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Moussaoui Jury Hears Sept. 11 Cockpit Recording

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. At the Zacarias Moussaoui sentencing trial this morning, the jury heard the cockpit voice recorder tape from the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11. The prosecution is demonstrating the suffering caused by the hijacking, a point that the government will say shows that Moussaoui should get the death penalty. He has pleaded guilty to crimes, including conspiracy to commit air piracy. NPR's Larry Abramson was in the courtroom today in Alexandria, Virginia, and heard the cockpit tape being played. And Larry, what exactly is it that the prosecutors played for the jury?

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

Well, this is a recording, Renee, of the last 30 minutes of the flight, only the sounds that are recorded inside the cockpit. This is the, the CVR is one of the black boxes that is recovered after a plane. They also recovered the flight data recorder, which records things like the attitude, the altitude, the speed of the plane, and using that information, they were able to display on the screen what the plane was doing while we were--while certain sounds were being made in the cockpit. So, we had both a visual and an audio representation of the end of the flight, but we didn't really get to hear the actual hijacking, the actual entry into the cockpit, because I think that that is recorded over since the tape only lasts 30 minutes.

MONTAGNE: Well, what then did you actually hear on the tape? It would have been after they entered the cockpit?

ABRAMSON: That's right. The first thing we hear is a man saying with an accent, who obviously one of the hijackers, I'm the captain. We have a bomb on board. Remain seated, don't move, stop. And then there's a struggle. It's a little bit difficult to decipher what's going on, but it appears that perhaps the hijackers are struggling, and perhaps beating the pilot, who keeps saying--they keep telling the pilot to go ahead, lie down, down, down. And then the pilot says I don't want to die, and there's sort of crying, cries of pain. And it looks like the struggle continues for a while as the pilot or whoever else is struggling with him in the cockpit continues to try to resist them, and that stops after a while. The hijackers say in Arabic everything is fine, I'm finished.

And then in English, this is the captain. We have a bomb. We have our demands. Remain seated. We hear some more air traffic, and the plane begins to make a sharp left turn. You'll remember this flight was traveling from across Pennsylvania into Ohio. It makes a sharp left turn, and then it makes almost a U-turn coming back southeast, basically heading in the direction of Washington, D.C., perhaps to hit the Capitol or the White House. We hear the pilot saying many times in the name of Allah, I bear witness. No other god but Allah, various religious incantations. And then we see them continue to distend, and there's a long period of silence before anything else happened. It's mostly just them talking, making adjustments. They're singing, it's very hard to decipher--paper rustling, things like that.

MONTAGNE: And when you say the pilot speaking of Allah, you're speaking, of course, of the hijacker, then piloting the plane.

ABRAMSON: Of the hijacker, who then is piloting, right.

MONTAGNE: And then, at that point, did you hear attempts to thwart the hijacking? I would guess now, then, from passengers, or others than the pilots.

ABRAMSON: That's right. At about 9:58, there's about 20 minutes into, they say hey. We here a banging, and we hear one of the hijackers saying in Arabic, is there something? Is there a fight? Yes, there's a fight. And the plane begins to rock side to side, and you can see on the data recorder that somebody is trying to throw the plane from side to side, perhaps trying to throw the passengers off guard, to stop them. They say, should we put the plane down? No, let's wait until they all get in, and then finally, the passengers are smashing, smashing very loudly at the door. And then finally, they say, put it down, trust in Allah. You can see the plane turn upside down completely, and then it smashes into the ground, and that's the last sound we hear.

MONTAGNE: Larry, extraordinary sad and dramatic sounds to hear.

ABRAMSON: Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for speaking with us.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Larry Abramson, speaking outside the courtroom at the Zacarias Moussaoui sentencing trial in Alexandria, Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Larry Abramson
Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.