Friday, June 18, 2004

9/11 Commission report - communication failures and chaotic decision-making

I don't really have anything witty to say about this, but I'm sure you've all heard the findings released yesterday by the bi-partisan commission investigating 9/11. Here's an article summing it up. It's shocking, it's disturbing, and it's troublesome to hear that so many things went wrong. But - with just a bit of perspective - it's not impossible to understand. I remember hearing of the initial crash into the north tower, and thinking "That's horrible, a plane accidentally crashed into the World Trade Center". Of course, that supposition was very quickly dashed - the terrible images captured of the second plane flying purposely into the south tower made it all too apparent what was really happening. I know I wasn't alone in my initial thought, because when the attack began I was in a doctor's office - everyone around me was talking about the "accident". Yet it's still troubling, understandably so, to hear of the problems our government and others were having during the crisis. Even President Bush had communications difficulties - he had trouble reaching top officials in Washington from the elementary school in Florida he was at - he couldn't get a secure line, and had to use a cell phone! The hijackers (at least once that I've heard of) pressed the wrong button, and instead of addressing the passengers in the plane - they transmitted to air traffic control the message "We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you'll be OK." followed seconds later with "Nobody move. Everything will be OK. If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane." Some reports are attributing these statements to Mohammed Atta, the hijacker of American Airlines Flight 11, the plane which crashed into the north tower. Once the controller who heard this contacted his supervisor, the Boston air traffic center contacted the Northeast unit of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), with a frantic message: "We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something". The response from NORAD was - "Is this real-world or exercise?". Fighters were scrambled from Otis Air Force base (153 miles from New York City) at 8:53am - 7 minutes after Flight 11 crashed into the north tower. This all happened within 29 minutes - the hijackers transmission was at 8:24am, the call to NORAD at 8:37am, the crash at 8:46am, and finally the F-16's scrambled from Otis AFB at 8:53am. Even if the fighters had scrambled a little earlier, it would not have prevented that crash. But what of United Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into the south tower, and American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon? Could they have been stopped? Doubtful, at best they would have been shot down over populated areas - not a option I think the military would have taken. Besides - pilots didn't have a clear authority to shoot down civilian aircraft, even though VP Cheney did issue the order with approval of the president. So it's impossible to tell.

Is any one person/agency/administration to blame? No. Too much went wrong, too many people didn't have the right info at the right time. I'm sure we will be debating this for years to come, and we actually don't have the final commission report yet, so there will be much more discussion very shortly. The only hope we have is that all the discussion and investigation leads to lasting changes that, we can only hope, prevent such a tragedy from occurring again.

Sorry for such a downer post - I just needed to get that out there, I suppose.

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