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My side of the story

Terrorism and security were not the only concerns at Logan Airport during the September 11 crisis. Political opportunism and finger-pointing also had their day.

By Virginia Buckingham, 9/8/2002

The author testifies in October before the Legislature's Transportation Committee, which had questions about Logan Airport security and safety. Sitting beside Buckingham is Thomas Kinton, aviation director for Massport. (Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin)

I had no aviation experience when I was appointed to head the Massachusetts Port Authority in September 1999. What I had were political connections, the right gender, and a governor's faith in my abilities. The learning curve was steep, but the allure of aviation quickly captured my imagination - until the events of September 11, 2001.

This story is a recounting from Logan Airport, Boston's own ground zero, of the first hours and days following the new century's most searing moment. It is a sharing of my soul and a look into the soul of a city that felt sorrow but sought solace in political revenge. It is a journey I have taken in the shadow of families that lost so much more than a job and professional reputation, as I did.

For me, September 11 was an ending of all I thought I knew and all I thought I was.

September 11, 8:45 a.m.  It started as a normal frenzied day. First, drop my 2-year-old son off at day care and then head to the airport.

I was catching a 10 o'clock shuttle to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with FAA administrator Jane Garvey to discuss Logan's proposal for a new runway.

Driving to the airport with a Massport colleague, James Roy, I heard the report on the radio of a plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center. My first thought: "Must be a private plane, a confused pilot. I'm glad we're not flying to New York; it's going to be a mess." My assistant called, asking if I wanted to cancel my trip. "Of course not," I replied.

Almost 18 minutes later, still in the car, I heard a radio report of another plane flying into the second trade center tower. I looked at Roy in disbelief. "Oh, my God," I said, "it's terrorism." I immediately got unconfirmed reports from my office that one of the planes was from Boston, possibly both. "God, please, no," I silently prayed.

What had happened? I thought. Were any other hijackings in progress? Did I know anyone on the planes? I called my husband, David, at work to assure him that I was still on the ground. When I reached Massport headquarters, it was eerily quiet, everyone's attention riveted on the television replay of the second plane ramming into the south tower. The sight momentarily left me gasping for breath. But there was little time to take it in. I noticed employees walking by my office, looking in as I watched the television, as if to gauge my reaction. I was determined to set a matter-of-fact tone. We had a job to do, setting in motion Logan's emergency response plan, which involved opening an emergency operations center and a family assistance center.

At first, it was impossible to confirm whether the planes that hit the towers were from Boston. The Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines were focused on closing the nation's airspace and bringing the rest of the commercial fleet down safely. By 9:30, the FAA had grounded all flights out of Boston and New York. By 9:40, all US flight operations were halted. As we tried to account for all Boston-originating flights already in the air, we received word that a Delta flight out of Logan, bound for the West Coast, had lost radio contact with air traffic control.

I felt sick to my stomach. It would be more than an hour before we received word that the flight had landed safely in Cleveland. But that was little comfort, because we knew by then that American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles had been hijacked and rammed into the first WTC tower. A flight attendant, Madeline Amy Sweeney, had called the airline's control center at Logan and described the horrifying scene unfolding at the front of the plane. For the first time, I heard about box cutters, the weapon that would start a war.

While we were trying to grasp the coldblooded murder of 92 passengers and crew on Flight 11, the changing story of United Airlines Flight 175, another LA-bound flight out of Boston, unfolded. At first we were told that it was the second plane involved in the New York attacks. Then we were told that an American Airlines plane out of Washington's Dulles International Airport had crashed into the trade center tower, and United 175 was safely on the ground. I winced at the effect this uncertainty must be having on passengers' families. Meanwhile, I passed the contradictory information on to the governor's office and the mayor's office.

It was late morning before fact was separated from rumor, and we knew that Boston was doubly touched by tragedy. It was United Flight 175, it would turn out, that had been flown into the south tower of the World Trade Center, killing its 56 passengers and nine crew members.

We would also learn that it was American Flight 77, en route from Dulles to Los Angeles, that had crashed into the Pentagon at 9:43 a.m. And that at 10 a.m., United Airlines Flight 93, en route from Newark to San Francisco, had crashed into a Pennsylvania field.

Around 11 a.m., my husband called to say that the state courthouse where he worked was being closed for security reasons. Suddenly I felt an overwhelming desire to get my son out of day care. "Get Jack and bring him home," I told David, my voice cracking. Nothing seemed safe anymore.

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