Since our tug driver had already disconnected from his intercom and pulled the tug away from the airplane, I got on the radio and called Operations. Knowing they usually had a TV on somewhere in Ops, I thought they might clue us in on what we were seeing. But they seemed surprised by what we were describing. This was the first they had heard of it.
As we switched over to Newark ground control to start our taxi, it was obvious that everyone on the frequency had witnessed the same thing. In between taxi instructions, a crew member on one of the other aircraft on the frequency asked, "Any idea what's going on across the river?"
"Stand by, we're checking" was the terse response.
As we taxied south toward runway 41, we watched the horror unfolding only miles away. In the few minutes we had been taxing, the smoke had definitely become more intense.
The intercom chimed in the cockpit. One of the passengers had noticed the smoke and asked a flight attendant what was going on. We told her we weren't sure. We were still thinking it was simply a terrible fire in one of the Trade Center towers, and we hoped it would be under control soon.
As we waited in the long line of airplanes ready for departure, another crew member asked ground control if they had any updates. This time, the ground controller hesitated, the replied, "We think we know what it is, but we don't want to say it over the radio."
One of the navigational aids that we use in the airplane is an Automatic Direction finder, which is essentially an AM radio receiver. During playoff seasons, we occasionally tune into radio stations to get sports scores for our passengers. Today, we frantically turned to a New York City news stations.
The radio was reporting that it appeared an airplane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. The initial reports said it was a small twin engine airplane.
We wondered if it was a LaGuardia-bound commuter airplane that had had engine trouble and had been unable to hold altitude. Maybe it was a sightseeing flight, common along the Hudson River, that had strayed off course?
As we looked across the river at the billowing smoke, I picked up another airplane flying low across the horizon from south to north. This was a common arrival pattern for LaGuardia airport, but the aircraft seemed much too low and much too fast. I followed it along, pointing it out to the captain. Both of us watched in stunned horror as it hit the other tower.