'We'll see you when we get back'
©New York Times
© St. Petersburg Times,
WASHINGTON -- Most of the seats were empty on American Airlines Flight 77, a twin-engined Boeing 757, and the people who sat near windows for the flight from Dulles International Airport to Los Angeles had a crystal-clear view of the Blue Ridge mountains and then the Ohio River Valley far below.
At 8:51 a.m. Tuesday, about 40 minutes into the flight, the plane reached normal cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, at which passengers are normally free to unbuckle their seat belts and move around while the flight attendants deliver drinks and snacks.
Among the 58 passengers were a top Washington lobbyist, a savvy lawyer with a telecommunications portfolio, a group of schoolchildren and teachers on a National Geographic field trip, the president of a California-based company that helps employees balance their work and personal lives, and a well-known conservative television commentator.
Leslie A. Whittington, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University, was en route with her husband and two daughters for a two-month adventure in Australia. She had left a message on her office answering machine that sounded chilling the day after the crash: "My family and I are off in Australia, where we'll be until late November. Thanks, and we'll see you when we get back."
Among those moving around the cabin were several hijackers with knives, authorities say. At 8:56 a.m., as the plane flew into Ohio, the plane's tracking beacon was cut off.
Then it turned around for a 300-mile trip back east, transformed suddenly into a lethal missile that senior administration officials have said might have been aimed at the White House.
Authorities have not released details of the plane's track as it bore down on Washington and crashed not into the White House, but just across the Potomac River in Virginia. Details of its routine flight west were provided by Flight Explorer, a company that sells information gathered instantly from the radio transponders that commercial jets carry. Somebody turned Flight 77's transponder off just after it headed west into Ohio. Presumably, that was when the hijacking happened.
By the time the plane turned back to Washington, the World Trade Center had been hit by two other hijacked planes. And by about 9:25 a.m., Washington knew that this was another hijacking. That was when Barbara Olson called her husband, Solicitor General Theodore Olson, at the Justice Department and told him that the plane had been hijacked.
Five minutes later, she called back to say that the passengers had been herded into the back of the plane, and that the pilot was with them, not in the cockpit.
At about this time, President Bush announced in Florida that the attack in New York had been an act of terrorism and vowed to hunt down the perpetrators.
In Washington, Olson's husband relayed his wife's report immediately to a Justice Department command post. As the plane drew closer, local and regional air traffic control radars could see that the incommunicado plane was bound straight toward the restricted area around the White House, where no flights are allowed. Flights in and out of National Airport, which is not far from the Pentagon, stay over the Potomac River, skirting the edge of the restricted zone.
In theory, an early enough warning that a third hijacked plane was heading toward Washington might have triggered the launch of supersonic fighter planes from any of several nearby bases. In this case, the seriousness of the threat may have dawned on authorities too late to allow any reaction. The plane hit the Pentagon at 9:45 a.m.
Bill Cheng, an American Airlines pilot who normally flies Flight 77, changed his plans in late August and applied for time off Tuesday so he could go camping. When another pilot signed up for the slot, Cheng was notified that his application was accepted, and that he would not fly Tuesday.
"As you can imagine, I have mixed emotions about this. I feel terrible for whoever picked it up," he said, adding that he would not ordinarily keep track of such a thing. "I'm sick. I'm just heartbroken."
Christopher Newton, 38, the president and chief executive of Work/Life Benefits in Cypress, Calif., who died on the plane, was the kind of man who frequently missed flights by a few minutes, but not this time.
"He was very last-minute," said Bill Gurzi, the marketing director of the consulting group, which specializes in balancing the demands of the workplace with the personal needs of employees.
He had recently moved to Virginia and was returning to southern California for business meetings and to retrieve his family's aging yellow Labrador, Buddy.
Lisa J. Raines, senior vice president of Genzyme, the biotechnology company and head of government relations at the company's Washington office, had just returned from a vacation with her husband of 20 years, Stephen P. Push, he said. They had been to Santa Barbara, Calif., their favorite vacation spot.
Among lobbyists in Washington, Raines was regarded as exceptional because she was a lawyer and patent expert who understood not only politics, economics and the law but also the science of drugs and diseases. She was as comfortable dealing with the Food and Drug Administration as she was with members of Congress from both parties. Her trip to California was for a meeting of Genzyme's sales force in Palm Springs, where they were planning to discuss a Genzyme drug known as Renagel, for kidney dialysis patients.
"It was just "Goodbye' and "I love you' and we kissed," said Stephen Push, her husband, who lives in Great Falls, Va. "It will be the last time."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times wire desk
From the AP