New York Observer
20 June 2004
by Gail Sheehy
Despite having boarded her train at 5 a.m. that morning in Washington, D.C., Rosemary Dillard’s linen jacket was still creaseless, her carriage professional and crisp, as she walked down the train platform at Princeton Junction on the morning of June 4.
Ms. Dillard dared to hope that the F.B.I. would clarify the timeline in the mystifying story of Sept. 11, 2001.
The briefing in New Jersey two weeks ago, attended by about 130 family members of victims, had been arranged by the F.B.I. Previously unavailable calls from passengers and crew were to be played for families of victims of the four infamous flights that were turned into missiles by terrorists.
Who knew what, and when? And what did the airlines and federal officials do about it? These were the burning questions on the minds of many family members who have begged the commission to help connect the dots. This week, when the 9/11 commission wraps up its public hearings, families had been promised that the final report would be titled "9-11: The Timeline." But at the last minute the commission switched the subject to "9-11: The Plot," focusing on the hijackers? success in foiling every layer of the nation’s defenses, up to and including the airlines”.
For Ms. Dillard, the tapes scheduled to be played in Princeton this June morning were especially important: She herself had acted as the American Airlines base manager at Reagan National Airport on the morning of Sept. 11. She had been responsible for three D.C.-area airports, including Dulles. For the last two and a half years, she has been haunted by the fact that American Airlines Flight 77 took off from Dulles Airport that morning, with her blessing.
Her husband was a passenger on that flight.
The cab on the way to the hearing at the Radisson Hotel was quiet. Asked if she was part of a lawsuit being filed by the roughly 115 families against American and United Airlines and an alphabet soup of government agencies, she demurred.
"That’s a very sore subject," she said. She hoped, in hearing tapes of conversations between flight crews and authorities on the ground, to find out why, when flight controllers in Boston suspected a hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11 as early as 8:13 a.m., neither her company nor the Federal Aviation Administration notified her to warn the crew of American Airlines Flight 77 of the terrorist threat in the skies when the plane took off at 8:20 a.m. By 8:24 a.m., flight controllers were certain that Flight 11 had been overrun.
But neither the tapes and cell-phone recordings Ms. Dillard heard that afternoon, nor the PowerPoint presentation that took the families systematically through all four flights with neat timelines and bland conclusions, helped her to connect the dots. She fled the hearing early, deeply upset.
Those present were told that the material they were hearing is evidence in the government’s case against Zacarias Moussaoui, the once-alleged 20th hijacker, and in order not to compromise the case, it mustn’t be disclosed. They signed nondisclosure agreements and were not permitted to take notes. Civil attorneys and the media were barred. F.B.I. agents filled the halls of the hotel and took any camera or recording equipment before people were admitted to the ballroom. Those who left the three-and-a-half-hour session to relieve themselves were accompanied into rest rooms by agents.
The families heard a tape that has just now surfaced. Recorded by American Airlines at its headquarters in Fort Worth, Tex., even as the first hijacked airliner, Flight 11, was being taken over, the tape shows the airline’s top management was made aware beginning at about 8:21 a.m.” 25 minutes before the impact of the first plane into the World Trade Center’s north tower that a group of men described as Middle Eastern had stabbed two flight attendants, clouded the forward cabin with pepper spray or Mace, menaced crew and passengers with what looked like a bomb, and stormed the cockpit in a violent takeover of the gigantic bird.
Despite all the high secrecy surrounding the briefing, a half-dozen different family members were so horrified by voice evidence of the airlines? disregard for the fate of their pilots, crew and passengers that they found ways to reveal some of what they heard on those tapes, and also what they felt. To them, the tapes appeared to show that the first instinct of American and United Airlines, as management learned of the gathering horror aboard their passenger planes on Sept. 11, was to cover up.
The response of American’s management on duty, as revealed on the tape produced at the meeting, was recalled by persons in attendance:
"Don’t spread this around. Keep it close."
"Keep it quiet."
"Let’s keep this among ourselves. What else can we find out from our own sources about what’s going on?"
"It was disgusting," said the parent of one of the victims, herself a veteran flight attendant for United Airlines. "The very first response was cover-up, when they should have been broadcasting this information all over the place."
That instinct to hold back information, some of the families believe, may have helped to allow the third hijacked plane to crash into the Pentagon and contributed to the doom of a fourth flight, United Flight 93. The United dispatcher was told by his superiors: Don’t tell pilots why we want them to land. The F.B.I. and the F.A.A. have also held back or, in one case, destroyed evidence in the government’s possession that would tell a very different story of how the nation’s guardians failed to prepare or protect Americans from the most devastating of terrorist attacks on the homeland.
"Flight 77 should never have taken off," Ms. Dillard said through clenched teeth.
Voices of the dead on cell
phones aroused gut-wrenching feelings. Passengers who called from both American Flight 11 and United Flight 175 talked about believing the hijackers were piloting the aircraft, and reported wildly erratic flying patterns.
Voices of crew members, calmly disseminating specifics to airline managers on the ground, pointed out how much was known minutes and even an hour and a half before the last of the jumbo jets had met its diabolic finish.
American Airlines officials had to know there was nothing traditional about this hijacking, because two of their flight attendants, Madeline (Amy) Sweeney and Betty Ong, were calmly and bravely transmitting the most illuminating details anyone has yet heard. Ms. Ong’s tape was played in a public commission hearing in January, prompting family members to demand that the F.B.I. honor their rights under the Victims Assistance Act to hear any and all calls made from the stricken planes that day. Ms. Sweenex’s name was cited only in passing at that earlier hearing. And when the president and chief executive of American Airlines, Gerard Arpey, testified, he never mentioned Ms. Sweeney or the cache of information she had provided American Airlines officials so early in the unfolding disaster.
Since then, Mike Sweeney, her widowed husband, has been troubled by the disconnect between the airline’s ignoring of his wife’s efforts, and the fact that the F.B.I. awarded her its highest civilian honor. He was first informed about the new tape two weeks previously by the U.S. attornex’s office in Virginia. David Novak, an assistant U.S. attorney involved in prosecuting the Moussaoui case, told Mr. Sweeney that the existence of the tape was news to him and offered him a private hearing.
"I was shocked that I’m finding out, almost three years later, there was a tape with information given by my wife that was very crucial to the happenings of 9/11," Mr. Sweeney told me. "Suddenly it miraculously appears and falls into the hands of F.B.I.” Why and how and for what reason was it suppressed? Why did it surface now? Is there information on that tape that is of concern to other law-enforcement agencies?"
The gut-churning question that has kept the widowed father of two young children on edge for so long is this: "When and how was this information about the hijackers used? Were Amx’s last moments put to the best use to protect and save others?"
Now he believes the answer is no.
From the beginning, the commission has been plagued with questions of where evidence exists about what happened with the flights on Sept. 11. This tape is a case in point.
"We, the prosecution team and the F.B.I. agents that have been assigned to assist us, were not aware of that tape," Mr. Novak told me. He says he only learned of it two weeks ago while he was briefing 9/11 commissioners on what he knows about the two hijacked American flights. He believes the commission got the tape from the airline.
"Now, does Mike have a reason to have heartburn about this?" he asks rhetorically. "Absolutely as any other victim would, if they learned of something after two and a half years. We’re trying to figure out why we didn’t know about this before. Is it American Airlines? fault? I don’t know. Is it the way they produced it? I don’t know. Is it an F.B.I. fault? I don’t know."
Mr. Novak suggested a possible explanation for the airline’s personnel to hold the horrific information tightly: "I think they were trying not to get other people unduly alarmed so they could deal with the situation at hand." But he says he is not going to defend or attack airline personnel. "That’s not my job. Our job is to try to convict Moussaoui. We view this as a giant murder case."
He confirmed that the Justice Department only revealed to the families what in its judgment were the "relevant" tapes. The F.B.I. is holding back other recordings from some of the flights as evidence in prosecuting its criminal trial. It is the way the F.B.I. has always done business: zealously guarding information to make its case retrospectively, rather than sharing information with other law-enforcement agencies to improve the countrx’s defensive posture proactively. For example, tapes considered "relevant" to the families didn’t include the cockpit voice recorder or the flight-data recorder from Flight 93, the final casualty.
On the American Airlines tape played at the meeting, a voice is heard relaying to the airline’s headquarters the blow-by-blow account by Ms. Sweeney of mayhem aboard Flight 11. The flight attendant had gone face to face with the hijackers, and reported they had shown her what appeared to be a bomb, with red and yellow wires. The young blond mother of two had secreted herself in the next-to-last passenger row and used an AirFone card, given to her by another flight attendant, Sara Low, to call the airline’s flight-services office at Boston’s Logan airport.
"This is Amy Sweeney," she reported. "I?m on Flight 11 this plane has been hijacked." She was disconnected. She called back: "Listen to me, and listen to me very carefully." Within seconds, her befuddled respondent was replaced by a voice she knew.
"Amy, this is Michael Woodward."
The American Airlines flight-service manager had been friends with Ms. Sweeney for a decade and didn’t have to waste time verifying that this wasn’t a hoax. Ms. Sweeney repeated, "Michael, this plane has been hijacked."
Since there was no tape machine in his office, Woodward began repeating the flight attendant’s alarming account to a colleague, Nancy Wyatt, the supervisor of pursers at Logan. On another phone, Ms. Wyatt was simultaneously transmitting Ms. Sweenex’s words to the airline’s Fort Worth headquarters. It was that relayed account that was played for the families.
"In Fort Worth, two managers in S.O.C. [Systems Operations Control] were sitting beside each other and hearing it," says one former American Airlines employee who heard the tape. "They were both saying,