Times Herald (Port Huron, MI) - September 11, 2002 Wednesday
On Sept. 11, a little town in the heart of America changed forever
a thousand flags
By MIKE CONNELL
SKYLINE DRIVE, as its name implies, climbs quickly to high ground, where it wends through a bucolic precinct of covered bridges, dairy farms and maple groves. It also crosses a grassy hillside, a treeless and surreal landscape, the site of a reclaimed strip mine.
This is hallowed ground.
This is where United Airlines Flight 93 fell from the sky Sept. 11, brought down as its passengers rebelled against the suicide hijackers who meant to crash them into an unknown target, most likely the U.S. Capitol or the White House.
"It is a kind of Gettysburg for the first heroes of the war on terrorism," said Bernadine Healy, former president of the American Red Cross.
The chosen few
At 8:42 a.m., when Flight 93 took off from Newark International Airport on a nonstop flight to San Francisco, it carried a pilot, copilot, five flight attendants and just 37 passengers in its 182 seats.
Four of the passengers - a Lebanese pilot and his three Saudi cohorts - sat in first class with one-way tickets. Not quite 40 minutes into the flight, as the jetliner flew nearly seven miles above northwestern Pennsylvania, the hijackers tied red bandanas around their heads and seized control of the aircraft.
Investigators believe they killed two people, slitting their throats with box cutters or razors. The victims may have been Deborah Welsh, the flight purser, and Mickey Rothenberg, the only passenger in first class who did not place a phone call during the hijacking.
The hijackers also stormed the cockpit, overpowering pilot Jason Dahl and first officer LeRoy Homer Jr. They may have slit their throats as well. The officers' voices were last heard at 9:28 a.m.
Most of the surviving passengers and crew were herded to the rear of the Boeing 757 by a hijacker who claimed to be carrying a bomb. At 9:39 a.m., the hijacker pilot - 25-year-old Ziad Samir Jarrah - spoke on the cockpit intercom. He said they were returning to the airport in Newark, and he told the captives they would not be harmed if they cooperated.
For Jarrah and his lieutenants, the hijacking had gone more or less as planned. And yet it was about to unravel for two main reasons:
Because of runway congestion, Flight 93 had left Newark 41 minutes late. Had the jetliner left as scheduled, at 8:01 a.m., it might have been crashing into the Capitol or the White House at 9:39 a.m. rather than flying above the Lake Erie shoreline near Cleveland, where Jarrah made a hairpin turn and set a course for Washington, D.C.
The delay also meant the passengers, who made numerous calls from seat-back phones and cell phones, got word of the attacks on the World Trade Center. They understood the hijackers meant to use the plane as a guided missile. They knew they must fight or die.
Although only 17 men survived the seizure of the aircraft, it was as if heaven had chosen them for this moment. Most of them were former athletes: a judo champion, two collegiate wrestlers, a rugby star, a competitive swimmer, two baseball standouts, a football linebacker, two weightlifters.
"The terrorists were slight men, smaller than the former athletes aboard Flight 93, and, as a group, they may not have been as well trained in self-defense as some of the passengers," wrote Jere Longman, a New York Times reporter and author of Among the Heroes.
Kenny Nacke, a Baltimore police officer whose brother almost certainly helped lead the rebellion, has listened to the cockpit recording. He said the passengers' voices contained "no fear, all pure anger. ? I don't think they thought they would lose."
The Allegheny Tableland, a high plateau, extends from the northeast edge of West Virginia across the western tip of Maryland and into southern Pennsylvania near Mount Davis, the state's highest point.
The Tableland is known for its whitewater rivers and its deep winter snows, for its highland glades and its buckwheat fields, for its maple syrup and the potato chips made at tiny Berlin. It's coal country and farm country, cleaved by the Mason-Dixon Line, crossed by the National Road (U.S. 40) and the Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30). It's perhaps the most Wesleyan region of the nation, with Methodists making up more than half the population of some of its counties.
It has known its share of hard times and disaster, from the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 to the Johnstown Flood of 1889 to this summer's mine disaster at Quecreek, a near-tragedy with a miraculous ending.
Hard times aside, it's inviting country, well-tended and fecund, dotted with place names such as Hickory Hollow and Pleasant Lane. The Tableland seems as remote from terrorism as a place can be.
10 hectic, heroic minutes
The rebellion aboard Flight 93 began at 9:53 a.m. and ended 10 minutes later when the jetliner, traveling at 575 mph, smashed into the old strip mine on Skyline Drive. The 150-foot aircraft crumpled like a squeezed accordion and dug a crater 35 feet deep.
All that happened in those 10 hectic, heroic minutes can never be known with certainty, although the phone calls from passengers contain many clues.
Jeremy Glick, 31, a star wrestler in high school and a national champion in judo's 172-pound class at the University of Rochester, told his wife, Lyz, that passengers were voting on whether to attack the hijackers.
"Honey, you need to do it," his wife told him.
He joked he was ready: He had saved his butter knife from breakfast.
Investigators believe Glick, who named his baby daughter, Emerson, after his favorite poet, was a leader of the rebellion. So was Tom Burnett, 38, father of three young daughters and chief operating officer of Thorater Corp., which manufactures heart pumps.
"Pray, just pray, Deena," he told his wife. "We're going to do something. I'll call you back."
Louis Nacke, 42, the brother of the Baltimore policeman, also is known to have been involved in the counter-attack. He was a 200-pounder with a Superman tattoo and a reputation as a brawler.
Fighting beside him was Mark Bingham, 31, a gay man from San Francisco who stood 6-foot-5 and who had played for two national championship rugby teams at the University of California. He liked to quote his team's motto, taken from Shakespeare's Henry V: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother."
The little band of rebel passengers also may have included Donald Greene, 52, a licensed pilot who had wrestled at Brown; Andrew Garcia, 62, a former air-traffic controller and wrestler at San Jose State; Alan Beaven, 48, a New Zealand lawyer and avid outdoorsman; ironworker and former paratrooper Bill Cashman, 60; Toskiya Kuge, 20, a college student who loved American football and played linebacker for a club team in Tokyo; Joe DeLuca, 52, a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder who raced cars as a hobby; Edward Felt, 41, a champion swimmer in college who stayed in shape with frequent four-mile runs; and Richard Guadagno, 38, a federal park ranger who could bench press 350 pounds and who had been trained in hand-to-hand combat. He was returning home from New Jersey where he had helped his grandmother celebrate her 100th birthday.
And it wasn't only the men who fought. Women joined the charge, too.
Flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw, 38, snuck into the galley where she filled pitchers with boiling water. When the attack began, she was on the phone with her husband, "Everyone's running to first class," she said. "I've got to go."
Honor Wainio, 27, also ended a call, telling her stepmother, "I need to go. They're getting ready to break into the cockpit. Goodbye."
Most famously, Todd Beamer, 32, wrapped up his lengthy conversation with Lisa Jefferson, an operator for GTE-Verizon. She said she could hear an "awful commotion" in the background with people screaming: "Help us, Jesus" and "God help us."
As she listened, Beamer turned away from the phone to speak to someone. The last words Jefferson heard him say have become synonymous with Flight 93: "You ready? ? OK. Let's roll."
Charging the cockpit
Investigators suspect the rebels overpowered the single hijacker who guarded them at the rear of the plane. Then they charged forward, pushing a food cart to use as a battering ram against the cockpit door.
In his book, Longman wrote, "In the final minutes of the flight, the voice recorder picked up a desperate commotion, a feral struggle, rustling and scuffling, grunting, a groan, shouts in English and Arabic, the sound of crashing dishes and breaking glass."
Although family members have heard the cockpit voice recording, it has not been made public. Prosecutors do not wish to reveal the full contents of the voice recorder until the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman known as the "20th hijacker."
Family members said the recording is difficult to follow, a jumble of people shouting in English and Arabic. The hijackers began praying: "Allah akbar," or "God is great."
Phil Bradshaw, husband of the flight attendant who boiled the water, said it seemed clear to him the passengers did reach and retake the cockpit.
"They just didn't have enough altitude to mess around with what was going on. ? They just didn't have enough time," he said.
The last transmission, according to Newsweek magazine, was of a hijacker, perhaps Jarrah, screaming, "Get out of here! Get out of here!"
Too fast, too low
Flight 93 was all but doomed after Jarrah dropped its altitude from 35,000 feet to less than 10,000 feet. Investigators aren't sure if he hoped to fly low enough to avoid radar, or if he was simply incompetent. It was the first time he had flown a jumbo jet.
He flew at 575 mph - far exceeding the Boeing 757's design limits, which call for a maximum speed of 287 mph at below 10,000 feet.
Even had the passengers regained the controls, experts said, it would have required a miracle to bring the aircraft down safely. At such a low altitude and high speed, there was no room for error.
Flight 93 crashed near the edge of the reclaimed coal mine, the closest thing to an open field in the vicinity. Had the aircraft stayed aloft just 2 or 3 seconds longer, it was on a line to smash into Shanksville-Stonycreek School, where 492 students in kindergarten through 12th grade were attending class that morning.
Lee Purbaugh, a workman at a scrap yard off Skyline Drive, is the only known eyewitness to the crash. He said the wings seemed to rock as the jetliner plunged, at a 45-degree angle, and literally flew into the ground.
When it crashed, Flight 93 was about 20 minutes from Washington. It was 14 minutes from a rendezvous with an F-16 fighter, whose pilot had been ordered by Vice President Dick Cheney to fire heat-seeking missiles if the hijacked jetliner came within 60 miles of the nation's capital.
Cheney later said the decision was painful but clearcut. "I didn't agonize over it," he told The Washington Post.
The crash site is a few miles north of Shanksville, a quaint-looking village of 245 people without a filling station or a fast-food restaurant. There's not much to see. The impact crater has been filled in. The site itself is off-limits to the public.
High above the site, on Diamond-T Coal Co. property, local people have created a makeshift memorial.
It's nothing fancy: A gravel parking lot with metal guardrails, a couple of portable toilets, a chain-link fence 10 feet high and 40 feet long with three sheets of plywood attached to it.
It may not be fancy, but it could not be more moving.
Every inch of the guardrails, every post and pole, is covered in graffiti: "America Remembers" and "Words Fail" and - everywhere - "Let's Roll!"
Someone even scrawled a message on the interior of a urinal: "God Bless the USA."
Hour by hour, day after day, visitors find their way to the memorial. On a genial evening in August, they came from near and far: Kentucky and Connecticut, Michigan and Manitoba, Oklahoma and Georgia.
Many leave trinkets and tokens and totems: Tiny flags. Teddy bears. Laminated poems. Rosaries. Prayer cards. Baseball caps. Police, fire and paramedic patches from places like Pleasant Hill, Ohio, and Sylacauga, Ala. They have adorned every inch of the chain-link fence with messages and mementos.
There are more elaborate gifts, too: a hand-crafted wooden bench; a display of 40 angels, each with the name of a passenger or crew member; a stone marker from Guatemala with the message: "Those gallant passengers and flight crew members ? defeated the coward terrorist hijackers and their intended purpose. We honor you. We admire you. We salute you."
Visitors seem to sense this is hallowed ground. As if visiting a cathedral, they move about in silence, solemnly, tearfully, respectfully. They pause to read messages, to gaze into the valley where the crash site scars the earth.
There is no sound except the crunch of footsteps on gravel, and the flapping of a thousand flags, large and small, as the wind sweeps the hillside.
FLIGHT 93: FROM TAKEOFF TO TAKEOVER
CHRONOLOGY OF SEPT. 11, 2001
(Related events in italics)
7:20 a.m. - First boarding call for United Flight 93, flying nonstop from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco. Among the 37 passengers are four young Middle Eastern men with one-way, first-class tickets.
8 a.m. - American Flight 11 leaves Boston for Los Angeles with 92 people on board.
8:01 a.m. - Flight 93 is scheduled to depart. Although the jetliner leaves its gate on time, takeoff is delayed by heavy runway traffic.
8:14 a.m. - United Flight 175 leaves Boston for Los Angeles with 65 people on board.
8:21 a.m. - American Flight 77 leaves Washington Dulles airport for Los Angeles with 64 people on board.
8:25 a.m. - Boston's air-control tower alerts authorities to the hijacking of American Flight 11, the first word of the Sept. 11 attacks.
8:42 a.m. - Flight 93 departs 41 minutes late. As it turns to the west, the twin towers of Manhattan's World Trade Center are visible off to the right. The flight carries a pilot, copilot, five flight attendants, 33 passengers and four hijackers.
8:46 a.m. - Flight 11 crashes into north tower of World Trade Center.
9:03 a.m. - Flight 175 crashes into south tower of World Trade Center.
9:20 a.m. - The hijacking of Flight 93 begins as it flies at 35,000 feet over northwest Pennsylvania. Passenger Tom Burnett calls his wife, reports the takeover and asks her to contact authorities.
9:28 a.m. - The terrorists seize the cockpit from pilot Jason Dahl and copilot LeRoy Homer Jr. Air controllers in Cleveland overhear one of the pilots angrily shouting, "Get out of here!" Then the cockpit radio goes silent.
9:29 a.m. - Jeremy Glick, a former national collegiate champion in judo, calls his wife and describes the hijackers. She tells him about the attacks in New York City.
9:38 a.m. - Flight 93, now over Cleveland, makes a hairpin turn and heads back toward Pennsylvania.
9:39 a.m. - The hijacker pilot, Ziad Jarrah of Lebanon, gets on the cockpit intercom and in broken English announces there is a bomb aboard. He tells passengers to stay calm and says they are returning to the airport in Newark.
9:40 a.m. - Flight 77 crashes into the Pentagon in northern Virginia.
9:41 a.m. - Marion Britton calls a friend and says the Flight 93 hijackers have slit the throats of two people (possibly flight attendant Deborah Welsh and Mickey Rothenberg, a passenger in first class).
9:45 a.m. - Todd Beamer gets through to Lisa Jefferson, a GTE-Verizon operator. He talks about his family and they recite the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want ?"
9:53 a.m. - Linda Gronlund calls her sister and leaves a message, saying the passengers are aware of the attacks on New York. She says of the hijackers, "I think they're going to try to do something like that with us."
9:57 a.m. - Pilot Jarrah asks one of his fellow terrorists what is going on outside the cockpit. "Fighting," the other hijacker answers. ? Beamer wraps up his conversation with Jefferson, who hears an "awful commotion" in the background with screams such as "Help us, Jesus!" and "God help us!" Beamer turns from the phone to talk with someone. Jefferson hears him say, "You ready? ? OK. Let's roll."
9:58 a.m. - The final battle for control of the plane begins. On the cockpit recorder, the hijackers are heard praying in Arabic. A voice in English shouts, "In the cockpit, the cockpit."
9:59 a.m. - South tower of World Trade Center collapses.
10:03 a.m. - Flight 93, flying at 575 mph and descending at a 45-degree angle, smashes into a reclaimed strip mine in the hills of southern Pennsylvania.
10:28 a.m. - North tower of World Trade Center collapses.
Sources: Newsweek magazine, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Among the Heroes" by Jere Longman