Lost in the Terror: The Crews of 9/11
Tomorrow will be 15 years since our nation was brutally attacked by terrorists. On that day, thousands were murdered and thousands of others responded with heroic actions. Those actions saved countless lives. Just as those heroes on the ground gave of themselves unconditionally, there was also a group of professionals who did the same in the air. These professionals were often described in press reports as “Plus Crew”.
In truth, this brave group represented the very first of the first responders. PLUS CREW were the people whose job training should have, but never did, prepare them for what lay ahead that morning, despite the fact that government agencies were aware that something big was being planned.
Before American flight 11 hit the North Tower and started the chain of shocking events, two flight attendants had been on the phones for over 20 minutes talking to two different divisions of their airline. These calls informed American officials the hijacker’s seats and the cabin conditions. They informed them that the terrorists were in the cockpit and that the cockpit crew had likely been killed.
Flight attendant Amy Sweeney had just returned from work that morning after being on maternity leave. She was the main runner going forward in the airplane cabin in a daring fashion, gathering information and then giving it to Betty Ong, another flight attendant, who in turn relayed it to American headquarters through Reservations in Raleigh, NC.
While Sweeney and Ong were informing American what was happening aboard their flight, even describing a bomb they had seen, their captain, John Ogonowski, intermittently held down the push-to-talk button on his steering yoke, allowing Boston Center, the FAA Command Center in Virginia and all the aircraft in the vicinity to hear hijacker Atta say, “WE HAVE SOME PLANES.”
Likewise, on United 175, flight attendant Robert Fangman heroically advised his company that his cockpit crew had been killed, a flight attendant stabbed, and mace gas sprayed in the forward section of the plane. Flight 175 was only 17 minutes behind Flight 11 as millions watched it crash into the South Tower.
Prior to Robert’s call, Captain Victor Saracini and his co-pilot had overheard the words of hijacker Atta on American flight 11. Even though they did not know where it was coming from, they reported it to their New York controller and asked that the message be relayed to United headquarters.
Shortly after American learned they were missing another plane – AA 77 -- they received relayed information from flight attendant Renee May’s parents who informed them that their daughter’s flight had been hijacked. Minutes later American ordered all of their airborne fleet to land -- before the national order was given to all airlines.
The last plane to crash that morning was United 93. A 2006 film entitled “Flight 93” made the phase “Let’s Roll” famous as the last words of the passengers and inflight crew as they stormed the cockpit. Earlier, Sandy Bradshaw, one of the flight attendants, had called United’s maintenance on the direct line telling them of their hijacking. She showed incredible courage in the face of imminent danger.
Captain Jason Dahl on flight 93 had the communications microphone on as the terrorist rushed into the cockpit for the kill. The struggle could be heard in the nearby airways and in the Cleveland Air Traffic Control Center.
None of these flight crews had been given briefings on suicide hijackings. None of the crew members knew what was happening on the other flights. But all of these crew members did their utmost to inform their employers and controlling agencies about the events occurring. They were all individuals working together gathering crucial information in the face of an unfathomable predicament. Their actions and attempts to communicate what was happening on their planes gave the Federal Aviation Administration a deeper appreciation of the events they were facing. It only took 59 minutes from the time of the first crash to order all airborne flights to land.
Those of us who spent our careers in the airline industry are proud of “Our 33” -- the unfortunate ones that got caught in this horrific attack on our nation. We are proud of their strength, intelligence and fortitude knowing that by being persistent and determined they allowed those with authority to make quick decisions saving thousands of lives on that day of terror.