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Trapped in the skies, captives fought back

Picture of bravery emerges from final moments of Flight 93



Eight of every 10 seats were empty on United Flight 93, so the hijackers, brandishing their razor-sharp box cutters and knives, wouldn't have had much trouble coercing the other 33 passengers to the rear of the Boeing 757.
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New York – Sept. 2New York – Sept. 21, 2001
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America Responds
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Bush Speech
New York: Prayers for peace
Day 6
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Day 5
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Day 4
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Day 3
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Day 2
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Day 1
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Day of Terror
A Dallas Morning News special section

While the captors, at least three of them at first, undoubtedly eyed them closely, some of the stunned passengers still managed to slip cellphones from their briefcases or swipe their credit cards through the in-flight phone system.

Only when a few phoned family to whisper of their own calamities did they learn that two other diverted airliners that Tuesday morning already had been flown into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, transforming them into infernos. One passenger would still be connected by telephone when he learned of yet a third suicide mission, this one aimed with horrific accuracy into the concentric rings of Washington's Pentagon.

At some point Tuesday, probably as the 757 made a looping U-turn near Cleveland and headed back east over Pennsylvania strip-mining country, a bold plan emerged from the back of the plane, according to investigators and passengers' phone conversations with family members.Three passengers, perhaps more, clenched their jaws, stared into their captors' eyes and said, essentially: "You will not get away with this."

However the plan unreeled, the 757, redirected by probably a fourth hijacker, one who probably was trained as a pilot, according to the FBI, the United flight would be the only one not to crash Tuesday into an American symbol, taking with it hundreds and thousands of lives.

While 80 investigators probed the crash site late Tuesday, FBI Special Agent Andy Black figured he already knew the bottom line on the United flight.

"They were heroes," he said of the passengers. "From what we know, this plane was headed for another strategic target."

Investigators have said they believe the Capitol was the likely mark. They have also speculated about the White House and Camp David as possibilities and maybe even a second crash into the Pentagon.

But whatever the target that lay ahead of them as they turned near Cleveland, no way the hijackers were aiming for a deserted, reclaimed strip mine bounded by heavy trees 25 miles from Johnstown, Pa.

Of the four flights hijacked in about two hours, Flight 93 received the least attention from a horrified nation because, for some unknown reason, it crashed before it could kill unsuspecting Americans on the ground. The fact that it didn't may be a heroic saga that generations of new Americans will read about.

Thrown together by fate

Precisely how a larger catastrophe was averted, who engineered it and who was at the plane's controls when it crashed may never be known unless the answers are recovered from the plane's "black box" data recorder and its cockpit voice recorder.

But like pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, the numerous cell and air phone calls from passengers to loved ones paint a fragmented, yet astounding picture of strangers thrown together by fate and united by purpose.

The seven-person flight crew, including captain Jason Dahl and first officer Leroy Homer, may have been herded at knifepoint to the back of the plane, where the passengers were being held.

What is virtually certain is that no one aboard Flight 93 had any reason to assume that they, like the passengers in the previous three hijacked airliners, were not locked inside a would-be missile of mass destruction. They knew their deaths were inevitable, according to some family members with whom they spoke on the phone, and they didn't want thousands more to die with them.

The fourth time Thomas Burnett Jr. phoned his wife, Deena, he acknowledged up front: "I know we're going to die. There's three of us who are going to do something about it."

From other phone calls and interviews with passengers' families, it appears Mr. Burnett, 38, and Mark Bingham and Jeremy Glick, both 31, may have been the three passengers who concocted the initial plan to recapture the plane. But according to relatives of other passengers, Flight 93 had several headstrong, physically capable people who could have led or joined the battle to reclaim the jet.

Mr. Bingham was a case in point. He was 6-foot-4 and weighed 225 pounds, a former college rugby player who ran this summer with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Mr. Glick was just as tall, a national collegiate judo champion described by brother-in-law Doug Hurwitt as a "take-charge guy."

Richard Guadagno, 38, was a national park ranger and wildlife refuge manager who had attended the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. He was, according to his supervisor Dave Paullen, "very intense and passionate." Passenger Todd Beamer, 32, had been a standout basketball and baseball player at Los Angeles' Los Gatos High School.

Until last year, flight attendant CeeCee Lyles, 34, had been a police officer for six years. She resigned because the airline industry offered more perks and, she thought, less stress.

Each was risking more than their own lives; all had families. But for those families, the belief that their husband, wife, father, mother, brother or sister died heroically – for their country – has helped them cope in the aftermath of the crash.

"Everything that happened, the tragedy, was for a cause," said Ms. Lyles' son, Jerome Smith, who celebrated his 16th birthday with his mother three days before the crash.

"God has a cause. For my mother, it was to let everyone know what a great woman she was. I just think that God wanted to let people know how good she was."

Aborted flight

Like Tuesday's three earlier hijackings, Flight 93 was to have been a cross-country flight. Like the others, this scheduled Newark, N.J.-to-San Francisco trip, its tanks topped off with jet fuel, barely left the Eastern seaboard.

And also like the others, it had plenty of empty seats. Boeing 757s, depending on the configuration of the single-aisle compartments, hold between 178 to 224 passengers. When Flight 93 pushed back from the gate at 7:01 a.m. Central time, it was, at most, at 21 percent capacity.

The low passenger count certainly couldn't have been cost-efficient for a cross-country flight. And although airlines deny it, air travelers traditionally have complained that airlines sometimes cancel sparsely filled flights and reroute passengers on the next regularly scheduled plane to their destination.

Whether it was a fluke or a situation specifically exploited by hijackers, a largely empty plane could have been to their advantage. The fewer the passengers, the less the risk of being ganged up on.

Based on Flight 93's radar pattern that day, the hijackers may not have seized control of the plane until the flight was almost an hour old. Just as the plane neared Cleveland, it veered off course to the south and headed back east. Several passengers phoned relatives and said that "three Arabs" armed with knives and box cutters had taken over.

The hijackers have been identified by the FBI as Saeed Alghamdi, Ahmed Alhaznawi and Ahmed Alnami. Authorities said they were joined by a fourth hijacker, Ziad Jarrahi, who was believed to have been a pilot and who probably wound up taking the controls. All of them, according to the FBI, had spent time in South Florida.

How Mr. Dahl and Mr. Homer were forced from the cockpit – or even if they left the flight deck alive – isn't clear. But when Mr. Glick phoned his wife, Lyzbeth, he said that the pilots and flight attendants had been forced to the back of the plane. One passenger, he said, had been stabbed to death.

Several, including Mr. Glick, said the hijackers also had a box with a red ribbon or red wrapping, which they claimed concealed a bomb.

Mr. Burnett may have been the first passenger to grasp the gravity of their dilemma. When he phoned his San Ramon, Calif., home the first time, Deena was feeding their three daughters breakfast and watching the harrowing scenes at the World Trade Center.

Mr. Burnett told his wife about his predicament and asked her to call authorities. Before she could reply, the line went dead. The next time he phoned, he told her that he believed their captors were going to fly the plane into the ground.

"The next time he called," Mrs. Burnett said, "I could tell they were formulating a plan."

Changed plans

That these 33 souls ended up on the same early-morning flight, like ironic stories from other ill-fated flights, was happenstance.

Mr. Glick, a sales and marketing executive for an Internet company, was supposed to have flown to the West Coast a day earlier. But a construction fire at Newark International Airport meant he couldn't depart on time, and a later flight would have landed him in San Francisco at 3 a.m. He opted instead for the first flight out Tuesday, Flight 93.

Mr. Burnett was booked on a flight for later Tuesday, but he wanted to get home early to be with Deena and the girls, 5-year-old twins and a 3-year-old.

Mark Bingham was supposed to fly out a day earlier, but he was sick. The owner of The Bingham Group, a public relations firm with offices in San Francisco and New York, had a scheduled Tuesday afternoon meeting in San Francisco. He had no choice but to book Flight 93.

Then there was Christine Snyder, a 32-year-old project manager for a Honolulu forestry company. She grew up in Hawaii and had never been to the East Coast until this trip. After attending a conference in Washington, D.C., she and her boss stopped off in New York for a few days or relaxation.

"She had been to a lot of fun places and told me she had a lot of pictures she couldn't wait to show me," said Ian Pescaia, Christine's husband of three months. "She was excited to be coming."

The couple had known each other 17 years. They had grown up together in Kailua, Hawaii, attended the same college and had lived together for the last eight years.

"She was in love with life," Mr. Pescaia said. "She didn't have a bitter spot in her."

Maybe because of the distance between the East Coast and Hawaii, or maybe because of the difference in time zones, Mr. Pescaia didn't get a call from the plane.

Dorothy Garcia, during the final minutes of the United flight, received a call at her California home that she believes was from her husband, passenger Andrew "Sonny" Garcia.

There was so much static in the line, however, that all she could make out was a voice that appeared to say, "Dorothy." Then the line went silent.

Final moments

Lyzbeth Glick said her husband was nervous about rushing the hijackers, but the tenseness didn't keep him from joking. He said he still had his butter knife from the in-flight breakfast.

His 20-minute call not only gave him several opportunities to tell his wife he loved her, but it also enabled Mrs. Glick's mother to contact police on another line, allowing authorities to listen in on much of the call and to gather information about the passengers' plight.

Mr. Glick told his wife to take care of Emmy, their daughter, and "have a good life." He was going to leave the air phone off the hook, he said, and asked her to stay on the line while the group of passengers tried to implement their takeover. She couldn't bear to listen. She handed the phone to her father.

Whatever battle ensued, it is almost certain that Mr. Bingham, too, was involved. He had just hung up the phone after talking to his mother and aunt. He had begun the flight in Seat 4B in first-class, so he may well have seen the hijackers storm the cockpit.

Nor was Mr. Bingham one to back away from a challenge. A couple of years earlier, he helped tackle a mugger on a San Francisco street. And during a vacation to Amsterdam a few years ago, Mr. Bingham suffered appendicitis. He underwent surgery, grabbed his backpack and left the hospital.

"Mark was a very curious guy," said Jack Clark, the rugby coach at the University of California at Berkeley, where Mr. Bingham helped earn national titles in 1991 and 1993.

"He marched to his own beat. This guy was anything but a follower. I don't know if we'll ever know what happened in that airplane, but it would not surprise me that Mark would resist."

Said Linden Hogland, Mr. Bingham's uncle: "Our family figured it out this way. His personality is so obstreperous and irrepressible. You couldn't hold him back. We're sure that after the phone call there was a real struggle, a physical confrontation."

And if the group of passengers were able to reclaim control of the plane, what if the cockpit crew members were dead or incapacitated? It may be that the small group had a fallback plan for a pilot.

Donald Greene was the 52-year-old chief executive officer of Safe Flight Instrument Corp., a White Plains, N.Y., firm that also sponsored the Corporate Angel Network, a program that flies cancer victims throughout the country for treatment.

Mr. Greene's family has wondered why he didn't call from the plane, but they think they know the answer.

"There's no question in our minds he was in control of the plane at the end," said Mr. Greene's sister-in-law, Cecilia Rhoda. "I could hear him saying, 'We're going to die anyway, but let's prevent as much chaos as we can.' "

At 8:58 a.m. Central time – eight minutes before the crash of Flight 93 – an emergency dispatcher in Westmoreland County received a cellphone call from a passenger who said he was locked in the plane's bathroom.

The man told dispatcher Glenn Cramer that the plane was going down, that he had heard an explosion and seen some white smoke.

It was precisely the same time that Lorne Lyles, a Fort Myers, Fla., police officer, said he received a phone call from his wife, CeeCee. She was surprisingly calm, he said, considering the screaming he heard in the background.

"Just hearing my wife saying she loved us through all that chaos on that plane is just embedded in my heart forever," he said.

Todd Beamer, the star high school athlete, used an onboard phone to call a GTE operator. The operator, Lisa Jefferson, said Mr. Beamer told her that he and others on the plane were planning to act against the terrorists.

After Mr. Beamer and the operator recited the 23rd Psalm, he asked her to promise she would call his wife of seven years – who is expecting a third child – and their two sons, ages 1 and 3.

At the end of the 13-minute conversation, Mr. Beamer put down the phone but left the line open. The last words the operator heard were, "Let's roll."

Lyzbeth Glick's father was still listening to the phone his daughter had passed him. He heard rustling, a brief silence, then more rustling from the open line to the plane. Then screams followed by dead silence.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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