Wednesday, September 12, 2001
There was not even the grace of
instant death. Instead, there was
time to call from the sky over
Virginia, fingers pumping cell
phones, terrified passengers talking
to loved ones for one final time.
Herded to the back of the plane by
hijackers armed with knives and
box-cutters, the passengers and
crew members of American Airlines
Flight 77 -- including the wife of
Solicitor General Theodore Olson,
a Senate staffer, three D.C.
schoolchildren and three teachers
on an educational field trip and a
University Park family of four
headed to Australia for a
two-month adventure -- were
ordered to call relatives to say they
were about to die.
About an hour after takeoff from
Dulles International Airport
yesterday morning, Flight 77, a
Boeing 757 headed for Los
Angeles with 64 people aboard,
became a massive missile aimed at
the White House. The target would
change suddenly, but the symbolism
was equally devastating.
By about 9:40 a.m., when thediving
plane carved out a massive chunk
of the Pentagon, its passengers had
experienced unspeakable terror,
hundreds died, and the nation's
greatest symbol of security lay
shattered, thick plumes of smoke
camouflaging a gaping hole in its
Barbara K. Olson, the former federal prosecutor who became a prominent
TV commentator during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, called her
husband twice in the final minutes. Her last words to him were, "What do I tell
the pilot to do?"
"She called from the plane while it was being hijacked," Theodore Olson said.
"I wish it wasn't so, but it is."
The two conversations each lasted about a minute, said Tim O'Brien, a CNN
reporter and friend of the Olsons. In the first call, Barbara Olson told her
husband, "Our plane is being hijacked." She described how hijackers forced
passengers and the flight's pilot to the rear of the aircraft. She said nothing
about the number of hijackers or their nationality.
Olson's first call was cut off, and her husband immediately called the Justice
Department's command center, where he was told officials knew nothing
about the Flight 77 hijacking.
Moments later, his wife called again. And again, she wanted to know, "What
should I tell the pilot?"
"She was composed, as composed as you can be under the circumstances,"
But her second call was cut off, too.
"Incidentally, she wasn't even supposed to be on this flight," O'Brien added on
CNN. "She was booked on a flight yesterday, but today is Ted's birthday, so
she wanted to be here this morning to have breakfast with him before she
On the ground, air traffic controllers watching Flight 77's progress westward
suddenly lost touch with the plane, which disappeared from radar screens
andcut off radio contact.
Someone on board Flight 77 had flipped off the transponder, the device that
sends a plane's airline identification, flight number, speed and altitude to
controllers' radar screens.
But soon after losing contact, Dulles controllers spotted an unidentified aircraft
speeding directly toward the restricted airspace that surrounds the White
House. Federal aviation sources said Dulles controllers noticed the
fast-moving craft east-southeast of Dulles and called controllers at Reagan
National Airport to report that an unauthorized plane was coming their way.
Controllers had time to warn the White House that the jet was aimed directly
at the president's mansion and was traveling at a gut-wrenching speed -- full
But just as the plane seemed to be on a suicide mission into the White House,
the unidentified pilot executed a pivot so tight that it reminded observers of a
fighter jet maneuver. The plane circled 270 degrees to the right to approach
the Pentagon from the west, whereupon Flight 77 fell below radar level,
vanishing from controllers' screens, the sources said.
Less than an hour after two other jets demolished the World Trade Center in
Manhattan, Flight 77 carved a hole in the nation's defense headquarters, a
hole five stories high and 200 feet wide.
Aviation sources said the plane was flown with extraordinary skill, making it
highly likely that a trained pilot was at the helm, possibly one of the hijackers.
Someone even knew how to turn off the transponder, a move that is
considerably less than obvious.
Details about who was on Flight 77, when it took off and what happened on
board were tightly held by airline, airport and security officials last night. All
said that the FBI had asked them not to divulge details.
"Because of the heightened security due to the nature of today's events,"
American Airlines said in a statement, the airline "is working closely with U.S.
government authorities and will not release more information at this time."
But some passengers on the flight were identified by friends and family. Flight
attendant Michelle Heidenberger had been trained to handle a hijacking. She
knew not to let anyone in the cockpit. She knew to tell the hijacker that she
didn't have a key and would have to call the pilots.
None of her training mattered. "I'm just so heartbroken," said Ruby Ramer,
Heidenberger's neighbor in Chevy Chase, where she lived with her husband,
Tom, a pilot for US Airways, and their 11-year-old son and college-age
daughter. "I just can't believe she won't be one of our neighbors."
Flight 77 was to be the first leg of a long, happy journey for Leslie A.
Whittington and Charles S. Falkenberg, both 45, and their two young girls.
The University Park family was on its way to Australia, where Whittington, a
Georgetown University professor of public policy, was to work as a visiting
fellow at Australian National University. Her husband, a software engineer
and nature buff, was looking forward to exploring and encountering the
wildlife -- kangaroos, koala bears, scorpions and snakes -- said James
Gekas, a neighbor who hosted a farewell dinner for the family Sunday night.
Three District schoolchildren and three teachers were on Flight 77, headed to
Santa Barbara, Calif., for an ecology conference sponsored by National
Geographic. School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said the students
and educators, whose names were not released, were from elementary and
In the hazy hours that followed the attack, it was unclear which of four
hijacked planes ended up where. But witnesses soon identified the aircraft
that smashed into the Pentagon as an American flight, and then as Flight 77,
which was unusually light on passengers this day.
On a Metro train to National Airport, Allen Cleveland looked out the window
to see a jet heading down toward the Pentagon. "I thought, 'There's no
landing strip on that side of the subway tracks,' " he said. Before he could
process that thought, he saw "a huge mushroom cloud. The lady next to me
was in absolute hysterics."
At the Dulles Airport Marriott, which American Airlines used last night as a
bereavement center, families of passengers began arriving about 11 a.m.
Paul Sharp, a hotel manager, said three or four families, totaling about 10
people, were meeting with grief counselors and clergy in private suites.
In the lobby, dozens of anxious travelers whose flights had been diverted
watched news programs solemnly.
Kathy Foley, 49, a United Airlines flight attendant from Chicago, was
stranded in the hotel lobby after mechanical problems delayed her 9 a.m.
flight. "Everything was perfect at 8 o'clock this morning," she said. "Nobody
had any idea anything was happening. This is not what our country was about.
As horrible as it is to say it, I want revenge."