New York: Senior US flight control officers on Tuesday recalled the harrowing and chaotic minutes 10 years ago when they realised that the busy skies over New York had turned into war zone.
"It started out like any other day," Terry Biggio, air operations manager on the Boston Air Route, said in video comments released by the Federal Aviation Administration to mark the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Early into his shift, controllers heard a bizarre radio transmission from American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston in which a man said "we have more planes”.
The transmission seemed incomprehensible at the time, Biggio said, but then came two more. One controller "picked up on the fact that the second transmission was of an Arab accent that didn`t sound like the pilot”.
These were the first clues in a mystery unfolding so rapidly that almost before US authorities could grasp what was happening, the World Trade Centre was in flames, and the tally of hijacked airliners had risen to four.
"It happened very quickly: in the span of about 15 minutes is when we realised we had a much bigger event than maybe just an aircraft that was hijacked and was going to land at Kennedy or at Newark and make some demands," Biggio said.
By the end of the morning, with the Twin Towers in ruins, the Pentagon smouldering and a fourth plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field, 2,977 people had been murdered.
Michael McCormick, air traffic manager at the FAA facility in Ronkonkoma, New York, said he was just discussing on the telephone about one hijacking when he heard over his shoulder a controller say: "I think we have another one”.
At that moment, McCormick said, he decided officials could "not make any assumption that this was an accident”.
So he ordered "sterilising" New York`s airspace, ordering any aircraft in the air to leave the region and any on the ground to stay put -- a huge logistical exercise involving hundreds of aircraft.
"I immediately made the connection that this was not a single event, that this was an attack upon our country, that they were using our system, that I love immensely... and that they were using it as a weapon," he said.
The dramatic and unprecedented order also included trans-Atlantic airliners that at that early hour were about half way across the ocean on their way to New York airports.
Some turned back and some diverted to Canada, McCormick said, recalling that there was no time to give pilots more than a cursory explanation.
"There was little time to engage in long conversation or lengthy explanations about what we were doing. It basically came down to, this is it, this is the only way we can protect our country."
Frank Hatfield, air traffic division manager for the FAA`s Eastern Region Headquarters, said the crisis was difficult from both professional and emotional standpoints.
The attacks were "intensely personal" to many FAA employees in the New York area, he said.
"The challenge there was dealing with those kinds of emotions while at the same time dealing with the crisis."
Hatfield assured that the confusion that made reacting to the hijackings so difficult on 9/11 could not be repeated.
"The information exchange is lightening fast now compared to what it was on that morning. If we have any kind of situation in the skies, every single government agency, up to the White House, is aware of that situation at the exact same moment," he said.
"The flying public should know the FAA is certainly on top of all of this, and what happened before and the confusion that existed before will never happen again."