gentleman called. Apparently he had been a passenger aboard Delta 2315, a circuit court judge for either the U.S. or Connecticut, I don't remember. But he had called to thank me. "For what?" I asked. "For saving my life that day", "for doing your job" and we talked for hours. I think he saved my life that day.

This is dedicated to all those who lost their lives that day, especially the pilots, crew and passengers aboard American 11 and United 175.

Also, please note that much of the information on wikipedia about these two flights is incorrect, but only mildly so.

Christopher Tucker

September 9th, 2011
 


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15 Comments so far

  1. Debe Graham on September 12, 2011 1:15 am

    Chris, I read your story with great interest, as, unbeknownst to you, you were one of the people I was thinking of that day. Why? You ask? I am a very good friend of your sister and I knew you were an air traffic controller for the New York Area Airports. I was actually on my way out the door to Newark airport to fly home to Tulsa. I was visiting my sister and her family on McGuire AFB and my brother-in-law was Military Police and called and stopped me just after the first plane hit the North Tower. And as you stated the rest is history. I ended up driving home to Tulsa from Jersey. Thank you for what you do on a daily basis and I hope you know you did all you could to try and stop the events that transpired. You are appreciated.

  2. jeff watson on September 12, 2011 8:36 am

    If there were an award for Daily Speculations post of the year, I would hope Mr. Tucker’s post would get the nod.

  3. Craig Hinderson on September 12, 2011 1:14 pm

    I agree completely with Mr. Watson’s reply. It was a day that I will never forget in my life. It was a horrible feeling and the only thing I could think at that moment was to how close I wanted to be to my loved ones.

  4. Nemo on September 13, 2011 8:38 am

    I agree with Watson. This was very moving to me (not really good when you are on a trading desk). It also brings a sense of closure for those that were not privy to what happened to the air traffic controllers that day.

    Mr. Tucker I agree with that passenger on Delta 2315, you did save lives, you acted remarkably in the face of disaster, you should be proud of what you did and never forget it.

  5. Brian Dunbar on September 13, 2011 10:50 am

    Thank you for sharing, Chris.

  6. Mike Mislin on September 13, 2011 11:06 am

    Chris,

    Your words brought me chills. Having worked my share of emergencies in my career I know how nerve wracking it can be. Never would I be able to express so profoundly my thoughts on this subject. Well done.

  7. Jim Raffa on September 13, 2011 11:13 am

    Chris,
    One thing that is amazing to me…why no one seemed to notify
    the US Air National Guard or some similar entity to scramble and find out what you were hearing and surmising was actually happening…. Not that anyone could do anything in the sense of shooting down the planes, but at least it would show that multiple entities were sharing their knowledge of a horrific situation….The scrambling did happen but almost 10 minutes afte the first plane crashed into the 1st tower…..
    Your thoughts.
    Regards.
    Jim

  8. Jim Raffa on September 13, 2011 11:18 am

    Chris,
    I am amazed that there was no instantaneous notification to the US Air National Guard or similar entity to scramble and to confirm your assumptions and conversations….To this day I wonder why it took planes from Cape Cod ten minutes after the first tower was hit to scramble….and why was this Cape Cod squadron used when there are closer entities to the NYC area….
    It seems like the US was incredulous to the situation…no one would dare attack the US in broad daylight….and that assumption caused delays all along the process that morning…
    Your thoughts.
    Regards.
    Jim Raffa

  9. Anne Tucker on September 13, 2011 7:19 pm

    Chris, we are so very proud of you, but always been saddened that you were working that infamous day in America’s history.

    Love you, MOM

  10. Anne Tucker on September 13, 2011 7:22 pm

    but, Chris, the traffic in the air at that time was blessed that you WERE working and protecting them from the terrorists.

    Mom , (again)

  11. Ed on September 13, 2011 9:09 pm

    This story hit me in the gut. One to remember.

  12. anne b grondin on September 13, 2011 10:01 pm

    i saw it when it happened and watched it again sunday for 4hrs..very sad…

  13. Christopher Tucker on September 14, 2011 1:17 pm

    Mr. Raffa,
    I am not qualified to really comment on the military response time, however I can say that EVERYONE was frustrated with it. There is very good information available, including interviews with commanders on duty that day in the documentary “Chasing Planes: Witness to 9/11″ which is attached to the special edition DVD release of the film “United 93″ see: http://tinyurl.com/3o6ps7e

  14. Cliff Moss on September 25, 2011 2:33 pm

    I just read your account and it was truly riveting.

    Small world - I became reacquainted with your mother thru Facebook after many years since we were in the same class in elementary school in Summit, NJ. She even had a Kindergarten class picture that I had long since forgotten.

    The people who do your job are amazing and can’t even conceive of your normal work days much less one like this.
    Cliff Moss

  15. Dave Keegan on November 15, 2011 9:25 am

    Chris- thanks for sharing such a harrowing story, and for everything that you do. As a formerly routine flyer, it is comforting to know the quality of the people in whose hands our lives are literally held.

    Thanks
    Dave

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