Flight 93 families divided over memorial to passengers' heroism
THE battle to win back control of flight 93 from the hijackers was fought by only a few, say victims' relatives.
When Michelle Obama told the story of United Airlines flight 93 in a remembrance ceremony at the crash site in the green Pennsylvania hills last weekend, her speech brought tears to her audience's eyes. But as she spoke of the 40 passengers and crew rising "as one" to take on the 9/11 terrorists, some of the victims' relatives were unimpressed.
"I think it's a beautiful story that 40 people rose as one but that's not the real story," said Alice Hoagland, whose son Mark Bingham, 31, was one of a handful of passengers who stormed the cockpit.
Flight 93 was the only one of the four planes hijacked that sunny September morning nine years ago not to hit its target. This is believed to have been the Capitol building, where Congress was in session. The passengers' actions may have saved hundreds of lives.
A $US58m memorial plaza is now being built at the crash site in tribute to the passengers and crew. It will include a marble wall inscribed with the 40 names, and 40 groves of red maple trees.
America has been consumed by controversy over plans to build an Islamic centre near Ground Zero in New York. Away from the public eye, however, the flight 93 memorial, intended to promote unity and peace, has instead become a source of bitter wrangling between family members.
"It's our job to make sure that future generations know what happened here that day," said Joanne Hanley, the regional superintendent of the National Park Service, which has taken over the site.
Yet some of the parents of those who died argue that the memorial perpetuates a "polite fiction" that all those on board tried to retake the plane.
"Everyone on the flight played a role, whether it was sitting in their seats and praying or running down the aisle and clubbing people with their fists," said Hoagland. "Everyone played a role but they did not play an equal role and the monument doesn't reflect that.
"We know a little group got together in the back and grabbed coffee pots of boiling water, butter knives and spoons and ran forward to try and take control of the plane."
Last weekend, Michelle Obama stood on the hill overlooking the now overgrown crash site with only a flag to mark the spot.
"In that awful moment when the facts became clear and they were called to make an impossible choice they all found the same resolve," she said. "They rose as one, they acted as one, and together, they changed history's course."
Beverly Burnett, whose son Tom, 38, tried to storm the cockpit, did not attend the ceremony. Friends asked if she was insulted by Obama's words.
"I'm sure the first lady doesn't have a clue but they were not all leaders on that plane," she said. "I don't have a problem with honouring the 40 but I do have a problem with people being realistic. We know my son did not hide in his seat. We heard his voice in the cockpit recorder.
"There are people who always want to change the storyline wherever you go. I know they're grieving for their loved ones but let's not change the storyline. There were people who were not big and strong like my son Tommy."
The story has been pieced together using evidence from the flight data recorder which shows the plane's position, transcripts of the cockpit voice recorder and telephone calls from passengers to loved ones. Air-traffic controllers in Ohio heard a struggle, with the pilot and first officer shouting "Mayday" and "Get out of here", then being overcome.
The hijackers changed the plane's course towards Washington and forced the passengers to the back. There they began calling families and friends and learnt that three other planes had already struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
A few, including Burnett, Bingham, Jeremy Glick, 31, and Todd Beamer, 32, told their loved ones that three or four of them had a plan. They waited until they were over an unpopulated area to rush the cockpit.
In 2002, the families were invited to Princeton to hear the cockpit recording. Hoagland said: "You can plainly hear the wind rushing over the wings [and] yelling in Arabic, 'There's fighting going on in the back, shall we take it down?' Then a rumble coming which reminded me of rugby games. It sounded like four, five, six guys. We could hear the voices of Mark and Tom."
The plane was seen pitching and rolling. At 10.03am it crashed in a field in Stonycreek Township, killing everyone, including the four hijackers.
The memorial was chosen from more than 1,000 entries. "It's a very difficult thing to determine who in the end was more or less heroic," said Warren Byrd, the landscape architect. "I can see people might want distinctions and the controversy reflects the emotions involved in this."
That is not the families' only concern. Tom Burnett's father, also called Tom, was one of six on the 15-strong committee to vote against the design, which he believes has Islamic connotations. He says the entire site is oriented towards Mecca. He has written to President Barack Obama and Congress and taken out newspaper advertisements denouncing it as a "tribute to the terrorists".
Paul Murdoch, the designer, said: "It was never our intention to associate the memorial with Islamic terrorists."
Beverly Burnett wishes the site had never been touched. "I would have preferred no memorial," she said. "Just to leave it as my son and the other passengers saw it that morning. How do they know they aren't moving remains out there?"