Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Air Traffic Control

On September 11, 2002, Tom Brokaw hosted a special "Dateline NBC" that included interviews with air traffic controllers who had been on duty on September 11, 2001. Here are excerpts from the transcript of that show.

TOM BROKAW: Good evening. Where were you on September 11th? Today, certainly here in New York, with all the sad memories and solemn memorials, we've heard answers from a number of people: grieving family members, survivors, government officials. But there is one group we have not heard from. They saw the attack coming from the very beginning to the end. They are the air traffic controllers who were in charge of America's air space that morning. What they witnessed, even now, is hard to fathom. And what they managed to do had never been done before. Tonight, for the first time, they tell their compelling story....

BROKAW: (Voiceover) As Bob Varcadapane trades calls with the New York and Boston centers, a horrific realization dawns on controllers. American Flight 11, still missing from radar, finally has been found. Word of the fate of Flight 11 quickly travels throughout the air traffic control world. Back at the New York center, all eyes are now trained on United 175, as it races over central New Jersey, clearly headed toward New York....

Mr. BOTTOGLIA: I know that an airplane has hit the Trade Center, but we're still hoping that the United was not going to do that....

Mr. DON KRIVOLAVY: I got a call from New York center saying, 'We have an aircraft at 24,000 feet. We don't--he's not talking to anybody, we don't know where he's going.'

BROKAW: (Voiceover) Don Krivolavy is on duty that morning. His colleagues, John Smith, John Riccardi, and Dean Yawkopelli.

(Controllers talking to reporter)

Mr. KRIVOLAVY: Probably 10 miles into my air space, he started descending. I pointed him out to John.

Mr. JOHN SMITH: And said, 'Watch this aircraft. It's coming through. We don't know what's going to happen.'

Mr. KRIVOLAVY: And we just watched him go down.

BROKAW: (Voiceover) Eight fifty-two AM. It has been six minutes since American 11 hit the north tower, and NORAD, responsible for the defense of North American airspace, is now alerted to a second hijacking. It scrambles two F-15 fighter jets from Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts to potentially intercept the United plane, but they are more than 150 miles and some 20 minutes away. The rest of the country, watching on television, still believes the crash in New York is an accident. But these controllers, now watching in horror as the second plane bears down on lower Manhattan, are the first to know the awful truth....

Mr. RICCARDI: It was highlighted to me so that I could watch it as it came in from the southwest and then made a direct turn towards the south tower.

BROKAW: When it made that direct turn, did you think, 'Oh, my God'?

Mr. RICCARDI: I thought it was a fighter jet coming in to cover the city. As it turned out, it just continued to descend through 5,000 feet and lower.

Mr. KRIVOLAVY: And that's when my supe came up and said, 'You know, you could probably consider him a terrorist at this point.' And you kind of just turned around and got this kind of empty feeling.

BROKAW: It was helpless. You couldn't do anything.

Mr. KRIVOLAVY: Yeah. You know, you sit there for 10 years controlling planes. For the first time in your life, you don't have any control of this at all....

BROKAW: (Voiceover) They knew it was coming. But until they saw it happen with their own eyes, it was too hard to believe. As the second strike plays out on live television, the rest of the country is also in shock, finally understanding what these controllers already knew: America is under attack. Controllers in the tower immediately wonder, could there be a third attack on the way?...

Mr. VARCADAPANE: ...I told them that Newark was ceasing operations. We would not accept any aircraft landing at Newark airport. I wanted--my main concern was keeping airplanes out of this air space. New York City was just attacked twice. So then we shut down. I believe that was the beginning of shutting down of the national airspace system.

BROKAW: (Voiceover) As Newark controllers shut down their airport, they have no way of knowing that one of their own planes, United Flight 93, cleared for takeoff only moments before the first tower was hit, is about to face its own crisis....

Ms. STACEY TAYLOR: I hear one of the controllers behind me go, 'Oh, my God, oh my God,' and he starts yelling for the supervisor. He goes, 'What is this plane doing? What is this plane doing?' I wasn't that busy at the time, and I pulled it up on my screen and he was climbing and descending and climbing and descending, but very gradually. He'd go up 300 feet, he'd go down 300 feet. And it turned out to be United 93....

BROKAW: (Voiceover) And in New York, controllers brace themselves for another possible assault on their airspace.

(Controllers working)

BROKAW: Did you keep thinking, 'My God, there may be another target coming in here at some point?'

Mr. RICCARDI: Yes. Yes, it was definitely on my mind. I was wondering, what else was going to get hit, how many more times this would happen, where it would happen.

Mr. JOHN RICCARDI: But at that point, it was, 'What was next?'


Sphere: Related Content