Listening to Sept. 11
We’ve heard the details now so many times that we’ve got them memorized. American Airlines Flight 11 left Boston bound for Los Angeles, then met its disastrous fate in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. United Flight 175, also leaving from Boston, crashed into the South Tower just a few minutes later. Two more hijacked planes took the lives of so many more innocent people, crashing into the Pentagon and in a field in Shanksville, Pa. As we are inundated with coverage for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we recite these facts and more, like a Greek chorus keeping the story alive.
Which is why it’s heartbreaking to listen to the new audio files from the morning of 9/11 that were released this week by the Rutgers Law Review, a section of which can be heard at The New York Times. The recordings, which were assembled for the 9/11 Commission but never released in their entirety, provide a play-by-play of the morning’s events. Like the eerily calm call from Betty Ong, a flight attendant on Flight 11, reporting to an American Airlines reservations line that she’d lost contact with the pilot. Or the casually caustic response: “Oh, cool. Where?” from a Northeast Air Defense Sector operator when she first received a call telling her a “real-life hijacking” was taking place. Everyone in the flight towers assumed that the hijacked planes would be landing at J.F.K. Anything else was inconceivable.
What’s fascinating about these tapes is that they’re static — the listener today hears them just as the person on the line did that morning, and the confusion and fear remain just as real as it was then. And yet the audio is oddly suspended in time, disentangled from the things we so quickly associate with the attack: the images of burning buildings, draped flags, and missing persons posters, and the anger, suspicion, frustration, and sadness we feel. Listen, and you’ll hear the last few seconds of a time when terrorism didn’t terrorize us. It’s almost impossible now, knowing the facts, not to yell out loud in warning.