NEW YORK -- Air traffic controller Donald Zimmerman threw his hands to his face and turned away from his radar screen.
An Aerolineas Argentinas Boeing 707 jet with 49 passengers aboard was less than 90 seconds from colliding with a television tower atop the World Trade Center.
The plane was flying through clouds at 1,500 feet.
'Argentine 342, what's your altitude?' asked Zimmerman.
'One (garbled) five hundred,' came the reply.
'Altitude is what?' asked Zimmerman.
'1,500,' the reply.
'Argentine 342, turn right, immediate right turn, heading 180,' Zimmerman said.
'Right, 180, Argentine,' said the pilot.
'Climb, climb immediately,' said Zimmerman. 'Maintain 3,000.'
Zimmerman said he was afraid it was too late, but the plane pulled up in time.
He had put his hands to his face and had turned away from the screen in fear of a collision, said Zimmerman's wife and Paul Amato, president of Local 160 of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers' Organization.
'It was the shock of my life. I was very shaken by the whole thing. It still hasn't worn off,' the 33-year-old air traffic controller said Friday.
Zimmerman was living through the kind of Hollywood disaster movie fantasy that frequently inhabits the nightmares of the men and women who work as air traffic controllers.
He went on an immediate 'traumatic incident leave' following the near-collision last Friday and it was not until Thursday that the Federal Aviation Administration cleared the Smithtown, L.I., father of two of responsibility for what almost became a major tragedy.
On Friday, Zimmerman received a letter of commendation from Murray Smith, the FAA's regional director, who cited Zimmerman for 'outstanding techincal skill' in resolving a 'dangerous situation.
'We would like to commend you for your performance and for a professional job well done,' Smith wrote.
An FAA spokesman said a review of in-flight tapes showed Zimmerman instructed the pilot of the Argentine plane to maintain an altitude of 2,700 feet prior to landing at Kennedy Airport.
The spokesman said the pilot apparently misunderstood Zimmerman's instructions.
'Our conclusion as of now is that the controller did a good job,' the spokesman said. He added that it might be six weeks before the FAA completes its investigation and issues a final set of conclusions.
The spokesman said there had been 'several' near-miss incidents involving Aerolineas Argentinas planes in the past few years. One aspect of the investigation, he said, will be to find out if any crew members of the plane had been involved in the previous incidents.
'Mostly I've been trying to take my mind off it. I've been doing things around the house,' Zimmerman said.
His wife, Patricia, agreed it was the most trying time in her husband's life.
'I'd have to say that this is the worst it's been. He's been very upset and nervous. God forbid if he had made a mistake,' she said.
'There's a lot of pressure in the job. He just comes home and wants to hide in his newspaper.'