Words deliver shock that faded from pictures

Voices Of 9/11

April 13, 2006|By ARTHUR HIRSCH | ARTHUR HIRSCH,SUN REPORTER

For all their horror, the images of Sept. 11, 2001, give at least some distance, taken as they were from the ground looking up at the smoldering towers, from across the Hudson, from too far away to look into the faces of those enduring unimaginable suffering. The recorded voices, however, are all in close-up.

The strangeness of that day has faded and once-shocking photographs have grown familiar, but these voices on tape, these words in transcripts take us to places where the cameras never went.

The voices of some of the dead are being heard in the courtroom this week, voices from offices in the twin towers of the World Trade Center and from the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. Flight 93 passengers apparently rushed the cockpit upon getting word by cell phone of the attacks in New York and Washington.

Their words - some calm, some frantic - paint intimate portraits of people in their last moments. And though the exchanges are brief, these short sentences carry as much horror as all the television coverage of planes crashing into towers.

"I'm on the 83rd floor," screamed Melissa Doi, who, according to an Associated Press account, was in the south tower. "Are you going to be able to get somebody up here? We're on the floor and we can't breathe and it's very, very, very hot."

United Airlines Flight 175 had struck the south tower at 9:03 a.m. between the 77th and 85th floors, 17 minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 hit the north tower. Doi pleaded for help with the 911 dispatcher, who was asking how much smoke Doi could see.

"I'm going to die, aren't I?" screamed Doi, a 32-year-old employee of IQ Financial. "I'm going to die. I don't want to die. ... It's so hot. I'm burning up. ... Oh, my God."

Yesterday, the jury heard the cockpit voice recording of Flight 93's last minutes, beginning with a heavily accented voice saying, "Ladies and gentlemen: Here the captain, please sit down keep remaining seating. We have a bomb on board. So sit."

It was 9:32 in the morning. The twin towers were already in flames and in five minutes, American Airlines Flight 77 would hit the western side of the Pentagon.

Flight 93, a Boeing 757 with about 50 people on board including the hijackers, had taken off from Newark International Airport 41 minutes late. The flight bound for San Francisco was over Ohio when it made a sharp turn to the southeast.

The last 31 minutes unfold in chaos and struggle. The precise time of each utterance is recorded, but no speakers are identified:

"9:35:40 - I don't want to die."

"9:35:41 - No, no, Down, down."

"9:35:42 - I don't want to die. I don't want to die."

It goes on for nine pages.

Philip Seib, a professor of journalism at Marquette University and the author of Beyond the Front Lines: How the News Media Cover a World Shaped by War, said the voice recordings "personalized the story in a very intense way."

"The reason they have so much impact is our imagination works on them," Seib said. "We can imagine ourselves on that plane. These are not exceptional people. ... There's kind of an identification that we have with those people on that plane. And of course, we know how it turns out - it ends in tragedy."

He said the photographs and film of that day are "horrifying, but they're still remote. Voices of individuals have a sharp kind of power, and that's at the heart of their effect."

"This isn't tragedy at the grand scale, the macro-spectacle there for all to see," said Thomas Hollihan, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. "This is individuated tragedy. Now you actually hear these things, exactly what was said. ...

"The visual images were in some sense so overwhelming and depressing that it was hard to get your mind around them. These are voices that make it very real," Hollihan said. "The other was like a movie. This is very real."

He pointed out that while there already have been extensive accounts of what happened Sept. 11, "Now with the tapes we have the victims, as if from the grave, telling us in their own words. ...

"We've all been in situations where we've wondered what someone's last moments must have been like, and now we're afforded an opportunity. These are people just like us."

Listening to such moments was for years part of Bernard Loeb's job at the National Transportation Safety Board. When he retired in 2001 after more than 20 years, he was director of the division that investigates airline disasters.

When the cause of an airliner crash is not known, experts such as Loeb examine the cockpit voice recording for subtle clues of trouble. They might know from a sound of a click that a particular switch has been thrown. They might listen carefully to crew exchanges even about routine operations.

"The conversations often give investigators one of their early leads as to what happened," said Loeb. "Did the flight crew follow procedures properly? Were checklists read and answered the way they're supposed to be?"

During his career, Loeb listened to hundreds of these tapes. For all the technical information they can convey, they never cease to be terribly emotional, he said.

"You're also often listening to the last minutes of people who know they're going to die. They know it. ... It's upsetting, but you learn to get it out of your mind and you put it aside."

What exactly happened aboard United Airlines Flight 93 will probably never be known. No cameras survived to record activities in the cabin or the cockpit. According to one timeline of that morning, a private pilot told the FAA that he spotted the plane at 10 a.m., rocking in the air.

The plane rolled and crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pa., about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. The tape ended with chanting in Arabic:

"10:03:09 - Allah is the greatest. Allah is the greatest."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Nicole Fuller contributed to this article.

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