A Jan. 28 article about a report on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks incorrectly used the term "common strategy" to refer to the methods that the 19 hijackers used to commandeer the four airplanes. The term "common strategy" in the report refers to the training methods that airline flight crews used before the terrorist attacks to deal with potential hijacking situations. (Published 1/31/04)
The hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001, blasted Mace or pepper spray at flight crew members and passengers to keep them away from the cockpits and wielded knives in their orchestrated takeovers of the aircraft, according to a report issued yesterday by the commission investigating the attacks.
The report provides the most comprehensive picture yet of what it called the "common strategy" the terrorists used to commandeer the four airliners that were flown into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. At a hearing yesterday, the 9/11 commission played publicly for the first time dramatic portions of a taped phone call from American Airlines flight attendant Betty Ong, revealing the fear and confusion aboard Flight 11 after the hijackers stabbed at least two crew members before crashing the plane into the North Tower.
In a separate report yesterday, the 10-member bipartisan commission revealed that nine of the 19 hijackers had been flagged by the Federal Aviation Administration's computer passenger screening system before boarding their flights. The system alerts airport security screeners to more thoroughly check passengers who buy one-way tickets or pay with cash. FAA procedures at the time called for the luggage of the "selectees" to be screened for explosives.
According to the report, three of the five hijackers aboard Flight 11 were designated selectees by the computer system, known as CAPPS, but one hijacker had checked no luggage and screeners scanned the bags of the other two for explosives. All five hijackers aboard American Flight 77 -- which crashed into the Pentagon -- were selectees and their luggage was held before they were confirmed on the aircraft, and no further screening was done.
One hijacker aboard United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, was flagged and his bag was screened for explosives before being loaded onto the plane, the report said. No terrorists aboard United Flight 175, which crashed into the South Tower, were flagged.
In its report on what happened aboard the jets, the commission concluded that the hijackers made bomb threats on at least three of the four planes and shot pepper spray on at least two flights. Passengers calling from cell phones noted the use of box cutters on only one flight, the report said. The commission also said it was skeptical of an earlier report that a gun was aboard one plane.
At yesterday's hearing, the commission focused on evidence gathered from at least 11 passengers and flight crew members who communicated with family members, employers and friends from the doomed flights. The hearing culminated with the taped calls from Ong, the American Airlines flight attendant, who used an onboard phone.
The commission, which has been hampered by obstacles since its creation in late 2002, announced yesterday that it will publicly press for a two-month extension of its statutory deadline, May 27. Any extension, which must be approved by Congress and the White House, would push the commission's work further into the presidential campaign.
The White House and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) have said they would oppose any extension. But Kristen Breitweiser, widow of World Trade Center victim Ronald Breitweiser, said she hopes the appeal from the commission will change their minds.
Commission member Timothy J. Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said, "We need this extension in order to thoroughly sift through all the facts, carefully evaluate a set of recommendations and not have a rush to judgment."
The report said the various calls from passengers and flight crew members indicated that they were aware that their planes had been hijacked but were unable to confirm that a terrorist was in the pilot's seat because many of them had been moved to the backs of the aircraft.
Some callers noticed erratic plane movements. A passenger aboard Flight 175 predicted that hijackers intended to fly the plane into a building, the report said. A passenger on Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon, had learned of the fate of two other flights, 11 and 175, which had crashed into the World Trade Center towers.
In the final minutes of Flight 11, Ong was able to reach American Airlines operations specialist Nydia Gonzalez in Cary, N.C. Gonzalez testified that the 23-minute call is "etched in my memory for the rest of my life."
Ong: Somebody is stabbed and, um, I think . . . [unclear] can't breathe . . . I don't know. I think we're getting hijacked.
American Airlines operations male voice: What seat are you in? Ma'am are you there?
Operations: What seat are you in?
Operations female voice: Ma'am what seat are you in?
Ong: [Unclear] We were supposed to go to LA. And the cockpit is not responding and --
Operations: What seat are you sitting in right now? What's the number of your seat?
Ong: Okay I'm in the jumpseat right now. I'm in 3R.
Operations: Okay. Are you a flight attendant? I'm sorry, did you say you were the flight attendant?
Ong: Hello? You need to speak up, I can't hear you.
Operations: What is your name?
Ong: Okay. My name is Betty Ong. I'm a flight attendant on Flight 11.
Ong: The cockpit is not answering their phone. And there is somebody stabbed in business class . . . and they can't breathe in business class or something. Somebody's got Mace or something.
On the tape, an unidentified operations specialist says that Ong is on Flight 12, then corrects himself and asks about the stabbed flight crew members. Ong responds by telling him, "Number 1" and "Number 5" have been stabbed, apparently referring to a first-class flight attendant and a purser. During the call, Ong's voice sounds concerned but calm and the plane's engines can be heard humming in the background.
On a second call played yesterday, American's Gonzalez talks with a 911 dispatcher alerting him to the stabbing reported aboard Flight 11. Gonzalez keeps Ong on the other line, at times asking for more details.
The call ends:
911: We have contacted air traffic control. . . . He turned the transponder off and we don't have a definitive altitude for him.
After Gonzalez listens to information from the 911 dispatcher, she checks the other line to reach Ong.
Gonzalez: What's going on, Betty? Betty, talk to me. Betty, are you there? Betty? Have we lost her? I think we might have lost her.
Some family members of the victims, who attended the hearings, said the tapes provided some closure. "All the visions I had of what he must have gone through . . . were made real," said Rosemary Dillard, whose husband, Eddie A. Dillard, was aboard Flight 77. "I appreciated it. It was hard to listen to."
Staff researcher Margot Williams contributed to this report.