Calls From Flight 93
News/Current Events Front Page News
Source: Chicago Tribune
Published: October 4, 2001 Author: KIM BARKER, LOUISE KIERNAN and STEVE MILLS
Posted on 10/04/2001 05:59:07 PDT by GreatOne

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.

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 not end in San Francisco, as planned, nor smashing into some Washington target, 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.

On Wednesday, an FBI official testified that passengers aboard United Flight 93 probably saved the lives of people on the ground by rushing the terrorists who had hijacked their jetliner.

The statement by J.T. Caruso to the House Intelligence Committee was the most explicit comment yet by a government official suggesting that the passengers turned the tables on their hijackers, resulting in the plane crashing in a reclaimed strip mine in southwestern Pennsylvania rather than in a heavily populated area.

“I can confirm that the passengers engaged in a fight for their lives with their four hijackers and most likely saved the lives of unknown individuals on the ground,” said Caruso, deputy assistant FBI director for counterterrorism.

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 key to whatever took place on Flight 93 may be the 41 minutes it sat on the ground.

That delay gave the passengers enough time to hear about the three other hijacked planes that smashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon that morning.

THERE BY CHANCE

It was 5 a.m. Tuesday and still dark when Deborah Welsh’s husband carried her bag down the stairs of their second-floor walkup in Hell’s Kitchen in New York.

Welsh, a flight attendant for more than 25 years, had traded shifts with another worker.

She set off for the bus wearing her uniform and the navy cap that her husband, Patrick, jokingly said made her look like the sailor on the Cracker Jack box.

At a friend’s home in New Jersey, public relations executive Mark Bingham, scrambling to pack his old college rugby duffel bag after sleeping past the 6 a.m. alarm, forgot his belt.

Nicole Miller, carrying a purple backpack stuffed with her textbooks, set off with her boyfriend, Ryan Brown, hoping to switch one of their separate flights back to California and fly together.

And so it began, people making their way to Newark International Airport, Terminal A, Gate 17.

There was the Japanese college student and the German wine expert. The refuge manager for the Fish and Wildlife Service, flying home from his grandmother’s 100th birthday party. The Good Housekeeping magazine marketer, on her way back from her grandmother’s funeral.

There was the advocate for the disabled, who stood less than 4 feet tall and carried herself like a giant.

The retired restaurant worker, flying to San Francisco to claim the body of his son, killed in a car crash on his honeymoon.

The toy company executive who sported a Superman tattoo on his shoulder.

Almost a third of the people on Flight 93 were there by the slimmest of chances: cancellations, bad weather and simple changes of plan. The pilot, Jason Dahl, rescheduled to get home to Colorado early so he and his wife could fly to London for their anniversary.

Among the passengers and crew, authorities say, were four young men who had trained for months and perhaps years for this moment, learning how to fight in small spaces and fly jets, lifting weights and reciting prayers.

They all sat on the plane, delayed by the airport’s heavy morning traffic, as American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 left Boston. They sat there as American Airlines Flight 77 left Washington.

THE DRAMA UNFOLDS

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. Nicole Miller’s boyfriend watched it leave from his own plane, as it sat on the tarmac.

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.

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. How the hijackers, believed to have been armed only with knives, overpowered the pilots remains unclear.

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.”

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, although the FBI has identified four men — Saeed Alghamdi, Ahmed Ibrahim A. Al Haznawi, Ahmed Alnami and Ziad Samir Jarrah — in connection with the hijacking.

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 gained access to 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 “back-up,” perhaps remaining unidentified among the other passengers or hiding in the bathroom until he was needed.

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.

PASSING THE PHONES

Some of the telephone calls were short — no more than a few rushed words of fear or love.

Linda Gronlund and Joe Deluca, on their way to San Francisco for a vacation together, took turns. She called her sister to say she would miss her. He called his father.

“The plane’s been hijacked,” he said. “I love you.”

Andrew Garcia, an Air National Guard air traffic controller and plane buff, only managed to get out his wife’s name, “Dorothy,” before his phone went dead.

Other passengers, though, managed to conduct fairly lengthy, even repeated conversations during the plane’s final minutes, constructing a jumbled puzzle of what was happening inside the Boeing 757.

Deena Burnett was 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, a native of Bloomington.

“No,” he said. “I’m on the airplane and it’s been hijacked.”

He told his wife 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.

“Do you know anything else about the planes?” No, she said.

“Do you know who was involved?” Again, she said no.

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 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.

TAKING BACK THE PLANE

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.

Across the aisle in Seat 4D, Mark Bingham, 31, called his mother. He was so rattled that when Alice Hoglan got on the line, her son told her, “This is Mark Bingham.”

His message was brief: The plane had been hijacked by three men and he loved her.

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 seatback 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.

The passengers had taken a vote, 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.’ ”

Todd Beamer, 32, an account manager for Oracle Corp., called a stranger. He picked up a seat-back phone, hit “0,” and 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.”

Flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw 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.

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.

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 National Airport in Washington. Estimated time of arrival: 10:28 a.m.

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 friend, Fred Fiumano, at his New York City auto shop. Crying, Britton 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, 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.”

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.