Buffalo News (New York) - October 4, 2001 Thursday, FINAL EDITION
THE HEROES OF UNITED FLIGHT 93
Editor's note: In the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks, the Chicago Tribune pieced together this account, more complete than early reports, of what happened on board the hijacked plane that never reached its target and instead crashed outside Pittsburgh.
They waited, the way people wait on a plane.
You can picture them spreading out inside this mostly empty flight to San Francisco, the smokestacks and cranes of the Newark skyline looming outside their windows.
You can hear them working their cell phones, calling their friends, their offices.
For 41 minutes they waited on the tarmac to take off. Two pilots, five flight attendants and 37 passengers. Among them, four men knew they were all waiting to die.
When United Flight 93 finally took off, it began a journey that would end not in San Francisco, as planned, nor smashing into some Washington target, as some others had planned, but in an aching glory.
Since Sept. 11, the story of the passengers who fought their hijackers on Flight 93 has become an icon of good thwarting evil, a story of sacrifice and courage that a nation has embraced in a time of fear and uncertainty.
No one will ever know exactly what happened on that plane. But new interviews with the family, friends and co-workers of passengers who made last-minute calls give a more complete account of their desperate struggle.
At the same time, questions emerge about the role of the fourth hijacker and raise the possibility that instead of a single plot to overcome the terrorists, passengers and flight attendants in different parts of the plane may have hatched separate plans. While most attention has focused on a group of tall, athletic men who apparently planned to rush the hijackers, at least one flight attendant told her husband she was boiling water to use as a weapon.
The clues from the wreckage are small: a knife concealed inside a cigarette lighter; a manual of prayers and instructions written in Arabic; a cockpit voice recorder, still under analysis, that reportedly reveals a garble of American and Arabic voices.
But the key to whatever took place on Flight 93 may be the 41 minutes it sat on the ground.
It gave the passengers enough time to hear about the three other hijacked planes that smashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon that morning.
The delay took the plane off the precise schedule the terrorists had likely relied upon and put it on one that gave the passengers and crew knowledge -- knowledge that incited them to fight back and to say goodbye to loved ones before the jet plunged into a reclaimed strip mine in Pennsylvania, taking with it everyone aboard.
It began with people making their way to Newark International Airport, Terminal A, Gate 17.
Among the passengers and crew, authorities say, were four young men whose fresh faces belied their intentions, who had trained for months and perhaps years for this moment, lifting weights and reciting prayers, learning how to fight in small spaces and fly jets. At 8:42 a.m., Flight 93 took off, light with passengers, heavy with 11,000 gallons of jet fuel for its cross-country flight.
Six minutes later, the North Tower of the World Trade Center erupted in flames.
For the next 30 minutes, it appears, Flight 93 soared west across Pennsylvania as havoc erupted behind it. Flight attendants, passenger accounts suggest, poured coffee and served breakfast.
At some point, before the plane reached Cleveland, the hijackers took over the plane, armed with knives and the threat of a bomb.
Around 9:30 a.m., air traffic controllers in Cleveland heard someone in the cockpit say, "Hey, get out of here!" according to a source close to the investigation.
Then, in what was described as a thick Arabic accent, a voice was heard that appeared to be addressing passengers, even though it was radioed to air traffic control.
"This is your captain," the man said. "There is a bomb on board. Remain in your seats. We are returning to the airport."
No report of fourth hijacker
How the hijackers overpowered the pilots remains unclear. One passenger would report in a telephone call that two people lay on the floor in the first-class cabin, either injured or dead. They appeared to be the pilot and co-pilot, he said, relating information from a flight attendant. Another told a friend that two people had their throats slit but didn't identify them. A third saw only one injured.
At least five passengers and flight attendants described the hijackers in their calls in similar terms: three men, wearing red bandannas, one with some sort of box strapped around his waist that he claimed was a bomb. One passenger reported that two of the hijackers were in the cockpit and a third guarded passengers in first class from behind a curtain.
None of the callers mentioned a fourth hijacker, though the FBI has identified four men in connection with the hijacking.
Those men are Saeed Alghamdi, Ahmed Ibrahim A. Al Haznawi, Ahmed Alnami and Ziad Samir Jarrah.
It may be that the people who made calls were unable to see the fourth hijacker. Some news reports have suggested one may have already gotten into the cockpit, as a uniformed guest pilot sitting in the spare jump seat. Or, some terrorism experts suggest, he may have played a role as a "backup," perhaps remaining unidentified among the other passengers or hiding in the bathroom until he was needed.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said last week its "best information" shows that four were involved.
By 9:36 a.m., United Flight 93 had suddenly changed course, according to flight path information provided by Flight Explorer, a firm that supplies real-time radar tracking data, making a U-turn and heading back toward Washington.
In the cabin, passengers frantically began making calls, 23 of them from the seat-back phones alone from 9:31 to 9:53 a.m. Others passed cell phones to people who had been strangers just minutes before.
Why so many people were able to make calls while apparently under guard by hijackers could be that, as one passenger reported, there was no hijacker among the passengers in coach.
Some of the telephone calls were short -- no more than a few rushed words of fear or love.
Deena Burnett was feeding her three daughters breakfast and watching the news in horror when the telephone rang in her home in San Ramon, Calif.
"Are you OK?" she asked her husband, Tom, 38.
"No," he said. "I'm on the airplane, and it's been hijacked."
He told his wife that the hijackers had already stabbed someone. He told her to call the authorities, and he hung up.
When he called back, she was on the line to the FBI. She told him about the World Trade Center, the first he knew of the attack. He paused. "Were they commercial airplanes?" he asked.
Deena Burnett didn't think so. Cargo or private planes, she said.
"Do you know anything else about the planes?" No, she said.
"Do you know who was involved?" Again, she said no.
He told her that the man who was stabbed had died.
The hijackers are talking about running the plane into the ground, he said. Then he said he had to go.
His third call came about 9:41 a.m., shortly after a plane had hit the Pentagon. "OK," he said. "We're going to do something."
In his fourth and final call, just before 10 a.m., Burnett said that he was sure the hijackers didn't have a bomb, that he thought they only had knives.
"There's a group of us who are going to do something," he repeated.
Deena Burnett thought about her years of training as a flight attendant, where she was taught to appease hijackers, to meet their demands, to stay in the background. She told her husband to sit down. "Don't draw attention to yourself," she said.
She told him she loved him. She felt he thought he was coming home that night. This was simply a problem that he was going to solve, as he had solved many others.
Takeover plots hatching
As Burnett talked with his wife, three other men who may have joined him in whatever plans were being hatched made calls of their own.
In the rear of the plane, Jeremy Glick, also 31, a sales manager for a Web site firm and former judo champion, called his wife from a seat-back phone. He described three Middle Eastern men brandishing knives and a red box.
His wife told him about the attacks at the World Trade Center. He tried to grasp the hijackers' plans -- to blow up the plane or fly it into a target?
The passengers had taken a vote among themselves, he said. They had decided to try to take back the plane.
"I told him to go ahead and do it," Lyzbeth Glick said on "Good Morning America." "I trusted his instincts, and I said, 'Do what you have to do.' I knew that I thought he could do it."
Todd Beamer, 32, an account manager for Oracle Corp., called a stranger. He picked up a seat-back phone and hit "0," and at 9:45 a.m., he was connected first to a dispatcher for GTE Airfone, and then to Lisa Jefferson, the operator's supervisor.
For 13 minutes, Beamer told Jefferson everything he could, passing along information he gleaned himself as well as from a flight attendant. The passengers remained in their seats, she said he told her, and the flight attendants were forced to sit in the back of the plane.
He told her how much he loved his pregnant wife and two sons, and he asked her to call them. He asked her to say the Lord's Prayer and 23rd Psalm with him.
Moments later, Beamer told Jefferson about the plan, that the passengers were going to run up the long, narrow aisle to the first-class cabin and attack the hijacker there.
"I'm going to have to go out on faith," Beamer said.
He turned to someone else, and he said, "Are you ready?" Then, in the last words Jefferson would hear from him, "OK. Let's roll."
Sandra Bradshaw, the flight attendant, also identified three hijackers when she called her husband in Greensboro, N.C. She had been moved to the back of the plane, she said, but she and other passengers had a plan. They were going to rush their captors; she was boiling water to throw on them.
Another passenger, Elizabeth Wainio, also apparently talked of a plan to rush the hijackers. In a call she made to her stepmother in Baltimore, using the cell phone lent to her by Lauren Grandcolas, she said, "I've got to go now, Mom, they're breaking into the cockpit," according to the mother of another passenger, who said she spoke with family members about the call. Wainio's parents declined to comment.
The accounts of these calls -- if accurate -- would indicate that at least four people were somehow plotting to attack the hijackers. If Beamer's report is accurate, they were seated in different sections of the plane, with Bingham and Burnett up front, while the others were in the back.
It may be there were separate plans to take the plane or that somehow, amid all the telephone calls, chaos and fear, the passengers were able to communicate with each other.
If they did, they may have known they had another pilot among them, Donald Greene, chief executive officer of Safe Flight Instrument Corp. in New York. Greene, according to his family, knew anything and everything about airplanes.
At about 9:54 a.m., the plane started flying erratically. In Oak Brook, Ill., Jefferson heard screams in the background.
Two minutes later, the plane's flight plan changed. The destination airport was changed from San Francisco International to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
At nearly the same moment, from the plane's bathroom, someone called 911, repeating that Flight 93 had been hijacked, that this was not a hoax.
Then Marion Britton called a longtime friend, Fred Fiumano, at his New York City auto shop.
Britton, crying, told him the plane was turning around. It was going to go down.
"Don't worry about it," Fiumano said, trying desperately to reassure her. "They're only taking you for a ride."
He heard yelling and screaming in the background, and then the phone went dead. He tried to call the cellular phone number back, but no one answered.
A few of the passengers expected they would win the battle. Before Lyzbeth Glick turned over the phone to her father because she couldn't bear to listen anymore, her husband told her: "Hang on the line. I'll be back."
At about 10:03 a.m., a black crater bloomed in the soft earth of a field 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. The wife in California, the father-in-law in New York, the operator in suburban Chicago still held onto their phones.
They held on, waiting and hoping in the silence.
Chicago Tribune reporters Kim Barker, Louise Kiernan, Steve Mills, Douglas Holt, Naftali Bendavid and Dan Mihalopoulos contributed to this report.