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The Flight Watchmen
Nearly seven years after 9/11, Americans may feel like safe is normal again. But, to the counterterrorism experts who scour the nation's airspace, safety is hard-earned every minute of every day

By Laura Blumenfeld
Sunday, June 22, 2008

0645 Hours: Peanut Butter and jelly, or ham and cheese?

Chan Browne is standing in his girlfriend's kitchen, making a sandwich for his girlfriend's daughter's lunch. He wants to get it right. Strawberry jelly, not grape, creamy peanut butter, not crunchy, spread thin, not thick, on wheat bread, not Italian, cut in rectangles, not triangles. The crusts are trimmed.

It is dark out still, but Chan's girlfriend, Kathy, has left for work. Chan, a thickly built federal air marshal from Alabama, an expert marksman wearing flip-flops and jeans, picks up a pen: Jamie, Have a good day. Do well in school and mind your manners. Mom and Chan. He folds the note and closes the 7-year-old's Hannah Montana lunchbox. He hopes it's good enough. He hopes he's good enough. He opens the lunchbox and adds Oreos.

For Chan, it has been nine months of second-guessing, of tucking in his shirt, of checking his tie, nine months of dating Kathy White. He has dated pretty women before. In high school he went out with the entire cheerleading team, one set of pom-poms at a time. But his enchantment with Kathy is unlike anything he's known, more exciting than her spark-red hair, more soothing than her Irish cream skin. When she walks into the room, his palms sweat.

Chan first saw Kathy three years ago at work, rushing past him in the hall. At the Freedom Center, a counterterrorism compound in Northern Virginia where Chan is an assistant special agent in charge, the employees always seem to rush. They hurry from the Huddle Room to the Emergency Conference Room, to the coffee refill room, to the Pentagon rubble memorial of 9/11 at the entrance, to the signs on the double door -- "Restricted Area," "Authorized Personnel Only" -- leading to the Watch Floor.

It is here that the officers stand watch round-the-clock with one assignment: Stop another 9/11.

From the time Kathy blurred past Chan until their first drink, two years had gone by. "It was boy sees girl. Boy wants to ask girl out. Boy's too nervous and doesn't," Chan recalls. He felt thrown by her, tumbling back to adolescence. Once, he wandered back to her office, pretending to look for a file. He had planned to ask for a date. When she looked up at him, though, with those clear, blue-sky eyes, he froze. "I almost felt like writing her a note: 'I like you. Do you like me? If so, check yes.' " But Chan is 44 now, achy-kneed, balding and divorced, his days and nights punctuated by the vibrations of a BlackBerry issued by the Department of Homeland Security.

Standing in Kathy's kitchen at dawn in Charles Town, W.Va., glancing at his BlackBerry on the counter, enveloped by the aroma of Jamie's toasting cinnamon Pop-Tart, he thinks about how much harder it is to fall in love a second time.

"You've got all the knowledge of your past failures," he says. You're always on alert. When the first time ends in disaster, the second time you have to do everything right.

Chan's BlackBerry begins to dance, vibrating across the counter. Something is wrong.

0650 Hours: Improper Selectee Screening at Chippewa (CIU)

On a runway at Chippewa County International Airport in northern Michigan, on Mesaba Airlines Flight 3042 to Detroit, a man is sitting in seat 4C, waiting for takeoff. He shouldn't have been allowed on the plane.

The man is a selectee, a person flagged by the government as one who might pose "a direct threat to U.S. civil aviation," according to Greg Alter, a DHS spokesman. The selectee's boarding pass had been printed with a special mark. At the checkpoint, a guard was supposed to divert the man for additional screening. The guard missed the mark.

For Chan and the others who work the Watch Floor, the passenger at Chippewa in 4C triggers the first adrenaline uptick of the day. Chan is at home, about to wake Jamie, who is snuggled upstairs with her yellow blanky. Chan's shift doesn't begin until 2 p.m., but he is tracking alerts and incidents on his BlackBerry because in a few hours they will be his.

Every security breach across eight modes of transportation collects and dumps on the Watch Floor. The unmarked building, originally called the Transportation Security Operations Center, opened in August 2003. It responds to threats to mass transit, bridges, railways, vehicles and roads, pipelines, postal and cargo shipping, maritime matters and ports, and, above all, aviation. One minute, a report comes in about a mysterious truck abandoned on railroad tracks in Delaware. The next, a note is discovered on a ferry in North Carolina: There are bombs on this boat. Do not run. Only a warning. The next, a 78-year-old Egyptian woman in a wheelchair is trying to board a plane from Nashville to JFK with $9,800 in cash and eight boxes of razor blades in her bra.

"You treat every incident, like --" says Chan's boss, Kent Jefferies, bracketing his eyes as if his hands were blinders on a horse, "-- is this the next 9/11? No? Good. Move on."

One lesson of al-Qaeda's simultaneous strikes in 2001 is the importance of communication. Though run by DHS, the Watch Floor houses representatives from the Department of Defense, Department of Transportation, Secret Service, Capitol Police, FBI and FAA. Data from more than 450 federalized airports and 19,000 general aviation airfields feed into the Watch Floor. Analysts try to connect seemingly unrelated -- and unusual -- events as they unfold across the country, to spot trends, to stop an emerging attack. In the fall of 2005, for example, over the course of two weeks, passengers on three different flights stood up in the aisles and fainted. Was it a probe? Were terrorists testing emergency preparedness on airplanes, or were the serial faintings a coincidence?

"You always hope it's going on somewhere, that the military is talking to the FAA, is talking to law enforcement, is talking to the airlines," says Alter. "You hope somehow, some way, those folks are talking, in case something goes bad."

If things do go bad, or at least seem to, men in Air Force uniforms take action. "We're scrambling now!" an officer said on a recent afternoon, running across the Watch Floor. Scrambling fighter jets. The classified radar had picked up an unidentified Cessna in restricted airspace over Washington. As Fox News reported the evacuation of the North Lawn at the White House and broadcast a live shot of people spilling out of the Capitol, a pair of F-16s roared toward the errant Cessna

"We are not sentries. It's more activist than that," says Kip Hawley, administrator of DHS's Transportation Security Administration, which manages the center. "Our job is not to sit and watch, but to stand and fight."

Over his 13 months in the job, Chan has developed a sense about the threats, when they're routine blunders or world-class crazies, and when they might be real. At Chippewa, a flight attendant escorted the selectee out of seat 4C, for additional screening. The guard who missed the special selectee mark spent the rest of his shift in remedial training. TSA at Chippewa reported: "There was no media attention." And on this quiet Tuesday, Chan isn't alarmed. Not yet, anyway. His biggest concern at 8:30 a.m., is getting Kathy's daughter to the bus on time.

"How's your day going to go?" he asks Jamie as they hurry along.

Chan is never sure. Kathy, a former travel agent who now makes reservations for air marshals, is the optimist. Chan has "a doomsday outlook," he says. "There's an underlying, unknown anxiety and stress in those of us who deal with terrorist threats. We know we're getting farther away from 9/11 and closer and closer to the next attack. It's only a matter of time." When Chan sends Kathy's

7-year-old girl out into the world, he worries.

At the bus stop, Jamie is the last kid in line. She steps up, and right before she disappears through the bus door, she always turns around. Chan looks at her: the sandy hair he has brushed and smoothed back with Jamie's favorite lime green headband, the freckles across her nose, the blue eyes. Chan waves. He calls it "that last reassurance wave."

He gives it to her every day.

0847 Hours: Passenger Arrested After Firearm Detected During Checkpoint Screening at Memphis (MEM)

Ready. Set. Jet. That is ExpressJet Airline's motto. Not for one passenger, though, on this sunny Memphis morning. The man tries to board Flight 2704 to Houston Intercontinental carrying a .32-caliber Kel Tec pistol loaded with seven rounds -- one chambered. He says that he "forgot the firearm was in his bag."

Every day, on average, American airport screeners find two guns.

As the Memphis police descend on the passenger with the pistol, Chan is changing into sweatpants in Kathy's bedroom. "Normal business," Chan thinks, clicking the "FIREARM DETECTED (MEM)" message on his BlackBerry. He laces up his sneakers and goes out for a run before his eight-hour shift, "to bleed-off the pent-up anxiety and work frustration." He jogs up and down the hills of Charles Town, searching the sky for the cottony contrail ribbons that unspool from aircraft. As much as aviation bedevils him, Chan loves airplanes.

He was born in a two-room hospital in Alabama, to a petite saleswoman and to a farmer he never met, and never could conjure beyond "a shadow on a tractor." Chan's stepfather, a 6-foot-3 slab of man, helped raise him, urging Chan to follow his example and excel at football. Chan drank a gallon of milk a day; he prayed each night he'd wake up six inches taller. But the slight, blond boy with light moss eyes never cleared 5-8.

That left airplanes. "It was another way to keep the bond with my stepfather," Chan recalls.

Chan's stepfather would park for hours near the end of the runway at the local airfield. "It always bewildered me, that these heavy airplanes can stay airborne," Chan says. "It's an amazing puzzle." Chan sat on the hood of their 1968 yellow Dodge Coronet, eating bags of roasted peanuts, as his stepfather pointed out the jets and the propellers.

"You'd feel the roar in your whole body," Chan recalls. "It wasn't frightening. It was comforting." Sometimes it rained. But Chan felt happy as he imagined the planes navigating the same wet winds that nipped his chin and fingers. He felt, he says, "connected. I thought: 'I belong in that. I'm connected to that. I belong in that airplane.' "

Chan became an Air Force air traffic controller. At age 19, his commander nominated him for the Air Force Academy preparatory school, a step toward his dream of pilot training. But Chan had met a woman in the Air Force. The academy accepted only prospective cadets who were single. Forced to choose, he pursued married life instead of his wings. In 1984, as a controller, he was honored by the Air Force Association as one of 12 Outstanding Airmen of the year, for his "superior leadership, job performance, community involvement and personal achievements." Up in the control tower, where Chan rose to supervisor, he felt "wonderment that you could talk to the planes, having that connectivity through the radio." He enrolled in the FAA's air traffic academy and was assigned to Forth Worth.

Then his marriage of 10 years began to fail. So did his performance in the control tower.

The personal turmoil distracted him. "I couldn't memorize the airspace and what altitude restrictions apply," Chan recalls. Soon he found himself divorced and out of a job.

Chan shambled back, defeated, humiliated, to Alabama where he worked for the state police. It took 9/11, eight years later, to bring him back to the skies. He applied for a job as a federal air marshal. Flying under cover, he told fellow travelers he was in "mortuary affairs"; they looked at him and believed it.

Last year, Chan was promoted to a supervisory position on the Watch Floor. Every day, when he crosses the lobby at work, a twisted steel girder salvaged from the 72nd floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower reminds him of the cost of another failure.

On this Tuesday morning, Chan finishes his run around the neighborhood, his shirt soaked, his breath short, his calves burning, his thoughts scrolling over incidents from the day before: a suspicious golf bag at the Savannah airport causes delays; a box cutter is found in Phoenix on a Southwest jet, wedged between seats 2F and 2E ... As stressful as being an air traffic controller had been, this job is more so.

Chan stops at Kathy's front door and looks up at the sky. At any given moment, 6,000 planes are soaring overhead, crisscrossing America. As a boy, even one -- airborne -- seemed like a miracle. As a man in midlife, Chan wrestles with the dread of even one going down.

"This is like a second life for me. I get a chance to make redemption for the mistakes I made," he says. "I get a do-over, so I can tell Kathy's daughter I did it right."

1125 Hours: Suspicious Selectees on Flight to Las Vegas (LAS)

... 1133 Hours: Disruptive Passenger on Flight Arrested at Philadelphia (PHL)

... 1204 Hours: Firearm Detected During Checkpoint Screening at Birmingham (BHM)

... 1225 Hours: Passenger Arrested After Behavior Detection Officer Referral at Minneapolis (MSP)

Chan takes a quick shower -- "I don't have any hair to wash" -- while his BlackBerry vibrates on Kathy's television stand.

In Northern Virginia, meanwhile, at the Freedom Center, Chan's boss, Kent Jefferies, rises from his desk.

"Excuse me, Kent," Bruce Brown says, poking his head through the door. "Anomalous radar target coming up the Potomac."

Bruce is the division chief for the National Capital Region Coordination Center, which monitors the airspace over Washington. The NCRCC staff, including a liaison to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) wearing an Air Force flight suit, occupies a pod on the Watch Floor. The men stare at radar feeds on three giant screens from the FAA, DOD and DHS. They scrutinize the green, glowing rings for incursions into the forbidden circle. Every month, there are 20 to 30.

Kent considers Bruce's report. A pair of Customs and Border Protection Black Hawk helicopters swept the area; the pilots found nothing. Still, supervisors at the White House are raising their vigilance to "condition yellow."

"Sometimes computers do weird things," Kent says, spinning the wedding ring on his finger, as his thoughts go round.

"Do we want to put out a page?" Bruce asks. A notification page alerts TSA officials.

"No. You could start a war 'cause you're reading it on your BlackBerry and get only half of it -- 'radar anomaly,' " Kent says. "A lot of times, it's a flock of birds."

Kent is the iceman of the Watch Floor. As the special agent in charge, his blood pumps slower, and chillier, than the shift workers he oversees. "The folks on watch are on and off. I am never off, so I have a higher threshold," Kent says, confident. "I'm supposed to be that person, a step back from the action."

Stepped back, and yet Kent is always there. At home on a recent Saturday, he was on an emergency conference call for so many hours that he switched to speakerphone and painted his teenage daughter's bedroom. When the phone rang on Christmas Eve, he recalls with a laugh, "my wife said, 'If you answer that, I'll divorce you.' " He answered.

Kent is a former Secret Service agent who drove Amy Carter to school, jogged with George H.W. Bush ("That man was as cool as a cucumber; he could shower and stop sweating and be dressed in five minutes. He always beat us."), and trailed Ronald Reagan horseback riding ("In Santa Barbara, he wanted male company. He said, 'Nancy's talking to Patti, and I can't get a word in edgewise.' "). At 52, Kent looks like a paunchier version, with reading glasses, of one of his Secret Service nicknames: Ken Doll.

"I've been 'doing' bad guys for 34 years," says Kent, who can still drive -- hands free -- with his left knee, though he is no longer limber enough to make turns. When his daughter calls him at work, he answers, "Hi, I'm saving the world!" On this Tuesday morning, Kent strides tall, tight and precise out of his office, toward the Watch Floor.

"Bad guys want to launch multiple attacks," Kent says, while walking. "I'm looking for a second or third incident, to tie it together, to link things." Kent looks up at a huge electronic map of the United States. "What are we tracking Delta 39 for?"

Three white flight lines cut across the map. One blip marked "AF2," is Air Force Two, the vice president's aircraft. Another digital white line indicates the path of "suspicious selectees," members of a swim team flying to Las Vegas. The airplane in question is "DL39."

Has the pilot "gone Nordo," short for no radio contact? A common occurrence, and yet each time -- keeping in mind 9/11 -- the watchmen rip though a checklist: Cockpit secure? VIPs on board? Air marshals? Hazardous cargo? Size and weight of the plane? Screening anomalies at airport of origin?

"Delta 39 --" says the command duty officer. "Drunk passenger, making passes at flight attendants."

"Oh, geez," Kent says, noting the flight path over the Atlantic. "From England?"

"Hamburg, Germany."

The bawdy traveler, in Watch Floor parlance, is a "disruptive passenger." On this day, another disruptive passenger, a man with leg cramps in an aisle seat flying to Philadelphia, threatens the crew. An all-time favorite disruption: a young woman on her way to a party in Fort Lauderdale who burst out of the lavatory naked and ran down the aisle.

"You always think the disruptive passenger is a diversion, 'cause you don't know how many bad guys he's traveling with," says Paul Ross, a former USAirways pilot, who works on the Watch Floor. The man flying to Tucson who refuses to lower the volume on his laptop? He is possibly, in the eyes of the watchmen, a mass-murdering terrorist.

Passengers creating diversions to hijack an airplane is one scenario that Chan plays out in his head as he gets ready for work. Chan likes to test himself, a mental exercise he calls "the pregame warmup."

"We cannot be wrong. We have to be right," is Chan's grave cheer.

At Kathy's house, Chan towels off and walks into her closet where for five months now, he has been keeping his things, and where he hopes, against the odds, they are here to stay. Chan hadn't dated for 14 years. And Kathy has, as she puts it, "trust issues ... a hard exterior" from a marriage to a high school sweetheart, by whom she felt betrayed.

Along came Chan, who ran out of gas on their first date, who wore a visor and burned his scalp on their second date, who tried to propose at a recent dinner at Olives in Washington but got so nervous that he dropped his keys, his fork, his water glass and his money clip, sending him crawling and groping under another table.

"You're a mess," Kathy had said.

"All along, I'm thinking, 'I'm going to mess this up,' " Chan recalls. "This is my second chance. Actually, my only chance, at love."

In Kathy's closet, Chan passes her clothes on the way to his. They comfort him. Kathy's gray business suits, her tennis dress, the rust-orange blouse she wears with his favorite brown slacks. He buries his face in her blouse and inhales. He smells coconut lotion, and Kathy.

Chan knots his tie, gets into his car. Hypothetical threats unfold in his mind as he drives. He checks his BlackBerry: A firearm is confiscated in Birmingham; a suspicious man with no travel documents in Minneapolis says he is "hanging around the airport ... wanted to leave the country, but was unable to decide where." A background check reveals that the man is wanted for assault in Chicago.

We cannot be wrong. We have to be right.

Scenarios, real and imagined, diverge, veer off and circle back to the same shaky place:

What would I do in a crisis?

1425 Hours: Suspicious Passenger at Charlotte (CLT)

... 1442 Hours: Passenger Arrested After Travel Document Checker Referral at Miami (MIA)

At the Freedom Center, Chan rolls past a guard, the concrete abutments and a black metal fence, trimmed with three rows of barbed wire. Inside, he buzzes himself beyond the "SECRET" sign. Kathy works in another room, but Chan isn't thinking about love just now. His eyes tighten. The Watch Floor hums, windowless and dim, high-ceilinged and air-conditioned in a haze of radiant heat. Along one wall, digital clocks glow red, ticking in 10 time zones.

Kent's deputy, Andrew Hosey, sums up the day: "Vanilla."

Chan knocks wood.

The law enforcement databases keep logging off, idle. The air smells of microwaved popcorn. Kent teases Chan's partner, command duty officer Chuck Phucas, who is scanning CNN.com: "Hey, Chuck, what's the matter, nothing going on?"

"Nothing," says Chuck, a retired Marine. Chuck has 26 guns in his basement, forearms as thick as thighs and a 105-pound Rottweiler he loves because "I don't want a rug rat that's good for 30 yards, if you kick 'em right." Every night, as Chuck leaves work, he calls his wife because "who knows who's watching the building?" They have a code word, "in case there's trouble. If I use 'cupcake,' she calls the police."

Chuck had served as a master sergeant in counterintelligence. "We're still fighting the same fight," says Chuck, who is about to turn 50. "We stand in the breach." No one will hurt Americans, "not on my watch, not while I'm standing here."

Chuck is sitting in a polo shirt in front of seven phones with speed-dial buttons to every commercial airline, the White House Situation Room, the Coast Guard Operations Center and the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon.

Chan settles in beside Chuck at the head of the pod. Chan runs the research and law enforcement side. Chuck receives incoming reports and speaks for the Watch Floor on the Domestic Events Network, an interagency, perpetual conference call with the FAA.

It is quiet. "Too quiet," says their boss, Kent, hovering behind them.

Then, a call comes in from USAirways, area code 704. A passenger on Flight 1736, Charlotte to Indianapolis, said he saw a weapon on another passenger.

"I checked him," says Mike Jimenez, hurrying over to Chan with a notepad. Mike, an investigator with the fastest fingers on the Watch Floor, says he often has two minutes -- no more -- to determine if a person is an immediate threat. "He's on a watch list for terrorists. Short, 55, 170 pounds, possibly Muslim."

The profile fits a potential threat, except for one thing. The man on the watch list, Mike says, is, "the man who said he saw the weapon."

Chan stands up. Chuck does, too.

"What kind of weapon?" Kent says. "Hand grenade? Knife? Gun?"

"The butt of a gun," says Chuck, who is getting details from a watch officer. "In a passenger's pocket."

The air traffic controllers had released the plane for takeoff. "They let the bird go," says Chuck. He tells an officer: "Put it up on the tracking board."

USAirways 1736 blips white across the computerized U.S. map. A systems search reveals that the pilot is armed. Ground agents in Charlotte had screened the two passengers, but, even so, Chan's officer calls the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force to meet the plane at the gate when it lands in Indianapolis. Mike, Chan's investigator, gulps water from a Deer Park gallon bottle, as he scours government, law enforcement and commercial databases for clues.

Then, a call comes in from a TSA official, area code 305. "A man ran away at a checkpoint," Chuck says, relaying the notes from the officer who took the call.

"Where?" says Kent.

"Miami."

"Probably an illegal immigrant," says Kent.

"He bolted."

"That doesn't excite me," says Kent. "We've had people bolt away cause they can't take their $40 lip gloss. My daughter said, 'Dad can't you do anything about the lip-gloss rule?' "

"He was tackled by law enforcement," says Chuck.

"Oh, they tackled him?" Kent grimaces and smiles. "That's hard on the knees."

"He was Lebanese."

"What?" says Kent.

"Lebanese! Lebanese!" Chuck cracks his knuckles.

"How do you know?" Kent says, stepping back. A recent intelligence brief had highlighted the Lebanese group Hezbollah, noting: "Tactics include hijacking commercial aircraft and in-transit ambushes."

In Miami, the Lebanese man had presented a fake U.S. passport with a Hispanic name. The guard was suspicious and referred him to secondary screening. When the secondary screener reached for the man's bag, the suspect snatched his passport and ran.

"Create a file, mark it 'hot,' " Chuck says.

"We have two things now," Kent says, ever cool: a passenger in Charlotte who says he sees a gun; a passenger in Miami who flees. Are they related?

"Start a white board," says Chuck.

An officer named Lee starts typing, black letters crawling across a large white screen at the front of the room: "MIAMI SUSPICIOUS LEBANESE PASSENGER, CHECKPOINT/SECONDARY SCREENING. HE DISAPPEARED --"

"Hey, Lee!" Chuck barks. "He didn't 'disappear.' They tackled him! He left behind a bag."

As partners, Chuck and Chan know each other's tension ticks. Chuck gets loud; Chan gets quiet. Chuck slashes the air with his powerful arms, pointing. Chan paces like he's "on a dog run."

The two men are starting to slash and pace.

Chan's investigator, Mike, pulls up a picture of the 42-year-old suspect online, along with his real passport from Lebanon. He discovers in a commercial database that the suspect had bought his American Airlines ticket as well as tickets for two other men. Like him, the two men were flying from Miami to Los Angeles that afternoon, though, notably, on a different airplane.

Chan's agent pulls up a diagram of the Miami airport. Something about the police chase bothers Chan. The Lebanese man had fled the terminal, dashed outside. As the Miami-Dade County Police approached him, the man jumped from a second-story parking ramp. He hit the pavement and shattered his arm. Yet even with a broken limb, the suspect continued to struggle.

"Why jump?" Chan wonders. "Why so extreme?" He'd seen a lot before, but "we never have people running away." Abandon a bag? Leap off a ramp?

Chan says to an agent, "Send out an alert notification page."

The agent begins to type: MIA suspicious male pax ran from ckpt . . .

The text message blasts out to all American airports, federal air marshals, TSA employees and federal security directors, in case -- though very unlikely -- something similar is happening, somewhere.

1510 Hours : Passenger Arrested After Behavior Detection Officer Referral at Los Angeles (LAX)

"The exact situation just happened in L.A.," says Andrew, Kent's deputy, pulling Kent aside. "A passenger took off."

Fifteen minutes had passed since the Lebanese man in Miami had fled. Now, a man in Los Angeles had been referred to secondary screening for suspicious behavior. The man dropped his bag on the X-ray conveyor belt and ran.

The tiniest of frown lines pinches Kent's brow. "Was he Lebanese?

"Jeanne Meserve is going to go live on CNN about it."

"Was he Lebanese?" Kent's frown line deepens.

On the white board at the front of the room, the incident unscrolls: LOS ANGELES LAX SUSPICIOUS PASSENGER IN TERMINAL 1 CHECKPOINT . . .

"Was he Lebanese or not?" Kent asks.

"I don't know," says Andrew. "See if he has grape leaves."

Chan orders another blast notification page, this time about L.A. In his mind, he is "bleeding between Code Orange and Red." Security directors from Newark, Connecticut and airports across the East Coast bombard the Freedom Center with questions. At La Guardia Airport in New York City, TSA employee Robert DeFrancesco, fires off an e-mail:

What about Miami, is there a connection???????

Kent, whose motto is "connect the dots," contemplates this: "Major airports on either coast, large aircraft like 9/11. Is it a probe, or is this an actual attack?"

"Get back on the phone with L.A.," Chuck orders the officer who took the L.A. report. Chuck's tremendous hands are flying. He stuffs them into his pockets so he doesn't accidentally whack someone. "Don't let them off the phone till I say so. Tell L.A. we want to compare facts: If he's a hundred-year-old Chinaman or a 12-year-old Mexican, we can take a step back."

Chan's investigator, Mike, clatters away at nine systems on five screens, racing to link the men in Miami and L.A.: Warrants? Border crossings? Did they share a PO box? Rent an apartment together? Mike's face turns warm. Then it gets hot. The Miami man has a fake California driver's license. Mike presses his cold Deer Park bottle to his burning cheek and forehead.

Kent's supervisor, Don Zimmerman, is called, who in turn -- "a few hairs up on the back of my neck" -- calls his supervisor at TSA headquarters in Arlington. Deputy administrator Gale Rossides looks at her caller ID: "URGENT-DonZ."

She steps out of a meeting.

"We have a situation here," Don tells her. "Actually, it's two situations."

On the Watch Floor, the usual murmur is gone. Chan has stopped pacing; he has to take a breath. With "two, simultaneous, 9/11-like activities" going on, he needs a few seconds to focus. "Don't overreact. Don't underreact," Chan tells himself. He doesn't want his agents to see him scared.

But when Chan looks up at the electronic U.S. map, at the Charlotte-to-Indianapolis flight pulsing across state lines, he thinks that armed terrorists might be on board, that the checkpoint running might be a diversion, that the terrorists have companions on other flights, and that any minute the entire map could light up with tiny, white planes.

It's like that dream Chan sometimes has: "I've been at work. It's faded and foggy. It's like you're a cop and in a foot chase. You never catch the guy. You're making all the right calls. Despite all your efforts, it's the realization that something bad is going to happen. And it drops off, like you're falling off the bed."

As Chan stands on the Watch Floor, he feels that same sinking in his stomach. The words flash through his mind, "Here we go again." The terrorist attack he expected. Then another flash: his past shortcomings and failures.

But seared in deep, beneath those fears, behind his own history, burn the faces of the 19 hijackers. He can see them, their eyes, their gaze, mental sketches of the men of 9/11: "three rows of five, and one row of four people. The steadfast, committed-to-their-mission look. Stoic, deliberate and tuned into their job."

Chan has seen that look before, that look of dedication -- in American police officers in uniform. And in him.

If there is going to be another strike, a second chance, "I hope it's me that gets to deal with it."

Chan takes a breath and tells one of his agents, Denny Spencer, in a calm, authoritative voice: "Alert all federal marshals transiting Miami and L.A."

Chan's next step would be to broadcast an emergency message to all air marshals in the United States and overseas; Chuck would dial into DOD's classified red-switch network to contact the U.S. Northern Command (Northcom) and NORAD.

"I'm on it," says Denny, catching the unwavering look in Chan's eyes. He flashes Chan a thumbs up.

1516 Hours: Secure ID Violation at Dallas-Forth Worth (DFW)

. . . 1556 Hours: Explosive Detection Alarms at Los Angeles (LAX)

. . . 1653 Hours: Suspicious Individual at Newark (EWR)

. . . 1727 Hours: Suspicious Checked Baggage at John Wayne (SNA)

. . . 1924 Hours: Disruptive Passenger Atlanta (ATL)

. . . 2115 Hours: Passenger Arrested at Las Vegas (LAS)

"The guy in L.A. is a doper!" a voice calls from the Watch Floor.

"Where?" Chan says, turning to Denny. "Who are you talking to?"

"Los Angeles. The guy was nervous about flying, so he smoked pot," says Denny. "No apparent nexus to terrorism."

"Stand down!" Chan tells his officers.

The L.A. passenger was a 21-year-old African American. He had been smoking marijuana. It evidently made him paranoid.

Chan orders a text page: CLOSE OUT LAX; suspicious male pax arrested on charges of Public Intoxication and Fleeing a Checkpoint.

Chan takes another deep breath. So do his agents. The events in Miami and Los Angeles are not related.

As the afternoon dims into evening, Chan eats soup from a vending machine at his desk and calls Kathy at home. "We thought we had something today," he tells her. "How's Jamie?"

Chan's shift winds down with minor incidents in Dallas, Los Angeles, Newark, Santa Ana, Atlanta and Las Vegas. Earlier incidents close out. The Charlotte-Indianapolis passenger was not on a terrorist watch list after all. There had been an error in spelling his common Muslim name. He did, however, appear on a visitors list for a radical prisoner.

It took hours to resolve the case of the Lebanese man in Miami, who had leapt from the parking ramp and broken his arm. "That guy made me almost mess my pants today," Chuck says. "I'd throw him off the parking ramp myself."

Law enforcement officials pulled the Lebanese man's two companions off their flight and found 10 credit cards and three cashier's checks totaling more than $1 million. The carry-on bag the Lebanese man had abandoned contained cocaine.

He told police he fled because he was "having a bad day, and was nervous that he would miss his flight."

2336 Hours: Suspicious Individual in Custody at Santa Clara County (RHV)

Chan is listening to jazz instrumentals as he drives home in the dark. After eight hours of monitoring terrorism traffic, he doesn't want to hear any words. He reviews his day: "Did I call the right people? Get the right agents involved?"

It is 10:40 p.m. Up in the woods on Bull Run Mountain, in a small house on a gravel road, Chan's floor partner, Chuck, is already asleep, wearing his Marine medallion. Chuck will be on the Watch Floor again by sunrise. Before sinking into his dreams, Chuck cuddled with his Rottweiler and his wife, who share a king-size bed.

"Good night, Mom," Chuck said, to his wife.

"Good night, baby," Chuck said to the dog, who sleeps between them. Chuck pampers his pet even more since she's been diagnosed with lymphoma.

In the basement, hang Chuck's Marine uniforms: the dress blues, the green service alphas, the camouflage utilities. The closet is left open. Chuck tells people that being a Watch Floor command duty officer is like being a Marine, "same fight, different uniform." He tells himself, or tries to, that the work is satisfying: "Isn't that sad to say, at 50 you're washed up? Fortunately, we find a place we feel useful."

But then at night, when the truth seeps like vapors under his door, Chuck dreams that there's a national emergency. The Marines call him back into active duty, into real combat. He has the dream once a week; he's sorry to wake up.

"What's the dream?" Chuck says later. "That somebody needs you." Then Chuck stops talking, because he starts to cry. When he cries, sometimes, the Rottweiler licks his tears.

At 11 p.m., Chan's boss, Kent, is still awake, taking calls from the Watch Floor. Sitting in his family room, in his easy chair, feet up, all he wants to do is watch "Dancing With the Stars" and crash. But Kent answers the phone again and again, summoning his brisk, work voice: "Jefferies." It might be a call about the pilot who accidentally fired off a round in the cockpit. Or the three men on USAirways, kicking one another over a seat assignment. Or maybe it's the passenger who strapped a baby alligator to his leg and was caught when the screener saw his pants wiggle. (Kent: "It begs the question, which way was the alligator's head facing?")

Kent's response to the watchmen is always cool, but more than anyone, he absorbs the Floor's considerable heat. "Everyone wants to be the big boss, but it's not so great," Kent says. "Back in the day, I used to run with the president. I used to do a lot of things. I used to make fun of people like me." Now Kent has no time to exercise. Every quarter, he takes a government physical and a doctor checks his blood pressure, "to make sure I'm not going to croak."

During a break in the calls, Kent goes to bed. His dental night guard, he notices, is worn out. Since he's come to TSA, he has started clenching his jaws. He sometimes pulls back his lips, and examines the flat, black crack where his upper and lower bite meet. The iceman's teeth are ground even.

At 11:20 p.m., Chan drives up to Kathy's house. Inside, he checks on Jamie, who is sleeping on her back, holding her raggedy yellow blanky to her cheek.

"She has no idea," Chan thinks, looking at the little girl, "how drastic the world is." He closes Jamie's door carefully, trying not to disturb her.

When Chan opens Kathy's bedroom door, he is happy to see that she isn't asleep. Her red hair is spread out on her pillowcase. Her eyes are half-closed. She is wearing his aunt's antique diamond engagement ring.

"Are you serious?" Kathy had said last week, when Chan finally found the courage to propose.

Kathy had married young, been hurt hard and, after that, closed up. But an elderly man at the Freedom Center told her, "You deserve to have a nice guy to treat you right." After years of watching Chan bumble past, it occurred to her -- maybe the nice guy was Chan.

Now they would be married: Chan Browne and Kathy White. "We'll change our name to Tan," she joked.

"There actually is love," Chan said to her. "I'd stopped looking."

"I'd stopped looking," Kathy replied.

At 11:30 p.m., Chan lies down next to Kathy. He kisses her. He looks at her. He looks back at his day -- "Did I do everything right?" -- one last time. Then he falls asleep, at peace. Five minutes later, the BlackBerry on his bedside table vibrates.

A Secret Service agent in Santa Clara reports: A man in custody for theft and check fraud with possible "mental disabilities" said that in 2005, he took a flight from San Francisco to Dulles. He had planned to hijack the plane, and crash it into the White House.

Laura Blumenfeld is a Magazine staff writer. She can be reached at blumenfeldl@washpost.com. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.

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