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9/11 air controllers were in chaos

By David Usbourne

The sheer bafflement of America's air traffic control network during the two hours when America was under attack on September 9, 2001 has been put on vivid display with the release of complete audio tape recordings of increasingly frantic communications as the crisis accelerated.

The tapes, which also carry the voices of commercial pilots, military aviation officials and fighter pilots, were originally meant as part of a comprehensive audio history of that day for consideration by the 9/11 Commission, but the panel disbanded before it was completed and the tapes have never been available in their entirety before.

They show air traffic controllers in the eastern United States struggling to grasp what they were witnessing as one by one airplanes smashed into their intended targets or, in the case of United 93, into a Pennsylvania field. They also confirm that civilian controllers had difficulty reaching their military counterparts to get fighters into the air.

A civilian controller in New York is heard trying to alert a manager at the Federal Aviation Authority in Herndon, Virginia: "Do you know if anyone down there has done any co-ordination to scramble fighter-type airplanes?" he asks after the first Tower was hit. "We have several situations going, going on here. It's escalating big, big time and we need to get the military involved with us."

A Herndon voice responds: "Why, what's going on?"

"Just get me somebody who has the authority to get military in the air, now," the controller says.

The tapes were put together by the Rutgers University Law School with help from Miles Kara, a retired Army colonel and investigator for the 9/11 Commission. The often chilling results of their scholarship were posted on the university website.

Though some of the tapes have been heard publicly before, Mr Kara says the collection of recordings and transcripts offers a wider view of what happened in the skies of the east coast that morning.

"The story of 9/11 itself is best told in the voices of 9/11," he said.

The tapes remove any remaining doubt that assertions by the country's leaders after the attack - including then Vice-President Dick Cheney - about fighters being sent in the air promptly to shadow the hijacked planes, was not true.

Military commanders had nine minutes' notice before one of the planes hit its target but had no notice at all before the crashes of the other three.

Two sections of the tapes are still not available: One carrying the cockpit recordings of United 93 in its final 30 minutes, another reportedly featuring a conference call between leaders, including Mr Cheney and former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

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