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Published September 10, 2021

When you travel by air, delays are something that everyone both dreads and kind of expects. You tend to just hope that it won’t be too bad, and that you’ll make your connection on the other end.

On this fateful day, a single flight’s delayed departure – plus the selfless bravery of the passengers and crew – saved lives.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

United Airlines Flight 93 was a domestic flight from Newark International Airport in New Jersey to San Francisco International Airport in California.

The Captain was 43 year old Jason Dahl, his co-pilot was First Officer LeRoy Homer Jr., and there were five female flight attendants. 

The Boeing 757 had space for 182 passengers, and would typically be about half full on the Tuesday morning flight, but on this occasion there were only 37 passengers.

Among them were Ziad Jarrah, Ahmed al-Nami, Ahmed al-Haznawi, and Saeed al-Ghamdi, all seated in first class. None of these men had raised any particular concern with security personnel at check-in, although al-Haznawi had been selected by the computer for extra screening. His bag was checked for explosives; none were found and he boarded without issue.

The flight was scheduled to depart at 8am, but due to congestion at the airport it was 8:42 before it actually took off. They reached their cruising altitude of 35,000 feet (11,000m) at 9:02.

Twenty minutes later, the flight crew received two messages through the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS. This is a digital datalink system which is used for various standard in-flight messaging, and can be used to send short manual text messages.

The first message came from the co-pilot’s wife, Melody Homer, asking if he was alright. The second came from United Airlines flight dispatcher Ed Ballinger and read:

“Beware any cockpit intrusion – two a/c [aircraft] hit World Trade Center.”

Dahl sent a reply at 9:26: “Ed, confirm latest msg plz — Jason”

It was September the 11th, 2001. American Airlines Flight 11 had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46, and United Airlines Flight 175 had hit the South Tower at 9:03. American Airlines Flight 77 had been hijacked shortly before 9am, but at that time was still in the air.

What we know of events on board from this point has been put together from flight data and communications recorded from the ground, the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder on board the plane, and a number of phone calls made by passengers and crew to others on the ground.

At that moment, there was probably already motion in first class, from al-Nami, al-Haznawi, and al-Ghamdi, who reportedly tied red bandanas around their heads and jumped from their seats. It’s thought that al-Haznawi stabbed the passenger seated in front of him, Mark Rothenburg; he was the only first-class passenger who did not then make any calls from the plane. It’s not known whether he was stabbed because he attempted to stop the hijackers, or if this was an unprovoked attack designed to terrify the other passengers into compliance, however, since a similar attack on a passenger was reported from American 11, the latter seems more likely. One of the men appeared to have a bomb; since it was not used, and no traces of explosive were found, it’s thought that this was fake. 

The men forced their way into the cockpit, clearing the way for Ziad Jarrah to take over the controls.

At 9:28 and five seconds, Flight 93 suddenly started a descent of 685 feet – a little over 200m.

At 9:28 and 17 seconds, the cockpit radio was activated. Cleveland Air Traffic Controller John Werth was listening:

“The next transmission we got from United was unintelligible. It sounded like a life-and-death struggle. It was some screaming and some guttural sounds.

Upon later relistening, a few words could be made out:

“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! Hey get out of here!”

Werth would later recall;

“I looked at my partner, who sits to the right of me. He had this pretty wide-eyed look on him. I said, “Dave, did that garbled radio transmission sound the same to you as it did to me?” He stared at me and nodded his head. I said, “We better find out who it is,” because we had probably seven or eight aircraft on the frequency at the time.”

At 9:28 and 50 seconds, another call was made. “Mayday, Mayday, get out of here! We’re all gonna die!”

Soon afterwards, the plane climbed again, to the southeast.

At 9:31, Jarrah, now in the cockpit, made an announcement over the radio. It appeared to be intended for the passengers, but was heard by controllers instead.

“Ladies and gentlemen, here the captain. Please sit down, keep remaining seating. We have a bomb on board. So sit.”

The plane’s cockpit voice recorder, at this time, recorded the sound of a wounded man moaning, thought to be Dahl, while hijackers command him to sit down and stop touching something. It’s thought that he was trying to interfere with their actions however he could.

There are also sounds of a woman in distress, thought to be flight attendant Debbie Welsh. She is heard saying, “Please, please don’t hurt me… I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.”

She then falls silent; one of the hijackers is heard to say in Arabic, “Everything is fine. I finished.”

At 9:35, the autopilot was instructed to turn the plane east, and it climbed to 40,700ft (12,400m).

Meanwhile, the passengers had been herded to the back of the plane, where several of them used either their cell phones or the plane’s Airfones to make calls.

Deena Burnett was in California; her husband, Tom Burnett, was on the plane. He had been seated in first class.

“I saw on the caller ID that it was Tom’s cell phone. I was relieved, thinking that if he was on his cell phone, he was in the airport somewhere and was fine. I said, “Tom, are you okay?” He said, “No, I’m not. I’m on an airplane that’s been hijacked. It’s United Flight 93.” He told me what was going on. “They’ve already knifed a guy. I think one of them has a gun.” I started asking questions, and he said, “Deena, just listen.” He went over the information again and said, “Please call the authorities,” and hung up. I felt a jolt of terror run through my whole body. It was as if I’d been struck by lightning.”

Also in California, Alice Ann Hoagland was at home in bed when a call came from her son, Mark Bingham.

“I heard Cathy say on the phone, “Well, we love you too, Mark. Let me get your mom.” Cathay saw me, and she said, “Alice, talk to Mark. He’s been hijacked.” She also handed me a slip of paper that said “93 United.” She had written this down while he was talking to her. I’m a flight attendant for United Airlines.

I took the phone and he said, “Mom, this is Mark Bingham.” I knew he was a little flustered because he used his last name. He said, “I want to let you know that I love you.” I spoke to Mark for about a total of three minutes. He said, “There are three guys on board who have taken over the plane, and they say they have a bomb.”

Having been asleep – it was 6:37 am there – Hoagland didn’t yet know about the attack on the World Trade Center, or the plane had just that minute flown into the Pentagon. Of course, as soon as she turned on the television, she found out. 

She called her son’s phone, but he didn’t pick up, so she left a message.

“Mark, this is your mom…  The news is that it’s been hijacked by terrorists. They are planning to probably use the plane as a target to hit some site on the ground. If you possibly can, try to overpower these guys, if you can, ’cause they’ll probably use the plane as a target. I would say go ahead and do everything you can to overpower them, because they’re hellbent. Try to call me back if you can. You know the number here. OK. I love you, Sweetie. Bye.”

Even though Bingham never heard the message – his mother later retrieved it, along with 43 other messages left by concerned friends and family members on his voicemail – she wished she had helped him more.

“I should have told him about the cockpit key. I’ve relived this a billion times. I should have told them to use the fire extinguisher as a weapon, break liquor bottles to use as weapons.”

As a United flight attendant, Hoagland knew that all the flight attendants had a key to the cockpit.

Deena Burnett called the FBI with the details she’d got from her husband; while speaking to them, he called again.

“I clicked over and the first thing Tom said was “They’re in the cockpit.” I told him about the World Trade Center. He hadn’t known about it yet. He relayed that information to the people sitting around him. He said, “Oh my God, it’s a suicide mission.” He started asking questions: “Who’s involved? Was it a commercial airplane? What airline was it? Do you know how many airplanes are involved?” He was really pumping me for information about what was going on, anything that I knew.”

Shortly afterwards, she saw the news of the Pentagon attack.

“I started wailing. I mean, really wailing, making a noise that I did not know  I could make, thinking it was Tom’s plane that had hit the Pentagon.”

Lyzbeth Glick was the wife of Jeremy Glick, another of the passengers.

“I must have gotten up just after the first plane hit, because the first thing I did was turn on the TV and saw the World Trade Center… I heard the phone ring, and I heard my parents scream, “Oh my God, Jeremy!” I went into the room and all color had drained from their faces. I started to panic. I said, “Oh, my God, that wasn’t Jeremy’s flight, was it?” They said, “No. He’s okay, for now.” They added “for now” because Jeremy had told them that the plane had been hijacked. They handed the phone to me. He sensed panic in my voice, and we started saying “I love you”. We must have said it for ten minutes straight until it calmed us down. Then he explained to me what had happened… Then Jeremy started asking me what was happening in New York and did they crash planes into the World Trade Center? I guess he had heard it from one of the other passengers. I hesitated for a minute, then I said, “Honey, you need to be strong, but yes, they are crashing planes into the World Trade Center.””

Deena Burnett’s grief was temporarily suspended by another call from her husband.

“I said, “Tom you’re okay,” thinking that he had survived the plane crash at the Pentagon. He said no. I said, “They just hit the Pentagon.” I could hear people talking and spreading the news in the background and I could hear their concern and I could hear people gasping as if they were surprised and shocked. Tom came back on the phone and said, “I’m putting a plan together. We’re going to take back the airplane.” I asked, “Who’s helping you?” He said, “Different people, several people. There’s a group of us. Don’t worry. We’re going to do something.” Then he said, “I’m going to call you back,” and he hung up.”

Several of the passengers were well equipped to stage this revolt. Burnett himself had been a college quarterback. Bingham was a 6’4” rugby player who had once fought off two muggers; Glick, six feet tall, was a national judo champion. Another passenger, Louis Nacke, was a weightlifter, and another, William Cashman, a former paratrooper. Amongst the female passengers, Nicole Miller was a swimmer, softball player and weight training instructor, Linda Gronlund held a brown belt in Karate, and flight attendant CeeCee Lyles was a former police officer, trained in close combat. Even 79 year old Hilda Marcin, the oldest passenger on the flight, was not someone to underestimate, having once fended off a would-be thief with her umbrella. 

And, once they regained control, they had someone who could take over flying the plane. Don Greene only had a license to fly small planes, but with help from the ground would have stood a fair chance at landing the plane safely.

Lyzbeth Glick recalled:

“Jeremy said there were three other guys as big as him, and they were going to jump on the hijacker with the bomb and try to take back the plane. He asked if I thought that was a good idea. We debated a little bit. He said that they were going to take a vote, and asked what did I think he should do. I said, “You need to do it.”… Then he said, “Okay, I’m going to put the phone down. I’ll be right back. I love you.””

Even knowing what was going on elsewhere, Deena Burnett tried to discourage her husband from acting.

“I became very frightened and I begged, “No, no, Tom. Just sit down, be still, be quiet, and don’t draw attention to yourself.” He said, “No, Deena. If they’re going to crash this plane, we’re going to have to do something… we can’t wait for the authorities. I don’t know what they can do anyway. It’s up to us.”

The passengers decided to wait until they were over a rural area to make their move – even with their own lives on the line, they didn’t want to risk causing death on the ground – and gathered whatever they could to arm themselves. Glick had joked to his wife that he still had his butter knife from breakfast. Sandra Bradshaw, one of the flight attendants, was boiling water to throw at the hijackers. 

While some of the passengers were able to speak with loved ones for the last time from the plane, others were only able to leave messages. These heartbreaking recordings carried a mixture of hope and resignation.

Lauren Grandcolas, who was three months pregnant, left a voicemail message for her husband.

“Honey, are you there? Jack, pick up sweetie. Okay, well I just wanted to tell you I love you. We’re having a little problem on the plane. I’m fine. I just want you to know that I love you more than anything. Please tell my family I love them, too.”

Likewise, Linda Gronlund left a voicemail for her sister.

“Elsa, it’s Lin. Um, I only have a minute. I’m on United 93. It’s been hijacked by terrorists who say they have a bomb. Apparently, they, uh, flown a couple of planes into the World Trade Center already and it looks like they’re going to take this one down as well. Mostly, I just wanted to say I love you and I’m going to miss you. I don’t know if I’m going to get the chance to tell you that again.”

And flight attendant CeeCee Lyles left a message for her husband.

“Hi baby. Baby- you have to listen to me carefully. I’m on a plane that’s been hijacked. I’m on a plane, I’m calling from the plane. I want to tell you that I love you. I love you. Please tell my children that I love them very much – and I’m so sorry babe. I don’t know what to say – there’s three guys. They’ve hijacked the plane. I’m trying to be calm. We’ve turned around and I’ve heard that there’s planes that have flown into the World Trade Center. I hope to be able to see your face again, baby. I love you, bye.”

Todd Beamer decided not to call his wife. Instead, he called the company that provided the plane’s phones, and spoke to supervisor Lisa Jefferson.

“I asked him if anyone was hurt. The flight attendant next to him said yes – there were two people laying in first class on the floor, the pilot and the copilot, and their throats had been slashed. He asked me if I knew what they wanted – money, ransom, or what? I told him I didn’t have a clue.”

As the plane moved erratically, Jefferson heard people on board screaming. Beamer asked her to call his wife if he didn’t make it.

“I told him I would, but I asked him if he would like me to connect him to her right then. He said, no, he didn’t want to upset her. She was expecting their third child in January, and he knew she was home alone. He gave me his home phone number.”

Jefferson stayed on the line with Beamer until the last possible moment.

“Todd turned to someone else and he said, “Are you ready?” I could hear them; they responded. He said, “Okay. Let’s roll.” That was the last thing I heard.”

The end of the cockpit voice recorder captured the frantic chaos of those last few minutes. The tape would later be played for the families, prior to being used in the court trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, however only the transcript was released to the general public.

Voices are heard speaking in Arabic; translated, they say that there’s a fight; “Let’s go guys”, and repeatedly call upon Allah. Voices in English call out, “In the cockpit! In the cockpit!”

At 10am, the Arabic speakers are heard to say:

“Is that it? Shall we finish it off?

“No. Not yet.”

“When they all come, we finish it off.”

One of the English speakers calls out, “I’m injured.” Another says, “In the cockpit. If we don’t, we’ll die.”

A nearby pilot reported seeing United 93 “waggling its wings”; this is often used as a signal that the pilot has no radio, but in this case, it seems that Jarrah, at the controls, was rocking the plane to try to disrupt the passengers’ attack. An Arabic voice repeats, “Up, down, up down” on the recording, and at another point one of them calls out to cut off the oxygen.

Near the end, voices in Arabic cry out, “Give it to me. Give it to me.”

The last words on the recording – aside from a cry in English of “No!” – are the takbir; “Allah is the greatest,” repeated until the end.

Jeremy Glick didn’t hang up the phone before they began their assault on the hijackers, but his wife didn’t listen to the end.

“I didn’t want to listen to what happened, so I gave the phone to my dad. It wasn’t until a couple of days later that I found out what had transpired. My father told me later that he had heard a series of screams. Then there was a series of more screams, and then it sounded like a roller coaster. Then there was nothing.”

It’s impossible to know for sure what happened at the end; however, the 9/11 Commission Report said;

“The hijackers remained at the controls but must have judged that the passengers were only seconds from overcoming them.The airplane headed down; the control wheel was turned hard to the right.The airplane rolled onto its back… With the sounds of the passenger counter attack continuing,the aircraft plowed into an empty field in Shanksville,Pennsylvania, at 580 miles per hour, about 20 minutes’ flying time from Washington, D.C.”

It’s believed that the hijackers’ target for Flight 93 was the Capitol building; although Osama bin Laden was said to have wanted the White House to be attacked, the Capitol would be easier to find from the sky. 

It’s thought that if it hadn’t crashed, Flight 93 would have reached Washington DC no earlier than 10:13, and probably before 10:23. The evacuation order for the Capitol building was not given until 10:15, leaving scant minutes to clear thousands of people working in, and visiting, the area.

Although military officials maintained that Flight 93 would have been intercepted before reaching its target, this doesn’t appear to be clear cut. The 9/11 Commission Report said,

“That conclusion is based on a version of events that we now know is incorrect… There was only one set of fighters circling Washington during that time frame… After NEADS learned of the hijacking at 10:07, NORAD would have had from 6 to 16 minutes to locate the flight, receive authorization to shoot it down, and communicate the order to the pilots, who (in the same span) would have had to authenticate the order, intercept the flight, and execute the order.”

In fact, the pilots didn’t know what they were scrambling in response to, didn’t know that the threat was from hijacked airliners, didn’t know where United 93 was, and were clearly told that they had “negative clearance to shoot” at 10:10. In fact, shootdown authority didn’t reach NEADS until 10:31, which would most likely have been several minutes too late.

While none of the passengers or crew of Flight 93 survived, it seems likely that their actions did, indeed, save lives from being lost on the ground.

Many of those in the Shanksville area were watching news of the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, never dreaming for one moment that their quiet corner of Pennsylvania could become involved.

Resident Anita McBride Miller later recalled; “Out of nowhere, this absolutely unbearable, horrific noise was going on outside. It was deafening. It shook the windows and rattled the rafters.”

Valencia McClatchey had a similar experience.

“I caught just a quick flash of light. All of a sudden you just heard and felt a large explosion. I mean, the house shook violently. I was sitting very much on the edge of my sofa and the blast almost knocked me off balance.”

Grabbing her camera, McClatchey took a picture of the smoke rising over the hill, visible from her doorway. It was the first still image of the aftermath.

Air controller John Werth had monitored the flight right up until it disappeared from the radar at 10:03. A nearby plane was asked to check the location.

“After looking for a while, I saw a puff of black smoke, a black cloud floating. As we got closer, we could see basically a forest fire burning next to a tree line in a field of grass.”

On the ground, local fire services were quickly dispatched. Several departments throughout the area were called to attend, but it was local residents who got there first.

Two coal truck drivers, Douglas Miller and Robert “Bobby” Blair were among them.

“The heat – I assumed it was from the jet fuel – was so intense I had to remark to Bob, “Hey, we better back up,” because I thought it would blister the paint on my hood. You could feel the heat through the windows.”

“We had taken our fire extinguishers, and we knocked the fire out that was blowing across the field pretty quick. There was a large tire laying right there at the hole; it was still burning. We both tried to knock it out, but then as soon as you quit spraying, it started back up again.”

James Broderick, a trooper with the Pennsylvania State Police, was one of the first officials on the scene.

“I remember opening the car door and going to step out. I happened to look down and there was a piece of a human body – a bone or a joint. I knew no one could have survived the crash, seeing that small of a piece. I got back in the car. I knew that I had pulled too close. I backed up.”

Investigators from the FAA, FBI and other agencies were quickly on the way to the scene – as were reporters from the nation’s news media. Alice Hoagland found out that her son was dead when footage of the crash site aired on television.

The emergency responders were struck by how little they could do. Firefighter Norbert Rosenbaum recalled;

“They said, “go on to a search and rescue.” When I saw the parts and everything, I said, “I don’t think you’re going to be rescuing nobody. It’s too big a hole.” I did see a lot of stuff that I’d seen before ; I was in Vietnam. There was just parts of human pieces. That’s all it was – pieces.”

As with any high-speed crash, there was little left that looked like an airplane. Tony James, an FAA investigator, recalled:

“I recognised part of the landing gear and part of the engines. The FBI said, “Well, what we’d like to do is recover the cockpit.” I said, “You’ll never find the cockpit. You’ll never find the people because they, they vaporise and go away because this airplane hit really hard.”

Local coroner Wallace “Wally” Miller said, “I kept thinking there should be pieces of the fuselage lying around but nothing like that was readily visible. You actually had to look around to find something that looked like a window or a seat. It was all just debris.”

However, the Shanksville scene proved invaluable to the FBI investigation. At the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there were many tons of debris on top of the crashed plane, and the effects of thousands of workers mixed in. Here, they knew that everything they could find had to have come from the plane. In addition, the other sites had fires that burned for some time; here, there had been a brief fireball, but otherwise the fires were quite easily managed.

However, the force of the impact had embedded much of the debris into the ground. The cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder were found between 25 and 27 feet – 7 and a half to eight metres – deep. Investigators dug several feet further, but would never actually find any remains of the cockpit itself.

And yet, even amongst that devastation, there were still many items to be found. 

A nose axle had been flung about three hundred yards (275m) away from the crater, landing in a sediment pond; most of the debris lay between the pond and the crater. The largest piece recovered was a piece of the fuselage, approximately six feet by seven, 1.8 by 2.1m, while the heaviest was an engine fan, weighing about a thousand pounds or 450kg.

Money was found, still intact; pocketbooks with family pictures inside, clothing, a shoe; one police officer found an open Bible, relatively unscathed. Another found flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw’s flight book. A state trooper found a wallet belonging to one of the hijackers. 

Two tree surgeons, Mark Trautman and Ben Haupt, were enlisted through Penn State University to climb the hemlock trees and retrieve the debris caught in their branches. It was hard work; every time they climbed, the protective Tyvek suits got torn, and they had to change into a new one before climbing the next tree.

And, unlike most of the other investigators, they were not trained for what they were to face there.

“Ben came across some remains on the first day, and it was pretty large remains, and he broke down. Agent Larsen broke down with him. I don’t know if he did it just to let us know that everybody’s human, but that was something to see a man of his experience break down with Benny.”

The most important finds for the FBI were those that related to the hijackers. They knew, from the phone calls made by the passengers, that they were of Middle Eastern appearance, and four names on the passenger manifest stood out, but physical evidence would also be important.

They were able to retrieve identification for three of them – Jarrah’s Lebanese passport, al-Ghamdi’s Saudi passport, and an ID card for the Saudi Arabian Youth Hostels Association belonging to al-Nami. Fourteen pieces of knives, including Leatherman multipurpose tools, were found, and investigation of the hijackers’ credit cards revealed that at least four such tools had been purchased prior to the flight.

Most importantly, they found the first page of a handwritten letter in Arabic. It matched a complete four-page version found in a suitcase belonging to Mohamed Atta, the pilot-hijacker on American 11, which hadn’t made it onto the flight, and another found in the rental car which American 77 hijacker Nawaf al-Hazmi had taken to Dulles International Airport. 

This letter has been referred to as “The Last Night Document”, and gave bullet pointed instructions for their last night.

“1. Embrace the will to die and renew allegiance. Shave the extra body hair and wear cologne. Pray.

2. Familiarize yourself with the plan well from every aspect, and anticipate the reaction and resistance from the enemy…”

They were instructed to read certain chapters of the Quran, remind themselves to “listen and obey”, pray some more, purify their hearts, and “Be cheerful for you have only moments between you and your eternity”. The final points exhorted them to check their weapons before departure, tighten their clothes – including shoes and socks – before battle, and pray together in a group.

Then, there were instructions for the attack itself; on the way to the airport, and on the plane, they were instructed to pray and recite “There is no god but Allah” to themselves constantly. This, of course, would give them no mental space for second thoughts. 

“You must not show any signs of nervousness or stress, and be joyful, happy, cheerful, and calm… smile in the face of adversity young man, for you are departing to the eternal paradise!… When the storming begins, strike like heroes who are determined not to return to this world.”

The whole letter is scattered with quotes from the Quran, picked to reinforce their views and removed from their original context. 

Scholar Bruce Lincoln, in his book Holy Terrors, notes that “God himself is mentioned a full 89 times and appears in more than three-quarters of the document’s paragraphs (30 out of 38).”

Besides evidence of the attack, it was also important to retrieve whatever they could of the victims of the crash, in order to identify them and return at least part of their remains to their families. Miller estimated that the 650 pounds – about 295 kg – of human remains that were recovered accounted for a little more than 8 per cent of the total. Nevertheless, sixteen were identified in the first few weeks by dental records or fingerprints, and DNA analysis would be employed to identify the remainder. This task continued until just before Christmas; the last passenger was identified on the 19th, and the four last sets of unidentified remains – those belonging to the hijackers – were turned over to the FBI.

Melodie Homer, the widow of co-pilot LeRoy, was informed about a month later that part of her husband had been recovered. She wondered what part.

“Wally asked me if I really wanted to know. I could tell by the tone of his voice that I wouldn’t want to know, so I declined.”

She also received his ring, even though it had no names or dates marked in it, and she hadn’t been asked about it by the investigators.

“The inscription inside was the Bible verse we had chosen for our wedding ceremony: “The greatest of these is love.” The only explanation I could imagine was that it had been found on LeRoy’s hand.”

Her husband had been the only African-American man on the plane; that would have made identifying it easy.

In the wake of the crash, more than a thousand people worked on the investigation of the site. They outnumbered the population of many of the small towns in the area; and with them, came the media, and the families of the victims. 

The families were scheduled to visit the site on Monday, September 17th, but one of them was allowed to go early. Maryland police officer Kenny Nacke lost his brother Louis – known as Joey to the family – on Flight 93. When he asked the state troopers guarding the site – still an active crime scene – for permission to see it, it was given, and he was escorted in a police car to an overlook about two hundred yards away from the site itself.

“Every state trooper that we passed saluted the car. We got to a dirt road and they were all lined up, saluting me.”

While the recovery work stopped to show respect, Nacke placed a flower in his brother’s memory.

Lisa Beamer, Todd Beamer’s pregnant wife, at first didn’t want to see the site, but changed her mind, saying:

“If I don’t go now I probably never will and I may regret it someday. If I go, it can’t be much worse than what I’ve already experienced.” 

The families were taken by bus from the hotel where they had gathered to the same overlook, along roads lined by people holding signs, waving, or simply standing quietly in tribute. 

The first memorial, there at the overlook, consisted of a canopy over some hay bales, where the families left tokens to honour those they’d lost. Favourite snacks, books, sporting merchandise, stuffed animals and photographs; the family of Toshiya Kuge brought a Japanese flag. 

Many left flowers, but not Betty Kemmerer, the daughter of Hilda Marcin. She remembered her mother telling her it was a waste of money, and cruel to the flowers. 

“The first thing I thought was, “This is not the way I thought my mother would die.” It was a horrific scene: A giant crater in the ground with all the stuff hanging from the trees and plane parts all over the ground. Just horrible. I always thought my mother would have a heart attack and I would bury her in a cemetery. But to have this happen and to not know if I was even going to have anything back to bury…”

Towards the end of September, the investigation of the crash site was concluded, and jurisdiction of it was handed to Miller, as the local coroner. He organised a new search of the site, to be sure that every possible piece of human remains that could be recovered, was recovered. Then, before opening the site to the family members, he had the crater backfilled.

In the months that followed the tragedy, many of the family members started to ask questions. They wanted to know more about what had happened on United Flight 93 – and they wanted to hear the cockpit voice recording. Although they knew it existed, the FBI had refused to release it to them. This was partly because it was to be used in the court trial against Zacarias Moussaoui, who was believed to have been intended to fill out the Flight 93 attack team; however the FBI maintained that it was being held back to protect the families from the emotional trauma of hearing it.

Lyzbeth Glick said:

“You’re telling us we can’t listen to this because it’s too terrible a thing for the families to hear? Where does the FBI get the right to judge that? I can tell you that everything terrible that could happen to me has already happened. The terrible thing was losing my husband and having to live with it.”

Melodie Homer also pressed for its release, after ABC’s Primetime Live played the Air Traffic Control recordings of the transmissions made from the cockpit during the hijacking itself. It was the first time that she had heard it; heard her husband shouting “Mayday! Get out of here!”

“Words cannot explain how painful it was to hear this on a national broadcast.”

She wrote to the director of the FBI asking to hear the cockpit voice recording, or read its transcript, in a private setting, but was told she would not find comfort in it.

“No one has any idea what a victim’s family would find comforting, and unless your husband left for work on September 11, 2001, never to return, leaving you with a ten-month-old baby, you have no idea how I feel. When you receive 2.6 percent of your husband’s remains six months after the last time you saw him, then maybe you can decide what is or what is not comforting. Until then, it is very arrogant of you or your agency to presume anything.”

Eventually, the FBI relented, and the families were brought together at a hotel in New Jersey in April to hear the tape. 

Many said they recognised their loved ones’ voices. Deena Burnett recognised husband Tom shouting, “In the cockpit!”.

Lyzbeth Glick heard Jeremy’s “judo grunt”.

Kenny Nacke heard his brother, “There’s a phrase in there that I hear – that’s Joey. It was pure rage.”

Nacke also paid attention to the voices screaming in Arabic, and commented with perhaps more than a little satisfaction: 

“Oh yes, you hear it. You hear one guy getting the living shit beat out of him.”

Derrill Bodley, father of passenger Deora, said,

“This was as close as I could be to my daughter in her final moments.”

Alice Hoagland also attended, telling Tom McMillan, author of “Flight 93: The Story, the Aftermath and the Legacy of American Courage on 9/11”:

“The cockpit voice recorder, even though it was technically flawed and difficult to hear, was just the most dramatic thing…It was extremely loud as they attacked the cockpit- an escalating crescendo of male voices, probably half a dozen guys… They were all doing it together. It was a sustained assault that went on for several minutes.

I was so grateful that Mark was able to spend the last few moments of his life on his feet, fighting, with a bunch of other guys, doing his level best to save the people around him.”

The site of those last moments would soon become a national park; this process was fast-tracked when President Bush signed the Flight 93 National Memorial Act into law just over a year after the attack. The Families of Flight 93, now a formal organization, would play a large part in this transformation. However, it would take ten years before it opened; in the meantime, people needed somewhere to pay their respects.

Judi Baeckel, a Shanksville resident, set up a plywood sign on her lawn just a few days after the tragedy; it read “Shanksville remembers the Heroes of Flight 93”. Messages were soon added by other residents and visitors, and tributes in the form of flowers, wreaths, candles, American flags and more, quickly piled up. 

More tributes were placed at a spot that the media had used to report from; closer to the crash site, but still some distance from it; then in November a temporary memorial was opened on Skyline Road, about 400 yards from the crash site. It fell to Barbara Black, the curator of the county historical society, to collect and catalogue these tributes. In doing so, she often found herself acting as a guide to visitors, since there was no formal memorial and no information otherwise available. Eventually, a team of volunteers was organised to provide that information.

Another resident placed a flag on the chain-link fence surrounding the site, to mark where the plane had actually crashed, while students from a nearby community built benches to allow visitors to sit and contemplate the site, and a Pennsylvania-based company donated forty slate angels marked with the names of the passengers and crew.

The next step in the creation of the national memorial was a design competition; more than a thousand entries came from a wide range of entrants around the world. A jury of design professionals, family members and national and community leaders eventually chose the design submitted by Paul Murdoch Architects and Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects.

As described in McMillan’s book:

“Murdoch determined almost immediately that a traditional monument would not work. It would interrupt the pastoral serenity and be dwarfed by the sprawling, 2,200 acre landscape designated for the national memorial. The idea he developed was to incorporate the features of the land into an understated memorial that would honor the heroism of the victims while fitting comfortably against the backdrop of “this special part of the state”.”

The design was originally called “Crescent of Embrace”; the natural topography of the site creates a bowl shape encircling the crash site. Murdoch planned a curving walkway of native red maple trees, leading to the viewing area. A white marble wall, bearing the names of the passengers and crew, would mark the final flight path, while a 93-foot (28m) Tower of Voices would bear forty wind chimes.

“This was not a memorial on the National Mall or something commemorating an event that happened somewhere else in the world. It was where the crash occurred. It was already a place of sanctity. What we tried to do was frame it up – set up a series of experiences for the visitors when they arrive there and not preempt it or overwhelm it with the design. We didn’t want to get in the way. What happened on September 11 was very much rooted in the land there.”

However, while the families approved the design when it was revealed, controversy would follow. It came from, obviously, the internet. A blogger pointed out that a crescent was used as a symbol of Islam – accusing Murdoch of creating a shrine to the hijackers. Others joined in, adding theories that the Tower of Voices was an Islamic sundial, and that the site had been designed to point towards Mecca. All of these claims were utterly unfounded, but Murdoch still took steps to defuse the controversy in his refinement of the final design; he began calling it “Circle of Embrace” instead, and added other native trees to the red maples, so that it could not be seen as an Islamic red crescent.

“The landform of that bowl at the crash site, that circle, is what we were always working with. And it was so obvious that everything was already oriented toward the crash site, to put the focus on the hallowed ground.”

Gordie Felt, speaking for the Families of Flight 93, said, “It’s actually offensive that anyone would think the memorial would be created for any other reason than to honor the passengers and crew.”

And this was not the only time that extreme views collided with the Flight 93 story. As with the other events of 9/11, conspiracy theorists would go wild. Some claimed that Flight 93 had actually been shot down, despite the fact that the military didn’t even know that the plane had been hijacked until after it had crashed, and eyewitnesses clearly saw the plane, on its own, before the crash. Others – fuelled by comments about how little they found of the victims – claimed that the plane had actually landed in Cleveland and let everybody off. This theory may also partly arise from the fact that another flight in the same vicinity, Delta 1989, had for a while been suspected of being another hijack, and it did land in Cleveland.

Despite the fact that all the evidence is against them, some still believe such theories.

The groundbreaking for the memorial took place on November the 7th, 2009, with four family members, aged nine, 13, 21 and 22, helping to ceremonially turn the dirt, and with funds donated by more than 100,000 people, it opened to the public on September the 10th, 2011. Former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and then-Vice President Joe Biden, were amongst the dignitaries at the dedication ceremony.

Each paid homage to the passengers and crew of Flight 93.

Bush said:

“With their selfless act, the men and women who stormed the cockpit lived out the words, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” We’ll never know how many innocent people might have been lost, but we do know this: Americans are alive today because the passengers and crew of Flight 93 chose to act, and our nation will be forever grateful.”

Clinton said:

“They allowed us to survive as a country that could fight terror and still maintain liberty and still welcome people from all over the world, from every religion and race and culture, as long as they shared our values… all because ordinary people, given no time to decide, did the right thing.”

Biden specifically addressed the families.

“My prayer for you is that ten years later, their memory is able to bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. And I hope you take comfort in knowing that a grateful nation understands that your loved ones gave their lives in pursuit of the noblest of earthly goals: defending their country, defending their families, sacrificing their lives so we could live ours.”

Two of the FBI agents who had led the investigation raised an American flag over the memorial; the same flag which had flown over the Capitol building on September 11.

On Monday, September 12th, the memorial closed again; this was to allow the families to attend a private burial service. Three caskets of unidentifiable remains were interred there, officially making the memorial the final resting place for the heroes of Flight 93.

One of the key factors in the United 93 story is delay; the plane was delayed for 42 minutes before taking off, and for some reason the hijackers waited a further 46 minutes before taking action. American 11 had been hijacked 15 minutes after take-off, and the other two planes within about half an hour. Without those delays, the passengers would not have had time to find out about the other attacks, realise what was planned for them, and decide to launch their counter-attack.

So why did the hijackers on Flight 93 wait so long? It’s possible that they were waiting for the cockpit door to be opened in the natural routine of the flight, but it’s also possible that one of them had lingering doubts. Ziad Jarrah, the pilot hijacker, had maintained a connection with his German girlfriend, Aysel Sengun right up until the last. They had discussed marriage and children – something obviously incompatible with his participation in the 9/11 attack – and he had called her just before boarding that day. 

She later told a court that the call was very brief. 

“He said he loved me three times. I asked what was up. He hung up shortly afterwards – It was so short and rather strange him saying that repeatedly.”

He had also written a letter to her, which fell into the hands of the FBI due to a mistake in the address. In it, he wrote:

“I do not want you to be sad. I am still alive somewhere, where you cannot see and hear me, but I will see you and know how you are doing. I will wait for you until you come to me. There comes a time for everyone to make a move. It is my fault that I gave you so many hopes about marriage, wedding, children, family and many other things. I am what you wish for, but unfortunately you must wait a little bit until we will be together again. I did not flee from you, but did what I was supposed to do.”

And herein perhaps lies the ultimate tragedy of 9/11; that anyone could become so extreme in their views that they come to believe such horrific acts are somehow justified. The hijackers were by no means innocent, but they were controlled from afar by those who twisted religion into hatred. They were, themselves, twisted into weapons and directed to kill. It was not the first time that extremism caused devastation, and it would not be the last; but the actions of the people onboard Flight 93 give us hope that terror will not always prevail.


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