On Sept. 11, as Americans watched horror rain upon New York and
Washington, command teams at a little-known military outpost in
Rome, N.Y., worked feverishly to restore safe skies and rouse a
slumbering homeland defense.
At the Northeast Air Defense Sector, radar operators who constantly
scan the continent's boundaries suddenly faced a threat from within
and a race they could not win.
Four months after the terrorist attacks, there are still untold
stories. This is one.
6 A.M.: WAR GAMES
Lt. Col. Dawne Deskins figured it would be a long day.
Sept. 11 was Day II of "Vigilant Guardian," an exercise
that would pose an imaginary crisis to North American Air Defense
outposts nationwide. The simulation would run all week, and Deskins,
starting her 12-hour shift in the Operations Center as the NORAD
unit's airborne control and warning officer, might find herself
on the spot.
Day I of the simulation had moved slowly. She hoped the exercise
gathered steam. It made a long day go faster.
8:40 A.M.: REAL WORLD
In the Ops Center, three rows of radar scopes face a high wall of
wide-screen monitors. Supervisors pace behind technicians who peer
at the instruments. Here it is always quiet, always dark, except
for the green radar glow.
At 8:40, Deskins noticed senior technician Jeremy Powell waving
his hand. Boston Center was on the line, he said. It had a hijacked
"It must be part of the exercise," Deskins thought.
At first, everybody did. Then Deskins saw the glowing direct phone
line to the Federal Aviation Administration.
On the phone she heard the voice of a military liaison for the FAA's
"I have a hijacked aircraft," he told her.
American Airlines Flight 11, headed to Los Angeles, had veered off
course, apparently toward New York. The liaison said to get "some
F-16s or something" airborne.
Forty-one minutes earlier, Flight 11 had left Logan Airport with
81 passengers. For the last 27 minutes, it had not responded to
Deskins requested Flight 11's latest position, which an operator
put up on the screen.
Flight 11 wasn't there.
Someone had turned off its transponder, the device that identifies
the plane to ground control.
Boston Center could still track it on primary radar, but the operators
in Rome would be hard-pressed to find it amid the jumble of blips
on their screens.
We'll direct the intercept, the liaison told Deskins. Just get something
Deskins ran up a short flight of stairs to the Battle Cab and reported
the hijacked plane -- real world, not a simulation.
"He says it's going to New York," she said. A thought
flashed: Why is he going to New York?
8:43 A.M.: SEARCH
Master Sgt. Maureen Dooley started doing the math.
If Flight 11 cruised at a normal speed, maybe 350 knots, in a certain
direction, it would be right -- she directed a technician to zero
in on a sector northeast of New York -- there!
They saw blips, dozens of them -- the swarm of a Tuesday morning
aerial rush hour. Somewhere in there was Flight 11.
"You have the urgency to do what you're trained to do,"
Dooley said. "But you also have that personal urgency, which
is saying, `Oh, my God!"'
By now, Powell was on the scramble line to Otis Air Base in Falmouth,
Mass., one of two Air National Guard units controlled by the Northeast
Air Defense Sector (NEADS), telling it to upgrade its "readiness
posture." Direct phones and e-mails flashed to NORAD in Colorado
and CONR, its Continental U.S. Region headquarters in Florida.
At 8:43 a.m., Dooley's technicians, their headsets linked to Boston
Center, heard of a second plane, United Flight 175, that also was
not responding. It, too, was moving to New York.
The FAA was still trying to contact Flight 11. If this followed
past scenarios, the hijackers would start making demands, the first
of which might be to land at JFK International Airport.
Dooley's technicians centered in on a radar blip that might be Flight
11. They watched it close on New York City.
8:46 A.M.: SCRAMBLE
The Battle Cab, a long, glassed-in office, overlooks the Ops Room
like a low-slung balcony in a darkened theater. In a corner booth,
an officer waits for the unthinkable: the coded message indicating
America is at war.
Six minutes after Boston Center's call, NEADS scrambled two armed
F-15s at Otis Air Base on Cape Cod.
"We had no idea where the aircraft was," recalled Maj.
James Fox, who gave the order. "We just knew it was over land,
so we scrambled them towards land."
Weapons directors guided the jets, as radar technicians talked to
the FAA -- a headset to one ear, a phone to the other.
Deskins ran to a nearby office and phoned 1st Air Force Chief Public
Affairs Officer Major Don Arias in Florida. She said NEADS had a
hijacked plane -- no, not the simulation -- likely heading for JFK.
"The entire floor sensed something wrong," Chief of Operations
Control Lt. Col. Ian Sanderson said. "The way this unfolded,
everybody had a gut sense this wasn't right."
8:46 A.M.: TOWER ONE
As the first plane hit the World Trade Center, the F-15s were rumbling
off the runways at Otis.
"I remember somebody running into the Ops Room," Deskins
said. "They said they'd just seen on CNN that an aircraft hit
the World Trade Center."
A quiet tremor rolled through the room, replaced by the buzz of
urgent questions into phones. What kind of aircraft hit the building?
A small plane? A large plane? Could it be Flight 11?
Boston Center was still tracking a blip believed to be Flight 11.
Dooley grasped for a way the fighter pilots could identify it. "I
was fighting to get the (plane's) tail number," she said. "We
were trying to grab at anything we could."
Several minutes passed before Boston Center said Flight 11 had hit
the Trade Center.
"I had a feeling of helplessness," Dooley said. "I
think everybody did. We were doing everything in our power."
Again, Deskins phoned Maj. Arias in Florida. "We think the
aircraft that just hit the World Trade Center was American Airlines
Flight 11," she reported.
To this day, Arias says he cannot recall his reply, such was his
state of mind.
Deskins can't forget it.
"Oh, God," he told her. "My brother works in the
World Trade Center."
9:03 A.M.: TOWER TWO
A second plane hit the Trade Center. The F-15s were still 71 miles
"We were ... floored," Sanderson said.
By now, every qualified staffer had been called to the Ops Room
and Battle Cab. Others, hearing the news at home, headed to work.
"We were suddenly no-kidding under attack," Deskins said.
"The FAA didn't know how many aircraft there were. Any airliner
they weren't talking to could potentially be one."
Sanderson said the second crash brought a brief pause, and then
a renewal: "This was our situation to seize back. There was
almost a turning point."
The staff looked to Col. Robert Marr, who rallied the operation:
Get to the phones. Call every Air National Guard unit in the land.
Prepare to put jets in the air. The nation is under attack.
They would rouse the homeland defense unit by unit, if necessary.
9:24 A.M.: FLIGHT 77
A third plane, American Airlines Flight 77 from Washington to Los
Angeles, changed course and stopped responding.
Instantly, Rome scrambled fighter jets from the nearest air base,
Langley in Virginia. Again, Fox dispatched the jets without targets.
That would come later.
Now, NEADS was phoning Air Guard commanders across the Northeast,
posing questions that hours earlier would have seemed ludicrous.
Did the unit have available pilots? Mechanics? Crew chiefs? What
could it get airborne in two hours? In 24 hours? In 48?
Fox directed a Combat Air Patrol, or CAP, over New York City: Jets
were in place to take out a hijacked plane if necessary.
In the Battle Cab, where officers stood shoulder to shoulder, Col.
Marr began thinking aloud.
"What am I missing?" Marr could be heard asking himself.
"What I am NOT thinking of?"
Increasingly, attention turned to Flight 77. The FAA's Washington
Center could not find it on radar, the transponder was turned off.
In the Ops Room, radar technicians focused on a blip and watched
it closing on Washington.
At 9:37 a.m., the blip disappeared from their screens.
Last position: six miles from the Pentagon.
9:38 A.M.: WASHINGTON
When Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, the jets from Langley
were about 100 miles away.
"Now, I just felt it was personal," Deskins recalled.
Said Fox, "At that point, I'm just reacting."
At least four other planes were behaving strangely, according to
the FAA. Each might be another hijacking. Most notably, United Airlines
Flight 93 had turned off its transponder in Ohio.
"We're thinking: Where's he going? To Chicago?" Deskins
said. "WHERE IS HE GOING?"
Fighters fixed a CAP over Washington. If a plane ignored warnings,
they would fire on it, on orders from the president.
Fox's weapons teams passed the word: Be prepared to receive that
order and carry it out.
At 10:03 a.m., Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania. The passengers,
told of the other attacks via cell phones, had turned on the hijackers.
In the Ops Room, scopes now searched for United Flight 83, which
had turned toward Cleveland. Was it a hijacking? NEADS and Cleveland
Center watched until it landed. The pilot simply wanted to get down.
"I was actually expecting to hear about more (hijackings) from
other parts of the country," Sanderson said. "Los Angeles,
Dallas -- that's what I was expecting."
12:30 P.M.: REALIZATION
By order of the FAA, commercial air traffic had stopped. Radar scopes
showed nearly empty skies.
With the threat diminished, an Ops Room screen was tuned to CNN.
Almost immediately, a replay showed the World Trade Center crash.
A young radar technician turned around and said she wanted to cry.
"We don't have time," Dooley responded.
She later apologized. But with fighter patrols over Eastern cities,
much work remained to be done.
8 P.M.: REAL LIFE
"I just didn't want to let go," said Deskins, who worked
14 hours. "There was a fear that you weren't going to pass
on everything, and that when you left, you wouldn't be helping anymore."
Sanderson cannot recall what time he got home. He talked with his
wife until 3 a.m., unable to sleep.
In Florida, Maj. Don Arias waited for word from his younger brother,
After Deskins' call, Arias phoned his brother in Tower II to say
that the crash next door was a hijacking, and he should get out.
Adam P. Arias roused people throughout the 84th floor, exhorting
them to leave. Several credit him with saving their lives.
His body was one of the first found in the wreckage.
"The mole people are always watching," Chaplain Maj. Timothy
C. Bejian wrote in a message to the Northeast Air Defense Sector
after Sept. 11. "They gather together in groups, in windowless
places, usually arriving while it's dark and staying long hours,
only to leave while it's dark. Many times they can't tuck their
own children into bed and read them fairy tales because they are
watching. This bothers the mole people, but they know that it needs
to be done.
"The mole people are real," Bejian wrote. "They aren't
part of a fairy tale, because fairy tales always have happy endings.
Real people who live real lives don't always have happy endings,
but that doesn't mean that they can't be happy. ...
"Happiness comes from deep within, where your heart of hearts
Today, armed guards at NEADS scan cars at the gate for bombs. Jets
patrol the skies over major cities. Twelve-hour shifts have become
It's dark when some come to work, dark when they leave. In the Ops
Room, where the only windows are radar screens, the watchers keep
"That's why we're here," Sanderson said. "I think
(Sept. 11) gave people here a new sense of purpose. ... Suddenly,
it was very real. This unit will never be the same."