Eye-witness testimony casts doubt on NORADs claim that they scrambled planes from Otis air force base at 8:52am on 9/11.
William Wibel, principal of a school inside Otis Air National Guard Base, is inside the Otis base preparing for a meeting when he learns that the WTC has been attacked and his meeting is canceled. He says, “As I drove away, and was listening to the news on the radio, the 102nd was scrambling into duty.” [Cape Cod Times, 9/12/01] The WTC crash does not break on local news and radio until about 8:52 a.m. Even if he hears CNN's early reporting starting at 8:48 a.m., it still presumably takes time to learn the meeting is canceled, go back to his car and so forth. NORAD says the fighters took off from Otis at 8:52 a.m.
We have a few issues with this story.
#1, the sequence of events (Wibel hears that the WTC has been attacked, then the meeting is cancelled) comes from the way the reporter has written the story, not from a direct statement, therefore we can't trust it 100%.
Consider this alternative scenario. The Cape Cod Times reported Wibel's story like this:
Wibel was preparing for a meeting with military commanders when he first heard about the first World Trade Center crash. That meeting was abruptly canceled.
If Wibel was with Otis military commanders then could they have cancelled the meeting in response to the initial call to scramble? There are various reports suggesting informal approaches to Otis from times as early as 8:34, the involvement of the base commander some time after 8:37 (http://www.cooperativeresearch.org/entity.jsp?id=1521846767-139), with the official scramble order arriving at 8:46. Perhaps the sequence was:
a) preparing for meeting
b) hijacking alert appears
c) meeting is cancelled, Wibel begins to pack up
d) he hears that the WTC has been hit and leaves
Now, if the reporter asked Wibel "when did you hear about the attack", he might well have said "I was preparing for a meeting with military commanders when the news came in, and it was cancelled". And so it's written up as it appears above.
Conclusive? Of course not, it's just a guess. Not a completely implausible one, though, and until we know the questions Wibel was asked, and his answers (or we get another account) it's impossible to tell for sure.
#2, the claim appears to assume that this statement...
“As I drove away, and was listening to the news on the radio, the 102nd was scrambling into duty”
...means that Wibel heard the planes take off while he was driving. But is this really so unambiguous? Could "scrambling into duty" just mean shooting off at top speed towards New York? That is, they'd taken off 5 minutes earlier?
Or let’s try another interpretation.
Maybe Wibel was deep in the base, and didn’t hear the jets take off (or didn’t pay attention -- you must get used to the sound of take-offs when you work on the base). Imagine someone turns up at his meeting room to fetch the other military commanders, say at 8:55 am. “The WTC has been hit by a hijacked plane”, says the visitor. “We’re getting some fighters up now”. The meeting is cancelled, Wibel is outside 5 minutes later. He doesn’t know exactly what the status is of the fighters (why should he?), so just assumes they’re still being scrambled for takeoff as he listens to the news.
Again, just a guess, but this also seems plausible to us. And it emphasises the point that even if we understood what Wibel means by “scrambling into duty”, we still don’t know if he was accurate. He may simply have made assumptions based on comments made by others.
#3, let's assume both our previous concerns are invalid. Is there a possible timeline that could fit the story?
From the account above, we have the earliest time Wibel could have heard about the WTC, set at 8:48. Let's set this to a mid-range 8:48:30.
The Otis scramble time detailed in the 9/11 report is actually 8:53, not 8:52: no seconds are quoted, so let's again make it 8:53:30.
There may be extra time that could be added. Two fighters were launched, is it possible that Wibel was referring to hearing the second one overhead? Could it have been audible for, say, 60 seconds after the initial take-off of the first fighter?
Anyway, this gives us, say, 5 or 6 minutes to play with, to cater for 3 tasks.
a) learn about the WTC attack
b) cancel the meeting
c) Wibel returns to his car
If someone called one of the commanders with Wibel, perhaps two minutes into our time, then it seems unlikely he's going to waste any time cancelling the meeting. It could simply be "Sorry, Bill, gotta go -- that hijacked plane just crashed into the WTC".
Wibel then picks up his briefcase, amazed, and hurries back to his car to listen to the news. He has three minutes to do it, even if we take the initial interpretation of this news story as literally correct.
So, does this cast doubt on the NORAD scramble time? Not really: the timeline isn't clear, and requires us to make assumptions, imply times from the text, rather than simply having Wibel make clear, direct statements about what happened. And even if we make those assumptions, it's still just about possible to reconcile NORADs timeline with Wibels account. If there's anything important in this story, then we'll need more details to find out for sure.