John Werth had been a flight controller for 31 years before the day al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four jetliners over America. One of those planes turned out to be under his watch. In his first television interview in five years, Werth recently spoke exclusively to CBS News about what he experienced that tragic day.
When Werth reported to work at the Cleveland Center at 6:00a.m. on September 11, 2001, it was still dark outside, but the sun rose to fill a clear blue sky. "It was a nice, late summer day. Not a cloud in the sky. Usually those are good days," Werth says.
From his perch in eastern Ohio, he would handle United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 heading west from Newark to San Francisco with 37 passengers and 7 crew members on board. Four of the ticketed first class passengers were on a suicide mission. The delayed flight took off at 8:42a.m.
In his career, Werth never had as much as a close call between planes in his airspace, what controllers call a "systems error." He'd never made the mistake of allowing two airborne jetliners come within five miles of each other. But Werth had handled emergency flights before and knew what to do. "You have to keep to your cool. I mean, you just have to stay steady so that they stay steady," he says. "Try to keep the pilot calm, for one thing, 'cause I'm sure he's panicked enough as it is."
Before September 11th, there hadn't been a hijacking of a U.S. airliner anywhere in 15 years. Airline crews were taught to accommodate the demands of hijackers – an ever rarer presence in American skies – land the plane safely, and let the military and the FBI handle the rest. If they had an opportunity, pilots could squawk the hijack code on the transponder. That would never happen with United 93.
After the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center were intentionally struck by airplanes, the news filtered to Cleveland Center. At 9:23a.m., United sent a text message warning all its remaining airborne, transcontinental flights: "Beware any cockpit intrusion – Two a/c [aircraft] hit World Trade Center."
At 9:25a.m., Werth communicated with Flight 93 for the last time. It was flying normally, cruising at 35,000 feet, 45-minutes into a six-hour journey. He told the pilot another plane was above him at 37,000 feet.
Three minutes later, at 9:38a.m., Werth heard from his console speaker the garbled sounds of a struggle in the cockpit. He put on his headsets to hear better. Then, about 30-seconds later, came another startling transmission.
"Mayday! Mayday Mayday!," the pilots voices cried out. "Hey, get out of here! Get out of here!"
"It started to act erratically right after that," Werth says. The plane's altitude suddenly dropped 700 feet. "I told the immediate supervisor who was within earshot that 'I think we have another one.'"
During the next four minutes, Werth repeatedly radioed the cockpit, asking the pilot to confirm the hijacking, but got no response. At 9:32a.m, he heard a transmission intended for the passenger cabin uttered in heavily-accented English: "Here, the captain, please sit down and remain sitting. We have a bomb on board."