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In chaos, TIA tower controlled 9/11 skies

While air traffic controllers across the nation brought planes down, Tampa controllers had to find a way to get one up, too.

By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 7, 2002


While air traffic controllers across the nation brought planes down, Tampa controllers had to find a way to get one up, too.

TAMPA -- Laurie Zugay recalls that last Sept. 11 started out just fine.

"We had 10 miles' visibility and just a few clouds in the sky," Zugay said. "It was shaping up to be a very good day."

It should have been a relatively easy day for controllers at Tampa International Airport and for Zugay, 44, who had been the manager of the control tower for just two months. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are generally the lightest travel days of the week. So Zugay used those days for briefings and training sessions for members of her operations staff.

It took less than an hour for the day to deteriorate to the unthinkable -- and severely test the professionalism of the nation's air traffic controllers.

At 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 hit the north tower of the World Trade Center.

"We weren't affected immediately," Zugay said last week in her first interview about conditions in the TIA control tower that day. "We were getting reports from CNN, just like everybody else."

Then United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the trade center's south tower. The FAA ordered a hold on all planes departing from anywhere in New England. That hold spread and eventually encompassed the nation.

"At that point, we stopped the training and called everybody back into the Tracon," the radar room from which flights are controlled, Zugay said. "All of a sudden, we were involved."

Zugay, one of 10 female tower chiefs in the FAA's southern region, had 20 controllers and two supervisors on duty.

When a third plane hit the Pentagon at 9:40 a.m., the FAA ordered all planes in the air to land immediately.

At that moment, 98 of the aircraft in the sky were under Tampa's control. Nationwide, there were 4,500. The airliners alone held 350,000 people.

Controllers in Tampa explained succinctly to stunned pilots unaware of the events why they were being ordered down. Some controllers concentrated on their radar screens even as they worried about relatives in New York they couldn't reach.

And all the while, from the ceiling loudspeakers, a taped message hammered over and over:

"All aircraft must land at the nearest airport because of a national emergency. All aircraft must land at the nearest airport because of a national emergency."

Nobody could turn it off.

* * *

Joe Formoso, a Tampa air traffic controller and the local president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, was in New Orleans for an association meeting that day.

"The controllers knew right away it wasn't an accident," Formoso said. "You could see from the building that the plane wasn't in a takeoff mode. It wasn't in a landing mode. It was under the control of somebody who wanted to fly into a building."

Even as the controllers scrambled to find ways home, the FAA gave them full briefings and swore them to secrecy. But they did talk to each other.

"I went looking for the guy from New York because he's a friend of mine," Formoso said. "He told me there were people screaming and yelling in the New York City Tracon, people passing out. Put yourself in their shoes. You know one of your planes has been taken, then it disappears from radar, and the next thing you know, it's hit a building.

"One of the guys in Boston had put his wife on the United flight (175) that morning."

Then events got close to home.

"When I heard that the fourth jet went down east of Pittsburgh, I had my own issue," he said. "My parents were driving through there to visit my sister. It turned out, they were only 15 minutes away from where that flight went down."

He was on the phone constantly to the controllers in Tampa.

"At first, they were in the same situation we were, watching on television," Formoso said. "But when they were ordered to bring everybody down, they did it swiftly and efficiently.

"The word was, we're in a military state. You do exactly what you're told and be quiet about it. When we get everybody down, then we'll talk. That's the way it had to be."

* * *

Back in Tampa, controllers had more to worry about than getting 98 aircraft on the ground. One had to get into the sky.

"We were working with the Secret Service to get Air Force One out of the area," Zugay said. President Bush was making an appearance in Sarasota when the terrorists struck.

By 10 a.m., just 15 minutes after U.S. airspace was closed, Tampa controllers had brought more than half their planes safely to the ground. By 11 a.m., Tampa air space was clear.

This was not a small matter. The airports in the west Florida hub for which Tampa controllers are responsible stretch from Brooksville to Naples and from St. Petersburg to Lakeland.

"Anybody who wanted to fly had to be approved by Miami (FAA) Center to south and Jacksonville Center to the north," Zugay said. "The governor, who'd been in Sarasota with his brother, wanted to get back to Tallahassee. He didn't get out until afternoon. When I say everybody had to have clearance, I mean everybody."

At 12:15 p.m., national airspace was declared clear.

TIA had taken only eight diverted airline flights, fewer than anticipated. Midwestern cities took the brunt -- Memphis, Indianapolis, Nashville, Kansas City and Little Rock -- because they are better placed to accept flights across the country.

The FAA's southern headquarters in Atlanta opened a teleconference to link its officials all over the region. The agency required that the open phone line be staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Nobody hung up until late October.

"It's not uncommon to use telecon because it saves thousands of phone calls," said Kathleen Bergen, spokeswoman for the southern region of the FAA. "But this one lasted for six weeks."

On Sept. 14, just as national airspace was beginning to reopen, Tropical Storm Gabrielle arrived.

"There were a lot of aircraft all up and down the coast that had to be repositioned out of harm's way," Zugay said. "We had to clear each and every one of them to other places in Florida or into Georgia, Alabama or South Carolina. Each one needed its own permission. And then, of course, the storm passed and each one needed clearance to return."

* * *

Zugay and Formoso agree that controllers in Tampa and across the country earned their pay on Sept. 11. And the day has changed their lives.

"Over the next few months, there were a number of instances where fighters scrambled to intercept unknown aircraft," Formoso said. "We had four incidents in Tampa, including the (Charles Bishop) case where the stolen Cessna flew into a building.

"I think we're more diligent now in watching things, a little more skittish, a little less inclined to take anything for granted. We always tried to be that way, but Sept. 11 gave us motivation to focus more."

What the controllers are focused on is anything unusual in the flight of an aircraft or the attitude of those on board.

"We always had pilots through here who were unfamiliar with the air space or got lost or lost radio contact with the controllers," Zugay said. "But we're looking at those instances more closely now. We're highly alert for any suspicious behavior by the aircraft or the phraseology of the pilot."

When she thinks of that day, Zugay said, she remembers a great calm amid chaos, of controllers and support staff on a mission none of them could have envisioned in their worst nightmares.

"Everybody here works well as a team," she said, "but on Sept. 11 that could not have been more evident."

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