Airline pilot with Ballinger roots was in Boston on 9/11; recalls terror of that day
The following article was written by Capt. Kevin Kirkpatrick, a retired United Airlines pilot. On September 11, 2001, Kirkpatrick was in Boston. He and his crew had flown there the previous day, September 10, 2001. He was scheduled to fly back to the Los Angeles on 9/11.
On 9/11, Kirkpatrick was scheduled to Captain the 12:55 p.m. United Airlines flight from Boston to Los Angeles. The hijackings of that morning obviously precluded his flight. Kirkpatrick details his own experiences, as well as those of his crew and his family on that tragic day, and in the days following the events of 9/11. Kirkpatrick's mother is Ballinger's Wanda Kirkpatrick and his sister, also in Ballinger, is Mechele Ussery.
The following except and photos were provided to the newspaper by Captain Kirkpatrick and his family.
Most people my age remember where they were when Kennedy was shot or when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon. Most people in the younger generations remember where they were on September 11th, 2001. The latter is a day most Americans, and certainly our family, will never forget.
In September of 2001 I was a 767/757 Captain for United Airlines. The 767/757 type rating allowed us to be cross qualified in the two fleets because of the commonality of the cockpit design. I had been a Captain on that fleet for approximately six years. I was based in Los Angeles and most of our flying was to the Hawaiian Islands, Central America, transcontinental flights from Boston, New York, Newark, and Washington DC. My first officer and I were on day two of a three day trip that ended on the third day with a transcontinental flight from Boston back to Los Angeles.
On September 10th, 2001 we landed in Boston for a short layover before our flight home on the 11th. My first officer and I were commenting on the great weather on the 10th. I don't think we saw a cloud all day and the ride was smooth, no turbulence.
On September 11, 2001, four planes were hijacked by terrorists. They chose transcontinental flights because they were fully loaded with fuel and could make a very large fireball.
American 11 was a transcontinental flight from Boston to Los Angeles and was the first plane to be crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center towers. United 93 was a transcontinental flight from Newark to San Francisco and crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania after the passengers tried to regain control of the flight. American 77 was scheduled to fly nonstop from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles and was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon. United 175 was a transcontinental flight from Boston to Los Angeles and struck the south tower of the World Trade Center complex.
All four flights were transcontinental flights. Two were from Boston; American 11 and United 175. At the time, United had three flights a day from Boston to Los Angeles, an 8 a.m., 12:55 p.m., and 4 p.m. The 8 a.m. flight was hijacked. I was the Captain scheduled to fly the 12:55 p.m. flight.
Oddly enough, United had a pilot schedule change about a week earlier and the New York crews picked up our (Los Angeles) 8 a.m. departure out of Boston and we got their 12:55 p.m. flight.
Captain Saracini, the Captain on 175, was a friend of mine. I didn't know him very well, but we were recalled in the same new hire class in 1986. We were about the same age and we both had a daughter about the same age. It was a shock when I saw his name on the crew sign-in sheet that morning.
When my cell phone rang the morning of the 11th, I thought it was my wake-up call, but it was my wife. She told me to turn my TV on. About that same time my room phone rang and it was my first officer. Then, simultaneously, all three of us saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center on TV. I told my wife I would call her back and asked my first officer to meet me downstairs. As it turned out, it was good that I talked to my wife, even though it was brief. I couldn't get her on the phone again for a few hours because all the phone lines in and out of Boston and New York crashed with overwhelming phone call traffic to and from those areas.
Downstairs in the Parker House Hotel was a flurry of activity. All of the lobby televisions were tuned to the ongoing event. I asked the hotel management if I could see the sign-in sheet. It was then that I saw Saracini's name. I recognized the name and I knew that there were no survivors of that crash. I had to go sit on the couch for a moment to regain my composure.
Next, the airline crews began to organize. The American Airlines crews were assigned a meeting room on the top floor. The United crews were assigned to a room on the second and third floor. We were constantly talking with the American crews and decided later that in order to consolidate incoming information we would share the conference room on the top floor with American. United had a flight attendant crew base in Boston, so most of the United crews on layover were pilots, but there also were some United flight attendants. American also had a base in Boston, but the layover crews were a mix of flight attendants and pilots.
Of course, most of the day was filled with mayhem and indecision. Someone in the White House decided to ground all air traffic in U.S. airspace. That turned out to be a very smart thing to do. We found out later that a fifth airplane, a United Flight out of JFK, had five Middle Eastern passengers in First Class. They returned to the gate on a mechanical problem and asked local authorities to meet the flight. No one did because by then all of the authorities were completely saturated with what was going on in Manhattan and at the Twin Towers. The suspect passengers disembarked and disappeared into the public. The Lord only knows what their intended target would have been.
I was able to call home later that day and later call my mother and update her. My family was glad to hear from me and it was comforting to me to now that friends really cared about my welfare. It is sad, in retrospect, that it took an event like that to highlight what is important to all of us. Life is a gift and it is fragile.
I remember how odd it was to walk around outside in a major Metropolitan area and not hear ANY air traffic. You don't really notice how much noise pollution there is until it is mostly gone.
A lot of things occurred in the next few days, most of it NOT covered by the news.
Late in the afternoon in Boston there was a memorial service set up impromptu by local officials. Several clergy attended, including a local Sheik who reminded everyone that not all Islamists are radical. He was obviously trying to preempt hate crimes against Muslims/Islamists. Local American Airlines employees made a grand entrance to that event by arriving in several chartered buses. It definitely showed how many people were affected by this.
Also, late in the day a GO-TEAM arrived at the hotel. It wasn't ALPA (pilots union), and it wasn't from United or American. It was an AFA (flight attendant union) GO-TEAM from US Airways! We were all surprised that not only it wasn't our company, it wasn't even our local union. The pilots union, ALPA, was a no show, and the company wasn't much better. But the US Airways Flight Attendant union really picked up the ball and ran with it. They made sure we had food and drinks in the conference room, in coordination with the hotel, and helped with communication updates as best they could. They really did a great job! ALPA and the company teams were nothing short of a joke.
None of the names of the crew members or passengers were being released right away. United's local Boston Flight Attendant crew base union called for a meeting at the Parker House on 9/12/2001 because they were told they would be able to release the names then. Most of the computer records were locked so we could not find who the employees were on the flights. The layover crews knew some of the crew who were onboard by comparing notes with others in the hotel.
The next day there was standing-room-only in the top floor conference room at the Parker House. A lot of the local United flight attendants showed up there to hear the names (of the victims). I was standing in the back and the local union chairman began to read the names after a brief introduction. I never want to experience anything like that again. People began wailing and crying aloud as the names were read out. It was one of the saddest things I have ever witnessed, to watch people break down with the realization that their friends and colleagues were on those flights. I don't know what else I can say about that except that after a few minutes I had to leave the room and gather myself.
That same day, I remember a police raid on the other side of the park from the hotel. Apparently, they found some connection in that apartment to the hijackers. To this day, I do not know what that was about, but we could clearly see it from the top floor of the hotel.
There was an attempt to reopen the airport after a few days, but that effort was quashed because the Port Authority had issued some 15,000 ramp access badges and they could not account for 800 of them. In addition, the day after the attacks, a car in the parking garage was found and linked to one of the hijackers. That prompted Port Authority to tow all of the cars out of the parking garage that were adjacent to the terminal.
Speaking of security, the entire ordeal reminded me of an incident I experienced a few months prior to the attack. I was getting on an airplane and was on my way to the cockpit to set up my nest (a term pilots use that refers to setting up their side of the cockpit). I was early, the copilot wasn't there yet and neither were the flight attendants. As I neared the First Class galley, I startled a Middle Eastern food service worker. He stood straight up with his back to me and did not turn to face me. My immediate impression was that I caught him doing something wrong. At the same time, I thought he was stealing food from the galley cart.
Upon reflection, I think it is highly probably that he was doing something much more nefarious. I never told anyone about it because I couldn't remember where it happened, or exactly when, plus I didn't think that I could pick the guy out from a crowd. I have always thought though, that the reason the hijackers got through security without setting off the metal detectors was because the box cutters were already placed onboard by an accomplice. Whether they were taped under the counter or placed in the galley cart is speculation on my part and not founded in fact, but, I did remember the incident and it always stuck out in my mind.
We had a meeting at the Boston airport hotel that was supposed to give us all an update on the situation. John Kerry was supposed to address us, but for some reason he could not make it. The airport hotel was used by all of the involved law enforcement. It was the staging area for the ATF, FBI, local enforcement, Port Authority, and whoever else was there. I had my ID checked multiple times, as did the pilots I was with before we arrived at the briefing room.
In the briefing room were numerous people, including pilots and flight attendants. Most of the briefing was about stuff we had seen on TV, except for one American (airlines) flight attendant. He had been talking on his cell phone with an American Airlines flight attendant who was on American 11 just before it hit the WTC. He relayed the story to us, and she (American 11 flight attendant) was giving information to him over the phone as it happened. The pilots were incapacitated and she was hiding between seats so the hijackers could not see her using the phone. He described the last moments before they crashed. She (American 11 flight attendant) said, "We are getting too low, oh my God, Oh my God!" Then, silence! I had a lump in my throat when he was done. The room remained quiet. Everyone knew what the silence meant, there wasn't a dry eye in the briefing room.
I volunteered to fly the first trip back to Los Angeles. In my mind, I wanted to complete what Captain Saracini had started. My first officer had just transferred to Dulles and wanted to go home. He ended up catching a train to D.C. I was reassigned a couple of times with a new first officer. Crew scheduling kept canceling the trip because the airport kept putting off opening for service.
By the time the Port Authority was ready to open, most other U.S. airports, with the exception of National (Reagan), were already open. The decision to reopen came in the morning and I only had half a day to get ready. I decided to buy an American flag and put it in the cockpit so its presence could put people at ease. After all, no one wanted to fly this close to the event, including our own flight attendants. I started looking around and could not find a flag to buy. No one had one for sale, everybody was sold out. I thought, "Wow! If this was a week ago, you could find a flag easily, any size, but not now."
I ended up in Filene's Basement (store) where there was a flag taped to every cash register. I approached one of the cashiers and asked if I could buy one of the flags. She told me, "No." They weren't for sale. I asked to speak to her manager. I was out of uniform because we were told to remain discrete because of the media. I told the manager what I planned to do with the flag. I showed her my United ID card and promised her the flag would be displayed in a prominent spot, and that I would like to purchase one of the flags. She said that she would not sell me one, but she would give me one. I was amazed and somewhat taken aback by the show of patriotism. It really gave me a good feeling inside to know that someone understood what is was to be used for and wanted to help. As she was untaping one of the flags, the cashier that had told me, "No," saw her (manager) and asked her what she was doing. The manager said "it is okay," to which the cashier said, "the hell it is!" The manager said, "I'll explain later." I thought they were going to get into a fight. I laughed to myself, this would not have happened a week ago.
The day finally came for departure. Saturday, the 15th. Boston was the last airport, except for Washington National, to reopen. The preflight process was quite involved. Since the planes had been sitting all week, we had to go through them with a fine-tooth comb. One the preflight we had to inspect every panel that could be opened, every cargo bay, every access door, every bathroom, every overhead bin, storage closet, etc., and afterward, they posted a guard. They had bomb sniffing dogs, full body searches, portable metal detectors, you name it. Everything was quite involved and by the time everyone got onboard, they were rattled, to put it mildly. I felt like the flag helped to calm some fears, but you could sense the tension in the air. After most everyone had boarded (we were almost completely full), I decided to make a short announcement on the PA. I said, "Hello everyone, this is Captain Kirkpatrick. I know everyone has had a tough week. I want you to take a deep breath, try to relax, and I will get you to LA safely." That is all I said. It was short and to the point and I believe it had the desired effect. That short, simple, calm, statement seemed enough to cut the tension, at least that was my impression.
The entire preflight process was inspections and posting watches, dog searches, frisking passengers, etc. It took about two or three hours. Everyone was frazzled, but glad to finally be on their way home. We had almost a full flight with a number of United employees trying to get back to the west coast.
We were ready to leave and as we pushed back, there were ticket agents lined up in the windows in front of us waving small American flags. As we moved further from the terminal, we could see that every ground vehicle had been decorated on each corner with a small American flag. Once we were about thirty to forty feet back, we started to see a line of ramp employees, mechanics, and baggage handlers all holding small American flags. They walked back with us during the pushback at an angle to the cockpit so the passengers on the right side of the airplane could see them. After the pushback was complete, they stood at attention and saluted our flight. It was very moving and something I will never forget. We were all on the same page that day, all Americans, all patriots, and all feeling the sorrow of loss on 9/11. It was an amazing moment to witness and one that will never be reported in the press or appreciated for its meaning. I have always been a proud American, never more-so than right at that moment. Wow!
The next thing that happened snapped my copilot and I back to reality. We received a message via ACARS, which is an onboard communications system with dispatch and other departments. It notified us that runway 15R, our runway of intended use, was closed due to a bomb threat. It also said that runway 4R was available, but it crossed 15R. The only other runway available was 09, and we were too heavy to use that runway. We felt the bomb threat was intended for us because we were the only airplane moving on the airport. We also noted about 50 vehicles with flashing lights going up and down runway 15R. There was also a few yellow powerboats in the water around the airport that looked like government operated boats. We were confident the threat was a hoax and talked it over with dispatch. The search revealed no objects on or near the runway. Ultimately, it was our call and we elected to depart using the cross runway 4R. We also decided not to tell the flight attendants or passengers. They had been through enough. It was time to make a decision and not let terrorists control our lives. We departed without incident.
Originally, we planned to arrive in Los Angeles after the last flight to Phoneix left. I was planning to rent a car and drive the seven hours to get home, anyway. I had been gone long enough. Instead, the early arrival (at LA) allowed me to run for the last Southwest flight, which I thankfully made, and got to Phoenix Sky Harbor in one hour's time. There were only two or three people on the Southwest flight to Phoenix, and a couple of flight attendants asked me where I had been. I guess I looked a little disheveled after a three-day trip turned into eight days. I told them the story of my week and I started to realize what I had just experienced. It was mind boggling to reflect on the last five days and the unique place in history that the airline family found itself. The main reason I am writing this is to preserve and explain to our grandkids, and future generations, our family's relationship to the events of that tragic day.
After I got home, I opened the door and my wife, Debbie, our daughter Casey, and her friend, Trisha, were there to meet me. I was so glad to see them and it felt like it had been a lifetime since I had. I hugged my wife and daughter. It was then that it hit me. The emotions of that intense week finally descended upon me and I realized how lucky I was. I was home, standing in our kitchen, hugging my family, sharing the love we had for each other, as I thought about how Captain Saracini would NEVER again be able to hug his family. The stark reality of that thought struck me intensely. Even though I try to distance myself from those kinds of thoughts, I understood how easily it could have happened to our family, and how the tables could have been turned. The emotion became too much for me to contain and I began to cry.
That is the end of Captain Kirkpatrick's article. He flew several more years before retiring to the Phoenix area.
nulGeneral Carol Timmons was the first officer on United Flight-23, the flight that returned to the gate. She was promoted to general in the Delaware Nation Guard and shared that she had been a pilot with United Airlines and was the first officer on the aircraft. Timmons told the Wilmington (Delaware) News-Journal that the plane had already pulled away from the gate and was taxiing down the runway when the airport was shut down and the crew was ordered to secure the cockpit.
According to Timmons, the pilot grabbed the crash ax as she jumped from her seat and started barricading the cockpit door. From the other side of the barricade the cabin crew relayed their concern about four young Arab men in first-class who became agitated when the take-off was cancelled, and fled from the plane when it returned to the terminal. Allegedly, box cutters and Al Qaeda documents were later found in their luggage.
Timmons, the pilot, and the rest of the crew were repeatedly questioned by the FBI, though the findings were never shared. The pilot concluded that Flight 23 would have been the next plane hijacked by terrorists if the airport shutdown order had been delayed.
“The FBI asks questions,” General Timmons is quoted as saying, “They don’t tell you things.”
Major General Timmons passed away Sunday, August 1, 2020 after 42-years of service to her country.
On September 11, 2001, 2,977 people lost their lives in the terrorist attacks. We appreciate Captain Kirkpatrick (retired) sharing his story and experiences with the newspaper.