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AFTER THE ATTACK | DESPERATE FLIGHT

Aboard Flight 11, a Chilling Voice

September 20, 2001|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A chilling telephone call from a flight attendant aboard American Airlines Flight 11 details for the first time the frantic struggle aboard the doomed airliner as hijackers slit the throat of a passenger and stormed the cockpit.

"I see water and buildings. Oh my God! Oh my God!" Madeline Amy Sweeney told a ground manager in Boston after the hijacked plane took a sudden and unexpected detour, according to an investigative document compiled by the FBI and reviewed by The Times.

The water she saw in those agonizing final moments was the Hudson River. The buildings were the famed New York City skyline, its trademark towers still upright. And the detour was Flight 11's calamitous descent into the World Trade Center's north tower about 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11.

In recent days, snippets of cell phone calls that originated from the four hijacked flights have revealed tearful goodbyes and valiant pledges of resistance.

But Sweeney's phone call, with details that coincide with the hijackers' takeover of the cockpit, could provide investigators with one of their most valuable pieces of evidence in reconstructing the hijackings.

FBI officials in Dallas, where American Airlines is based, were able, on the day of the terrorist attacks, to piece together a partial transcript and an account of the phone call. American Airlines officials said such calls are not typically recorded, suggesting that the FBI may have reconstructed the conversation from interviews.

Sweeney, a 35-year-old mother of two young children, had worked for American Airlines for 12 years, usually taking weekend duty so she could spend more time during the week with her family in Acton, Mass. She was one of nine flight attendants working Flight 11, which left Boston's Logan International Airport with a light load of 81 passengers at 7:45 a.m.

The plane lifted off uneventfully, but investigators think it was commandeered within about 15 minutes.

Sweeney (identified in the law enforcement report as Amy Sweeny) called American flight services manager Michael Woodward on the ground at Logan. She displayed remarkable calm as she related numerous details about the unfolding events.

"This plane has been hijacked," Sweeney said, according to the FBI report.

Two flight attendants, whom she identified by their crew numbers, had already been stabbed, she said. "A hijacker also cut the throat of a business-class passenger, and he appears to be dead," she said.

Investigators have identified five suspected hijackers on the flight--Satam Al Suqami; Waleed M. Alshehri; Wail Alshehri; Mohamed Atta; and Abdulaziz Alomari. They are believed to be part of a well-orchestrated network of 19 hijackers who used box cutters, razors and even small knives concealed in cigarette lighters to take control of the four planes.

But Sweeney apparently saw only four of the five men.

All four were Middle Eastern, Sweeney told Woodward. Three of them, she said, were sitting in business class, and "one spoke English very well."

Investigators noted that Sweeney even had the presence of mind to relay the exact seat numbers of the four suspects in the ninth and 10th rows, although a few of those seats do not match up with the seats assigned to the hijackers on the tickets they purchased.

It is unclear from the phone account where Sweeney was when she was talking to the ground manager or what type of phone she used. But even as she was relating details about the hijackers, the men were storming the front of the plane and "had just gained access to the cockpit."

Then, she told Woodward, the plane suddenly changed direction and began to descend rapidly.

"At that very point, Sweeney tried to contact the cockpit but did not get a response," according to the investigative report. The pilot reportedly also was trying to alert authorities of the situation by surreptitiously clicking his radio transmission button.

Woodward then asked Sweeney whether she knew her location.

The chilling reply: "I see water and buildings. Oh my God! Oh my God!"

At that point, according to the report, the conversation ended.

Officials at American Airlines said information about the phone call was turned over to the FBI, but they refused to discuss details. "The FBI has told us not to discuss anything," said airline spokesman John Hotard. Officials at the FBI also declined to discuss the call.

But one official familiar with the phone conversation who asked not to be identified said that Sweeney's account could aid the investigation significantly. "She was very, very composed, very detailed. It was impressive that she could do that."

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