"The story of the day, of 9/11 itself, is best told in the voices of 9/11," said Miles Kara, a retired Army colonel and an investigator for the September 11 Commission, in a recent New York Times report. Included here is a selection of recordings of Federal Aviation Administration, Defense Department, and American Airlines communications from September 11, 2001. You will hear air traffic controllers, military aviation officers, airline and fighter jet pilots, as well as two of the hijackers, during two hours of that historic morning. Transcripts and some of the recordings have been released previously, but not the complete "audio monograph", as it was described by the September 11 Commission. The recordings were originally intended to be part of the Commissions' 2004 report on the terrorist attacks, but were not ready in time for a legal review before the Commission finished its work. They have now been released in their entirety.
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I'd just listened to a heavy work, over 24 hours, and wanted something short and engaging. When I found this, I figured it would do well for my mood. What I got was a punch in the gut. Looking back, I went in god-awfully glib: This is short! This is, even better, free! This is perfect! It was a descent into the madness and memories of that horrific day and the days that followed. I was suddenly transported back to days of weeping and stuffing Oreos into my mouth, all in an attempt to release the terrible grief and fear of all that I (and most of the country) was feeling. The tapes start with people simply living their lives, going through their day, with a blip or two occurring on the radars of their awareness. It grows into a gnawing fear and dread. We get to experience things just as they do, hearing oddities from cockpits, trying to understand, then trying to take actions to control what they soon start figuring out is a completely out of control situation. The line, "Does anybody know why there's smoke in lower Manhattan?" about killed me. Follow up with, in trying to get a bead on lost planes, someone saying, "Look out the window. Do you see it flying low?" and then "Yeah, it just dropped like 800 feet!" with the second plane going into the WTC, and I was flat-out sick. There is some misinformation that the controllers deal with; there is audio from NORAD and the "This is real world, not exercise!"; there is horror, dread, and some extraordinarily calm people doing the impossible. There were plenty of times that I wanted to shout at them to just get the planes out of the air, but who knew then what we know now? The fact that decisions were made so quickly and with such finality is mind-blowing, especially when so many different towers were involved. And though the last four minutes of the recording are tinny and difficult to understand, they're worth listening to. They pretty much sum up everything that became part of our American culture. It's strange. I work with teen-aged girls who were only toddlers when 9-11 happened. These tapes would mean nothing to them. But for anybody who watched their television sets in a trance-like horror on that day, I strongly suggest the quick listen. Warning, though: if you felt even an iota of anything that remotely suggests your humanity back then, you will most likely, even now at this late date, feel something pretty powerful. Personally, I'm going to sit and stare at the wall for a while, wipe some tears away...