ASHINGTON, Sept. 12 — Most of the seats were empty on
American Airlines Flight 77, a twin-engine Boeing 757, and the people who sat near windows for the
flight from Dulles International Airport to Los Angeles had a
crystal-clear view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and then the Ohio
River Valley far below.
At 8:51 a.m., about 40 minutes into the flight, the plane reached
normal cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, at which passengers are
normally free to unbuckle their seat belts and move around while the
flight attendants deliver drinks and snacks.
Among the 58 passengers were a group of schoolchildren on a
National Geographic field trip, the president of a California
company that helped employees balance their work and personal lives,
and a well-known conservative television commentator.
Leslie A. Whittington, an associate professor of public policy at
Georgetown University, was en route with her husband and two
daughters for a two-month adventure in Australia.
But among those moving around the cabin, the authorities say,
were several hijackers with knives. About 9, as the plane flew into
Ohio, the plane's tracking beacon was cut off.
Then the plane turned around for a 300-mile trip back east,
transformed into a lethal missile that senior Bush administration
officials said might have been aimed at the White House.
The authorities have not released details of the plane's track as
it bore down on Washington and crashed not into the White House, but
just across the Potomac River in Virginia, into the Pentagon.
Details of its routine flight west were provided by Flight
Explorer, a company that sells information gathered instantly from
the radio transponders that commercial jets carry. Somebody turned
Flight 77's transponder off just after it headed west into Ohio.
Presumably, that was when the hijacking happened.
Whatever the intended target, by the time the plane turned back
to Washington, the World Trade Center had already been hit by two
other hijacked planes. And by about 9:25, Washington knew that this
was another hijacking. That was when a television commentator,
Barbara Olson, called her husband, Solicitor General Theodore B.
Olson, at the Justice Department and told him that the plane had
been hijacked. Five minutes later, she called back to say that the
passengers had been herded into the back and that the pilot was with
them — not in the cockpit.
In Washington, Mr. Olson relayed his wife's report immediately to
a Justice Department command post. As the plane drew closer, air
traffic control radars could see that the incommunicado plane was
bound straight for the restricted area around the White House, where
no flights are allowed. Flights in and out of Reagan National
Airport, which is not far from the Pentagon, stay over the Potomac
River, skirting the edge of the restricted zone.
In theory, an early enough warning that a third hijacked plane
was heading toward Washington might have triggered the launching of
supersonic fighter planes from any of several nearby bases.
The plane hit the Pentagon at 9:45 a.m.
Bill Cheng, an American Airlines pilot who normally flies Flight
77, changed his plans in late August and applied for time off on
Tuesday so he could go camping. When another pilot signed up for the
slot, Mr. Cheng's application was accepted.
"As you can imagine, I have mixed emotions about this," Mr. Cheng
said. "I feel terrible for whoever picked it up. I'm sick. I'm just
The flight's pilots were Charles Burlingame, the captain, and
David Charlebois, the first officer.
Christopher Newton, 38, the chief executive of Work/Life
Benefits, in Cypress, Calif., was the kind of man who frequently
missed flights by a few minutes, but not this time.
"He was very last-minute," said Bill Gurzi, the marketing
director of Work/Life Benefits, a consulting group that specializes
in balancing the demands of the workplace with the personal needs of
Mr. Newton had recently relocated to Virginia and was returning
to Southern California for business meetings and to retrieve his
family's aging yellow Labrador, Buddy.
Not everyone on Flight 77 — a favorite of travelers who want to
arrive in Los Angeles for afternoon meetings — was going for
Three 11-year-olds and three teachers from Washington public
schools and two National Geographic Society officials were traveling
to Santa Cruz Island for the National Marine Sanctuary Program.
One teacher was James Debeuneure, 58, of Marlboro, Md., whose
particular passion was rivers. On Monday evening, he called his son
Jacques at his home in North Carolina to tell him how important the
project was. "He was very excited about it," said Jacques
Debeuneure, who added that his father's house was filled with
"pictures of rivers and mountains and waterfalls. It was an
opportunity to train and learn and bring it back to the
Lisa J. Raines, senior vice president of Genzyme, a
biotechnology company, and head of government relations at the
company's Washington office, had just returned from a vacation with
her husband of 20 years, Stephen P. Push, he said. They had been to
Santa Barbara, Calif., their favorite vacation spot.
Her trip to California was for a meeting of Genzyme's sales force
in Palm Springs, where they were planning to discuss Renagel, a drug
for kidney dialysis patients.
"It was just `goodbye,' and `I love you' and we kissed," said Mr.
Push, who lives in Great Falls, Va. "It will be the last