At about 8:50 am on September 11, 2001, I put my portable computer into a briefcase before heading to work. Word came over the radio that a plane had crashed into one of the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. In a similar incident years before a small plane had crashed into the Empire States building. A bizarre accident. This must be another, I thought.
I was crossing the American Legion Bridge on the outer loop of the beltway when a second plane crashed into the second tower. I still didn’t believe it. I assumed that the news media were confused, perhaps hyping the whole thing like a bad weather report. But as the reporters became more and more serious, I realized that something terrible was unfolding in New York City.
MostAmericans were listening to radio or watching TV by then, when the second plane crashed into the second tower. In Washington at that moment secret service agents burst into Vice President Cheney’s White House office, picked him up and carried him under his arms down a flight of stairs into an underground bunker.
I had no idea of these dramas and others that were unfolding on two other transcontinental airlines, although one of them would affect me personally. On American flight 77, just minutes after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center, the pilot radioed to his control tower and asked for permission to fly higher. Then the radio went dead. “American 77, Indy,” the air traffic controller said, over and over. “American 77, Indy, radio check. How do you read?” A few minutes later, Flight 77’s transponder signal was turned off and ground control could no longer track the flight. On board the plane, one of the pilots announced to the passengers that they had been high jacked.
Conservative media broadcaster Barbara Olson was on Flight 77. She called her husband at the Justice Department on her cell phone. Ted Olson was the Solicitor General and he was watching the attacks on television. Her call is the only account we have of the events taking place on Flight 77. Four or five high jackers, armed with knives and box cutters, had herded the passengers and crew into the back of the plane and one of them had taken over the controls.
Olsen told his wife that two planes had hit the World Trade Center in terrorists’ attacks, so she knew what the high jacking was all about. “What shall I tell the pilot? What can I tell the pilot to do?” she asked her husband, and then she was cut off. A second call from Barbara Olsen was also cut off before she could say anything. We have no idea whether our not she told the other passengers about the World Trade Center attacks.
In their bunker below the White House, an aid told Vice President Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice that an airplane just 50 miles outside Washington was headed straight toward the White House. Minutes later Flight 77 crossed the Capitol Beltway at about 7,000 feet, made a gut wrenching, high-speed turn, and started dropping fast.
The Capitol Beltway curves around Alexandria, just a mile from the Pentagon, but I was unaware that Flight 77, now traveling more than 450 mph, was clipping the tops of street lights. Fireman Alan Wallace, walking in front of the Pentagon, looked up and saw the plane coming straight at him about 25 feet off the ground, Wallace sprinted 30 feet and dove under a nearby van. Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon at 9:38 am and clouds of smoke rose to my left and drifted across the beltway.
My wife was due to land at National Airport at 9:45 am on a flight from Miami. Panic struck with a familiar flow of adrenaline. My legs twitched and everything got too bright, the details too distinct, time running too slow. It’s an addictive feeling, but I didn’t like it on the morning of 9/11.
Smoke drifted across the beltway as I drove the last few miles to work. I’d been studying weapons of mass destruction since I signed up to produce Ted Turner’s series and I wondered if I was inhaling the residue of some fatal chemical or militarized disease.
Only a few staff members made it to the office that morning. Everyone in America was glued to a television, a radio or a cell phone. I tried to get hold of my children at school but I couldn’t get through. I wanted to hear from my wife. One ear followed the radio. Were more attacks coming? No one seemed to know anything. The radio announced that the Pentagon had been struck by American Flight 77, out of Dulles bound for Los Angeles. To my immense relief it was not my wife’s plane.
My cell phone rang. My brother’s voice was muffled with grief. His stepdaughter, Leslie, her husband Charlie and their two children were all on Flight 77. Once again, I went into denial. Maybe they missed the plane. Maybe there’s a mistake. “No,” my brother said, “They called just before they got on board to say goodbye. They were on that plane.”
Leslie Wittington was a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, She was going on a sabbatical as a visiting fellow at the Australian National University in Sydney. She and her family were the largest American family lost on September 11th and they were typical of the idealistic currents that run deep in American life. Leslie and her husband Charles Falkenberg met in high school, but didn’t start going out together until after graduation. They married in 1984 as Leslie was finishing up a master’s degree in economics at the University of Colorado.
Charlie was a software engineer who designed software for oceanographers, ecosystem and space scientists. He was researching the long-term impact of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. After Leslie got her doctor’s degree in 1989, they moved to Maryland so Leslie could work at the Center on Population, Gender and Social Inequality at the University of Maryland in College Park. She had been there for seven years.
Leslie had recently published a series of papers on the “marriage tax” and studied the economic role and status of women. She taught a course entitled “Race, Gender and the Job Market” with 1984 Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. “Her humor, dynamism in the classroom and passion for teaching made her a favorite professor and a sought-after mentor,” Liza Hetherington, a student at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute, said at her memorial.
Seven other teachers were on American flight 77, several on a National Geographic tour. Four passengers were in health care, seven were children. Their deaths were a loss in the struggle for social justice that ordinary people are fighting everywhere.
The night before Leslie and Charlie, Noe and Dana got on American Flight 77, James Gekas and other neighbors threw a farewell dinner for them. It was a rare, perfect summer evening in Washington, cool and breezy in a town that swelters through the summer. They sat around the table laughing and talking, eating manicotti and salad and drinking iced tea. The kids couldn’t wait to see the kangaroos and koala bears.
Neither Leslie not Charlie used their cell phones from the high jacked airplane. “They were such wonderful parents, I know they were just concerned about the girls,” my brother’s wife Ruth said. Then she added, “Zoe means life. She was a source of delight, and Dana? She was still struggling with the idea of bad guys and good guys, and I don’t think she’d ever seen a bad guy in her life. Her fear for a while was the man who came to cut the lawn, because of the noise, you know.”
My brother asked me to attend a FBI reconstruction of the American Airlines flight pattern that they held for relatives of the victims. It was painful to watch. As the plane headed back toward Washington, it might have been possible to believe that the high jackers would make demands and land, but when the plane passed over Dulles Airport at 7,000 feet and then suddenly turned sharply and dove toward the ground, everyone on board must have known what was going to happen.
My brother and his wife became plaintiffs in legal motions against American Airlines and their security service. They charged them with criminal negligence. “Leslie was a fierce mother bear, and I know she would have demanded justice for what happened to her family,” Ruth said. They were convinced that diligence on the part of the FBI and CIA could have prevented the high jackings.
It is now generally forgotten, but for a brief moment after 9/11 the whole world was on our side. ”We are all Americans,” crowds chanted in countries across the world. What might we have accomplished if we had chosen a course of unity and healing? Instead, the Bush administration chose exclusion and war. “You are either with us or against us.”