Stewardess ID'd Hijackers Early, Transcripts Show
Gail Sheehy
Stewardess ID'd Hijackers Early, Transcripts Show
Mon Feb 16 20:08:08 2004

Stewardess ID'd Hijackers Early, Transcripts Show

by Gail Sheehy

Hearing the taped voice of a courageous flight attendant as she calmly narrated the doomed course of American Airlines Flight 11 brought it all back. The frozen horror of that September morning two and a half years ago. The unanswered questions. Betty Ong narrated that first hijacking right up to the moment that Mohamed Atta drove the Boeing 767 into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Twenty-three minutes into her blow-by-blow account, Ong’s voice abruptly ceased. "What’s going on, Betty?" asked her ground contact, Nydia Gonzalez. "Betty, talk to me. I think we might have lost her."

Emotional catharsis, yes. There was scarcely a dry eye in the Senate hearing room where 10 commissioners are probing the myriad failures of our nation’s defenses and response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But answers? Not many. The most shocking evidence remains hidden in plain sight.

The politically divided 9/11 commission was able to agree on a public airing of four and a half minutes from the Betty Ong tape, which the American public and most of the victims’ families heard for the first time on the evening news of Jan. 27. But commissioners were unaware of the crucial information given in an even more revealing phone call, made by another heroic flight attendant on the same plane, Madeline (Amy) Sweeney. They were unaware because their chief of staff, Philip Zelikow, chooses which evidence and witnesses to bring to their attention. Mr. Zelikow, as a former adviser to the pre-9/11 Bush administration, has a blatant conflict.

"My wife’s call was the first specific information the airline and the government got that day," said Mike Sweeney, the widowed husband of Amy Sweeney, who went face to face with the hijackers on Flight 11. She gave seat locations and physical descriptions of the hijackers, which allowed officials to identify them as Middle Eastern men—by name—even before the first crash. She gave officials key clues to the fact that this was not a traditional hijacking. And she gave the first and only eyewitness account of a bomb on board.

"How do you know it’s a bomb?" asked her phone contact.

"Because the hijackers showed me a bomb," Sweeney said, describing its yellow and red wires.

Sweeney’s first call from the plane was at 7:11 a.m. on Sept. 11—the only call in which she displayed emotional upset. Flight 11 was delayed, and she seized the few moments to call home in hopes of talking to her 5-year-old daughter, Anna, to say how sorry she was not to be there to put her on the bus to kindergarten. Ms. Sweeney’s son Jack had been born several months premature, and she had taken the maximum time off over the previous summer to be with her children. "But she had to go back that fall, to hold the Boston-to-L.A. trip," explained her husband.

American’s Flight 11 took off from Logan Airport in Boston at 7:59 a.m. By 8:14 a.m., the F.A.A. controller following that flight from a facility in Nashua, N.H., already knew it was missing; its transponder had been turned off, and the controller couldn’t get a response from the pilots. The air-traffic controller contacted the pilot of United Airlines Flight 175, which at 8:14 also left Boston’s Logan bound for California, and asked for his help in locating Flight 11.

Sweeney slid into a passenger seat in the next-to-last row of coach and used an Airfone to call American Airlines Flight Service 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 Sweeney for a decade, so he didn’t have to waste any time verifying that this wasn’t a hoax. "Michael, this plane has been hijacked," Ms. Sweeney repeated. Calmly, she gave him the seat locations of three of the hijackers: 9D, 9G and 10B. She said they were all of Middle Eastern descent, and one spoke English very well.

Mr. Woodward ordered a colleague to punch up those seat locations on the computer. At least 20 minutes before the plane crashed, the airline had the names, addresses, phone numbers and credit cards of three of the five hijackers. They knew that 9G was Abdulaziz al-Omari, 10B was Satam al-Suqami, and 9D was Mohamed Atta—the ringleader of the 9/11 terrorists.

"The nightmare began before the first plane crashed," said Mike Sweeney, "because once my wife gave the seat numbers of the hijackers and Michael Woodward pulled up the passenger information, Mohamed Atta’s name was out there. They had to know what they were up against."

Mr. Woodward was simultaneously passing on Sweeney’s information to American’s headquarters in Dallas–Fort Worth. There was no taping facility in his office, because the most acute emergency normally fielded by a flight service manager would be a call from a crew member faced with 12 passengers in first class and only eight meals. So Mr. Woodward was furiously taking notes.

Amy Sweeney’s account alerted the airline that something extraordinary was occurring. She told Mr. Woodward she didn’t believe the pilots were flying the plane any longer. She couldn’t contact the cockpit. Sweeney may have ventured forward to business class, because she relayed the alarming news to Betty Ong, who was sitting in the rear jump-seat. In professional lingo, she said: "Our No. 1 has been stabbed," referring to a violent attack on the plane’s purser, "also No. 5," another flight attendant. She also reported that the passenger in 9B had had his throat slit by the hijacker sitting behind him and appeared to be dead. Betty Ong relayed this information to Nydia Gonzalez, a reservations manager in North Carolina, who simultaneously held another phone to her ear with an open line to American Airlines official Craig Marquis at the company’s Dallas headquarters.

The fact that the hijackers initiated their takeover by killing a passenger and stabbing two crew members had to be the first tip-off that this was anything but a standard hijacking. "I don’t recall any flight crew or passenger being harmed during a hijacking in the course of my career," said Peg Ogonowski, a senior flight attendant who has flown with American for 28 years.

Betty Ong and Amy Sweeney also reported that the hijackers had used mace or pepper spray and that passengers in business class were unable to breathe. Another dazzling clue to the hijackers’ having a unique and violent intent came in Betty Ong’s earliest report: "The cockpit is not answering their phone. We can’t get into the cockpit. We don’t know who’s up there."

A male colleague of Ms. Gonzalez then comes on the line and makes the infuriating observation: "Well, if they were shrewd, they’d keep the door closed. Would they not maintain a sterile cockpit?"

To which Ong replied: "I think the guys are up there."

Ms. Sweeney told her ground contact that the plane had radically changed direction; it was flying erratically and was in rapid descent. Mr. Woodward asked her to look out the window—what did she see?

"I see water. I see buildings. We’re flying low, we’re flying way too low," Sweeney replied, according to the notes taken by Mr. Woodward. Sweeney then took a deep breath and gasped, "Oh, my God."

At 8:46 a.m., Mr. Woodward lost contact with Amy Sweeney—the moment of metamorphosis, when her plane became a missile guided into the tower holding thousands of unsuspecting civilians. "So sometime between 8:30 and 8:46, American must have known that the hijacking was connected to Al Qaeda," said Mike Sweeney. That would be 16 to 32 minutes before the second plane perforated the south tower.

Would American Airlines officials monitoring the Sweeney and Woodward dialogue have known right away that Mohamed Atta was connected to Al Qaeda?

"The answer is probably yes," said 9/11 commission member Bob Kerrey, "but it seems to me that the weakness here, in running up to pre-9/11, is an unwillingness to believe that the United States of America could be attacked. Then you’re not putting defensive mechanisms in place. You’re not trying to screen out people with connections to Islamic extremist groups."

Peg Ogonowski, the widow of Flight 11’s captain, John Ogonowski, knew both Betty and Amy very well. "They had to know they were dealing with zealots," she said. "The words ‘Middle Eastern hijackers’ would put a chill in any flight-crew member’s heart. They were unpredictable; you couldn’t reason with them."

Ms. Ogonowski knew this from her nearly three decades of experience as a flight attendant for American. She and her husband had dreamt of the time in the not-so-distant future when their teenage children would be old enough that the couple could work the same flight to Europe and enjoy layovers in London and Paris together. She had been scheduled to fly Flight 11 on Sept. 13. After Sept. 11, she imagined herself in Sweeney’s shoes: "When Amy picked up the phone—she was mother of two very young children—she had to know that, at that point, she might be being observed by another hijacker sitting in a passenger seat who would put a bullet through her head. What she did was incredibly brave."

How, then, could the commission have missed—or ignored—crucial facts that this very first of the first responders communicated to officials on that fateful day?

"It seems amazing to me that they didn’t know," said Mrs. Ogonowski. "The state of Massachusetts has an award in Amy Sweeney’s name for civilian bravery." The first recipients were John Ogonowski and Betty Ong. A full-court ceremony was held on Sept. 11, 2002, in Faneuil Hall in Boston, with Senators Kennedy and Kerrey and the state’s whole political establishment in attendance.

Even the F.B.I. has recognized Amy Sweeney by bestowing on her its highest civilian honor, the Director’s Award for Exceptional Public Service. "Mrs. Sweeney is immeasurably deserving of recognition for her heroic, unselfish and professional manner in which she lived the last moments of her life," according to the F.B.I.

What her husband wants to know is this: "When and how was this information about the hijackers used? Were Amy’s last moments put to the best use to protect and save others?"

"We know what she said from notes, and the government has them," said Mary Schiavo, the formidable former Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, whose nickname among aviation officials was "Scary Mary." Ms. Schiavo sat in on the commission’s hearing on aviation security on 9/11 and was disgusted by what it left out. "In any other situation, it would be unthinkable to withhold investigative material from an independent commission," she told this writer. "There are usually grave consequences. But the commission is clearly not talking to everybody or not telling us everything."

This is hardly the only evidence hiding in plain sight.

The captain of American’s Flight 11 stayed at the controls much of the diverted way from Boston to New York, sending surreptitious radio transmissions to authorities on the ground. Captain John Ogonowski was a strong and burly man with the instincts of a fighter pilot who had survived Vietnam. He gave extraordinary access to the drama inside his cockpit by triggering a "push-to-talk button" on the aircraft’s yoke (or wheel). "The button was being pushed intermittently most of the way to New York," an F.A.A. air-traffic controller told The Christian Science Monitor the day after the catastrophe. "He wanted us to know something was wrong. When he pushed the button and the terrorist spoke, we knew there was this voice that was threatening the pilot, and it was clearly threatening."

According to a timeline later adjusted by the F.A.A., Flight 11’s transponder was turned off at 8:20 a.m., only 21 minutes after takeoff. (Even before that, by probably a minute or so, Amy Sweeney began her report to American’s operations center at Logan.) The plane turned south toward New York, and more than one F.A.A. controller heard a transmission with an ominous statement by a terrorist in the background, saying, "We have more planes. We have other planes." During these transmissions, the pilot’s voice and the heavily accented voice of a hijacker were clearly audible, according to two controllers. All of it was recorded by a F.A.A. traffic-control center in Nashua, N.H. According to the reporter, Mark Clayton, the federal law-enforcement officers arrived at the F.A.A. facility shortly after the World Trade Center attack and took the tape.

To this writer’s knowledge, there has been no public mention of the pilot’s narrative since the news report on Sept. 12, 2001. Families of the flight crew have only heard about it, but when Peg Ogonowski asked American Airlines to let her hear it, she never heard back. Their F.A.A. superiors forbade the controllers to talk to anyone else.

Has the F.B.I. turned this critical tape over to the commission?

At the commission’s January panel on aviation security, two rows of gray suits filled the back of the hearing room. They were not inspectors general of any of the government agencies called to testify. In fact, said Mary Schiavo, there is no entity within the administration pushing any consequences. The gray suits were all attorneys for the airlines, hovering around while the big bosses from American and United gave their utterly unrevealing testimonies.

Robert Bonner, the head of Customs and Border Protection, finally shot back at the panel with a startling boast.

"We ran passenger manifests through the system used by Customs—two were hits on our watch list of August 2001," Mr. Bonner testified. "And by looking at the Arab names and their seat locations, ticket purchases and other passenger information, it didn’t take a lot to do a rudimentary link analysis. Customs officers were able to ID 19 probable hijackers within 45 minutes."

He meant 45 minutes after four planes had been hijacked and turned into missiles. "I saw the sheet by 11 a.m.," he said, adding proudly, "And that analysis did indeed correctly identify the terrorists."

How has American Airlines responded? According to the widower Mike Sweeney, "Ever since Sept. 11, AMR [the parent company of American Airlines] just wants to forget this whole thing happened. They wouldn’t allow me to talk to Michael Woodward, and five months or so: they let him go." The Families Steering Committee urged the commission to interview Michael Woodward about the Sweeney information, as did Ms. Ong’s brother, Harry Ong. A couple of days before the hearing on aviation security, a staffer did call Mr. Woodward and ask a few questions. But the explosive narrative offered by Amy Sweeney in her last 23 minutes of life was not included in the 9/11 commission’s hearing on aviation security.

The timeline that is most disturbing belongs to the last of the four suicide missions—United Airlines Flight 93, later presumed destined for the U.S. Capitol, if not the White House. Huge discrepancies persist in basic facts, such as when it crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside near Shanksville. The official impact time according to NORAD, the North American Air Defense Command, is 10:03 a.m. Later, U.S. Army seismograph data gave the impact time as 10:06:05. The F.A.A. gives a crash time of 10:07 a.m. And The New York Times, drawing on flight controllers in more than one F.A.A. facility, put the time at 10:10 a.m.

Up to a seven-minute discrepancy? In terms of an air disaster, seven minutes is close to an eternity. The way our nation has historically treated any airline tragedy is to pair up recordings from the cockpit and air-traffic control and parse the timeline down to the hundredths of a second. But as Mary Schiavo points out, "We don’t have an NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) investigation here, and they ordinarily dissect the timeline to the thousandth of a second."

Even more curious: The F.A.A. states that it established an open phone line with NORAD to discuss both American

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