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American Airlines Flight 77

American Airlines Flight 77 was the third flight hijacked as part of the September 11 attacks, and it was deliberately crashed into the Pentagon. The scheduled U.S. domestic flight from Washington Dulles International Airport, near Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles International Airport was hijacked by five Islamic terrorists less than 35 minutes into the flight. The hijackers stormed the cockpit and forced the passengers to the rear of the aircraft. Hani Hanjour, one of the hijackers trained as a pilot, assumed control of the flight. Unknown to the hijackers, passengers aboard were able to make calls to loved ones and relay information on the hijacking.

The aircraft crashed into the western facade of the Pentagon at 09:37 Eastern Time. All 64 people on board and 125 in the building were killed, including the hijackers. Dozens of people witnessed the crash and news sources began reporting on the incident within minutes. The impact severely damaged an area of the Pentagon and ignited a large fire. A portion of the Pentagon collapsed and firefighters spent days trying to fully extinguish the blaze. The damage to the Pentagon was rebuilt in 2002, with occupants moving back into the damaged area on August 15, 2002.

The 184 victims of the attack are memorialized in the Pentagon Memorial adjacent to the Pentagon. The 1.93-acre park consists of 184 benches, one for each of the victims, arranged according to the year of birth, ranging from 1930 (age 71) to 1998 (age 3). Flight 77's flight path cuts directly through the park.

Hijackers

The hijackers on American Airlines Flight 77 included Hani Hanjour, who piloted the aircraft into the Pentagon. Hanjour first came to the United States in 1990. He trained at the CRM Airline Training Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, earning his FAA commercial pilot's certificate in April 1999. He had wanted to be a commercial pilot for the Saudi national airline, but was rejected when he applied to the civil aviation school in Jeddah in 1999. Hanjour's brother later explained that, frustrated at not finding a job, Hanjour "increasingly turned his attention toward religious texts and cassette tapes of militant Islamic preachers". Hanjour left Saudi Arabia in late 1999, telling his family that he was going to the United Arab Emirates to work for an airline. Instead, Hanjour likely ended up in Afghanistan where Al Qaeda recruits were screened for special skills they may have. Already having selected the Hamburg Cell members, Al Qaeda leaders selected Hanjour to lead the fourth team of hijackers.

In December 2000, Hanjour arrived in San Diego, joining "muscle" hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, who had been there since November 1999. Soon after arriving, Hanjour and al-Hazmi left for Mesa, Arizona, where Hanjour began refresher training at Arizona Aviation. In April 2001, they relocated to Falls Church, Virginia, where they awaited the arrival of the remaining "muscle" hijackers. One of these men, Majed Moqed, arrived on May 2, 2001 with Flight 175 hijacker Ahmed al-Ghamdi from Dubai at Dulles International Airport and moved into an apartment with al-Hazmi and Hanjour.

On May 21, 2001, Hanjour rented a room in Paterson, New Jersey, where he stayed with other hijackers through the end of August. The last Flight 77 "muscle" hijacker, Salem al-Hazmi, arrived on June 29, 2001 with Flight 11 hijacker Abdulaziz al-Omari at John F. Kennedy International Airport from the United Arab Emirates and stayed with Hanjour. Hani Hanjour received ground instruction and did practice flights at Air Fleet Training Systems in Teterboro, New Jersey, and at Caldwell Flight Academy in Fairfield, New Jersey. Hanjour moved out of the room in Paterson and arrived at the Valencia Motel in Laurel, Maryland on September 2, 2001. While in Maryland, Hanjour and fellow hijackers trained at the Gold's Gym in Greenbelt. On September 10, he completed a certification flight, using a terrain recognition system for navigation, at Congressional Air Charters in Gaithersburg, Maryland. On September 10, Nawaf al-Hazmi, accompanied by other hijackers, checked into the Marriott in Herndon, Virginia.

Flight

The American Airlines Flight 77 aircraft was a Boeing 757-223 (registration number N644AA). The flight crew included pilot Charles Burlingame, First Officer David Charlebois, and flight attendants Michele Heidenberger, Jennifer Lewis, Kenneth Lewis, and Renee May. The capacity of the aircraft was 176 passengers, but with 58 passengers on September 11, the load factor was 33 percent. Tuesdays were the least traveled day of the week, with the same level of load factor seen on Tuesdays in the previous three-months for Flight 77.

Boarding

On the morning of September 11, 2001, the five hijackers arrived at Dulles International Airport, outside of Washington, D.C. At 07:15, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Majed Moqed checked-in at the American Airlines ticket counter for Flight 77, and they arrived at the passenger security checkpoint a few minutes later at 07:18. Both men set off the metal detector and were put through secondary screening. Moqed continued to set off the alarm, so he was searched with a hand wand. The al-Hazmi brothers checked in together at the ticket counter at 07:29. Hani Hanjour checked in separately, and arrived at the passenger security checkpoint at 07:35. Hanjour was followed minutes later at the checkpoint by Salem and Nawaf al-Hazmi, the latter who set off the metal detector's alarm. The screener at the checkpoint never resolved what set off the alarm. As seen in security footage later released, Nawaf Hazmi appeared to have an unidentified item in his back pocket, but four-inch utility knives were nonetheless permitted by the FAA as carry-on items. The passenger security checkpoint at Dulles International Airport was operated by Argenbright Security, under contract with United Airlines.

The hijackers were also all selected for extra screening of their checked bags. Hani Hanjour, Khalid al-Mihdhar, and Majed Moqed were chosen by the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System criteria, while Nawaf al-Hazmi and Salem al-Hazmi were selected because they did not provide adequate identification and deemed suspicious by the airline check-in agent. Hanjour, al-Mihdhar, and Nawaf al-Hazmi did not check any bags for the flight. Checked bags belonging to Moqed and Salem al-Hazmi were held until they boarded the aircraft. By 07:50, the five hijackers, carrying knives and box cutters, had made it through the airport security checkpoint and boarded Flight 77 to Los Angeles. On the flight, Hani Hanjour was seated up front in 1B, while Salem and Nawaf al-Hazmi were seated further back in first class in 5E and 5F. Majed Moqed and Khalid al-Mihdhar were seated further back in 12A and 12B. The flight was scheduled to depart at 08:10, but ended up departing 10 minutes late from Gate D26 at Dulles.

Hijacking

The 9/11 Commission estimated that the flight was hijacked between 08:51 and 08:54, just minutes after the first hijacked plane had struck the World Trade Center in Manhattan at 08:46. The last normal radio communications from the aircraft to air traffic control occurred at 08:50:51. At 08:54, American Airlines Flight 77 began to deviate from its normal, assigned flight path and turned south. The hijackers set the flight's autopilot heading for Washington, D.C. By 08:56, the flight was turned around, and the transponder had been disabled. The FAA was aware at this point that there was an emergency aboard the plane. By this time, American Airlines Flight 11 had already crashed into the World Trade Center, and United Airlines Flight 175 was known to have been hijacked. After learning of this second hijacking involving American Airlines aircraft and the hijacking involving United Airlines, American Airlines Executive Vice President Gerard Arpey ordered a nationwide ground stop for the airline. The Indianapolis Air Traffic Control Center, as well as American Airlines dispatchers, made several failed attempts to contact the aircraft. At the time the plane was hijacked, it was flying over an area of limited radar coverage. With air controllers unable to contact the flight by radio, an Indianapolis official declared that the plane had possibly crashed at 09:09.

Two people on American Airlines Flight 77 made phone calls to contacts on the ground. At 09:12, flight attendant Renee May called her mother, Nancy May, in Las Vegas. During the call, which lasted nearly two minutes, May said her flight was being hijacked by six individuals and they had been moved to the rear of the plane. May also asked her mother to contact American Airlines, which she and her husband promptly did. American Airlines was already aware of the hijacking. Between 09:16 and 09:26, passenger Barbara Olson called her husband, United States Solicitor General Ted Olson, and reported that the plane had been hijacked and that the assailants had box cutters and knives. She reported that the passengers, and possibly the crew, had been moved to the back of the plane and that the hijackers were unaware of her call. A minute into the conversation, the call was cut off. Theodore Olson contacted the command center at the Department of Justice, and tried unsuccessfully to contact Attorney General John Ashcroft. About five minutes later, Barbara Olson called again, told her husband that the pilot had announced the flight was hijacked, and asked "what do I tell the pilot to do? Ted Olson asked her location and she reported the plane was flying over a residential area. He then informed her of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Soon afterwards, the call cut off again.

"The speed, the maneuverability, the way that he turned, we all thought in the radar room, all of us experienced air traffic controllers, that that was a military plane. You don't fly a 757 in that manner. It's unsafe."
Danielle O'Brien, Air traffic controller at Dulles International Airport

A plane was detected again by Dulles controllers on radar screens as it approached Washington, turning and descending rapidly. Controllers initially thought this was a fighter plane, due to its high speed and maneuverability. Reagan Airport controllers then asked a passing Air National Guard C-130 Hercules plane to identify and follow the aircraft. The pilot, Lt. Col. Steven O'Brien, told them it was a Boeing 757 or 767, and its silver fuselage meant it was probably an American Airlines jet. He had difficulty picking out the plane in the "East Coast haze", but then saw a "huge" fireball, and initially assumed it had hit the ground. Approaching the Pentagon, he saw the west side and reported to Reagan control, "Looks like that aircraft crashed into the Pentagon sir".

Crash

Flight 77, flying at , crashed into the western side of the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, just south of Washington, D.C. at 09:37:44, killing all 53 passengers, 5 hijackers, and 6 crew. It clipped several street lampposts and the right wing hit a portable generator before impacting the Pentagon wall. The flight hit the Pentagon at the first-floor level. As it crashed, the plane was rolled slightly to the left, with the right wing elevated. When the plane impacted, the front part of the fuselage disintegrated, while the mid and tail sections moved for another fraction of a second, with tail section debris pieces ending furthest into the building. In all, the plane took eight-tenths of a second to fully penetrate into the three outermost rings and unleashed a fireball that rose above the building.

At the time of the attacks, approximately 18,000 people worked in the Pentagon, which was 4,000 fewer than before renovations began in 1998. The section of the Pentagon, which had recently been renovated at a cost of $250 million, housed the Naval Command Center and other Pentagon offices, as well as some unoccupied offices. The crash and subsequent fire penetrated three outer ring sections of the western side. The outermost ring section was largely destroyed, and a large section collapsed. One hundred twenty-five people in the Pentagon died from the attack.

In all, there were 189 casualties at the Pentagon, including 125 in the Pentagon and 64 on board Flight 77. Barbara Olson was en route to a taping of Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. A group of children, chaperons, and National Geographic Society staff members were also onboard, embarking on an educational trip to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary near Santa Barbara, California. The fatalities at the Pentagon included 55 military personnel and 70 civilians. Of those 125 killed, 92 were on the first floor, 31 were on the second floor, and two were on the third. The Army suffered 75 casualties—far more than any other branch. Another 106 injured were treated at area hospitals. Lieutenant General Timothy Maude, an Army Deputy Chief of Staff, was the highest ranking military officer killed at the Pentagon.

"I don‘t want to alarm anybody right now, but apparently—it felt just a few moments ago like there was an explosion of some kind here at the Pentagon."
Jim Miklaszewski, NBC Pentagon correspondent reporting from inside the Pentagon at 09:39
The Pentagon is bordered by Interstate 395 and Washington Boulevard, on the side where the impact occurred. Mary Lyman, who was on I-395, saw the airplane pass over at a "steep angle toward the ground and going fast" and then saw the cloud of smoke from the Pentagon. Omar Campo, another witness, was cutting the grass on the other side of the road when the plane flew over his head. "I was cutting the grass and it came in screaming over my head. I felt the impact. The whole ground shook and the whole area was full of fire. I could never imagine I would see anything like that here." Afework Hagos, a computer programmer, was on his way to work but stuck in a traffic jam near the Pentagon when the plane flew over. "There was a huge screaming noise and I got out of the car as the plane came over. Everybody was running away in different directions. It was tilting its wings up and down like it was trying to balance. It hit some lampposts on the way in." Daryl Donley witnessed the crash and took some of the first photographs after the crash.

USA Today reporter Mike Walter was driving on Washington Boulevard when he witnessed the crash, which he recounted, "I looked out my window and I saw this plane, this jet, an American Airlines jet, coming. And I thought, 'This doesn't add up, it's really low.' And I saw it. I mean it was like a cruise missile with wings. It went right there and slammed right into the Pentagon". Terrance Kean, who lived in a nearby apartment building, heard the noise of loud jet engines, glanced out his window, and saw a "very, very large passenger jet". He watched "it just plow right into the side of the Pentagon. The nose penetrated into the portico. And then it sort of disappeared, and there was fire and smoke everywhere. AP reporter Dave Winslow recounted, "I saw the tail of a large airliner ... It plowed right into the Pentagon. Tim Timmerman, who is a pilot himself, noticed American Airlines markings on the aircraft as he saw it hit the Pentagon. Other drivers on Washington Boulevard, Interstate 395, and Columbia Pike witnessed the crash, as did people in Pentagon City, Crystal City, and other nearby locations.

Rescue and recovery

"In this area … it's so hot that the debris is melting and dripping off the ceiling onto your skin and it would sear your skin and melt your uniform. We went a little farther, turned a corner and came into this bombed out office space that was a roaring inferno of destruction and smoke and flames and intense heat you could feel searing your face."
Lieutenant Commander David Tarantino describing the scene near the Navy Command Center on the first floor.
Rescue efforts began immediately after the crash. Almost all the successful rescues of survivors occurred within half an hour of the impact. Initially, rescue efforts were led by the military and civilian employees within the building. Within minutes, the first fire companies arrived and found these volunteers searching near the impact site. The firemen ordered them to leave as they were not properly equipped or trained to deal with the hazards. The Arlington County Fire Department (ACFD) assumed command of the immediate rescue operation within 10 minutes of the crash. ACFD Assistant Chief James Schwartz implemented the Incident Command System (ICS) to coordinate response efforts among multiple agencies. It took about an hour for the ICS structure to become fully operational. Firefighters from Fort Myer and Reagan National arrived within minutes. Rescue and firefighting efforts were impeded by rumors of additional incoming planes. Chief Schwartz ordered two evacuations during the day in response to these rumors.

As firefighters attempted to extinguish the fires, they watched the building in fear of a structural collapse. One firefighter remarked that they "pretty much knew the building was going to collapse because it started making weird sounds and creaking". Officials saw a cornice of the building move and ordered an evacuation. Minutes later, at 10:15, the upper floors of the damaged area of the Pentagon collapsed. The collapse area was about at its widest point and at its deepest. This amount of time between impact and collapse allowed everyone on the fourth and fifth levels to evacuate safely before the structure collapsed. After the collapse, the interior fires intensified, spreading through all five floors. After 11:00, firefighters mounted a two-pronged attack against the fires. Officials estimated temperatures of up to . While progress was made against the interior fires by late afternoon, firefighters realized a flammable layer of wood under the Pentagon's slate roof had caught fire and begun to spread. Typical firefighting tactics were rendered useless by the reinforced structure as firefighters were unable to reach the fire to extinguish it. Firefighters instead made firebreaks in the roof on September 12 to prevent any further spreading. At 18:00 on the 12th, Arlington County issued a press release stating the fire was "controlled" but not fully "extinguished". Firefighters continued to put out smaller fires that ignited in the succeeding days.

Various pieces of aircraft debris were found within the wreckage at the Pentagon. While evacuating the Navy Command Center, Lt. Kevin Shaeffer came across the aircraft's nose cone and landing gear in the service road between rings B and C. Early in the morning on Friday, September 14, Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team members and Brian Moravitz came across an "intact seat from the plane's cockpit", and then discovered the two black boxes nearby. The flight data recorder was found nearly into the building. The cockpit voice recorder was Flight 77 CVR.jpg to retrieve any information. In addition to aircraft debris, investigators also found a part of Nawaf al-Hazmi's identification card. Personal effects belonging to passengers and office workers were also found, and taken to Fort Myer.

Remains

Army engineers determined by 17:30 on the first day that no one remained alive in the damaged section of the building. In the days after the crash, news reports emerged that up to 800 people had died. Army troops from Fort Belvoir were the first teams to survey the interior of the crash site and noted the presence of human remains. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue teams, including Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue assisted the search for remains, working through the National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS). Kevin Rimrodt, a Navy photographer surveying the Navy Command Center after the attacks, remarked that "there were so many bodies, I'd almost step on them. So I'd have to really take care to look backwards as I'm backing up in the dark, looking with a flashlight, making sure I'm not stepping on somebody". Debris from the Pentagon were taken to the Pentagon's north parking lot for more detailed search for remains and evidence.

Remains recovered from the Pentagon were turned over to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner office, located at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The medical examiner's office was able to identify remains belonging to 179 of the victims. The remains of the five hijackers were identified through a process of elimination, and were turned over as evidence to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). On September 21, the ACFD relinquished control of the crime scene to the FBI. The Washington Field Office, National Capital Response Squad (NCRS), and the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) led the crime scene investigation at the Pentagon. By October 2, 2001, the search for evidence and remains was complete and the site was turned over to Pentagon officials. Investigators eventually identified 184 of the 189 people who died in the attack identified by a forensic team. In 2002, the remains of twenty-five victims were buried collectively at Arlington National Cemetery, with a five-sided granite marker inscribed with the names of all the victims in the Pentagon. The ceremony also honored the five victims whose remains were never found.

Continuity of operations

At the moment of impact, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was in his office on the other side of the Pentagon, away from the crash site. He ran to the site and assisted the injured. Rumsfeld then returned to his office, and went to a conference room in the Executive Support Center where he joined a secure videoteleconference with Vice President Dick Cheney and other officials. On the day of the attacks, Department of Defense officials considered moving command operations to Site R, a backup facility in Pennsylvania. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld insisted he remain at the Pentagon, instead sending Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to Site R. The National Military Command Center (NMCC) continued to operate at the Pentagon, even with smoke getting into the facility. Engineers and building managers manipulated the ventilation and other building systems that still functioned to draw smoke out of the NMCC and bring in fresh air. During a press conference held inside the Pentagon at 18:42, Rumsfeld announced "The Pentagon's functioning. It will be in business tomorrow. Pentagon employees returned to the next day to offices in areas of the Pentagon mostly unaffected. By the end of September, more workers returned to the lightly damaged areas of the Pentagon.

Aftermath

Early estimates on rebuilding the damaged section of the Pentagon were that it would take three years to complete. However, the project moved forward at an accelerated pace and was completed by the one-year anniversary. The rebuilt section of the Pentagon includes a small indoor memorial and chapel at the point of impact. An outdoor memorial, designed by Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman, was completed on schedule for dedication on September 11, 2008.

In keeping with standard airline procedure after disasters, the flight number was changed after the incident. American's morning flight from Dulles to Los Angeles is now Flight 149.

Security camera video

On May 16, 2006, the Department of Defense released filmed footage that was recorded by a security camera of American Airlines Flight 77 crashing into the Pentagon, with a plane visible in one frame, as a "thin white blur" and an explosion following. The images were made public in response to a December 2004 Freedom of Information Act request by Judicial Watch. Some still images from the video had previously been released and publicly circulated, but this was the first official release of the full video of the crash. A nearby Citgo gas station also had security cameras, but this video released on September 15, 2006 did not show the crash because it was pointed away. The Doubletree hotel, located nearby in Crystal City, Virginia, also had a security camera video, and on December 4, 2006 the FBI released the video in response to a freedom of information lawsuit filed by Scott Bingham. The footage is "grainy and the focus is soft, but a rapidly growing tower of smoke is visible in the distance on the upper edge of the frame as the plane crashes into the building".

Conspiracy theories

The 9/11 attacks have spawned a number of conspiracy theories challenging the mainstream account. One of the best-known theories was put forward by Thierry Meyssan which contends that the Pentagon was not hit by a Boeing 757, but by a missile launched by the American military. Proponents say that the hole is too small to account for an aircraft with a wingspan of . Mete Sozen, a member of the ASCE team onsite after the crash, explained that an airplane does not create a "cartoon-like outline of itself" when crashing into a reinforced concrete building. Conspiracy advocates also point to other minutiae such as small amount of debris or the condition of grass on the lawn. The documentary film Loose Change asserts that there were no discernible pieces of debris from Flight 77. Blast expert Allyn E. Kilsheimer was the first structural engineer to arrive at the Pentagon after the crash and helped coordinate the emergency response. He states that Flight 77 "was absolutely a plane. I saw the marks of the plane wing on the face of the building. I picked up parts of the plane with the airline markings on them. I held in my hand the tail section of the plane, and I found the black box." In addition, Kilsheimer's account is supported by the photos of plane wreckage inside and outside the building.

See also

References

External links

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