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The Final Moments of United Flight 93
“We’re going to do something,” one of the passengers told his wife during a final phone call. Then a group of strangers banded together and took on the hijackers
By Karen Breslau
Newsweek Web Exclusive
Updated: 11:09 a.m. ET Sept. 22, 2001

Sept. 22 - United Flight 93 was late. After pushing off from the gate at 8:01 a.m., the Boeing 757 made its way slowly through the runway traffic at Newark International, finally taking off at 8:41 a.m., 40 minutes behind schedule. In the first-class cabin, Mark Bingham, a San Francisco publicist, had settled into his seat. Next to him was Tom Burnett, an executive for a health-care company in the Bay Area. It was a routine flight for both men. Bingham shuttled regularly between New York and San Francisco, working with technology companies; Burnett was on his way home from a business trip.

FURTHER BACK in the business-class cabin, Jeremy Glick, a 31-year-old sales manager for an Internet company, was in Row 11. Behind him sat Lou Nacke, a toy-company manager on his way to Sacramento for a day trip. In the main cabin was Todd Beamer, 32, a manager for software giant Oracle, headed from his home in New Jersey to the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters.

There was, in airline parlance, a “light load” that morning. Only 37 of the plane’s 182 seats were occupied. Some of the passengers had never planned to be on the flight. Nacke had booked his seat only the night before. Out to dinner with his family, he had a received a phone call from one of his customers who needed help with an inventory problem. Nacke rarely traveled, but, reluctant to let his client down, he planned to make a one-day trip to California, returning on the red-eye late Tuesday night.

Jeremy Glick was supposed to have been on Flight 93 a day earlier, but missed the Monday flight after getting stuck in traffic on his way to Newark Airport. It was his first business trip in months. Since the birth of his daughter, Emmy, three months ago, he had been reluctant to leave home. But there was a conference in San Francisco, and his wife had urged him to get back to work and stop worrying about the baby. Another passenger, Lauren Grandcolas was on her way home to Marin County, north of San Francisco, after attending her grandmother’s funeral in New Jersey. Originally scheduled on a later flight, she had been pleasantly surprised to easily get a standby seat on Flight 93 at the airport. “I can’t wait to see you,” she told her husband Jack in a message she left on the couple’s answering machine before dawn in California, telling him she would be home a few hours early.

At 8:45 a.m., four minutes after takeoff, Flight 93 was still climbing to cruising altitude, moving west across Pennsylvania, when, in New York, American Airlines Flight 11 plowed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. At that same instant, hijackers were already in control of other aircraft. United Flight 175, which had taken off from Boston a minute earlier than Flight 11, was making a sharp turn over northern New Jersey, bearing down on the South Tower. American Airlines Flight 77, which had taken off for Los Angeles from Dulles at 8:10 a.m., had made its own U-turn in the skies over Kentucky, and was headed back toward Washington.

All three of these aircraft were under the control of the Boston air-traffic control center, which handles airline traffic in New England and New York airspace. While the Boston controllers were trying to deal with the three planes’ abrupt changes in course, bomb threats were being called in to the center. Cleveland, which takes control of flights as they pass into the Midwest, was receiving similar threats. Officials suspect that the bomb threats were intended to add to the chaos, distracting controllers from tracking the hijacked planes.

By 9:35 a.m., both towers of the World Trade Center are in flames and Flight 77 is bearing down on the Pentagon. At this time, NEWSWEEK has learned, air-traffic controllers at the Cleveland center are listening “over the frequency,” the radio contact between cockpit and control center. They hear screams aboard the flight. Then a gap of 40 seconds with no sound. Then more screams. Then a voice, nearly unintelligible, saying something like “bomb on board.”

The controllers try to contact the plane, asking the pilot, Capt. Jason Dahl, to verify his altitude. There is no response from the cockpit. Minutes later, at 9:38 am, the plane makes a hairpin turn just south of Cleveland and heads for Washington. Air-traffic controllers hear a man, in thickly accented English saying “This is your captain. There is a bomb on board. We are returning to the airport.”

It’s possible the passengers never hear the false warning. The hijacker was accidentally speaking into a cockpit microphone that air-traffic controllers could hear, not the public-address system.

In the passenger cabin, it is bedlam. Three men wearing red bandannas are in control. The passengers had been herded to the back of the plane, near the galley. Burnett calls his wife, Deena, in California, where she is preparing breakfast for the couple’s three young daughters. “We’re being hijacked” he tells her, before giving the flight number and telling her to call authorities. When Tom calls back a few minutes later, Deena has the FBI on the phone. She patches Tom through so he can describe the men directly.

There are other phone calls. Jeremy Glick calls his wife, Lyz, in New York to say that three “Iranian looking” men, one with a red box strapped to his waist, have taken control of the plane and to call the authorities. He asks if it’s true, as he’s heard from another passenger, that two other planes have crashed into the World Trade Center.

How to help -- information on who to contact
From the back of the plane, Todd Beamer tries to use his credit card on an Airfone installed in one of the seatbacks, but cannot get authorization. His call is automatically routed to the Verizon customer-service center in Oakbrook, Ill. Although operators are used to crank calls from seatback phones, it is clear to the operator that Beamer’s report of a hijacking is genuine. His call is immediately sent to Verizon supervisor Lisa Jefferson who alerts the FBI. When Jefferson gets on the line at 9:45 a.m., she immediately begins interviewing Beamer. “What is your flight number? What is the situation? Where are the crew members?”

Beamer tells Jefferson that one passenger is dead. He doesn’t know about the pilots. One hijacker is in the rear of the plane, claiming to have a bomb strapped to his body. The conversation is urgent, but calm. Then Beamer says, “Oh my God, I think we’re going down.” Then adds, “No, we’re just turning.” At this point, investigators theorize, one of the hijackers was flying erratically. The plane plunges from its assigned altitude and the transponder is turned off.

The crash site in Shanksville, Penn.

Mark Bingham uses an Airfone to call his mother, Alice Hoglan, who is still asleep at her brother’s home in Saratoga, Calif., having been up late the night before caring for triplets. “Mom, this is Mark Bingham,” he tells her, so rattled he uses his last name. Bingham describes the situation for his mother, a United Airlines flight attendant. The call lasts about three minutes. Twice during the call, says Alice, “Mark was distracted. There was a five-second pause. I heard people speaking. There was murmuring, nothing loud.” She theorizes that Mark was talking to the other men, and planning to fight back.

“We’re going to do something. I know I’m not going to get out of this.”

— TODD BEAMER
At around the same time, Todd Beamer is telling the operator that the men plan “to jump” the hijacker in the back, claiming to have a bomb. “We’re going to do something,” Beamer tells operator Lisa Jefferson. “I know I’m not going to get out of this.” He asks Jefferson to recite the Lord’s Prayer with him. The last words Jefferson hears are “Are you ready guys? Let’s roll.”

It’s unclear when, in all of the telephony, Glick, Beamer, Bingham, Burnett and Nacke hatched their plot. It is also unclear if they attacked just once, or twice, first taking out the hijacker claiming to have the bomb, then storming the cockpit. Crucial evidence, NEWSWEEK has learned, may come from yet another phone call made by a passenger. Elizabeth Wainio, 27, was speaking to her stepmother in Maryland. Another passenger, she explains, had loaned her a cell phone and told her to call her family. “I have to go,” Wainio says, cutting the call short. “They’re about to storm the cockpit” referring to her fellow passengers.

Nacke is the only member of the group who is not known to have made a phone call, although his wife, Amy, did have a message on her answering machine that contained only noise and a click. United Airlines later told his family that he was apparently one of the fighters. “If you knew Lou,” says Nacke’s father-in-law, Dr. Robert Weisberg, “he never would have been far from the action.”

This much we know, they were big guys: Bingham was a 6-foot-4 rugby player; Glick, also a rugby player and judo champion; Beamer was 6 foot 1 and 200 pounds, and Nacke was a 5-foot-9, 200-pound weightlifter with a “Superman” tattoo on his shoulder. Investigators are operating on the theory that the men somehow made their way up 100 feet from the rear of the plane into the cockpit. The last transmission recorded is someone, probably a hijacker, screaming “Get out of here. Get out of here.” Then grunting, screaming and scuffling. Then silence.

With Mark Hosenball

© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

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