Final Destination: Pentagon
The file dropped on Robert Fuller’s desk, it was a small dossier which had photographs and names of two men which Fuller had to look into, it was a high priority case. The FBI’s New York Office was the epicenter for Islamic fundamentalism since the inception of the I-49 unit in 1996. The elite brand which catered to specially investigating the finances and unique intricate terrorist activities of Osama Bin Laden and his organization, Al Qaeda. Fuller was the only one tasked to look into two Al Qaeda operatives, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. It was August 23rd 2001, but Fuller had other cases to also investigate.
Thus the file regarding the two Al Qaeda operatives was paused for the time being, Fuller was rather new to the terrorism squad and already overwhelmed. By the time Fuller opened up the al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi file, it was September 4th 2001. Fuller begins by typing in the names of both men on the querying the ChoicePoint database. The ChoicePoint is one of several companies maintaining commercial databases on personal information about US citizens. According to Fuller nothing came up on either of the two men. He explains to an internal review years later, this was due in part of the many different variations of their names. However in 2003, The 9/11 Commission concluded that the database regarding both al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, was not performed, they also add, “Searches of readily available databases could have unearthed” their California drivers’ licenses, car registrations, and telephone listings.
September 10th….Nawaf al-Hazmi and Hani Hanjour are preparing to send an “express mail package” with an alias, “Rawf al-Dog” sending to Sharjah, United Arab Emirates…..they prepared this package at 6:57am…the address they used, 1565 Washington Boulevard, #8, Laurel Maryland. The recipient of the package was to Mustafa al-Hawsawi, a known Al Qaeda financier. The package was later intercepted by the FBI, and inside was Khalid al-Mihdhar’s debit card and PIN for his First Union Bank account which contained $9,000 dollars, for which they would have no use for it.
During the afternoon, Hani Hanjour, Khalid al-Mihdhar, and Nawaf al-Hazmi would check in the Marriott Residence Inn located in Herndon, Virginia only 6 miles from Dulles International Airport. Almost as soon as they checked themselves in, a prominent Saudi official and director of the SAAR Foundation, which is a Saudi owned company, a flagship corporation representing charities, think tanks, and business entities also had checked in. Saleh Ibn Abdul Rahman Hussayen was known in downtown Washington D.C in the Arab community, it’s high affluent end of course. Hussayen, just the day before had previously rented at a nearby hotel also in Herndon, with his wife in tow. Both had entered the United States on August 20th on a tour of Islamic charity organizations in local spots.
On the evening of September 10th Eric Gill, a Pakistan native living inside the United States, was working as the evening shift security supervisor at Dulles International Airport. Gill, an employee of Argenbright Security, was stationed at the airport's West Checkpoint, which leads to the passengers area whom were previously screened by security and where the tarmac was located as well. Stationed along next to Gill was another Argenbright security employee, Nicholas De Silva. Gill notices 5 men near the side-door near the West Checkpoint where access is limited to those with security passes. Gill sees three of the men dressed in unkempt United Airlines ramp workers clothing.
Two of the men did not have passes and were dressed in casual civilian attire. Gill noticed the three men using their security cards to enter the checkpoint and trying to escort the two who did not. Gill stopped them almost immediately upon entry, and asked if they were employees of the airline. He was met with unpleasant admonishment. The men tell Gill to “f_ck off” and say that they are “important people,” but Gill still refuses to let the two without passes enter, and eventually all five men retreat. At 10:00pm, Gill’s shift had ended, the West Checkpoint at thus juncture was insecure at this time, with only one roving security guard nearby.
7:15am Dulles Airport International, Majed Moqed and Khalid al-Mihdhar check in at the American Airlines ticket counter. At Dulles, the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS) is implemented for a data base search of FBI “high risk” names in its’ database. This information is used to check against some data store and assign a terrorism “risk score” to that person. Both Moqed and al-Mihdhar were chosen for a second security screening in which both men had passed. Moqed’s luggage, carry on bag, is also screened and cleared. However it would not be loaded on the plane in time.
Their appearance on a Verint camera system showed the men going thru initial screening thru a metal detector, there would be some contention that the video is undated, however in the same video is a victim of Flight 77, Mari Rae Sopper identified by her mother days later. Nawaf al-Hazmi and Salim al-Hazmi would check in together at 7:29am. With it’s suspected pilot, Hani Hanjour checking in at 7:35am. Salem al-Hazmi successfully clears the metal detector and is permitted through the checkpoint. Nawaf al-Hazmi sets off the alarms for both the first and second metal detectors, and is subsequently subjected to a personal screening with a metal detector hand wand before being passed. His shoulder bag is swiped by an explosive trace detector and returned without further inspection.
Inside the pilot’s cabin, Captain Charles Burlingame and First Officer, David Charlebois, were beginning to begin the long flight to Los Angeles International (LAX), they had a short passenger manifest, 53 souls were to be on board for this flight. Flight attendants to service the flight were, Jennifer Lewis, Renee May, Michele Heidenberger and Kenneth Lewis. The flight was suspended for 10 minuets and took out at 8:20am out of Runway 30. The Air Traffic Control (ATC) had kept in constant contact with Burlingame and Charlebois. The final transmission to Flight 77 was noted at 8:50:51 “ah direct FALMOUTH American seventy seven thanks”…..after that ATC would repeat the same command multiple times, with no response:
“American seventy seven indy, how do you read?”
Three of the other hijacked flights had reports of bombs, knives and people having been stabbed. Flight 77 would be the only hijacked incident which didn't have reports that included those terrible instances. At 9:12am, flight attendant Renee May had used her cell phone to call her mother. May would state that the plane was being hijacked by 6 men, and not 5 as the 9/11 Commission report stated in their final report. She also stated the staff and passengers had been moved to the rear of the airplane. The call lasted only two minutes. At 9:16 and 9:26, passenger Barbara Olson calls her husband, Ted Olson and reported that the airplane had been hijacked and that the assailants had box cutters and knives.
However another call was made, this time from an unidentified female aboard American Airlines Flight 77. The call was placed to an AT&T operator, Mercy Lorenzo whom took the call, in which she would inform her supervisor, Tersea Gonzalez, who in turn notified the FBI. The caller informed Gonzalez that the plane was hijacked by people who had knives and guns who directed all passengers to retreat in the back of the plane. The unnamed caller, in the FBI 302 interview of Mercy Gonzalez, was from Barbara Olson. According to the transcription:
At 8:56am the flights transponder had been shut off, whomever was piloting the plane engaged the auto-pilot. Meanwhile ATC operators were trying to locate Flight 77 while also dealing with a multi-hijacking scenario. American Airlines managers, Craig Marquis, Craig Parfitt, Joe Bertapelle, and Mike Mulcahy, had trouble contacting anyone at the FAA Command Center in Herndon. All four men would later testify before the 9/11 Commission, that they “lost precious minutes in building the communications bridge” between the SOC and the Command Center. At 9:29am while at an altitude of 7,000 feet and approximately 30 miles from Ronald Reagan Airport, Flight 77’s auto-pilot and autothrottle were disengaged.
Immediately operators contacted a nearby C-130 Hercules Lockheed plane, operated by Lt.Col. Steven O’Brien, in which was noticed by FAA in nearby Washington D.C….they asked O’Brien if he could locate a Boeing 757–200 airbus which was located nearby. O’Brien thru the low clouds did indeed notice the plane, and relayed the information back to FAA. They asked O’Brien to keep in visual contact of flight, in which at 9:37am O’Brien notified FAA operators he saw the plane in the vicinity of the Pentagon and a subsequent fireball immediately after it crashed.
The flight’s impact and immediate aftermath were described in fuller detail in Rick Newman & Patrick Creed’s excellent book “Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11:
“The instant its nose struck the outer wall of the Pentagon, Flight 77 ceased to be an airplane. The nose of the plane hit the facade just below the top of the first story, about 14 feet above the ground, going 530 miles per hour. A deafening boom shook the morning as a violent concussion tore through the air, jarring bystanders. The collision produced a force on the passengers far greater than that from any high-speed car crash. People became projectiles. Bone separated from flesh.
Body parts flew as if fired from a cannon. When it hit the building, the fuselage crumpled immediately. Its soft aluminum disintegrated as it encountered layers of limestone, brick, concrete, a blast — resistant geo-textile lining, the steel-reinforced concrete columns that held up the building, and everything else in its path. In an instant the impact reduced Flight 77 to a million super-heated fragments. Two-thirds of the right wing had been severed by the impact with the construction equipment, and what was left of it carved a gash in the building’s second-story floor slab, before the concrete sheared it off the fuselage. At least one-third of the left wing had snapped off when the left engine hit the steam vault.
The rest of it slid into the Pentagon beneath the second-story floor slab, penetrating no farther than a few feet. The airplane’s tail, 45 feet tall, was still attached to the plane as it plowed into the Pentagon. But like the stubs of the wings, its soft aluminum was abruptly shredded when it collided with concrete. The horizontal stabilizers, the smaller wings at the back of the plane, didn’t make much of an impact either. They may have penetrated farther than the front wings, since they were being dragged into a hole, but they too broke apart quickly.
The aircraft was carrying 5,300 gallons of fuel, in three fuel tanks, one in the fuselage and one in each wing. The wing tanks were spewing fuel before the plane even struck the building. At the moment of impact, about 720 gallons of fuel ignited outside the building, sending a fireball twice the height of the Pentagon up through the roof and out in every direction. Fire instantly charred grass and trees lining the outer wall. Burning wreckage flew across the lawn. Chunks of metal rained down. A mushroom cloud followed the blast high into the sky.
As the belly of the plane penetrated the first floor, another 4,450 gallons of fuel exploded in a blast far more powerful than the initial fireball. The massive concussion obliterated what was left of the airplane. Shock waves hurtled down hallways . Part of the second-story concrete floor slab buckled like a bent flap on a cardboard box. Fuel spewed into every space that physics would allow. Much of it lit off instantaneously as fire raced through office space, air vents, and stairwells at nearly the speed of sound.”
The damage to the Pentagon was extensive. Just before it’s impact, 5 street light poles had broken away at its base, which it was designed to do in case of car impacts. It also struck a portable generator in which created a smoke trail seconds before its impact into the Pentagon. There were 87 personal eyewitness accounts whom were in the close proximity of the plane’s impact into the Pentagon structure. Multiple agencies responded to the crash site, which included:
Arlington Fire Department
Fort Myer Fire Department
Reagan National Airport Fire Department
District of Columbia Fire Department
Fairfax & Montgomery Urban Search & Rescue
Fort Belvoir Transportation Division
Virginia Medical Technician Team
Federal Bureau Of Investigation
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Hundreds upon hundreds of investigators searched the area for evidence. In which they found thousands of of the plane’s debris and also, many bodies and dismembered body parts. 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”.
Thousands of pieces also carried forward and up, even over the roof of the Pentagon. In the Pentagon’s inner courtyard, very small pieces of aluminum drifted down like confetti. Other pieces landed on the roof. These bits of the plane’s debris were noticed by members of Fort Myer and Arlington FD, in which Arlington Battalion Chief Jason Schwartz was the on site commander. Carlton Burkhammer, Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Station 14, saw parts of the plane as well as many of the dead on the first floor. He pointed out that he saw in particular, lime-green pieces from the interior of the plane. “You could tell where the plane had gone because of the destruction of the steel and concrete beams. Burkhammer would also find the black boxes belonging to Flight 77, according to an MSNBC article:
“Early Friday morning, shortly before 4 a.m., Burkhammer and another firefighter, Brian Moravitz, were combing through debris near the impact site. Peering at the wreckage with their helmet lights, the two spotted an intact seat from the plane’s cockpit with a chunk of the floor still attached. Then they saw two odd-shaped dark boxes, about 1.5 by 2 feet long. They’d been told the plane’s “black boxes” would in fact be bright orange, but these were charred black. The boxes had handles on one end and one was torn open. They cordoned off the area and called for an FBI agent, who in turn called for someone from the National Transportation Safety Board who confirmed the find: the black boxes from American Airlines Flight 77. “We wanted to find live victims,” says Burkhammer. But this was a consolation prize. “Finding the black box gave us a little boost,” he says.”
Eric Gill was out shopping with his family when he heard that an American Airlines plane had impacted the Pentagon. Gill returns to work and two days later the FBI come to interview after hearing of the Sept 10th incident. Gill tells the FBI his story, but the FBI fails to show him a video it has found of the hijackers passing through an airport security checkpoint on Sept 11th, even though it is shown to all his colleagues, except the partner he was on duty with when he saw the hijackers (De Silva). The agents show him poor quality photocopied pictures of the hijackers and Gill identifies two of them as the people he saw on September 10 as Nawaf al-Hazmi and Marwan al-Shehhi. With al-Hazmi hurling the insults at Gill.
The FBI agents almost immediately lose interest in Gill for al-Shehhi was not involved in the Flight 77 hijacking but was suspected as being involved in United Airlines Flight 175 hijacking with al-Shehhi acting as it’s pilot in which crashed into the South Tower of the WTC. Over a year and half later, Gill would have a telephone interview with 9/11 Commission staffers about his incident, in which nothing became of it, not then or since. Gill remains adamant in him personally seeing al-Hazmi and al-Shehhi however.
Meanwhile FBI investigators who had begun the largest investigation in their agencies history, PENTTBOM, would have two agents visit the Saudi official who rented a room at the Marriott Residence Inn in Herndon, Saleh Ibn Abdul Rahman Hussayen ….the same hotel Hanjour, al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi all stayed in on September 10th. as a woman agent questioned him, Hussayen feigned a seizure and was rushed to a hospital in which found absolutely nothing wrong with him and released. The agent recommends that Hussayen “should not be allowed to leave until a follow-up interview could occur.”
The next day the same agents return to question him, but Hussayen was rather unhelpful towards their inquiries, even stammering a bit about meeting with al-Mihdhar. When the agents leave, Hussayen calls the Saudi Embassy in Washington D.C, they would in turn call the FBI. According to authors Susan and Joe Trento, in their book “Unsafe at any altitude” high level Saudi contacts inside the embassy calls U.S-Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, in which notify FBI superiors in Washington D.C to not have the agents interview or confront Hussayen again. On September 19th 2001, Hussayen was allowed to leave the United States along with many other highly important Saudi nationals on private charters back to Riyadh Airport Saudi Arabia.
One day after the attacks, FBI investigators were notified of a suspicious vehicle in the Dulles International Airport parking garage. The car , a 1988 Toyota Corolla, was registered to a Nawaf al-Hazmi, with a residence showing an address located in Lemon Grove, California. It was the same address in which they lived with another Saudi, who was also an FBI informant, Abdussattar Shaikh who reported to San Diego FBI agent, Steven Butler, who Shaikh informed about renting to two Saudi’s who just moved into the U.s but never gave Butler their full names. The car was searched thoroughly, and many incriminating items were found:
Four color diagrams of an instrument panel for a B757 aircraft.
One yellow and black utility knife (box cutter).
One Pan Am International Flight Academy, Jet Tech International, Phoenix, AZ, identification card in the name of Hani Hanjour.
A cashier’s check to the Flight Academy in the amount of $5745 from Hanjour.
A travel itinerary for seats 13A and 13B for Khalid al-Mihdhar and Majed Moqed on AA Flight 77.
A piece of paper with the name “Osama 5895316”
Packing slip of package sent by Rawf Al Dog, 1565 Washington Boulevard,
#8, Laurel Maryland… to the United Arab Emirates on 09/10/01 at 6:57 AM.
In 2004 the FBI Office of the Inspector General found no fault on the part of Robert Fuller, the inexperienced agent from the counter-terrorism unit who was tasked to find information regarding Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, in which was a “high-profile” case.
The OIG issued in it’s report:
“As discussed above, on August 22, 2001, the FBI learned that Mihdhar and Hazmi had entered the United States in January 2000, that Mihdhar had again flown to New York on July 4, 2001, and that there was no record of either of them leaving the country. The FBI also learned that Khallad had been identified in the Kuala Lumpur photographs. Upon discovery of this information, the FBI opened an intelligence investigation in New York in an effort to locate Mihdhar.
Once again, however, the separation between intelligence and criminal information affected who could receive access to the information about Hazmi and Mihdhar. This interpretation of the wall also hampered the ability of the FBI New York agents working on the Cole investigation to participate in the search for Hazmi and Mihdhar. In addition, we found that the FBI’s efforts to locate Hazmi and Mihdhar were not extensive. We do not fault the case agent assigned to locate them. He was new and not instructed to give the case any priority. Rather, we found that the FBI New York did not pursue this as an urgent matter or assign many resources to it.”
The repeated excuses would not end here in regards to the FBI’s handling of the September 11th hijackers, as the CIA would also undergo similar internal investigations. Yet not a single member of either agency was ever found to be held accountable for their acts of malfeasance, negligence or even willful ignorance on the matter of monitoring the suspects involved in the September 11th attacks.