Sunday Mail (Queensland, Australia) - August 11, 2002, Sunday
BYLINE: David Jones
With these grim words, the terrified passengers on the fourth September 11 plane resolved to fight back - with plastic knives, fists, even boiling water. In this haunting reconstruction, we can finally reveal the poignant secrets of the plane's last 30 minutes and
the moving stories of the ordinary men and women who died as heroes on Flight 93
WITH its ornate chandeliers and thick-pile carpet, the ballroom at the Marriott Hotel in the elegant US university town of Princeton, New Jersey, is usually rented out for weddings or graduation ceremonies.
But the 70 or so people who gathered there on April 18 this year had scant cause for celebration. Filing grimly through the double-doors, each man and woman was greeted by a sombre-faced FBI agent, who searched them apologetically for hidden recording devices.
They were seated in straight-backed chairs facing a giant video projection screen and asked to read a disclaimer form. Part of it warned them that they were about to hear "material of a graphic and violent nature" which "could have emotional and physical consequences".
It was nothing they did not already know. The room descended into silence. The plainclothes men handed out stereo headphones.
Some people glanced around apprehensively, wondering if they might glimpse the bright orange aircraft cockpit voice-recorder itself, but the machine that contained all their nightmares was nowhere in view.
As the lights dimmed, a transcription of the words rolled across the video screen. And so began the most excruciatingly painful 30 minutes anyone there had ever endured.
For a few seconds there was only the humming of engines, then a heavily accented voice cut in. "Ladies and gentlemen, here it's the captain," said one of the hijackers, his flawed English betraying his identity.
"Please sit down. Keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb aboard."
Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives -- they listened, awe-stricken in the darkened ballroom to the sounds of their loved ones' last moments on United Airlines Flight 93, one of the four planes hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists on September 11 last year.
As the tape whirred on, they would hear them struggle valiantly, and hear them die. For months, the FBI had refused to allow the bereaved to listen to the recording -- which captures the final half-hour before the Boeing 757 crashed at 925km/h into a paddock in Pennsylvania.
They argued it would be too distressing and might prejudice the trial of the alleged "20th hijacker", Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested by chance on immigration charges three weeks before the attacks.
When, under protest, the authorities finally agreed to a special presentation in New Jersey, where the majority of the Flight 93 relatives live, those who attended were urged to keep the tape's contents secret.
But many of the families involved believe the world should hear of the extraordinary selfless acts of courage which took place on Flight 93. Courage which, as we shall see, certainly prevented the four fanatics from devastating the White House, or the nearby Capitol building in Washington DC.
Since the atrocity, attention has been focused almost solely on the attempt by a small band of burly male passengers to recapture the plane and steer it away from its target.
Men such as the now-fabled Todd Beamer, whose "Let's roll!" rallying cry was heard during a series of harrowing phone calls made to loved ones from the doomed plane.
While no one doubts these men's heroism, an exhaustive investigation into the battle for Flight 93 reveals that Beamer, the 195cm rugby player Mark Bingham, gung-ho company executive Tom Burnett and karate expert Jeremy Glick were by no means the only brave ones who thwarted the terrorists' intentions.
By interviewing more than a dozen of the victims' family members and friends, and discovering hitherto undisclosed details from the cockpit recording, I have learned that the widely accepted version of events leading up to the crash may be inaccurate.
Crucially, the captain, Jason Dahl, and his first officer, LeRoy Homer, may well have been alive when the plane disintegrated. This disproves the theory that at least one was fatally stabbed while still strapped in his seat during the initial stages of the attack.
According to Dahl's wife, Sandra, a flight attendant who was able to apply her knowledge of the aircraft's instrument sounds while listening -- twice -- to the cockpit recording, there is even compelling evidence to suggest the captain managed to divert the 757 off course and ditch it in an unpopulated area.
"The big fear I have is that history is going down wrong," said Mrs Dahl, who is angry that her husband's courage has been overlooked.
"(The struggle aboard the flight) is just turning into a folk tale. I absolutely think these men (Beamer and his comrades) were heroes, and I have the utmost admiration for them, but I don't want the others to be discounted.
"I think the hijackers couldn't make things go right. I feel that they were put off course and things were messed up in the cockpit. From what I understand they started heading in a different direction from where they thought they were heading. That was down to Jason."
Mrs Dahl's theory is supported by Wallace Miller, the coroner who investigated the deaths of the 33 passengers, seven crew and four hijackers.
"There is no scientific proof that anyone was dead prior to the crash," he said. "That's why I listed the cause of death in each case as fragmentation due to blunt-force trauma.
"We sent any suspicious material that looked like it might have contained stab wounds to the FBI for forensic analysis, but they couldn't conclude anything from that.
"In my heart, I believe everybody was alive and they all knew what was going on. And I don't think you could undertake a project like that -- trying to take back the cockpit -- without 100 per cent approval. So to me they were all heroes."
Set against the enormity of the World Trade Centre catastrophe, with its massive loss of life, the tragedy of Flight 93 initially commanded limited attention. But as the world prepares to mark the anniversary of September 11, the passengers' struggle has taken on huge significance, symbolising that defining moment when a frightened and bewildered nation first realised it was not powerless against terrorism; that if ordinary people stuck together, refusing to be cowed, they could effectively strike back.
A tearful George Bush welcomed the victims' families into the White House, apparently disclosing that his parents, George Sr and Barbara Bush, were in the presidential home on the fateful morning, and might have died had the plane been allowed to crash there.
The more high-profile widows, such as Lisa Beamer and Lyz Glick, regularly appear on talk shows, address rallies and have formed charitable foundations in their husbands' memory.
Talking to the shattered relatives, I found a group of people still struggling to understand why their happiness was so randomly destroyed. Captain Dahl and his wife Sandra, who met while flying together for United Airlines, were about to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary.
A great romantic, the 43-year-old pilot had also planted a line of chrysanthemums for Sandra along their driveway. What she did not know was that he had secretly interwoven them with daffodils.
"They bloomed in spring, six months after he died, and it was like he was giving me flowers again," she smiles sadly. "That was just typical of my husband."
Patrick Welsh, a New York actor, had married his flight attendant wife Debbie, 49, relatively late in life, after falling for her while both were working in a Manhattan bar. He describes their madcap early relationship as like something from the sitcom Cheers, and a decade later they were clearly still besotted with one another.
"One of the greatest things about our marriage was that we spent most of our time laughing," says Patrick, 44. "On our last night together we had gone to a comedy club and tears were rolling down our cheeks." He stops, swallows hard. "I'm grateful we had that last night."
Last September, of course, as the 40 passengers and crew members lived out their humdrum final hours, there was nothing to suggest they would soon be joined posthumously in American folk history.
There were coincidences and strange, seemingly portentous occurrences, however: Tom Burnett, for example, had been telling his wife Deena for months about weird "visions" he had been having of the White House and other public buildings.
And several people were switched to UA93 only after storms and a fire at Newark airport played havoc with the previous day's flight schedule.
But all in all, in a country where travelling by air is as common as taking a bus or train, this was just another cross-section of middle-Americans making their way from coast to coast on the early morning Newark-San Francisco "milk-run".
The hotshot businessmen, like Beamer, 32, and Bingham, 31, had important meetings to attend; student Nicole Miller, 21, was flying home after sharing a romantic weekend in New York (against her mother's wishes) with an old flame; Hilda Marcin, 79, was leaving New Jersey to spend her twilight years with her daughter, Carole O'Hare, in California.
The morning of September 11 was forecast to be clear and warm.
At his hotel near the airport, Capt Dahl rose early and dressed in his crisp blue uniform and headed off to begin his pre-flight routine, checking weather reports and routes. He was joined in United's operations centre by LeRoy Homer, 37.
The first officer had crept out of bed at 4.45am so as not to wake his wife, Melodie, a nurse, and their baby daughter Laurel.
In the flight attendants' room, Debbie Welsh was meeting her colleagues for the trip. They were Sandra Bradshaw, 38, whose husband was also a pilot, Wanda Green, 49, CeeCee Lyles and Lorraine Bay, 58, who had been looking after United passengers for 37 years.
All the attendants were senior and experienced, but it was the turn of Debbie Welsh to act as purser that day. This meant she would be stationed in the first-class section, where her duties included guarding the cockpit door, as her chilling, recorded pleas to the hijackers would later reveal.
The passengers boarded through Gate 17 at 7.20am, expecting an 8pm take-off.
Green and Bay ushered Bingham, Burnett and eight other passengers to first-class and the remainder, including Beamer, to the economy section.
As Bingham and Burnett stowed their laptops and settled down for the five-hour flight, four Arabs, all in their 20s, sat nearby in seats 1B, 3C, 3D and 6B. The hijackers had spent their last night at an airport hotel (also a Marriott). They had prayed 1000 times, shaved off body hair and sharpened their knives in accordance with their leaders' instructions.
Now nothing could stop them from striking down the "infidels".
With cloudless skies and 145 of the 182 seats empty, the journey should have been quick and comfortable. But because of Newark's outdated and overburdened taxiing system, Flight 93's take-off was delayed for 42 minutes.
WHEN it departed, at 8.42am, the three planes that would hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were already in the air.
As the aircraft turned left, 6.5km into its ascent, some passengers might have marvelled at the shimmering skyscrapers. Moments later, at 8.48am, American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower, apparently accidentally.
Then, at 9.06am, UA Flight 175 hit the South Tower, and America knew it was under attack.
The supposition is that Capt Dahl and his crew remained unaware they, too, might be in danger until they received a message from United's operations centre in Chicago after the second tower was hit.
"Beware, cockpit intrusion, confirm operations are normal," it read, signifying only that someone on another aircraft had breached the cockpit.
"Confirmed," Dahl or Homer replied succinctly, then they continued towards Cleveland.
Their apparent indifference adds weight to the theory that they would have been easy prey, strapped in their seats and off-guard, when the terrorists struck with their knives.
Sandra Dahl dismisses this notion. "Pilots talk to each other all the time," she says.
"They even talk about silly things and make jokes, though they're not supposed to. I can't imagine what went on earlier at the World Trade Centre not coming across to the other pilots.
"Jason would have heard instantly. So he would have known as soon as the hijackers attacked that they were part of something huge in the skies."
Whatever the truth, the passengers remained blissfully ignorant until the attackers tied red bandannas around their heads and stood up. It is said that one then held a knife to Debbie Welsh's throat, possibly stabbing her. He and at least one other colleague are then said to have burst into the cockpit, slitting Dahl and Homer's throats, dragging them from their seats and taking the controls.
This is a compelling theory given weight by Dahl's first words to the hijackers ("Hey, get outta here!") and the vague muffled noises -- perhaps a man choking -- overheard at 9.35am by Cleveland air traffic control.
But if her husband, or Dahl, was really stabbed, Melodie Homer wonders why passenger Tom Burnett told his wife over the mobile phone: "They've knifed a guy." An articulate man, she reasons, he would surely have said: "They knifed the pilot."
Mrs Homer says: "If you hear the tape you can tell there was a struggle. There are so many factors to lead us to know that whatever happened (to foil the hijackers) started in the cockpit. I would like to scream it from the rooftops but I can't break my agreement."
Those who listened to the tape also heard a woman, presumed to be Debbie Welsh, pleading for her life. "Please don't hurt me," a female voice implores. "Oh, dear God, I don't want to die!"
But even after hearing the tape, Patrick Welsh remains uncertain whether the words were actually uttered by his wife. "It's not necessarily Debbie," he said.
"It's an assumption. But if it was her, it's possible that her screams of resistance are what motivated other people to take some action.
"If she was killed, she was probably the first hero to die on that plane because she said, 'No, I can't let you in there,' so they probably cut her throat.
"I try to look at the valour. That gives me some comfort."
THE cockpit voice-recorder, which operates on a continuous 30-minute loop that wipes out the previous half-hour, begins about 9.35am, by which time the terrorists have been in control for three or four minutes. Perhaps Zacarias Moussaoui, who had some limited knowledge of flying jets, was intended, until his arrest, to act as pilot, because the man who replaced Capt Dahl (thought to have been Ziad al-Jarrah, 26) was hopelessly inept.
One of the victims' relatives, who asked not to be named, said al-Jarrah and his "co-pilot" had no idea what the instruments were called, and identified them by their colours not their names. They tried to set the autopilot to hit their target in Washington but couldn't make it work. It kept switching off.
There was the constant sound of papers rustling, presumably as the hijackers tried frantically to make sense of their instructions.
"It was a ship without a rudder," the source said.
Amid the confusion and the engine noise, the cockpit tape is at times almost impossible to decipher.
The fact that the terrorists speak Arabic and broken English makes the task harder still.
But Nicole Miller's mother Cathy Stefani, who scribbled down notes as she listened, agrees. "They weren't sure where they were going, or how to turn the plane," she says. "They were questioning if they should bring back the pilot (supporting Sandra Dahl's belief that either her husband or Homer was still alive and capable of flying) because they didn't know what they were doing. That's the way I heard it."
Continued next page
'All those noises, then the wind rushing down ... and then nothing'
From previous page
As the hijackers fought to salvage their mission, the passengers had quietly started preparing their epic fight-back.
Those in first class, plus one or two in the seats immediately behind them -- including Lou Nacke, a 175cm, 95kg body-builder with a Superman tattoo -- had been herded together at the front of the plane. Those in economy were being held 13m away at the rear.
Probably believing at first that they were "only" being taken hostage, their first instinct was to offer no resistance. As the first mobile and seat-back-phone calls reached their wives and parents, however, and news of the World Trade Centre attacks was conveyed, they realised they were aboard a flying bomb.
If they must die, they decided, they would go down fighting.
The mood of growing defiance, relayed during those last heart-rending calls home, has become the stuff of legend. In the calm, measured tones he would use when addressing a board meeting, medical equipment company chief Tom Burnett questioned his wife Deena in an effort to assess their options.
Had the Twin Towers been hit by commercial passenger planes? he asked her. Had any more planes been crashed since the Pentagon?
The hijacker guarding the rear passengers claimed to have a bomb strapped to his belt, Burnett mused, but he doubted whether this was true. By his fourth and last call to California he had made up his mind to act.
Sobbing, his wife begged him to sit down and wait for the authorities to act.
"We can't wait, Deena," he said firmly. "If they are going to run this plane into the ground, we're going to do something."
Mrs Burnett told her husband she loved him and asked what else she should do. "Just pray, Deena, just pray," he said, hanging up for the last time.
Crouching behind their seats, other passengers made similar decisions. Jeremy Glick told his wife Lyz that a vote was being taken on whether to act. "What do you think we should do?" he asked her.
"Honey, you need to do it," said Mrs Glick, who had been watching the carnage unfold on her father-in-law's TV in upstate New York.
At the back of the plane, software company account manager Beamer could not get through to his pregnant wife Lisa, caring for their two young children in picturesque Cranbury, New Jersey. So he pressed zero on the seat-back phone and reached the operator, Lisa Jefferson.
As the plane shuddered and lurched, Lisa Jefferson remained on the line, reassuring him while amassing as much information as possible about the position of the aircraft. At one point Beamer shouted: "We're going down! We're going down!" Then he realised they were simply turning, probably back towards the White House.
Proudly, he told Lisa about his sons, David, 3, and Andrew, 1. The devoutly religious Beamer asked her to recite the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm ("the Lord is my shepherd") with him. Then, leaving the phone dangling, he stood up. "Are you guys ready?" Jefferson could hear him say. "Let's roll!"
By now the plane was hurtling across Pennsylvania at 2300m or lower, and less than 30 minutes from Washington DC. The president had ordered fighter jets to scramble. In the event, the plane was destroyed before the jets arrived.
But frustratingly the cockpit tape recording is not sufficiently clear to tell us exactly what caused it to crash.
From what they have gleaned, and their intimate knowledge of the victims' characters, however, each relative has formed a mental picture.
CHRISTINE Fraser imagines her feisty sister Colleen, 51, using her walking stick to trip the hijackers. Jack Grandcolas pictures his wife Lauren, 38, doing battle with a champagne bottle. Even Carole O'Hare believes her 79-year-old mother would have done something.
This may sound like wishful thinking, but it may be a remarkably accurate view. We know, for instance, that the 157cm flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw was preparing to wade into battle armed with boiling water from the galley because she told her husband Tom as much on the phone.
Just before 10am, as the tape-recording reaches a terrifying climax, Deena Burnett is also convinced she can hear her husband directing operations like a general. "Roll it! Roll it!" he shouts, seemingly urging his companions, possibly armed with plastic knives, to batter down the cockpit door with the drinks trolley. A male, probably Burnett again, also yells: "We're going in!"
A vote had been taken; the resolution passed democratically. Quite possibly, therefore, almost all the passengers and whoever remained alive among the crew had overpowered the two hijackers on guard duty and followed Burnett towards the front.
Did they, perhaps, succeed in re-taking the cockpit? Did they manage to re-install Dahl or Homer? Perhaps passenger Donald Greene, a competent 52-year-old amateur pilot, made it to the controls? Did al-Jarrah and his inept cohorts, who were themselves audibly terrified during their final moments, cling on until the end? Or was the pilot's seat empty when the plane went down?
We will probably never know. Whatever the truth, the grim echoes of what must be a terrifying life-and-death struggle between passengers and hijackers can be heard. There are loud crashes and bangs; what sounds like metal ripping and objects smashing; indecipherable cries and moans in English and Arabic. All this is overlaid by the ghoulish wail of a two-tone alarm, vainly warning that the plane is flying too low.
As it enters its final dive, the commotion suddenly dies away and the only noise is that of whooshing air. "It sounded like a rollercoaster," Cathy Stefani says. "All those noises, then the wind rushing down -- and then nothing. Just silence. It just went so quiet."
The "rushing" sound almost certainly resulted from massive decompression caused by the rapid descent. If so, this would have rendered everyone aboard unconscious before the 757 crashed at a 45-degree angle near the hamlet of Shanksville.
For the grieving relatives of Flight 93 -- who did not even have the bodies of their heroes to bury -- this is one small mercy.