By Randolph E. Schmid
WASHINGTON – The terrorists who crashed planes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center probably were able to overcome the flight crews and then fly the airliners themselves, aviation safety experts suggested.
“It’s just incredible that you have these four apparent breaches of security,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said following Tuesday’s attacks.
“We’ve seen from today that a determined terrorist isn’t going to be stopped by a metal detector and a couple of quick questions about who packed their luggage,” he said.
In Boston, investigators were interviewing drivers from a cab company, where two known associates of terrorist Osama bin Laden once worked, to see if they had ties to baggage handlers who may have helped carry out the terrorist plot, a former FBI supervisor said today.
The FBI plans to question drivers at Boston Cab Co. and possibly other local cab companies, Robert Fitzpatrick, former second-in-command in Boston, said he was told by law enforcement sources.
A rental car, containing Arabic-language flight training manuals, was seized in a parking garage at Logan International Airport in Boston, The Boston Herald said today, quoting an anonymous source. The source said five Arab men had been identified as suspects, including one who was a trained pilot. WCVB-TV in Boston reported the car had Virginia license plates.
The Boston Globe reported that authorities found two bags that contained an instructional video on flying commercial airliners, a fuel consumption calculator and a copy of the Koran in two bags that did not make it onto American Airlines Flight 11, which left Boston at 7:59 a.m. Tuesday and plowed into on of the World Trade Center towers about an hour later.
And Maine Gov. Angus King said two suspects had flown to Boston from the Portland International Jetport, and left behind a rental car that was impounded in the Portland area. King said the men apparently used New Jersey driver licenses but little else was known about them.
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta promised immediate efforts to step up security.
“Travelers will see increased security measures at our airports, train stations and other key sites,” Mineta said in a statement.
“There will be higher levels of surveillance, more stringent searches. Airport curbside luggage check-in will no longer be allowed. There will be more security officers, random identification checks,” he said.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said American Airlines Flight 11 that left Boston for Los Angeles “was hijacked by suspects armed with knives.”
Television commentator Barbara Olson told her husband by cellular telephone minutes before her flight crashed into the Pentagon that attackers had used knifelike instruments to take over the plane.
Current airport security systems are designed to catch people carrying metal weapons such as guns and knives, said David Stempler of the Air Travelers Association. And in recent years, much effort also has been expended on developing devices to sniff out bombs.
Darryl Jenkins, director of George Washington University’s Aviation Institute, agreed that the easiest way to hijack a plane is to board it without weapons.
“One thing about terrorists is just how flexible they are,” Jenkins said. “When you put up a roadblock in one place, they go around and find other means.
“I’m a pilot, he added. “None of us would ever fly a plane into the Trade Center. We would take that bullet first. Terrorists flew the plane instead.”
That view was shared by Jim Burnett, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who said a commercial pilot, “even under duress, would not do that. It would have taken some skill on the part of whoever was able to take over the plane.”
Gene Poteat, president of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, added: “They flew the planes themselves. No pilot, even with a gun to his head, is going to fly into the World Towers.”
Stempler said the possibility of terrorists actually taking over planes and then flying them into targets is not one that he had ever heard discussed.
A radar track of American Airlines Flight 11 that struck the World Trade Center showed that it left Boston en route to Los Angeles and began its path westward normally, but then made a sharp left turn to fly down the Hudson River to New York.
It was not known whether the pilot reported a hijacking. Even if a terrorist were known to be in control of a plane heading for a major city, coping would pose a huge challenge, Stempler said.
“I don’t think we are that primed and ready at this point. I don’t think we could get the interceptors up fast enough to manage that,” he said.
Burnett said criminal investigations will be launched quickly to see whether there is a common thread in the apparent breaches of security that allowed terrorists aboard the planes.
If there is, it is likely to be plugged quickly, he said. “However, I think it’s safe to say that with the level of sophistication, there may be additional types of breaches that have been identified.”
Burnett said these terrorist acts will likely spur intense security and there could be substantial disruption of transportation for a time.
“The American people are going to have to be prepared to be patient and to have a level of unity, the kind of unity they had after Dec. 7, 1941,” he said, referring to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Poteat said the hijackings will lead to much tighter security on planes, including the possibility of putting armed marshals on planes again.
Armed marshals were used on planes a few decades ago after a series of hijackings to Cuba.
“The measures to protect ourselves are extremely expensive,” Poteat said. “It’s going to restrict our way of life, our travel.”
Kathleen Flynn, who lost her son in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 said: “How in God’s name were they able to hijack that many aircraft? Where was the security? I really want to know. It’s going to change how America lives, we can never become this vulnerable again.”
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