A correspondent recently asked me to track down a specific audio clip, the “Oh My God,” reaction by an Identification Technician at the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) That search led me to the History Commons timeline and information that was at once helpful but also erroneous. My purpose in this article is to provide insight for researchers, historians, and academicians who routinely use History Commons as a reference or source. I personally use the timeline and have a link to it on my home page.
My 9/11 Commission Experience
The antecedent to the History Commons timeline, the Cooperative Research timeline, was the first public domain timeline we used in our staff work. Early on, as we began to develop our own timeline, we dropped the Cooperative Research timeline because of its inherent inaccuracy. We found it to be a conglomeration of anecdotal information, derived extensively from eyewitness accounts, participant recall, media accounts, and, as time as passed, published books. It is not grounded in the primary source information of the day and is, therefore, not reliable.
Post Commission Interest
I followed, with interest, the hearings held by Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, primarily because one of her witnesses was Paul Thompson. Thompson was instrumental in the creation of the Cooperative Research timeline and my hope was that his testimony would extend that work in a positive direction by correcting the anecdotal record he had created. That did not happen. His testimony was a static reiteration of his understanding of events based on his timeline. He did not move the analytical ball forward.
The Case at Hand
Here is what the History Commons timeline has to say about NEADS when it learned that American Airlines flight 11 struck the World Trade Center, North Tower.
8:51 a.m. September 11, 2001: NEADS Learns of Plane Hitting WTC, Informs FAA’s New York Center
Technicians on the operations floor at NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) receive what is apparently their first notification that a plane has hit the World Trade Center, in a phone call from the FAA’s Boston Center. [VANITY FAIR, 8/1/2006] NEADS ID technicians are currently trying to locate Flight 11, when they are called by Colin Scoggins, the military liaison at the Boston Center. ID tech Stacia Rountree answers the call. In response to Scoggins’s information, Rountree says to her colleagues, “A plane just hit the World Trade Center.” She asks Scoggins, “Was it American 11?” He tells her this is not confirmed. [SPENCER, 2008, PP. 50] Another of the ID techs, Shelley Watson, starts murmuring in response to the news: “Oh my God. Oh God. Oh my God.” [VANITY FAIR, 8/1/2006] A computer maintenance technician then runs onto the operations floor and announces that CNN is broadcasting that a 737 has hit the WTC. [SPENCER, 2008, PP. 51]
Here is what I transcribed in 2003 as archived by the National Archives in my work paper “NEADS CDs.”
08:50:30 They dial New York. They show him heading, what did she say north coastal.
Coastal, I didn’t know what she meant. They show him headed coastal now. Primary
only. They’re going to give us 3 and 5 minute updates on lat lons. Dialed number didn’t
08:50:03: That last lat long was 4039 7403W. They’re going to give us 3 and 5 minute
08:50:08: (In background. A plane just….) What? A 737. Like the WTC. Who’re you
talking to. Oh my God. Oh God. Oh my God. (Dooley) Update New York. See if
they lost altitude on that plane all together
With that background we can now refer to the NEADS audio files and find out what happened, in context.
First Air Force
Shortly after 0850 EDT, Sergeant Watson took a call from Sergeant Tibbets, First Air Force Public Affairs. Tibbets was seeking information about the hijacked airplane and in the course of the conversation told Watson, “Wait a minute, a plane just hit, a plane hit the World Trade Center, I just saw that on the news.” He then said “it may be a 737.” [DRM1, Channel 7,cut 123030] 0850 First Air Force Call
Here is how that call and the reaction was recorded on a different channel. [DRM1 Channel 5, cut 122917] 0851 Watson First Air Force Patch to MCC
The reaction to the call was recorded on yet another channel. [DRM1 Channel 4, cut 121806]. The “Oh God” voice is not that of Watson, she was on the call with First Air Force. The voice is that of Stacia Rountree. 0850 Oh My God Reaction
The patch to the Mission Crew Commander was answered by Sergeant Joe McCain, the Mission Crew Commander/Technician (MCC/T). It is his voice that sounds like Colin Scoggins when heard on the MCC channel. Here is the continuation of the First Air Force Call as recorded at the MCC/T position. Note that there are multiple conversations going on, to include one involving Major Nasypany, the MCC. 0852 First Air Force Call McCain [DRM1 Channel 3, cut 123212]
And here is how all that came together as recorded at the MCC position, where, out of context, McCain’s voice sounds like that of Colin Scoggins. 0852 the MCC Perspective [DRM1, Channel 2, cut 121800]
Nearly 5 minutes later, Colin Scoggins at Boston Center became aware of the impact at the World Trade Center and that information was shared immediately in the course of a conversation between Sergeant Watson and Scoggins. As we pick up the audio, NEADS found the Boston line to be busy but Watson persisted in dialing anyway and reached Scoggins. In the latter part of the call we hear Master Sergeant Maureen Dooley on the phone. Dooley Obtained a critical piece of information, the tail number for AA11, N334AA. [DRM1 Channel 7, cut 123304] 0855 Watson Scoggins Dooley AA11
It is clear from this event that it is not possible to use the NEADS tapes out of context or in isolation, one channel from another. It takes a concerted effort across all channels to gain an accurate picture of what is actually happening. It is always useful to start with the MCC channel, channel two, because the MCC position was the focal point for decisionmaking. Moreover, it was the MCC, and the MCC only, who constantly updated the Battle Cab, specifically Colonel Marr, the NEADS commanding officer.
Understanding of this single event required audio recordings from 5 different channels; the MCC, the MCC Technician, and three devoted to the Identification Technicians.
It is also clear from this event that the History Commons timeline is unreliable as a definitive source. It is useful to gain a starting point for analysis but it cannot and should not serve as the analytical answer because of its reliance on anecdotal information.