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MSNBC Home » Dateline NBC » Newsmakers
 

Heroes of Flight 93

Astonishing new evidence about how a group of Americans stopped a terrorist attack on Sept. 11

By NBC News
Updated: 2:33 p.m. ET Dec. 8, 2003

July 30 - There’s a spot in Pennsylvania that is hallowed ground —the place where United Flight 93 came down on Sept. 11, taking the lives of 33 passengers and a 7-member crew — people who didn’t die as victims of a terrorist attack, but as the heroes who thwarted it. There’s new evidence that it wasn’t a few, but likely many of them, who not only rose to the occasion, but in a variety of ways were actually prepared for it.

It just reinforces the feeling that everyone lives these lives of quiet dignity. That there’s nobility in the ordinary moments of our lives. And that a person sitting next to you on a plane or a train, or your neighbor or someone, you know, don’t take them for granted,” says Jere Longman, a reporter for “The New York Times.”

When Flight 93 went down in rural Pennsylvania, Longman was among the first reporters on the scene. He has spent the last 10 months trying to learn everything he could about those 40 people we call the heroes of Flight 93. His conclusion? They really were.

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“These were not a group of ordinary people in an extraordinary moment,” says Longman. “They were, as a group, very accomplished people, generally on top of their game.”

But boarding the plane early that morning in Newark, New Jersey, the four hijackers sitting in first class might not have noticed anything special.

‘These were not a group of ordinary people in an extraordinary moment. They were, as a group, very accomplished people, generally on top of their game.’

— AUTHOR JERE LONGMAN
“The hijackers, according to the government, had been casing these flights for months,” says Longman. “And they knew approximately how many people would be on the plane. But they obviously had no idea who these people were. And they picked the wrong plane to hijack because these were ‘Type-A’-type people generally. They had been successful in life because they knew how to make a plan and carry it out, and they were not going to allow someone to force them into something they didn’t want to do.”

After an 8:42 takeoff, Flight 93 to San Francisco progressed on a normal course until about 45 minutes into the flight. At 9:28, air traffic control in Cleveland picked up an odd transmission.

“They hear a scream saying, ‘Get out of here, get out of here!’” says Longman. “Apparently the pilots are being besieged and at one point it’s almost like a blood scream. And then one of the hijackers, apparently Ziad Jarrah, came on thinking he was speaking to the passengers, but it was still on the air traffic control frequency said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ you know, ‘Take your seats, we have a bomb on board.’”

Within minutes, a phone call was made by passenger Tom Burnett, in first class. He spoke quietly, “as if he was being watched.”

“He told his wife, Deena, that a passenger had been stabbed,” says Longman. “And then he called her back and said that the person was dead, that he had tried to perform CPR and couldn’t feel a pulse. By process of elimination, it appears it was a passenger named Mark ‘Mickey’ Rothenberg. His wife believes that as well.”

The hijackers may have been down a man. Each of the other planes was hijacked by five; Flight 93, only four. They herded passengers to the back of the plane, apparently leaving them unguarded, where they began making a plan and at least 30 more phone calls.

38 MINUTES

In his book “Among the Heroes,” Jere Longman draws the most complete picture yet of what happened in those 38 fateful minutes, extrapolating from those calls and fragments of sound on the cockpit voice recorder.

At 9:45, passenger Todd Beamer picked one of the onboard phones and simply dialed zero. His call is received by the GTE customer care center in Chicago and handed to Lisa Jefferson, a 17-year veteran at handling emergencies.

“She told Todd, ‘Just relax, speak easy, if you’re in trouble and you can’t speak directly to me, put the phone down, but don’t hang up. Whatever you do don’t hang up. As long as you’re willing to talk, I’m here with you,’” says Longman.

Word was already circulating among the passengers of planes crashing into the World Trade Center when Jeremy Glick called his wife, Lyz. He told her a group of them had been talking about rushing the cockpit. But executing that plan would require the participation of many more previously unrecognized heroes.

An important premise of Longman’s book is that everybody aboard the plane played some kind of heroic role. How?

“You’ve got people just by their nature who were trained to handle these kinds of situations,” says Longman.

WOMEN HAVEN’T GOTTEN CREDIT

‘As I say, the hijackers could not have picked a worse plane to hijack than this one.’

— JERE LONGMAN
Including women who Longman believes have not had the attention they deserved. Flight attendant CeeCee Lyles was a former cop. And two women were trained Emergency Medical Technicians: Lauren Grandcolas, who was pregnant with her first child; and Linda Gronlund.

“Linda Gronlund had once dislocated her leg, and had set her own kneecap in the driveway while waiting for the ambulance to arrive,” says Longman.

Among the women, who else would have been known as tough?

“Well, there was an elderly woman named Hilda Marcin,” says Longman. “Once a man tried to snatch her purse, and she beat him over the head with her umbrella. She wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself.”

Neither was 4’6” Colleen Fraser.

“She had red spiked hair,” says Longman. “She once commandeered a para-transit bus and drove it down to Washington to browbeat the senators into passing the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

It’s been reported that many passengers were big men. Mark Bingham was a 6’5” rugby player, and Jeremy Glick a judo champion. But Debby Welsh, the senior flight attendant, was six feet tall. She once overpowered a drunken passenger and shoved him into his seat.

And passenger Deora Bodley had been captain of her high school basketball team.

Japanese student Toshiya Kuge was also an athlete. He played American-style football. He was a linebacker.

“He was a huge fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers,” says Longman. “And he actually brought his Pittsburgh Steelers jersey with him on the flight. And the irony is that he died 80 miles from where the Steelers play their games.”

The more you learn, the more these people fit the role we know they would have to play.

“They were very self-directed, determined people who could act independently and also make a plan and carry it out,” says Longman. “As I say, the hijackers could not have picked a worse plane to hijack than this one.”

A POIGNANT CALL

‘The government’s theory is that the passengers did actually reach the cockpit using a food cart as a battering ram and a shield.’

— JERE LONGMAN
Many phone calls made from the plane that morning, and reported for the first time in Jere Longman’s book, show how many more passengers would likely have taken part in the “plan.” One of the most poignant came from 27-year-old Elizabeth Wainio — calling her stepmother, Esther Heymann.

“Elizabeth said this really nice person had handed her the phone and told her to call her family,” says Longman. “Apparently it was Lauren Grandcolas, who had been sitting next to Elizabeth in row 11 when the plane left Newark. And Elizabeth seemed to be speaking calmly, but her breathing was very shallow, as if she were hyperventilating. And Esther said, ‘Elizabeth, I’ve got my arms around you, and I’m holding you. And I love you,’ trying to calm her. Elizabeth said, ‘I can feel your arms around me. And I love you, too.’ And they talked approximately ten minutes. There were long silences. Esther began to get the feeling that Elizabeth was resigned to what was going to happen to her. And that she actually seemed to be leaving her body, going to a better place. She had two grandmothers who were deceased, and at one point she told her mother, ‘They’re waiting for me.’”

But suddenly, something yanks Elizabeth back to the moment. She snaps to attention.

“And then finally,” says Longman, “shortly after 10:00, Elizabeth said, ‘Mom, they’re rushing the cockpit. I’ve got to go. Bye.’”

The tape from the cockpit voice recorder has not been made public. But last April, family members of the victims were invited by the FBI to Plainsboro, New Jersey, to listen. Seventy people went. They were allowed to take notes.

GOING AFTER THE HIJACKERS

The image of a group of passengers simultaneously rushing the cockpit door is wrong.

From interviews with many of them, and several government officials and investigators, Jere Longman says he can lay out for the first time what happened in the final minutes of the flight. Very likely, Elizabeth Wainio was one of many answering Todd Beamer’s command — the words that have become a national rallying cry — “Let’s roll!”

Jeremy Glick interrupted his 26-minute call to his wife, Lyz. “Hold the line,” he said, “I’ll be back.”

But she couldn’t bear to listen and handed the phone to her father, Richard Makely.

“There was no noise for several minutes,” says Makely. “And then there was screams, screams in the background, and so I said, well, they’re doing it.”

The image of a group of passengers simultaneously rushing the cockpit door is wrong. The plane, a Boeing 757, was configured with one narrow aisle running up the center. The passengers would have had to charge single-file.

“The government’s theory is that the passengers did actually reach the cockpit using a food cart as a battering ram and a shield,” says Longman.

Why do they think that?

“From enhancement — digital enhancement of the voice recorder — there’s the sound of plates and glassware crashing near the end of the flight,” says Longman.

One person would have had to have been behind that cart.

“It took brave people to — I mean, can you imagine if you were that first person in line rushing forward, and the curtain was closed in first class, and you had no idea what you would be encountering when you pulled that curtain back?” asks Longman. “It took a brave person to do that.”

DID HIJACKERS ROCK THE PLANE?

On the cockpit tape, the hijackers are reportedly heard telling each other to hold the door. And in English, someone outside shouts, “Let’s get them.”

Witnesses on the ground in rural Pennsylvania saw the plane flying just 2,000 feet from the ground, but at very high speed, making erratic wing maneuvers, rocking back and forth.

“Some investigators believe that the hijackers were trying to, you know, waggle the wings to keep the passengers from getting forward, to kind of knock them around like bowling pins,” says Longman.

Waggling the wings wouldn’t have been necessary unless there had been a threat to the cockpit.

“Oh, sure,” says Longman. “At one point you can hear, you know, ‘In the cockpit, in the cockpit.’ And then someone says something that’s unintelligible and kind of garbled, but it’s the sense that if we don’t do that, then, ‘We’ll die.’”

On the cockpit tape, the hijackers are reportedly heard telling each other to hold the door. And in English, someone outside shouts, “Let’s get them.”

“During this part the hijackers are also praying,” says Longman.

What is the nature of their praying?

“Saying, ‘Allah o akbar,’” says Longman, “God is great.”

Is there a sense at this point that the hijackers know that the flight is going to end prematurely?

“They’re obviously threatened,” says Longman. “And at one point, one of the hijackers suggests shutting off the oxygen supply to the cabin. As I understand it, it’s a very difficult or impossible thing to do, and it wouldn’t have any effect on the breathing of the passengers, because they were below 10,000 feet. And then the hijackers begin talking about, ‘Should we finish?’ and on the transcript it says, ‘Finish it/her off.’”

It’s unclear whether the hijackers are referring to the flight itself, or to an unidentified woman heard earlier on the tape pleading for her life.

“In the final moments of this struggle, according to the families who heard the tape, voices that seemed muffled and distant all of a sudden became clearer,” says Longman. “They took that as some corroboration that the passengers actually are in — perhaps crew — actually did reach the cockpit.”

Does he mean, reach it? Breach it?

“Get inside,” says Longman.

They got in?

‘We always thought we were secure inside our borders in this country. And the one day where we realized we weren’t, we lost control for a few hours. And these people, literally and figuratively, tried to take control back for us. And I think that will resonate for many, many years, and will be remembered as a defining American moment.’

— JERE LONGMAN
“Yes,” says Longman. “That’s the government theory, that they actually got inside. Near the end you hear — in English — words, ‘roll it up,’ and ‘lift it up,’ or ‘turn it up,’ or ‘pull it up.’ The families have taken that as a sign that they were — the passengers and perhaps crew — were trying to take control of the plane.”

The crash sounded like thunder and lightning together, one person said. The plane hit the ground at 575 miles an hour — a speed greater than either of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center.

The Assistant Fire Chief of Shanksville, Pennsylvania was on the scene in minutes.

“He’s standing at the crater, but having no idea that the plane is in the crater,” says Longman. “And so he’s sending the other firemen — he’s kind of puzzled — he’s sending them into the trees, because the trees are smoking. The firemen kept coming out of the trees saying, ‘Rick, there’s nothing.’ But they couldn’t find the plane, the plane itself, because it’s 35 feet in the ground.”

They didn’t ask to be heroes. But the better we know them, the clearer it becomes that what Americans have wanted to believe all along — that this plane was filled with heroes — is true.

“We always thought we were secure inside our borders in this country,” says Longman. “And the one day where we realized we weren’t, we lost control for a few hours. And these people, literally and figuratively, tried to take control back for us. And I think that will resonate for many, many years, and will be remembered as a defining American moment.”

Investigators also found the flight data recorder which could contain information that would shed light on who was at the controls at the end — the hijackers, the United pilot or copilot, or possibly a passenger who was a licensed pilot. The fact remains the same: Flight 93 was the only one that day that took no additional lives on the ground.

© 2005 MSNBC Interactive
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