An air traffic control supervisor believed terrorists were targeting his tower at Pittsburgh International Airport as he tracked the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
The building rises 245 feet above the ground, and elevation at the Findlay airport is 500 feet higher than Downtown Pittsburgh, according to Mahlon “Mal” Fuller.
“We evacuated the control tower and radio room, thinking we were the target,” Fuller said at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County, where he participated Saturday and Sunday in the final speaker series event of the year.
As the watch supervisor on duty, Fuller tracked the westbound jetliner after it turned eastward outside Cleveland. Air traffic officials had been informed two minutes after American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon in Washington that Flight 93 might also have been hijacked.
The plane flew over Pittsburgh International when air traffic controllers were outside the building. No one saw it. By the time they returned to the tower some 10 minutes later, Flight 93 had crashed in a field near Shanksville, Fuller said. The plane crashed about eight miles past the 60-mile radius of the airport’s radar, he said.
At first, they did not know which plane had crashed in Somerset County “because there were so many missing,” Fuller said.
At the Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center in Oberlin, Ohio, supervisor John Werth also tracked Flight 93 -- which took off from Newark, N.J., and was bound for San Francisco before turning back.
Although air traffic control officials in Boston believed Delta Flight 1989, trailing 20 miles behind the United airliner, might be the hijacked airplane, Werth was certain Flight 93 had been taken over by terrorists. He watched the monitor as Flight 93 dropped 700 feet then bounced up over 30,000 feet and made “radical turns.”
“I heard the screaming (from the cockpit) ... and did not know who it was,” said Werth, speaking about the experience for the first time at the Flight 93 Memorial. “I thought I heard the pilots trying to get the (Mayday distress) message out. All we heard was guttural moans ... and I thought they said, ‘Get out of here.’ ”
Werth said he did not believe air traffic controllers in the Cleveland Center heard the pilots being murdered by terrorists who stormed into the cockpit. As further proof he was correct, those in the Flight 93 cockpit turned off the plane’s transponder and would not respond to repeated calls to identify themselves, Werth said. Pilots on Delta 1989, which eventually landed safely in Cleveland, did respond to his requests.
Unbeknownst to the terrorists, Werth said, they were transmitting communications intended for the passengers to air traffic control in Cleveland.
“We heard them say (to the passengers), ‘Be quiet. We have a bomb on board,’ ” Werth said.
But, armed with the knowledge of the other planes that had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, “We knew it was a suicide mission,” Werth said.
Flight 93 finally disappeared from the radar screen.
“Initially, I was angry because we could not do anything,” Werth said. “We did not have a magic button to take them down.”
It was of some relief, he said, that “it did not go down in Pittsburgh or Washington, D.C.,” because of the heroic actions of the passengers. He said he figured the intended target was the U.S. Capitol or the White House.
Air traffic controllers in Cleveland did not hear the passengers overtake the terrorists in the cockpit, leading to the crash of the plane, Werth said.
It was a day, Fuller said, “when 40 strangers sat down (on Flight 93) and stood up and looked evil in the eye and stopped it.”
Both men retired shortly after the terrorist attacks.
Fuller urges people to tell those who are too young to remember the 9/11 attacks of their own experiences as well as the larger story.
“We can’t forget the events of Sept. 11, 2001,” he said.