|Trapped in the skies, captives fought back
Picture of bravery emerges from final moments of Flight 93
By BRAD TOWNSEND, CHIP BROWN and GERRY FRALEY/ The Dallas Morning News
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
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
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
"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."
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
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."
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,
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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.