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Words and Their Stories: Voices From 9-11 Tell Story of Fast-Moving Events

The new One World Trade Center, formerly called Freedom Tower, is shown at dawn Saturday, a day before ceremonies to mark the tenth anniversary of the attacks
The new One World Trade Center, formerly called Freedom Tower, is shown at dawn Saturday, a day before ceremonies to mark the tenth anniversary of the attacks

Now, the VOA Special English program WORDS AND THEIR STORIES.

Today, we tell the story of the 9-11 attacks through some of the words spoken that morning ten years ago. A newly released document includes recordings of air traffic controllers, military pilots and others reacting to the fast-moving events.

On September eleventh, two thousand one, nineteen al-Qaida members hijacked four passenger planes in the eastern United States. They crashed two of them into the World Trade Center in New York City, destroying the Twin Towers.

A third plane hit the Pentagon, the Defense Department headquarters outside Washington. The fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

The document is known as an "audio monograph." It begins with normal radio calls shortly after eight o'clock. American Airlines Flight 11 had just left Boston for Los Angeles with ninety-two people.

AA11: "Boston Center, good morning, American 11 with you passing through one niner zero for two three zero."

CONTROLLER: "American 11, Boston Center, roger, climb, maintain level two eight zero."

Soon radio contact is lost. A flight attendant on the plane, Betty Ong, called a company office to report the hijacking.

A woman at that office then calls the airline's emergency line.

NIDIA GONZALEZ: "So far, what I’ve gotten, the number five flight attendant’s been stabbed, but she seems to be breathing. The number one seems to be stabbed pretty badly and she’s lying down on the floor, they don’t know whether she is conscious or not. The other flight attendants are in the back, um, and that’s as far as I know. It seems like the passengers in coach might not be aware of what’s going on right now."

At eighty twenty-four, the voice of hijacker Mohamed Atta was heard over the radio.

MOHAMED ATTA: "Nobody move. Everything will be OK. If you try to make any moves you will injure yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet."

At eight fifty, controllers in New York received a call from another plane.

UKNOWN PILOT: "Anybody know what that smoke is in lower Manhattan?"

NEW YORK CENTER: "I’m sorry, say again."

UKNOWN PILOT: "Lot of smoke in lower Manhattan."

NEW YORK CENTER: "A lot of smoke in lower Manhattan?"

UKNOWN PILOT: "Coming out of the, ah, top of the World Trade Center building, a major fire."

Air traffic controllers had already informed the military about the hijacking.

CONTROLLER: "We have, ah, a problem here, we have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New, New York and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there to help us out."

MILITARY OFFICIAL: "Is, is this real world or exercise?"

CONTROLLER: "No, this is not an exercise, not a test."

An order to launch fighter jets came as Flight 11 was hitting the North Tower. At the same time, another plane -- United Flight 175 -- was being hijacked. It struck the South Tower.

At nine thirty-eight, American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. A military transport plane reported the crash.

TRANSPORT PLANE: "Roger, we’re climbing to three thousand, sir, and it looks like that aircraft has impacted the west side of the Pentagon."

CONTROLLER: "All right. Thank you."

The fourth plane, United Flight 93, crashed just after ten near Shanskville, Pennsylvania. Passengers had rebelled against the hijackers, who had turned the plane toward Washington.

At ten thirty-two came this message for military officials.

MALE VOICE: "You need to read this. Region commander has declared that we can shoot down tracks if they are not responding to our, uh, directions."

By then it was too late. The 9-11 attacks killed nearly three thousand people. The complete audio monograph is on the Rutgers Law Review website. You can find a link to the site at


WORDS AND THEIR STORIES was written by Avi Arditti. I'm Faith Lapidus