American Airlines Flight 77

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BARBARA Olson should not even have been on the aircraft. Blind fate, dictated by love, placed her aboard American Airlines Flight 77 and cost the toughest woman on US television her life, the last terrible minutes of which she spent with her husband.

The CNN political commentator, who was known to make former President Bill Clinton quiver in trepidation, cowered in a toilet of the Boeing 757, pouring out her fears to Ted Olson, the US Solicitor General. It was 9.38am Eastern Standard Time on Tuesday.

At 9.43am, the jet crashed into the Pentagon, killing all passengers and crew and 800 government employees.

Mrs Olson should have been on the corresponding flight 24 hours earlier and lived to continue to terrify a generation of US politicians. However, she wanted to start the day by sharing breakfast with her husband on his birthday.

Yesterday, Mr Olson said tearfully: "She called from the plane while it was being hijacked. I wish it wasn’t so but it is."

Mrs Olson, tough, intractable and uncompromising in public life, was reduced to a fearful wreck as she managed two short calls of one minute’s duration each to Mr Olson.

During one, she spoke of the hijackers being armed with "box-cutters and knives" and the passengers being herded to the back of the aircraft.

When the call was cut off, Mr Olson rang the Justice Department command centre to alert them. They had been unaware of the hijacking.

The phone rang again. Mrs Olson, terrified, but courageously trying to remain calm and in control, asked him: "What should I tell the pilot?"

They were her last words.

"She sounded composed, or as composed as anyone could be in those circumstances," said Mr Olson.

It had been two hours since Flight 77 had left Washington-Dulles airport en route to Los Angeles. Mrs Olson had boarded the aircraft just before 8am along with 63 other passengers .

Less than two hours later - at 9.43am - the 757 ploughed into the Pentagon, collapsing its walls, setting the building alight and killing a possible 800 personnel.

At some point between 8.10am and 9.43am, the hijackers had made their move, swiftly taking control of the aircraft and preventing the crew from punching in a pre-arranged four-digit code, which would have alerted ground control that a hijacking was in progress.

Michelle Heidenberger, of Chevy Chase, Maryland, was one of the flight crew. Her husband, Tom, is a US Airways pilot and they had two children, an 11-year-old son and a daughter at college. Mrs Heidenberger, who was hijack-trained, was apparently forced to access the cockpit area. Brandishing the bladed weapons, the hijackers herded together the passengers and crew, including the pilots.

They had their own man ready to fly the aircraft.

In a vicious act of cruelty, the terrorists allowed the passengers and crew to phone their families, telling them to let them know they "were going to die". The hijackers revealed that within minutes they would "hit the White House".

The passengers included an administrative employee of the US Senate, and three Washington schoolchildren accompanied by three teachers on an educational field trip.

Charles Falkenberg, 45, his partner, Leslie Whittington, and their two daughters were on the first leg of a two-month trip to Australia, where the professor of public policy was to work for the Australian National University.

The passengers who phoned loved ones told the same story. The plane had been commandeered by hijackers claiming to have bombs.

When Barbara Olson called her husband she said she was unhappy that nobody was "taking charge of the situation". In a second call, she asked him what to tell the pilot to do.

The lives of the other passencould not be counted in minutes.

Allen Cleveland, a passenger on a Washington train, saw the jet passing overhead. "I thought that was strange. There’s no landing strip on that side of the tracks," he said. Then Flight 77 disappeared from air traffic control screens, which had been tracking its course.

Radio contact was also lost because the terrorists had immobilised the aircraft’s transponder system.

Now, no-one had any idea of the aircraft’s destination. The screens had shown an aircraft heading for the White House.

Controllers at Reagan National Airport called the White House to warn the people to get out, but as the plane cruised on, the pilot made a 270-degree turn, bringing him into line with the Pentagon.

At 9.43am, the plane dipped below radar level and seconds later crashed. On the train, Mr Cleveland saw "a huge mushroom cloud".

"The lady next to me was in absolute hysterics," he added.

Yesterday, Mr Olson was overcome with grief. It was left to family friend Tim O’Brien to explain: "She wasn’t even supposed to be on this flight. She was booked on a flight yesterday, but today is Ted's birthday, so she wanted to be here this morning to have breakfast with him before she left."