911: The Evil and The Humanity

The flight from Boston was only two hours into its 6-hour flight to Los Angeles, when it was ordered to make an emergency landing at Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland. Upon landing, it was directed to a remote taxiway, where it was surrounded by a SWAT team and quarantined.

For two hours, federal investigators cautiously talked to Capt. Paul Werner through an open cockpit window. Finally, federal agents boarded the plane and interviewed the passengers and crew.

What Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) had heard earlier coming from the cockpit, someone shouting "Get out of there," and then a scuffle, made them fear the worst. Minutes later, they had heard a new voice, with a heavy accent: "Ladies and gentlemen, here it's the captain. Please sit down. Keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb aboard."

All who knew Capt. Paul Werner, knew it was not his voice nor his accent. Apparently, hijackers who meant to address the passengers, inadvertently left the communication line to the air traffic controllers open.

This was Delta Flight 1989, one of only three flights to leave Logan International Airport on September 11th, 2001, at 8 a.m. The other two -- American Flight 11 and United Flight 175 -- had already crashed into the World Trade Center.

When Flight 1989 responded promptly to orders to land at Hopkins, controllers realized they had made a mistake. Flight 1989 had been only 25 miles behind United Flight 175. Controllers were communicating with both planes at the same time. What controllers heard was Flight 175 being taken over by hijackers, but somehow they mistook it as coming from Flight 1989.

Only after finally being allowed to disembark at Hopkins, did the passengers realized how lucky they were. The suspicion that their flight might still be in danger upon landing, came from the pilot missing one of the controller's instructions because he was busy maneuvering for an emergency landing. Had he missed several instructions, the plane might have been shot down.

Adding to their sense of good fortune was the realization that they had a 66 percent chance of being one of the planes to fly into the World Trade Center. All three planes leaving Logan at 8 a.m. on 9/11 were Boeing 767s, bound for L.A., and heavy in fuel.

Especially counting their blessings was a couple flying on a company-booked trip. They had instructed the staff to book them on American Flight 11, the flight they usually took to L.A. In the day that it took the travel agent to get beck to them, the price had gone up. So they decided to fly Delta. The wife's words, after the ordeal: " ... we are all shaken by how close a call this was, and humbled by the realization that with all of these coincidences, Someone Above must be looking out for us."

To understand the confusion of air traffic controllers, you have to get some sense of the chaotic, frantic state that prevailed in the skies on 9/11.

In the midst of the 9/11 attacks, FAA leaders declared "ATC Zero" (Air Traffic Control Zero, meaning, clear the radar screens). Normally, ATC Zero is declared when technical problems occur, and aircraft tracking is transferred to another center; but planes keep flying. Clearing the entire U.S. airspace, as was the intent now, which would entail landing close to 50 planes a minute, was an unprecedented order.

This order came at around 9:45 a.m.: Two planes had already hit the Twin Towers, which had not yet collapsed. One plane had already crashed into the Pentagon. Another plane was known to be hijacked, with its destination unclear. And it was believed that as many as eleven planes might have been hijacked.

Not since the days of the Cold War have controllers contemplated or even simulated landings on such a massive scale. The maneuver, then called SCATANA ("security control of air traffic and navigation aids"), entailed clearing U.S. airspace and giving control over to the military in the event of a Soviet attack and the need to shoot down incoming missiles.

On 9/11, with every plane in the sky a potential missile, clearing the skies was intended to see which planes did not respond and needed to be shot down. Final approval to clear the skies came in a phone conversation with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who was in a bunker under the White House with Vice President Dick Cheney.

Several hours after Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania, close to 4,500 planes had landed without further incident. And, with that, the horrors of 9/11 ended. But the lessons live on.

In addition to revealing shortcomings in our airport security procedures, 9/11 also exposed weaknesses in our military defenses. The failure of NORAD (North American Air Defense Command) to intercept even one of the hijacked planes, seemed like an utter breakdown of their warning and response systems.

NORAD is a bi-national, United States and Canadian, aerospace warning system, which includes warning of attacks on North America and monitoring man-made objects in space. In the two years before 9/11, NORAD conducted exercises simulating hijacked airliners used as weapons. One of the imagined targets was, ironically, the World Trade Center. Another was the Pentagon; but this drill was never run because Defense officials considered it unrealistic.

NORAD's failure on 9/11 stemmed from an antiquated perception of the an "enemy attack." Its system looked outward for threats, not inward. "It was like a doughnut," Maj. Douglas Martin, public affairs officer for NORAD, said. "There was no coverage in the middle." Flights originating in the United States, before 9/11, were not seen as threats by NORAD. Flight irregularities would be detected by an ATC, who would then have to physically pick up a phone and call NORAD.

When the hijackers turned off the planes' transponders, which broadcast identifying signals, looking for a hijacked plane on an ATC's radar screen became like looking for a blip in a haystack.

Since 9/11, many of these deficiencies have been corrected. Hotlines have been set up between ATCs and NORAD command centers, facilitating communication and rapid response. NORAD has installed radar to monitor airspace over the U.S. and has increased its fighter coverage.

In response to the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush ordered the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) to expand its Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) program, which had less than 50 officers on 9/11. It now has thousands, with many more to be hired in coming months.

During 2006, of roughly 10 million flights, TSA officers screened over 700 million passengers, checked over 500 million pieces of luggage, opened over 85 million bags, and found over 13 million prohibited items.

In addition to utilizing scanning devices at airports, the TSA is now enlisting the help of "behavior detection officers." No, they're not cops who make sure you don't slouch in your seat or eat with the wrong spoon or fork. They're officers trained in an interesting discipline that reads facial expressions to identify people with ill intentions.

"Micro-expressions" that identify hidden emotions were first observed about 30 years ago when Paul Ekman, former professor at the University of California, and his colleague Maureen O'Sullivan studied videotapes of people telling lies. This method of sizing up people has been successfully tested by the Israelis, and has already netted drug dealers, terrorism suspects and illegal immigrants. (I don't see why we would need this for illegal immigrants -- we can just watch them run across the border.)

Much has been said and done about the things that went wrong on 9/11. What's been under-reported, though, are the things that went right. Landing thousands of planes in record-time without incident and with minimum panic in the U.S., and the many accounts of selflessness and benevolence at Ground Zero, were inspiring scenarios mimicked in many parts of the globe. Some of the tales of magnanimity have been given little attention.

Delta Flight 15 was over the North Atlantic, about 5 hours out of Frankfurt, on the morning of 9/11. One crew member (we'll call him Jim), who finally sat down to rest, was suddenly told to report to the cockpit.

Once in the cockpit, Jim found a somber looking crew. The captain handed Jim a message from Atlanta, their destination, addressed to their flight: "All airways over the Continental US are closed. Land ASAP at the nearest airport, advise your destination."

For a dispatcher to tell you to land as soon as possible without suggesting an airport, Jim knew that had to be serious. The nearest airport was 400 miles away, in Gander, on the island of New Foundland, Canada.

A request was made to the Canadian ATCs to land in Gander. The immediate approval seemed rather unusual. As they prepared for an emergency landing, a little info trickled in, giving the crew the impression that planes were being hijacked all over the U.S. and flown into building. They would later find out, in small spurts, the true nature of the terrorist attacks.

As they touched down in Gander, population around 11,000, at 12:30 pm, there were already 20 planes from all over the world on the ground. Within an hour or so, there were a total 53 planes -- and the population of Gander suddenly grew by about 9,000.

Flight 15 finally deplaned 11 am the next morning. They were driven away by a slew of school buses. Crew were taken to small hotels, passengers were housed separately.

Only after resuming their flight to Atlanta, 2 days later, did Jim (who reported this story) and the rest of the crew find out what the passengers had experienced.

Gander and the surrounding small communities, within a 50 mile radius, had closed all high schools, meeting halls, lodges, and large gathering places. They were all converted into mass lodging areas with cots, mats, sleeping bags and pillows. All high school students were REQUIRED to volunteer taking care of the "guests."

Flight 15's 218 passengers ended up in a high school in a town called Lewisporte, about 28 miles from Gander. If a woman wanted a women-only facility, it was arranged. Families were kept together. The elderly were taken to private homes.

Male and female doctors stayed on call with the crowd. Phone call and email capabilities were provided once a day. They were given excursion trips; boat cruises on lakes and harbors, and sightseeing of local forests.

Bakeries stayed open to make fresh bread. Food was prepared by all the residents and brought to the school. Some passengers were driven to and fed at eateries of their choice. They were all given tokens to the local Laundromats, since their luggage was still on the plane. Every single need of theirs was met.

Passengers were crying while telling their stories. They were all on first name basis and exchanging phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses. It was almost a party atmosphere, as if they'd just been on a cruise,

Then, in an unusual move, one of the passengers was given permission to speak over the PA system.

He reminded everyone about what they had just gone through. He reminded them of the hospitality they had received at the hands of total strangers. He said he would like to do something in return.

He continued, he was going to set up a Trust Fund under the name of DELTA 15 to provide a scholarship for the continued education of the high school students of Lewisporte. He asked for donations.

He received donations from crew members as well as passengers. When it was all totalled, it came out to roughly $15,000 (an interesting number for Flight 15). The gentleman who started all this turned out to be an MD from North Carolina. He promised to match the total donations.

The events of 9/11 may have been tragic. But from those ashes came many inspiring accounts of magnanimous humanitarianism, which should serve to give more meaning to the lives lost.

Are we safer today than we were before 9/11? The fact that six years have gone by without a recurrence, says we are. But terrorists sometimes seem to evolve commensurate with safeguards intended to thwart their efforts. Vigilance is probably our best bet. And praying more than they do, just may do the rest.