By, December 30, 2003
By JIM DWYER
A set of tape transcripts released yesterday open a small window onto the flow of information among aviation authorities on Sept. 11, 2001, showing that air traffic officials in New York knew no more about the attacks than anyone watching television.
Although fighter jets were racing toward the city after the commandeered planes, the transcripts showed that controllers at La Guardia Airport, apparently unaware of the hijackings, continued to send out flights until the second plane had struck the World Trade Center. That was nearly an hour after the first plane had been hijacked.
The records are the latest to be released by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in response to a lawsuit brought by The New York Times. Four months ago, the Port Authority released about 2,000 pages of transcribed phone calls and radio transmissions that revealed communications problems and mistaken assurances that people could stay inside the towers.
Among the matters being investigated by the federal 9-11 Commission is the performance of the Federal Aviation Administration, which controls the nation's air traffic, and how quickly it notified air defense and local air traffic controllers.
"What was going on, on the ground the immediate response of the federal, state and city government is very central to our work," Al Felzenberg, a spokesman for the commission, said yesterday. "You will find that we will be very active in this area."
The unconventional siege of Sept. 11 stretched for nearly two hours in the skies from New England to the Midwest, from the takeover at 8:20 a.m. of American Airlines Flight 11 after it left Boston, until 10:03 a.m., when United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark is believed to have crashed in Pennsylvania.
Military officials have said that the F.A.A. notified them about one of the four hijackings only after that plane had crashed into the second tower at the trade center, but F.A.A. authorities have given different chronologies. Because of incomplete answers from both military and civil authorities, the commission said, it has been forced to issue subpoenas for information.
The fourth hijacked plane took off from Newark at 8:43, after two of the earlier planes had been seized. That has led the 9-11 Commission and others to question how the F.A.A. shared information as the crisis unfolded.
"What were the breakdowns in communication between the control towers, the F.A.A., Norad, and other government agencies?" Mary Fetchet, the mother of Bradley Fetchet, 24, who was killed in the south tower of the trade center, asked the commission in March.
At La Guardia, the tapes make clear, officials in the tower knew very little. Just after 9 a.m., shortly before the second plane hit the trade center, an unidentified woman in the La Guardia control tower spoke by phone with a Port Authority police officer, also unidentified on these transcripts.
"Do you know what happened at the World Trade Center?" the woman in the tower asked the policeman.
"Yeah, we . . . we just got it from what we are getting on the news," he responded. "We are sending a whole bunch of people down there, just so you guys know. We think a plane crashed into it."
"A plane crashed into it?" she asked.
"A plane crashed into the World Trade Center, yeah," the police officer answered.
The trade center and the billowing smoke could be seen from La Guardia, and as one supervisor looked at Lower Manhattan through binoculars, he saw the second plane circling around the towers, according to a federal aviation official.
At that moment, fighter jets that had been scrambled from Otis Air Force base in Massachusetts were racing toward the city and were about 71 miles from the trade center, eight minutes' flying time, according to testimony at a 9-11 Commission hearing.
(There was conflicting testimony on when the military was alerted to the first hijacking. Col. Alan Scott, retired, testified that the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or Norad, had been notified at 8:40 a.m., 20 minutes after the F.A.A. learned of the hijacking. The former F.A.A. administrator, Jane Garvey, testified that the notification took place six minutes earlier, at 8:34.)
Nothing on the tapes shows that the La Guardia controllers knew that the planes flying into their airspace had been seized by terrorists, or that military aircraft were screaming in pursuit over the Hudson River. Commercial airliners continued to line up on the La Guardia runways for takeoff, the transcripts show, as the second hijacked plane plunged into the south tower of the trade center at 9:02. Four minutes later, the air traffic in the area was grounded, and the word moved through the lines of planes waiting to leave La Guardia, according to an F.A.A. chronology.
At 9:07, an F.A.A. ground controller contacted planes getting ready for departure. "There's nobody that's going to be leaving La Guardia. Everybody just stand by," the dispatcher said. "I'm going to call you all back shortly. Everybody please maintain radio silence."
Police from the Port Authority, who patrolled both the trade center and the airports, sought information from the controllers about the hijackers. But the controllers, who were busy with airplanes suddenly returned for landing and others that had to go back to the gates, could not offer any news.
At 9:13, an air traffic controller, Chris McCary, took a phone call from a Port Authority police officer identified in the transcripts as Lusardi. "They are inquiring whether or not you can call Kennedy's tower," Officer Lusardi said, "because they can't get through, and inquire whether or not they had any contact with these aircrafts."
Mr. McCary answered, "At this time, we do not think that anyone in the F.A.A. had any contact with them."
At 9:37, a controller in the tower reported that the last La Guardia flight was returning to the gate. `My taxiways are clear," he said. "My runways are clear. And my airspace is clear."
The final recorded conversation in the tower that morning came at 9:47, when a supervisor called in and instructed a controller to get in touch with the police aviation unit.
"We are evacuating the tower," the supervisor said.