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So complete was the confusion and chaos on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, that the U.S. Air Force couldn't find some of the four hijacked jetliners, let alone shoot them down, a special panel investigating the attacks said Thursday.

Air-traffic controllers lost track of how many aircraft were missing, and Vice-President Dick Cheney thought two of the hijacked jets had been shot down.

Some of the warplanes that scrambled to protect Washington carried no missiles and their guns were empty, and an Air Force pilot circling the still smoking Pentagon said he believed Russian "bastards" had "snuck one by us," referring to a cruise missile.

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In the end, only a brave band of passengers who learned of their impending fate in cellphone calls to frantic loved ones managed to do what the U.S. Air Force failed to do: bring down one of the hijacked jets before the al-Qaeda terrorists could smash it into a second target in Washington.

The independent Sept. 11 commission's latest staff report, based on interviews, notes and documents, is the most exhaustive investigation so far of the fateful four hours between the first hijacking, which began shortly after 8 a.m., and the moment when the last of more than 5,000 airliners aloft over the United States finally landed. The report paints a picture that is at times chilling, at others almost bitterly ironic.

The North American Aerospace Defence Command, the joint Canada-U.S. air-defence centre, was ready to repel Cold War bombers but woefully unprepared to cope with jetliners turned into human-guided missiles, it says.

The U.S. military and the Federal Aviation Administration "were unprepared for the type of attacks" launched that day. "They struggled, under difficult circumstances, to improvise a homeland defence against an unprecedented challenge they had never encountered and had never trained to meet."

Flight 77, the American Airlines Boeing 757 that slammed into the Pentagon, was spotted and followed by an Air Force plane, an unarmed cargo jet. The military pilot watched helplessly, reporting: "Looks like that aircraft crashed into the Pentagon."

The U.S. response to the attacks was set in train at 8:24 a.m., when Boston air-traffic controllers heard an accented voice coming over the radio say: "We have some planes."

That transmission was sent by American Airlines Flight 11, piloted by Mohamed Atta, ringleader of the 19-member al-Qaeda group that conducted the attacks. Air-traffic controllers had already suspected something was amiss with the Boeing 767, which left Boston for Los Angeles at 8 a.m., but this was the first confirmation of a hijacking.

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The controllers begged for military help: "We have a problem here; we have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out," one said.

A pair of F-15s were ordered into the air from a base on Cape Cod. They were in the air quickly, well inside the 15-minute quick-response requirement. But by then, air traffic control had lost Flight 11.

"I don't [know]where I'm scrambling these guys to...I need a direction, a destination," a frantic Air Force officer said. But it was already too late. Flight 11 had slammed into the World Trade Center.

Things only got worse. Another flight, American Airlines 77, smashed into the Pentagon after controllers lost it for 36 minutes.

NORAD's American commander, General Ralph Eberhart, testified before the commission that if all information about the hijacked planes had been relayed to the military quickly, it could have shot some or all of them down. But the investigating panel wasn't convinced.

"NORAD officials have maintained that they would have intercepted and shot down United 93. We are not so sure," the panel said in its interim report, referring to the plane brought down by passengers in a Pennsylvania field before it reached Washington.

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The panel expressed more concern that Mr. Cheney's shoot-down order, issued after he spoke to President George W. Bush, came too late and was slow to reach some of the scrambled combat pilots.

"That's very, very disturbing," said Thomas Kean, chairman of the 10-member panel, which is to issue its final report in July. "When the President of the United States gives a shoot-down order and the pilots who are supposed to carry it out do not get that order, then that's about as serious as it gets as far as the defence of this country goes."

It was one of a multitude of communications flaws and failures that contributed to the day's confusion. Even links to Mr. Bush himself, first in Florida and then as he hop-scotched around the country in Air Force One, were unreliable at times.

"Sounds like we have a minor war going on here. I heard about the Pentagon," Mr. Bush told Mr. Cheney in one telephone exchange.

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