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9/11: 10 years later

Taswell pilot diverted during attacks, views burning towers

September 07, 2011
Derek Bell and his flight companion, flying a shuttle hop from Raleigh-Durham, N.C., to Boston for USAir, had only been in the air a few minutes when news of the World Trade Center disaster popped into their ears across the radio. Speaking Thursday by phone from Boston, Bell recalled what he heard and later saw.

"We got to Raleigh-Durham, then did a quick turn, which means we unloaded the passengers, then got the passengers right back on and left Raleigh-Durham, at the time, within minutes of the first plane hitting the first tower."

Bell and his captain tried to get information from other stations, but with little luck.

"We learned about the crashes about 15 minutes after we took off," Bell said. They were about 50 miles north of Raleigh-Durham, when they were told about the second plane hitting the WTC.

"When we first heard there had been a terrorist activity in New York, they shut down New York airspace. They told us to contact our company and ask them where we wanted to go. They told us you can't go to Washington and you can't go to anywhere in New York. We thought we might have to turn around and go to Raleigh-Durham. We got to go out to the east."

On another frequency, they heard that one plane had been hijacked out of Boston.

Bell and his captain immediately started talking about what they would have to do in case their flight was targeted or if a hijacker were on their plane.

"Officially, we're supposed to comply with everything that they do, all their requests, but in this situation, we were talking about what we had to do about getting the plane out of the sky, if we learned there was a hijacker aboard and not complying with them whatsoever."

They felt that complying with a hijacker would just result in more destruction.

They told the flight attendant to notify them immediately if anybody approached the cockpit.

To avoid a possible panic on the plane, the flight crew told their passengers nothing. They feared some passengers might have family or friends working at the trade centers and any disruption might endanger their own flight.

"We were hoping nobody would look out and see that the World Trade Center was on fire. Fortunately, everybody was mainly asleep on the way up."

The Taswell pilot said the sky was unusually clear with unlimited visibility. About 100 miles out, Bell got his first view of the WTC. Moments later, his plane was diverted out over the Atlantic Ocean as it approached New York City. Even at 50 miles, Bell could tell the destruction was horrendous.

"We flew right over New York. We first saw the cloud of smoke about 100 miles south of New York. When we got closer, we could really see, specifically, the flames and the black smoke that was pouring out of both of the towers. Both of the towers were standing by the time we flew over, but by the time we landed, they had fell."

Bell said it was hard to believe what he was seeing. He felt more shock and dismay.

"I was busy flying. We had 50 passengers. My plane is a 50-passenger regional jet. It looks like a DC-9 or MD-80 with the engines in the back but a miniature version of that. That's the basic shape of it. We fly long routes like from Boston to Indianapolis, but we're still considered a regional carrier."

"My captain got nervous and fidgety, and we just basically talked about it, and I said, 'Well, look, we're going to fly this flight just like normal and land, then we'll deal with it then. Right now, we've got a job to do, to take these people to Boston.' "

In Boston, Logan Airport was almost a ghost airport.

"We were the second-to-last plane to land. Everybody else had diverted somewhere else."

After the plane came to a stop, Bell and his captain talked to the passengers in a methodical fashion, speaking initially to those who needed to know first.

"We had all the Army personnel and government personnel come forward," said Bell, "and then we made the announcement.

"It was more of a shock, because it was the first they had heard by that time. What we were expecting to do was tell the passengers to get off and go to baggage claim immediately and get their bags and leave and not go anywhere in the airport."

When Bell got to the crew room at Logan, people were worried for those on the hijacked flights.

"A lot of flight attendants were in hysterics," said Bell. "There were a lot of flight attendants from New York City. My captain knows several pilots, and he was really worried. He was trying to get in touch with all of his friends at United. I didn't personally know any, but the aviation industry is a really small business, so I'm sure someone I know will have been affected."

The attacks will surely result in changes.

"We're expecting more time to get to the airplane," he said. "Our company notified us to be aware you might have to empty your bag completely. We've never had to do that. You do just like a normal passenger does in security.

"For crew members specifically, they'll check our ID's and our luggage before we get on. Our Id's have to match up with the airport we're at and flight we're listed on. That can create a problem because a lot of times there's a lot of last-minute pilot changes and, if those don't go through, then there are even more delays.

"But we'll accept the delays for now. Basically, what we're looking for is more of a crackdown."

Bell hopes there will be some policy changes when it comes to complying totally with hijackers.

"I think the policy is like that, and other policies like that made this possible," Bell said. "They knew that all they had to say was threaten that there was a bomb on board or threaten they would kill somebody. Our policy is compliance with the terrorists.

"Me and my captain agreed because of what was happening with the hijacked planes, there wasn't any way. We'd die trying to defend the plane. That's what we both agreed upon."

Despite the tragedy, Bell said he's not at all apprehensive about flying and still plans to make it a life-long career.

"I told Mom last night it hasn't made me doubt my career choice whatsoever," he said. "I still want to fly. I'd still accept a job at United or American if they called me, and I plan on doing that. I plan on moving to a major airline, and I plan on that being my career for the rest of my life. It hasn't changed my resolve whatsoever."

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