By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In short order, the situation would worsen. A second American jet, Flight 77, had departed Washington's Dulles Airport but, instead of continuing on to its Los Angeles destination, changed course and crashed into the Pentagon. In Dallas, members of the Care Team would have another 64 families to contact. Then came word that yet another hijacked United airliner, its apparent target the White House, had crashed in a rural area of Pennsylvania.
"I think everyone in the command center was wondering what kind of nightmare we were involved in," Wansley recalls, " but the way they went about their business was remarkable. We were all numb, unable to really grasp the magnitude of what was happening, but because there was so much to be done, there wasn't time to really stop and think about it."
At one point, he remembers, he was carrying on simultaneous conversations on three phones, talking with an FBI agent in Washington, a CIA investigator and a representative of the State Department.
Even before federally ordered to do so, American began grounding its entire fleet, ordering pilots to immediately find the nearest airport and land. "It was a logistical horror," Wansley says. "We had planes scattered all over the world."
In fact, the runways of major airports were turning into huge parking lots.
"We had," Wansley says, "entered uncharted territory." Never before had the fleets of all commercial airlines--as well as private planes--been grounded at the same time. Would airports be able to handle the sudden influx of arrivals? Would the airline company be able to find accommodations for stranded passengers? How long might it be before the mother of all traffic snarls would end?
Most important, why had this tragedy occurred?
When the FBI broke new investigative ground in the late '70s with an elaborate and highly successful reverse sting operation called Operation Tarpit, Wansley served as the point man, posing as a West Hollywood businessman in the market for stolen goods. For two years burglars and hijackers came to him with truckloads of stolen merchandise--guns, jewelry, clothing, cigarettes, liquor, automobiles, counterfeit bonds and money orders, fake IDs and credit cards--which, in time, resulted in more than 300 arrests and recovery of a record $42 million worth of stolen property.
The culmination of the operation, Wansley says, was an elaborate party to which all of his "customers" were invited. "We rented this huge hall where there would be music, food, champagne, the works, and sent out invitations telling of free cruises and gifts that would be given away." The bad guys came running. Once the guests had all arrived and the exits were manned by fellow agents and Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, the arrests began.
As is the case in all undercover work, there eventually came a time when it was feared that he had become too familiar to too many West Coast underworld figures. In addition to his successful tenure as a buyer of stolen goods, he had mingled with and made cases against kiddie-porn producers, drug dealers and counterfeiters. It was time, the Bureau advised, to move to a new territory.
Once the fast-paced flow of information had begun, the security director turned much of his attention to the needs of FBI investigators. He was soon placing calls to intelligence sources he had developed throughout the world in an effort to help learn more about the hijackers and their mission, searching passenger lists for any clue they might provide, all while continuing to coordinate with operational department officials attempting to secure lodging and ground transportation for American's stranded customers.
It would be 72 hours before he finally heard the voice of a person he'd badly wanted to speak with since the insanity had begun. Rich Davis, the chief of United Airlines security, was on the phone.
"I could tell from the sound of his voice that he was absolutely exhausted," Wansley recalls. "We all were. But, just to talk with someone--probably the only other person in the world who understood what I was feeling at the time--was a much-needed lift.