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An Air Traffic Controller’s First Hand Account of 9/11

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Curt Applegate tells an air traffic controller’s first hand account of 9/11 sixteen years later.

Sept 8 -John H called me to swap my Sept 11 3-11 shift for a 7-3 shift…I did. 

Sept 10- I worked 3-11, went to bed late. 5 hours later I rolled out of bed.

Sept 11-Running late I stopped at 7-11 for coffee and with eyes half closed with sleep I ran into my son’s soccer coach, Jim. We have NEVER crossed paths even though we stop at the same 7-11 every day. We greeted each other and went our separate ways…Jim would board the train to downtown Manhattan and I drove to the NY Air Route Control Center.

As of Sept 11, 2001 I had worked at ZNY for 19 years in Area B working west and south departure traffic from the NY area as well as the “Northeast Corridor “ between Washington and Boston.

After working traffic for a short time I took a coffee break. Upon returning to Area B, Paul asked if I would like to be CIC (controller-in-charge). I said I’d rather not so he asked me to relieve Evana, a two year controller in our building, so she could watch the area. I signed onto sector 39 and Evana took the area desk.

At this time no junior controllers were working traffic. Dave at R42, Mark at R56, Chris was R55, Laurie H55. Jimbo at R68, Tony H42 and I was R39 and Steve L was H39. All had 15 yrs+

Chris was working the only busy sector at the time and was upset that Dave would not take a pointout. Dave announced he might be tracking a hijack. Almost simultaneously the Facility Chief and Deputy appeared. This was a rare visit and a tip off that there was a problem.

I looked at Dave’s traffic and saw the AAL11 datablock coasting, that is, not tracking a target and located south of NYC. I knew Dave was looking for this target so joined the search all the while working my own airplanes.

Then a transponder intruder target appeared 5 mile east of Allentown, PA in Dave’s airspace directly above my own at 33,000 ft. I yelled to Dave “untracked target 5 miles east of Allentown” I thought this target may be the missing AAL11. It was not, it was UAL175, a 2nd hijack.

While Dave and Mark were tracking a primary raw RADAR target on AAL11, UAL175 had checked in with Dave at sector 42 at level 31,000 ft. He told Dave about disturbing talk he heard on the previous Boston Center frequency. UAL175 did not want to mention this on that same frequency as the disturbance waiting instead to change frequency and advise us here in NY. Shortly after UAL175 told Dave about it, its transponder turned off. This was not noticed right away because many of us were searching the airspace 50 miles east for the missing AAL11.

When UAL175’s transponder beacon reappeared on the wrong code, the airplane was two thousand feet higher than assigned most likely due to a struggle on the flight deck and immediately started a left descending turn. I asked a UPS jet to check traffic at 10 o’clock and ten miles to confirm type, if possible. I still thought this may be AAL11 unaware that a UAL175 was out there. UPS verified it was a possible wide body jet but was too far away for positive ID.

I then switched UAL93 to sector 73. I still recall the voice from UAL93 that sounded preoccupied. We did not yet know the fate of AAL11. I then learned that this was a 2nd aircraft.

As UAL175 descended thru 29000 feet, he came dangerously close to a Delta Airlines jet at 28,000. Despite Chris telling the captain to take any evasive action needed, these airplanes merged and I swear the driver of UAL175 stopped his descent several hundred feet above Delta and once clear started a VERY rapid final descent.

We all speculated on intention, was it an electrical problem forcing the crew to possibly land at JFK? It looked like he was lining up for runway 04. Throughout, controllers were receiving reports of a massive fire in downtown Manhattan.

The deputy’s phone rings, he answers, leans into the Chief and says AAL11 is confirmed into the World Trade Center. As this was being said, UAL175 was turning away from JFK and lining up with NY City.

Everything changed in that moment, the most horrific realization of my life and everybody else on the control room floor, this airplane was most likely going to crash into the city.

Somebody said “he’s going to the Empire State Building”, somebody else said “Mid-town”. Personally, I thought he was heading to the Statue of Liberty. Never even considered the Trade Center since it had already been hit.

Learning about AA11 Gave us clear insight to UAL175’s intentions. We knew the general target but could never guess the specific target. We had about 3 minutes to watch the final descent. We all watched in stunned total eerie silence until the target dropped off at about 2000 feet. Total silence. Until we learned he hit the other tower.

I thought about my son’s coach and the 50,000 people that visit the trade center on any given day. I said a prayer for the people about to die at an unknown location at this very moment.

A Continental pilot then broke the silence with a request that I verify what he heard about the trade center. Then we received the order to stop accepting airplanes. The NY departure controllers had already stopped departure traffic and it was saddening to realize UAL93 was one of the last to leave and almost didn’t get off the ground.

This is the first time I have recounted this day with detail. It was the day that changed everything .