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.