Sunday Mail (Queensland, Australia) - November 4, 2001, Sunday
"In case I don't make it through please tell my family how much I love them ..."
Andrew Alderson, Susan Bisset
From the time the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 first buckled their seat belts at 8am on September 11, until 10.04am, when the plane nosedived into a disused quarry in Pennsylvania, 26 calls were made from the telephones fitted into the back of the Boeing 757's seats. One was being monitored by the FBI. No one knows how many were made on the passengers' own mobile telephones. The calls were made to relatives, friends and the emergency services. Some were made to telephone answering machines to record final expressions of love. Most were made in the 20 minutes before the plane crashed and tell the extraordinary story of how the passengers and crew, knowing that three other planes had already been used as guided missiles, were going to fight back against the hijackers. It is a story that has never been told in full before.
ANDREW ALDERSON and SUSAN BISSET report
CROUCHED out of sight behind a row of aircraft seats and speaking in a whisper, Sandra Bradshaw made the most difficult phone call of her life.
It was to her husband, Phil, a pilot, who was looking after their children Alexandria, 2, and Nathan, 1, at their home in North Carolina. It was from United Airlines Flight UA93, which 25 minutes earlier had become the fourth US plane to be hijacked on September 11.
Mrs Bradshaw, a petite 158cm flight attendant with long blonde hair and a warm smile, was nervous but calm: "My aeroplane has been hijacked by three guys with knives and we are in the back getting together some hot water to throw on them. Have you got any ideas?"
Her husband was stunned. "I was in such shock that I wasn't able to think of anything to help her," Mr Bradshaw said.
"I wrote down her flight number and asked her to describe the guys.
"She said she saw one of them. He was sitting in the back of first class, a short guy with a dark complexion. When they stood up they put red bandannas around their heads.
"She told me that the plane had turned around and she did not know who was flying the aeroplane or where they were but she could see a river and I assume that was the Ohio in Pittsburg."
She also broke the news to him that two other planes had been flown into the World Trade Centre in New York. What she wanted to know from her husband was how to deal with the crisis.
Just metres away from Mrs Bradshaw and equally keen not to be seen by the hijackers as he used a seat-back phone was Todd Beamer, 32, an accounts manager from New Jersey.
Married with two sons, he had decided not to call his pregnant wife, Lisa, because he did not want to worry her with bad news.
Instead, he phoned the switchboard of GTE-Verizon, which provides the seat-back phone service on United Airlines flights. The first person he spoke to was the operator but she became too traumatised to continue when she realised what was happening.
Lisa Jefferson, a supervisor, took over; nothing in her training manual or her 18 years in the job had prepared her for the next 15 minutes.
"When I took over the call there was a gentleman on the phone, very calm, soft-spoken. I introduced myself to him as Mrs Jefferson. 'I understand this plane is being hijacked? Could you please give me detailed information as to what's going on?'," she said.
"He told me there were three people that had taken over the plane, two with knives and one with a bomb strapped around his waist with a red belt. The two with knives had locked themselves into the cockpit. They had ordered everyone to sit down."
Mrs Jefferson said that Mr Beamer had been talking from a seat at the back of the plane.
"The hijacker with the bomb pulled the curtain to first class so they couldn't see what was going on. But he did see two people lying on the floor of first class. He couldn't tell if they were dead or alive.
"The flight attendant told him she was pretty sure it was the pilot and co-pilot.
"I told him if he thought his life would be in jeopardy from being on the line with me, to just put the phone down, but try not to hang up, just leave the line on so I could at least hear what was going on. And he said he was fine.
"He was very free to talk and he was calm all the way through our conversation. He asked me, did I know what they wanted? Did they want money or ransom or what? I told him that I really didn't know. I didn't have a clue."
Mrs Jefferson said she did not tell him about the other hijackings of three planes. Nor did he mention them.
"I didn't tell him because I didn't want him to get upset, excited or lose control and I still felt that they had hope."
By midway through the call, the FBI was listening in and the pressure on Mrs Jefferson was growing.
"I asked him his name. He told me, 'Todd Beamer from Cranbury, New Jersey.' And at that point his voice went up a little bit because he said, 'We are going down. No, wait. We are coming back up. We're turning around, we're going north. We are going north. At this point, I don't know where we are going. I don't know. I really don't know. Oh, Jesus, please help us.'
"Then he told me, 'In case I don't make it through this, would you please do me a favour and call my wife and my family, and let them know how much I love them.' He told me he had two boys, David and Andrew. Then he said his wife was also expecting."
As they discussed his family, the plane was being flown erratically. "You could tell in his voice that he was very nervous but he was calm. And he just made a holler, 'Oh, God.' Then he said, 'Lisa.'
"I had not given him my name because I introduced myself as Mrs Jefferson. And I responded by saying, 'Yes.' And he said: 'Oh, that's my wife's name.' And I told him, 'Oh, and that's my name, too, Todd.' "
Then Mr Beamer again made Mrs Jefferson promise to call his wife in the event that "I don't make it".
"I promised him I would do that. When the plane was flying erratically, he thought he had lost conversation with me. And he was hollering in the phone, 'Lisa, Lisa.'
"And I said, 'I am still here, Todd. I'm not going anywhere, I'll be here as long as you will.' "
The calls made by Todd Beamer and Sandra Bradshaw were just two of many made by the 44 crew and passengers as UA93 made its 180-degree turn and headed for Washington.
For all of them, the day had begun before dawn. They rose before 5am to catch trains, taxis and buses to Newark international airport, 26km from the centre of New York. All had the same initial destination: Terminal A, Gate 17.
Mrs Bradshaw made one of the shortest journeys, from a nearby hotel where she had spent the night. She had travelled up to Newark the previous afternoon to see her husband.
The flight he piloted touched down and they snatched 15 minutes together. They talked about their children and bemoaned that they were to be apart again.
Mr Bradshaw was particularly frustrated that he could not be with his wife, 38, and the couple parted frostily.
"I begged her to come back home and not go to work," he said. "I had been gone for four days and then she was going to be away for three days. I just wanted her to come home and spend some time with us. She said she had to work because she wanted some time off for her school reunion at the end of the month."
A determination to fulfil work and other commitments meant that two pilots, five flight attendants and 37 passengers -- including four would-be hijackers (two pilots and two guards, one of whose movements could not be seen by the passengers after the hijack) -- made their way to catch Flight UA93 for San Francisco on that sunny Tuesday morning.
Todd Beamer had been due to fly to San Francisco for a business meeting the day before but had decided to spend an extra night with his wife and David, 3, and Andrew, 1.
That morning he kissed his wife, who is expecting their third child in January, and set off in good time to take his seat in first class along with nine other passengers in the front of the Boeing. There were 27 passengers in economy class, leaving more than 140 empty seats.
The plane took off at 8.42am, 42 minutes late because of air traffic. It quickly climbed to more than 10,000m and the pilot, Captain Jason Dahl, switched off the "fasten seat belts lights". Flight attendants began serving drinks and a light breakfast 20 minutes into the trip.
As Flight UA93 travelled west at 890km/h in near-perfect flying conditions on its five-hour journey, three other East Coast flights were hijacked in quick succession. At 8.45am, American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Centre. At 9.06, United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston to New York slammed into the south tower. And at 8.56am, American Airlines Flight 77, from Washington to Los Angeles, was hijacked and turned back towards the capital.
In the cockpit of Flight UA93, Captain Dahl, 43, who had learnt to fly before he could drive, and Leroy Homer, 36, the first officer, received a radioed text message from air traffic control in Chicago that other planes had been hijacked. "Beware cockpit intrusion," it said.
At approximately 9.15am, they typed a one-word reply: "Confirmed."
At 9.28am, Ziad Samir Jarrah, Ahmed Ibrahim al-Haznawi, Saeed Alghamdi and Ahmed Alnami, all in their 20s, made their move. Air traffic controllers on the ground heard muffled screams and shouting in the cockpit. "Hey, get out of here," one of the pilots yelled.
Within seconds, Dahl and Homer had been overpowered, stabbed -- possibly fatally but certainly critically -- and dragged into first class. An announcement was made from the cockpit: "This is your captain speaking. Remain in your seat. Stay quiet. We are returning to the airport."
Soon the passengers and remaining crew were herded to the back of the plane by the hijackers, all wearing red bandannas. At 9.35am, with the hijackers in control of the plane, Flight UA93 turned nearly 180 degrees back on its flight path. Its new destination appeared to be Ronald Reagan International Airport, Washington.
Two of the hijackers -- almost certainly Jarrah, 26, a trained pilot, and al-Haznawi --flew the plane. Another remained at the curtains dividing first and second class, while a fourth may have been with the two dead, or dying, pilots. The passengers, some standing, some seated, began talking nervously in the back rows.
It quickly became clear that with their guard more than 13m away, passengers and crew could make calls from the seat-back phones and on their own mobiles undetected.
The man most active on the phone was Thomas Burnett Jr, 38, a senior vice-president of a medical research company. He was returning to his home in California after a business trip.
His wife, Deena, was a former flight attendant who had given up work when they started a family. They had twins, Halley and Madison, 5, and a third daughter, Anna Clare, 3. Mr Burnett's calls were short and to the point. When he rang his wife, she asked if he was all right.
"No," he said. "I'm on an aeroplane, United Flight 93, and it's been hijacked. A guy has been knifed and they have a bomb on board. Please call the authorities." He then hung up.
Mrs Burnett called 911, the US emergency number, and the operator put her in touch with the FBI. A call-waiting prompt alerted her to the fact that her husband was back on the line.
"He asked me about the World Trade Centre. He asked if it was a passenger airliner and I said I didn't know. He said, 'OK. I have to go.' "
Mrs Burnett had her television on and could see what had happened to the other three hijacked planes. "I remember hugging the telephone, waiting for it to ring, and a reporter on TV said that there was a plane that had just hit the Pentagon. I just remember waiting, thinking that it was my husband's flight."
As she began to sob, the phone rang again. "It was Tom. I was so relieved." When she told him that she had informed the FBI, he replied: "We can't wait for the authorities." She said: "He was pumping me for information. His adrenalin was flowing and he was just trying to sort it out. I think he realised much sooner than I did that it was a suicide mission." Then he hung up.
Jeremy Glick, 31, a website sales manager and former judo champion from New Jersey, called his wife, Lyz, who was staying with their three-month-old daughter Emmy at her father's home.
He provided descriptions of the hijackers and their weapons. Mrs Glick managed to set up a three-way conversation with the police.
"He said, 'Lyz, I need to know something. One of the other passengers has talked to their spouse and he has said they were crashing planes into the World Trade Centre. Is that true?' "
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Mrs Glick hesitated. "You need to be strong," she replied, "but, yes, they are doing that."
As Mr Glick realised he was not a hostage but part of a guided missile, he began formulating a plan with two other men, now identified as Tom Burnett and Mark Bingham, 31, from San Francisco, who ran a public relations company.
All were tall, well-built and fit. As they discussed attacking the hijackers, Mrs Glick said: "Honey, you need to do it."
He joked about using a plastic butter knife as a weapon. Then he said: "Stay on the line, I'll be back." Mrs Glick was so upset that she handed the phone to her father.
It was now about 9.50am, and Todd Beamer, still on the line to Lisa Jefferson, had come to the conclusion that he ought to do something to prevent the plane reaching its intended target. Yet he was reluctant to break his call to the sympathetic stranger on the other end of the line.
"He wanted me to recite the Lord's Prayer with him. And he did. He recited the Lord's Prayer from start to finish," said Mrs Jefferson, who spoke the words with him for comfort.
"From that point, he said, he's going to have to go out on faith because 'they're talking about jumping the guy with the bomb'."
Mr Beamer then sighed long and loud down the line. He was still holding the phone but he had turned to speak to other passengers. Then he said: "You ready? OK. Let's roll."
At the same time, 10am, Tom Burnett had made his fourth and final call to his wife. "OK. There's a group of us and we're going to do something," he said. Mrs Burnett said: "No. Please sit down and be still, be quiet, don't draw attention to yourself."
Mr Burnett was adamant. "If they are going to drive this plane into the ground, we've got to do something."
Sandra Bradshaw, the flight attendant, was also finishing her call to her husband. "We talked about how much we loved each other and our children," Mr Bradshaw remembers.
"Then she said, 'Everyone is running to first class, I've got to go. Bye.' Those were the last words I heard from her."
The action that was to end in death had begun. Passengers and crew knew that if they did nothing the plane would most likely be aimed into a symbolic target, such as the White House.
They were all about to die, so better to bring the plane down in open country than provide the terrorists with another coup.
As the back-seat rebels advanced on the hijackers, some armed with boiling water, three F16 fighter planes, each loaded with six air-to-air missiles, were closing on Flight UA93, having been scrambled from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia at 9.30am.
"Protect the White House at all costs," the three pilots were told by an anonymous voice on their headsets, identified only as being "with the Secret Service".
There were rumours that Flight UA93 had been downed by the US Air Force but the passengers and crew of UA93 had done the job themselves.
Just after 10am, Flight UA93 began to nosedive before flipping on its side. At 10.04, it crashed in rural Pennsylvania. There were no survivors.
The plane's voice recorder and flight data black box have been recovered, but the Federal Aviation Authority and the FBI refuse to comment on their investigations. Officials close to the inquiry say the conversations before the plane crashed are garbled but it appeared the passengers had succeeded in reaching the cockpit.
One of the most puzzling aspects of Flight UA93's journey is why the hijackers waited so long to make their move.
Allowing the plane to head west for 43 minutes meant a lengthy return leg. It gave the passengers and crew the vital time to group together, work out a plan and act.
The cockpit doors on all American planes are locked during flights, and the hijackers may simply have been waiting for one of the pilots to open the door or for one of the flight attendants to take refreshments to the two pilots.
According to David Learmount, the operations and safety editor of Flight International magazine, that was a likely scenario if the hijackers decided not to opt for putting a knife to the throat of a stewardess and trying to persuade the pilots to open the cockpit door.
The FBI is also puzzled that UA93 was the only hijacked flight that had four, not five, terrorists on board. It is possible that a fifth man failed to turn up, thereby confusing those on board.
Today the families and friends of the victims of Flight UA93 are left with photographs and memories of their loved ones. But there is also a pride in their courage at tackling the hijackers to save the lives of scores, possibly hundreds, of people in Washington. Already, there is talk of bravery awards for those on board.
Lisa Beamer said of her husband: "Todd was an ordinary guy. He was extraordinary to me and to his family, but to the world he was ordinary. And like any ordinary guy getting on a plane that day in a business suit he was able to do extraordinary things."
Phil Bradshaw is daunted by the prospect of bringing up two young children without his wife. "She was a beautiful lady. Her whole personality drew me towards her. She was a wonderful person.
"We had a loving and caring relationship and I miss her very much. There are certain people who are made for certain people and Sandy was made for me."