These days, if asked to give a talk or sit for an interview about September 11, 2001, Sandwich resident Benedict L. Sliney declines. He has given hundreds of interviews and talks and is now retired and wants to stay that way.
Yet the 72-year-old retired air traffic controller and former lawyer—the man who gave the unprecedented order to ground every plane in the country on his first day on the job as national operations manager at the Air Traffic Control Systems Command in Herndon, Virginia—made an exception this week to talk about that day.
Sitting at the kitchen table next to his wife, Irene L. Sliney, in the Haystack Lane, Sandwich, home they built in 1979 when Mr. Sliney was stationed at Otis Air Force Base, Mr. Sliney remembered thinking about the weather while driving to work on Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001.
“It was the most beautiful day,” he said.
“I was thinking, ‘Great, my first day, it’s going to be fantastic. I have no wind issues, no weather issues, no volume issues.’ Wind and weather are the things that cause the system to back up. It was an absolutely perfect weather day.”
At the command center, Mr. Sliney was preparing for the 8:30 morning briefing when he was told of the possibility that American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles had been hijacked.
“I was taken aback,” he said. “There hadn’t been a hijacking in so long—since the 1960s and 1970s. I looked at the kid and said, ‘Are you kidding me? A hijacking?’ ”
Mr. Sliney described the command center as a cavernous room populated with eight-foot-by-10-foot screens that run along the walls. As soon as the first hijacking was confirmed, he put someone else on his desk and he stood in the middle of the floor taking updates as events unfolded.
Just after 8:30 AM, news came that a crew member on Flight 11 had been attacked, and that there was a second possible hijacking on United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston to Los Angeles.
American Airlines Flight 77 from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles was then reported as a possible hijacking, and CNN reported that a “small aircraft” had crashed into the World Trade Center.
“Inside the command center it was all confusion,” Mr. Sliney said. “We didn’t know what was happening; no one knew. I couldn’t get my head around it. We didn’t even know it was American Airlines Flight 11 that had hit the World Trade Center. They were calling it a small plane,” he said.
When the CNN photograph of a plane hitting the World Trade Center went up on the screen, Mr. Sliney had a sinking feeling as soon as he saw it. “That was no small plane,” he said.
Sixteen years later, Mr. Sliney’s voice still rises in a tone of disbelief when describing the events of that morning.
“For a pilot to fly a plane into a building—I just couldn’t comprehend that. A pilot would do anything to prevent loss of life on the ground, even if he or she was going to die right there in the cockpit; they would have pointed that plane into the ocean or into the river or somewhere. No one knew the hijackers were flying the planes,” he said.
While Mr. Sliney was grappling with the confusion at the command center, CNN live footage of United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower of the World Trade Center came onto the big screen, and he witnessed what he had never seen in his 25 years as an air traffic controller.
“It was stunning,” Mr. Sliney said. “For air traffic controllers and pilots—for anybody, of course—to see a plane hit a building like that and just disappear...” his voice trailed off. “Of course, you know all the people on board had perished immediately. It was stunning; it was visually stunning.”
No one suspected a larger terrorist plan until the second plane hit the World Trade Center. Once it did, Mr. Sliney ordered a “national ground stop.” No planes were allowed to take off anywhere in the country. The “ground stop” is a tool of air traffic controllers, but it had never before been ordered at the national level.
“In my mind, I didn’t know,” Mr. Sliney said. “After the second aircraft hit the building, I didn’t know how many more there could be. There could be 30 of them. I didn’t know. Until we figured out what was going on, we didn’t want any more planes taking off.”
When American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, Mr. Sliney gave the order for every plane in the air to land at the nearest airport, regardless of original destination. Controlled air space above the United States went quiet.
Mr. Sliney said it did flash through his mind to wonder if he had the authority to ground every plane in the United States, but he knew that the safe and expeditious travel of all aircraft in controlled airspace was his responsibility.
“I was charged with managing that airspace; that was my charge,” he said. “I have always felt very self-assured about what happened. I have no doubt in my mind it was the right thing to do.”
United Airlines Flight 93, the fourth and final hijacked plane that day, crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, during an attempt by passengers and crew to regain control, thereby thwarting what authorities believe was the terrorists’ intended target of the US Capitol.
“From start to finish, the [hijacking] events only took about 70 minutes, but it seemed like a lifetime at the time, and the repercussions continued on and on and on,” he said. “I didn’t exhale for a long time.”
At midnight, Mr. Sliney went home, took a shower, changed his clothes, and headed back to the command center.
In 2005, Mr. Sliney was contacted and asked to participate in a film directed by English film director Paul Greengrass about United Airlines Flight 93. He at first refused to even consider it.
Only after he heard that the movie director had been in touch with the families who had lost loved ones in the crash, and that they felt favorably about making the movie, did Mr. Sliney agree.
To this day, Mr. Sliney and his wife visit and stay in touch with some of the actors of the movie “United 93,” the director, and many of the families, which he considers a silver lining.
Asked for any reflections on 9/11, Mr. Sliney said he has always felt that the “terrible, terrible tragedy” might have been averted.
The American government knew in July of 2001 that al-Qaeda might hijack airplanes and use them as weapons, but the information was dismissed as something likely to happen in Europe, not the United States. US air traffic controllers were never told.
“If that kernel of information was in the back of my mind; that it was possible that terrorists could be hijacking a plane,” Mr. Sliney said, “I would have started shutting things down as soon as I heard there was a hijacking.”
These days, Ben and Irene Sliney, both avid readers, are enjoying retirement in Sandwich. They have been here full time since 2013. Always a morning person, he says he is up at 5 AM each day and likes to watch the sun rise.
“I go to the Boardwalk where you can face due east,” he said.
Every day that he can, Mr. Sliney plays golf with friends in Sandwich, walking the course and carrying his own bags for the exercise. After golf, he plays tennis. As spry and athletic as he is, Mr. Sliney admits that a day spent chasing his 2-year-old great-granddaughter just about wipes him out.
A book published in 1981 called, “The Team Behind Your Airline Flight,” by Curt Schleier, features Mr. Sliney in the last chapter, “Air Traffic Control.”
“B.L. Sliney is an air traffic controller. He loves his work. His eyes even gleam when he talks about it,” the author writes.
In all these years and despite his experience on 9/11, his passion has not changed. “I love working [air] traffic,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “I truly love it. It is a fantastic job. I never liked being a lawyer,” he said.