American Airlines Flight 11 was the first plane that was hijacked and crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11th, 2001.
A brief overview: what happened on 9/11?
At 8:46 a.m. local time, American Airlines Flight 11, carrying 87 passengers, flew into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. For a while it was assumed to be an accident, but when about 20 minutes later another plane, United Airlines Flight 175 with 60 passengers, crashed into the south tower, it was clear that this was a planned attack.
When, just past 9:30 p.m. local time, American Airlines Flight 77 plunged into the Pentagon, the U.S. Department of Defense building in Washington D.C., with 59 passengers, they knew 100% for sure.
The hijackers of a fourth plane, United Airlines flight number 93, which may have been headed for the White House, were overpowered by the passengers on board. At about 10 a.m. local time, this plane with 40 people on board crashed into a field just outside of Pittsburgh.
For a long time, it was unclear if more planes had been or would be hijacked. As a safety measure, the government shut down all air traffic in the United States.
In this post, I will try to give a nuanced account of what happened on and with American Airlines Flight 11 that day, without delving into all sorts of conspiracy stories that have sprung up around this subject.
American Airlines Flight 11
The heroes of this flight were, of course, the passengers and members of the crew. I would like to name a couple of them, but it is important to remember that every passenger had a name and is missed by friends and family.
She was the first person to tell the world that her flight from Boston to Los Angeles, Flight 11, had been hijacked and was in trouble. She was born and raised in San Francisco. In the video below you can hear her voice. She used a telephone card to call American Airlines’ operations/Raleigh reservations center (source video: 9/11 Never Forget)
Madeline Amy Sweeney
At 8:46 a.m., Sweeney was on the phone with flight services manager Michael Woodward when the plane crashed into the North Tower: “I see water. I see buildings. I see buildings! We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low. Oh my God we…
(The soundtrack above is an excerpt from a movie about the terrorist attack)
The other crew members were Captain John Ogonowski (50), First Officer Thomas McGuinness Jr. (42) (a former Navy fighter pilot), purser Karen Martin and flight attendants Barbara Arestegui, Jeffrey Collman, Sara Low, Kathleen Nicosia, Jean Roger and Dianne Snyder.
The hijackers of Flight 11
The five hijackers of Flight 11 were:
- Mohamed Atta
- Abdul Aziz al Omari
- Satam al Suqami
- Wail al Shehri
- Waleed el Shedri
The pilot: Mohamed Atta
Mohamed Atta was born on September 1-1968. He was from Egypt.
He was the ringleader of the hijackers and one of the pilots. Furthermore, he was very intelligent, studied architecture in Cairo, and continued his study in Hamburg (Germany). His friends in Germany said he was not only very intelligent but that his religious beliefs and political goals were equally important to him.
Together with some friends, he formed the Hamburg Cell, a group of radical Islamists. Atta and some of the members of the Hamburg cell were recruited by Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at the beginning of 2000 for an attack on the United States.
One of the recruited fundamentalists was Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who wanted to become one of the pilots. He was the only one who was denied a visa for the US. Therefore, he served as a link between Mohamed Atta and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Afghanistan.
In June 2000, Atta and two other members of the Hamburg cell, arrived in the United States to learn how to fly a plane. He had his license in September 2000 and continued training in large jet simulators. In November and December 2000, Atta bought cockpit videos for Boeing 747-200, Boeing 757-200, Airbus A320, and Boeing 767-300ER.
The muscle hijackers
The other hijackers were called the “muscle hijackers”. Their task was to control the passengers and crew.
All four were from Saudi Arabia. After the attack, there was much confusion about the identities of these four men. Abdulaziz al-Omari was reportedly seen after the attack.
A man with the same name and birthdate turned up alive in Saudi Arabia and said his passport was stolen in 1995. The man stated he had nothing to do with the attack.
Wail and Waleed al-Shehri were brothers. Their photos are often swapped. Wail was the oldest brother. He was a schoolteacher with mental problems. Instead of going to a psychiatrist, he preferred going to Mecca with his brother. They were both very religious.
Wail and Waleed were recruited in March 2001 by al-Qaeda, a militant Sunni Islamic extremist network, founded by Osama bin Laden. They arrived in the US in April 2001.
Waleed and Wail were both reported to have been initially found (in error, by a Saudi newspaper editor) as the sons of Ahmed Alshehri. This was also a case of mistaken identity.
Muhammad Ali al-Shehri, the real father told Arab News that he had not heard from his sons in 10 months prior to September 2001. NBC reporter John Hockenberry traveled to Asir (the place where the brothers came from), where he interviewed the third brother, Salah, who confirmed that his two brothers were dead and claimed they had been “brainwashed.”
The last muscle hijacker on this flight was Satam al Suqami. He was one of nine hijackers who opened a SunTrust Bank account with a cash deposit around June 2001. On July 3 he obtained a Florida State Identification Card. Around that time, he also used his Saudi driver’s license to get a Florida driver’s license with the same home address as Wail al-Shehri, a Homing Inn in Boynton Beach. Nevertheless, the 9/11 Commission claims Suqami was the only hijacker who did not have U.S. identification.
His Visa was recovered from the crash site (which is considered very strange, since it was the only document recovered from the crash).
American Airlines Flight 11 Timeline
|06:45||Hijacker's Connecting Flight Arrives in Boston|
|For an unknown reason, Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari stayed in Portland the night before the hijacking took place. They flew in the early morning to Boston and arrived there in time to catch American Airlines flight 11 to Los Angeles.|
|The other three Flight 11 hijackers arrive at Logan in a rented car around this same time|
|6:45-7:40||Three hijackers of Flight 11 selected for additional screening at airport security|
|All five Flight 11 hijackers check in at Bostons Logan Airport and board their plane, bound for Los Angeles. The Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS) selected three of them for additional screening. They have their bags scanned for explosives.|
|All five men cleared the checkpoint and made their way to the gate for American 11. Atta, Omari, and Suqami took their seats in business class (seats 8D, 8G, and 10B, respectively). The Shehri brothers had adjacent seats in row 2 (Wail in 2A,Waleed in 2B), in the first-class cabin.|
|06:52||Call Placed from Payphone at Logan to Attas Cell Phone|
|A three-minute call is made from a payphone at Bostons Logan Airport, in the gate area from where Flight 175 will later depart, to Mohamed Attas cell phone. Presumably it was Marwan Shehhi, the lead hijacker of flight 175|
|Before 7:59||Inter Flight Phone Call Between Hijackers|
|Hijacker Mohamed Atta on Flight 11 calls hijacker Marwan Alshehhi in Flight 175 as both planes are on the runway. They presumably confirm the plot is on.|
|07:59||Flight 11 takes off|
|The flight is 14 minutes late.|
|08:13||Flight 11 Hijacked, but Pilot Makes No Distress Call|
|The last routine communication takes place between ground control and the pilots of Flight 11 around this time. After this Flight Control gets no response.|
|Between||Flight 11 Transponder Turned Off|
|8:30 and 8:21||Shortly after flight controllers ask Flight 11 to climb to 35,000 feet, the transponder stops transmitting.|
|Between||Flight 11 Pilot Repeatedly Pushes Talk Back Button|
|8:14 and 8:38||At some point after the hijacking starts, the talkback button on Flight 11 is pushed. This lets the flight controllers in Boston hear what is going on in the cockpit.|
|08:19||Flight 11 Attendant Ong Phones in and reports the hijacking.|
|08:20||Flight 11 IFF (identify friend or foe) Signal Transmission Stops|
|08:20||Israeli Special-Ops Passenger Shot or Stabbed by Hijackers?|
|An FAA memo written on the evening of 9/11, and later leaked, suggests that a man on Flight 11 was shot and killed by a gun before the plane crashed into the WTC. The man killed was Lewin a former member of the Israel Defense Force Sayeret Matkal, Israels most successful special-operations unit. (Sayeret Matkal is best known for the 1976 rescue of 106 passengers at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.)|
|FAA and American Airline officials later deny the gun story and suggest that Lewin was probably stabbed to death instead.|
|Officials say that the document that was leaked was later corrected, but they won't give out the final draft because it's "protected information."|
|08:20||American Airlines Dispatcher Learns of Problem With Flight 11|
|08:20||Flight 11 changes course|
|08:20||Boston Flight Control Thinks Flight 11 May Be Hijacked|
|Boston flight control decides Flight 11 has probably been hijacked, but it doesn't notify other flight control centers for five minutes. NORAD is not informed.|
|08:21||Sweeneys Call Reaches American Headquarters, but Managers Cover Up the News|
|Flight service manager for American Airlines Michael Woodward is on the phone with Flight 11 attendant Amy Sweeney. He calls Nancy Wyatt, the supervisor of pursers at Logan Airport, who transmits this call to the airline's headquarters. All vital details from Sweeneys call reach American Airlines top management almost instantly, but the two managers at headquarters immediately begin discussing a cover-up of the hijacking details. This decision prevented early and clear evidence of a hijacking being shared. Lives could have been saved if this information had been shared quickly with other planes.|
|Amy Sweeney gave the following seat numbers for the hijackers: 9D, 9G, and 10B|
|08:24||Flight 11 Turns, Many Watch It on Primary Radar|
|Flight controllers never lose sight of the flight, though they can no longer determine altitude once the transponder is turned off.|
|Before 8:26||Hijackers Identified by Seat Locations|
|Commissioner Bob Kerrey notes that from this information, American Airlines officials monitoring would assume right away that the hijacking was connected to al-Qaeda|
|08:24||The voice of Mohamed Ata|
|Boston control hears the voice of Mohamed Ata telling the passengers to stay calm. Presumably, Ata thought he was talking to the passengers and had pushed the talk back button by mistake.|
|08:25||Boston Flight Control Tells Other Centers About Hijack, But Not NORAD|
|Boston's flight control informs several air traffic control centers that a hijacking is going on. However, Indianapolis (monitoring flight 77) and La Guardia airport in New York learn about the hijacking from the news.|
|08:27||Ong Gives Flight 11 Details; Seating Accounts Differ|
|Ong said the four hijackers had come from first-class seats: 2A, 2B, 9A, and 9B. Shed said the wounded passenger was in seat 10B.|
|This is also strange. Both attendants gave the wrong seat numbers, yet the hijackers were already identified and connected to Al-Qaeda.|
|8:28 - 8:32||FAA Centers Have Hijacking Conference Call; Military Not Notified|
|Even though Boston has been certain that Flight 11 is hijacked, they still did not contact NORAD (as well as the NMCC) to request fighter support.|
|08:33||Betty Ong Reports Death of Flight 11 Passenger|
|One of the passengers, possibly on 9B, Levin or Lewis, might have been fatally stabbed. She is presumably referring to Daniel Lewin, who was killed at around 8:20 a.m.|
|08:34||Boston Flight Control Attempts to Contact Air Base Directly; Result Unknown|
|Atlantic City Fighters Not Reached; Not Redeployed Until Much Later|
|NORAD left what seems to be a big gap in the midsection of its air defenses on the East Coasta gap with New York City at the center.|
|8:36 - 8:38||American Airlines Conducts Lockout of Flight 11|
|This means that all information is handled by the top leadership at the airlines.|
|Since lockout is a standard procedure for airlines in safety and security incidents, it is unclear why it was not initiated earlier.|
|08:37||Flight 175 Pilots Asked to Look for Flight 11|
|Apparently, Flight 175 is not told Flight 11 has been hijacked. Flight 175 itself is hijacked a few minutes later.|
|08:37||Boston Flight Control Notifies NEADS, Against Normal Procedures; Timing Disputed|
|This is apparently the first successful notification to the military about the crisis. Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Powell, a member of the Air National Guard at NEADS, initially takes the call from Boston flight control.|
|8:38-8:43||NORAD Personnel Mistake Hijacking for Part of an Exercise|
|NORAD initially mistakes the hijack for a simulation as part of an exercise that was taking place that day.|
|08:44||Flight Attendant Betty Ongs Call to American Airlines Ends|
|Flight 11 attendant Betty Ong had been conversing through Airfone with three employees at the American Airlines Southeastern Reservations Office in Cary, North Carolina, for the past quarter-hour. As Flight 11 nears New York and the World Trade Center, the cabin looks to be calm. Vanessa Minter, one of the staffers who received Ongs call, subsequently recalled, There was no background hysteria. You did not hear any screams. Ong repeats with a calm tone, Pray for us. Please pray for us. Minter and the supervisor of the reservations office, Nydia Gonzalez, assure her that they are praying. After a few seconds, the line goes dead.|
|08:44||Flight 11 Attendant Calm as End Approaches|
|Flight attendant Amy Sweeney continues to describe situations on Flight 11 over the phone with American Airlines flight services manager Michael Woodward. The aircraft is approaching New York City, but the coach section passengers remain silent, apparently unaware of the hijacking.|
|08:46||Flight 11 Hits the North Tower of the World Trade Center|
|Shortly after||New York Flight Control Notices Problems with Flight 175|