'I think we're getting hijacked.'

Woven together in real time, the conversations amid the calamity of 9/11 produce a narrative of desperation and anguish, foretelling a changed America.

9/11 Five Years -- 2001 / 2006


They were the first words that presaged a changed America, an America that could no longer think of itself as invulnerable, as beyond the reach of those who hated us. They were spoken by Betty Ong, a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, en route from Boston to a fate most Americans could not imagine.

It was 8:20 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.

Ong's call began a day of conversations unlike any that had ever occurred in this country. Over the next two hours, as thousands inside the World Trade Center fought for survival, as would-be rescuers rushed to their aid, as military commanders struggled to comprehend and respond to the attack, their voices were often recorded and preserved on audiotapes.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, some loved ones recounted the final words of the doomed. Added to that now are the tape recordings that, in the last five years, have gradually been made available to the public in audio or transcript form. Originating in different settings as the calamity unfolded, the communications reflect the desperation, confusion, frustration and heroism of ordinary people coming face to face with unthinkable horror.

This is the story of Sept. 11 told in the voices of those who survived and those who did not. Integrated by The Sun, the transcripts create a chronological narrative of a morning that continues to traumatize America and scramble its view of itself.

"It doesn't get any easier," Arline Nussbaum, whose son Jeffrey called her three times from the 92nd floor of the North Tower, said in an interview last week. "It feels like it was yesterday."

8:20 a.m. Twenty minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 left Boston's Logan Airport bound for Los Angeles, flight attendant Betty Ong calls an American reservations agent to report a hijacking. She reaches Nydia Gonzalez.

ONG: Number 3 [attendant] in the back. The cockpit's not answering. Somebody's stabbed in business class and, um, I think there's Mace -- that we can't breathe. I don't know, I think we're getting hijacked.

GONZALEZ: Ma'am, what seat are you in?

ONG: OK, I'm in my jump seat right now.


ONG: At 3R.

SUPERVISOR: What is your name?

ONG: OK, my name is Betty Ong. I'm Number 3 on Flight 11.


ONG: And the cockpit is not answering their phone. And there's somebody stabbed in business class. And there's -- we can't breathe in business class. Somebody's got Mace or something.

SUPERVISOR: Can you describe the person that you said -- someone is what in business class?

ONG: I'm sitting in the back. Somebody's coming back from business. If you can hold on for one second, they're coming back.

ONG: OK. Our Number 1 got stabbed. Our purser is stabbed. Nobody knows who stabbed who, and we can't even get up to business class right now 'cause nobody can breathe. Our Number 1 is stabbed right now. And who else is --

SUPERVISOR: OK, and do we --

ONG: -- and our Number 5 -- our first-class passengers are -- galley flight attendant and our purser has been stabbed. And we can't get into the cockpit, the door won't open. Hello?

SUPERVISOR: Yeah, I'm taking it down.

8:24 a.m.

The FAA's Boston Center, which lost touch with American 11 at 8:13, receives a transmission from the cockpit. The voice is believed to be Mohammed Atta, the hijacker who took over flying the plane, speaking to the passengers.

ATTA: We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you'll be OK. We are returning to the airport.

BOSTON CENTER: And, uh, who's trying to call me here? American 11, are you trying to call?

ATTA: Nobody move. Everything will be OK. If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet. ... Nobody move, please. We are going back to the airport. Don't try to make any stupid moves.

8:37 a.m.

Realizing American 11 has been hijacked, a controller in Boston calls the military's Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) in Rome, N.Y.

BOSTON CENTER: Hi. Boston Center TMU [Traffic Management Unit]. We have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed toward New York, and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out.

NEADS: Is this real-world or exercise?

BOSTON CENTER: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.

8:39 a.m.

Shelley Watson, a tech sergeant at NEADS, calls back Boston Center for more details.

WATSON: It's the inbound to JFK?

BOSTON CENTER: We -- we don't know.

WATSON: You don't know where he is at all?

BOSTON CENTER: He's being hijacked. The pilot's having a hard time talking to the -- I mean, we don't know. We don't know where he's going. He's heading toward Kennedy. He's -- like I said, he's like 35 miles north of Kennedy now at 367 knots. We have no idea where he's going or what his intentions are.

WATSON: If you could please give us a call and let us know -- you know, any information, that'd be great.

BOSTON CENTER: OK. Right now, I guess we're trying to work on -- I guess there's been some threats in the cockpit. The pilot --

WATSON: There's been what?! I'm sorry.

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