Filing grimly through the double doors, each man and woman was greeted by a sombre-faced FBI agent, who searched them apologetically for hidden recording devices. They were then gently invited to place their briefcases and handbags on a trestle table beside the wall…
The plainclothes men handed out stereo headphones, padded with leather to prevent the sound being picked up electronically by anyone outside…
When, under protest, the authorities finally agreed to a special presentation in New Jersey, where the majority of the Flight 93 relatives live, those who attended were urged to keep the tape’s contents secret.
Copyright 2002 Associated Newspapers Ltd.
DAILY MAIL (London)
July 27, 2002
SECTION: Pg. 18;19;20
LENGTH: 4142 words
HEADLINE: let’s roll!
BYLINE: David Jones
With these grim words, the terrified passengers on the fourth September 11 plane resolved to fight back – with plastic knives, fists, even boiling water. In this haunting reconstruction, the Mail can finally reveal the poignant secrets of the plane’s last 30 minutes and the moving stories of the ordinary men and women who died as heroes on Flight 93 WITH its ornate chandeliers and thick-pile carpet, the ballroom at the Marriott Hotel in the elegant university town of Princeton, New Jersey, is usually rented out for weddings or graduation ceremonies.
But the 70 or so people who gathered there on April 18 this year had scant cause for celebration.
Filing grimly through the double doors, each man and woman was greeted by a sombre-faced FBI agent, who searched them apologetically for hidden recording devices. They were then gently invited to place their briefcases and handbags on a trestle table beside the wall. Next, they were seated in straightbacked chairs facing a giant video projection screen, and asked to read a disclaimer form. Part of it warned them that they were about to hear ‘material of a graphic and violent nature’ which ‘could have emotional and physical consequences’.
It was nothing they did not already know. The room descended into silence.
The plainclothes men handed out stereo headphones, padded with leather to prevent the sound being picked up electronically by anyone outside.
Some people glanced around apprehensively, wondering whether they might glimpse the bright orange aircraft cockpit voice-recorder itself, but the machine that contained all their nightmares was nowhere in view.
As the lights dimmed, a faceless operator pressed the playback button and a transcription of the words rolled across the video screen.
And so began the most excruciatingly painful 30 minutes that anyone there had ever endured.
For a few seconds there was only the humming of engines, then a heavilyaccented voice cut in.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, here it’s the captain,’ said one of the hijackers, his flawed English betraying his Arabic identity. ‘Please sit down. Keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb aboard.’ MOTHERS and fathers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives – they listened, awestruck in the darkened ballroom to the sounds of their loved ones’ last moments on United Airlines Flight 93, one of the four planes hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists last September 11.
As the tape whirred on, they would hear them struggle valiantly, and hear them die. For months, the FBI had refused to allow the bereaved to listen to the recording – which captures the final half-hour before the Boeing 757 crashed at 575mph into a field in Pennsylvania.
They argued that it would be too distressing and might prejudice the trial of the alleged ’20th hijacker’, Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested by chance on immigration charges three weeks before the terror attacks, and who appeared in court this week.
When, under protest, the authorities finally agreed to a special presentation in New Jersey, where the majority of the Flight 93 relatives live, those who attended were urged to keep the tape’s contents secret.
Many of the families involved, however, believe the world should hear of the extraordinary selfless acts of courage which took place on Flight 93.
Courage which, as we shall see, certainly prevented the four fanatics from devastating the White House, or the nearby U.S. Capitol building in Washington DC, and so destroying the seat of American democracy.
Since the atrocity, attention has been focused almost solely on the attempt by a small band of burly male passengers to recapture the plane and steer it away from its intended target.
Men such as the now-fabled Todd Beamer, whose rallying cry – ‘Let’s roll!’ – was heard during a series of harrowing phone calls made to loved ones from the doomed plane.
While no one doubts these men’s heroism, an exhaustive Daily Mail investigation into the battle for Flight 93 reveals that Beamer, the 6ft 5ins rugby-player Mark Bingham, gung-ho company executive Tom Burnett, and karate expert Jeremy Glick were by no means the only brave ones who thwarted the terrorists’ evil intentions. By interviewing-more than a dozen of the victims’ family members and friends, and discovering hitherto undisclosed details from the cockpit recording, we have also learned that the widelyaccepted version of events leading up to the crash may be inaccurate in several respects.
CRUCIALLY, the captain, Jason Dahl, and his first officer, LeRoy Homer, may well have been alive when the plane disintegrated. This disproves the theory that one, or both, was fatally stabbed while still strapped in their seats during the initial stages of the attack.
According to Dahl’s wife, Sandra, a flight attendant who was able to apply her knowledge of the aircraft’s instrument sounds while listening – twice – to the cockpit recording, there is even compelling evidence to suggest that the captain managed to divert the 757 off course and ditch it in an unpopulated area.
‘The big fear I have is that history is going down wrong,’ said Mrs Dahl, who is angry that her husband’s courage has been overlooked. ‘It (the struggle aboard the flight) is just turning into a folk tale.
‘I absolutely think these men (Beamer and his comrades) were heroes, and I have the utmost admiration for them, but I don’t want the others to be discounted.
‘I think the hijackers couldn’t make things go right.
I feel that they were put off course and things were messed up in the cockpit.
‘From what I understand they started heading in a different direction from where they thought they were heading.that was down to jason.
Mrs Dahl’s theory is supported by Wallace Miller, the coroner who investigated the deaths of the 33 passengers, seven crew members and four hijackers.
‘There is no scientific proof that anyone was dead prior to the crash,’ he said.
‘That’s why I listed the cause of death in each case as fragmentation due to blunt-force trauma.
‘We sent any suspicious material that looked like it might have contained stab wounds to the FBI for forensic analysis, but they couldn’t conclude anything from that.
‘In my heart, I believe everybody was alive and they all knew what was going on.
‘And I don’t think you could undertake a project like that – trying to take back the cockpit – ing. That was down w i t h o u t 100 per cent a p p r o v a l .
So to me they were all heroes.’ Set against the enormity of the World Trade Centre catastrophe, with its massive loss of life, the tragedy of Flight 93 initially commanded limited attention.
But as Americans prepare to commemorate the anniversary of September 11, the passengers’ titanic struggle has taken on huge significance, symbolising that defining moment when a frightened and bewildered nation first realised that it was not powerless against terrorism; that if ordinary people stuck together, refusing to be cowed, they could effectively strike back.
A tearful George Bush welcomed the victims’ families into the White House, apparently disclosing that his parents George Sr and Barbara Bush were in the presidential home on the fateful morning, and might have died had the aircraft been allowed to crash there.
THE more high-profile wives, such as Lisa Beamer and Lyz Glick, regularly appear on talk-shows, address rallies and have formed charitable foundations in their husbands’ memory.
Talking to the shattered relatives this week, I found a group of people still struggling to understand why their happiness was so randomly destroyed.
Captain Dahl and his wife Sandra, who met while flying together for United Airlines, were about to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary and he had just bought her a new Volvo.
A great romantic, the 43-year-old pilot had also planted a line of chrysanthemums for Sandra along their driveway.
What she did not know was that he had secretly interwoven them with daffodils.
‘They bloomed in spring, six months after he died, and it was like he was giving me flowers again,’ she smiles sadly. ‘That was just typical of my husband.’ Patrick Welsh, a New York actor, had married his flight attendant wife Debbie, aged 49, relatively late in life, after falling for her while both were working in a Manhattan bar.
He describes their madcap early relationship as like something from the sitcom Cheers, and a decade later, sharing a apartment with their dalmatian Dylan, they were clearly still besotted with one-another.
‘One of the greatest things about our marriage was that we spent most of our time laughing,’ says Patrick, 44, who is often mistaken for Tom Hanks. ‘On our last night together we had gone to a comedy club and tears were rolling down our cheeks.’ He stops, swallows hard. ‘I’m grateful we had that last night.’ Early last autumn, of course, as the 40 passengers and crew members lived out their humdrum final hours, there was nothing to suggest that they would soon be joined posthumously in American folk-history.
There were coincidences and strange, seemingly portentous occurrences, however: Tom Burnett, for example, had been telling his wife Deena for months about weird ‘visions’ he had been having, of the White House and other public buildings.
And several people were switched to UA93 only after storms and a fire at Newark airport played havoc with the previous day’s flight schedule.
But all in all, in a country where travelling by air is as common as taking a bus or train in Britain, this was just another cross-section of middle-Americans making their way from coast to coast on the early morning Newark to San Francisco ‘milk-run’.
The hotshot businessmen, like Beamer, aged 32, and Bingham, 31, had important meetings to attend; Nicole Miller, a pretty 21-year-old student, was flying home after sharing a romantic weekend in New York (against her mother’s wishes) with an old flame; Hilda Marcin, aged 79, was leaving New Jersey to spend her twilight years with her daughter, Carole O’Hare, in the Californian sunshine.
The morning of September 11 was forecast to be clear and warm: perfect flying weather.
AT HIS overnight hotel near the airport, Captain Dahl rose early and dressed in his crisp blue uniform with four gold stripes on the epaulettes and headed off to begin his pre-flight routine, checking weather reports and routes.
He was joined in United’s operations centre by LeRoy Homer, 37.
The first officer had crept out of bed at 4.45am so as not to wake his wife, Melodie, a nurse, and their baby daughter Laurel, then packed his overnight bag and driven some 40 minutes to the airport.
Meanwhile, in the flight attendants’ room, Debbie Welsh was acquainting herself with her colleagues for the trip.
They were Sandra Bradshaw, 38, whose husband was also a pilot, Wanda Green, 49, policeman’s wife CeeCee Lyles, and Lorraine Bay, a smiling 58-year-old veteran stewardess who had been looking after United’s passengers for 37 years.
All the stewardesses were senior and experienced, but it was the turn of Debbie Welsh to act as purser that day. This meant she would be stationed in the first-class section, where her duties included guarding the cockpit door, as her chilling, tape-recorded pleas to the hijackers would later reveal.
The passengers boarded through Gate 17 at 7.20am, expecting an 8pm takeoff.
Attendants Green and Bay ushered ten towards first- class and the remainder towards the economy section. Among the former group were Bingham and Burnett, among the latter was Beamer.
As they stowed their laptops and settled down for the five-hour flight, one doubts whether they took much notice of the four Arabs, all in their 20s, sitting nearby in seats 1B, 3C, 3D and 6B.
The hijackers had spent their last night at an airport hotel (by cruel irony also a Marriott).
They had prayed 1,000 times, shaved off excess body-hair, and sharpened their knives in accordance with their leaders’ written instructions. Now nothing could
stop them from striking down the ‘infidels’.
With cloudless skies and 145 of the 182 seats empty, the journey should have been quick and comfortable.
But because of Newark’s outdated and overburdened taxiing system, Flight 93’s takeoff was delayed for an irritating 42 minutes.
When it departed, at 8.42am, the three planes that would hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were already in the air. As the aircraft turned left, four miles into its ascent, some passengers might have marvelled at the soaring golden skyscrapers, shimmering in the distance.
Moments later, at 8.48am, American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower, apparently accidentally. Then, at 9.06am, UA Flight 175 hit the South Tower, and America knew it was under attack.
The supposition is that Captain Dahl and his crew remained totally unaware that they, too, might be in danger until they received a message from United’s operations centre in Chicago some time after the second tower was hit.
‘Beware, cockpit intrusion, confirm operations are normal,’ it read, signifying only that someone on another aircraft had breached the cockpit.
‘Confirmed,’ either Dahl or Homer replied succinctly, then they continued towards Cleveland.
Their apparent indifference adds weight to the theory that they would have been easy prey when the terrorists struck with their knives: strapped in their seats and off-guard.
Sandra Dahl dismisses this notion.
‘Pilots talk to each other all the time,’ she says. ‘They even talk about silly things and make jokes, though they’re not supposed to. I can’t imagine what went on earlier at the World Trade Centre not coming across to the other pilots.
‘Jason would have heard instantly.
So he would have known as soon as the hijackers attacked that they were part of something huge in the skies.’ WHATEVER the truth, the passengers remained blissfully ignorant until the Arabs in first class tied red bandannas round their heads and stood up.
It is said that one then held a knife to Debbie Welsh’s throat, possibly stabbing her. He and at least one other colleague are then said to have burst into the cockpit, slitting Dahl and Homer’s throats, dragging them from their seats and taking the controls.
This is a compelling theory given weight by Dahl’s first words to the hijackers (‘Hey, get outta here!’) and the vague muffled noises – perhaps a man choking – which were overheard at 9.35am by Cleveland Air Traffic Control.
But if her husband, or Dahl, was really stabbed, Melodie Homer wonders why passenger Tom Burnett told his wife over the mobile phone: ‘They’ve knifed a guy.’ An articulate man, she reasons, he would surely have said: ‘They knifed the pilot.’ ‘If you hear the tape you can tell there was a struggle,’ says Mrs Homer.
‘There are so many factors to lead us to know that whatever happened (to foil the hijackers) started in the cockpit. I would like to scream it from the rooftops but I can’t break my agreement.’ Those who listened to the tape also heard a woman, presumed to be Debbie Welsh, pleading for her life.
‘Please don’t hurt me,’ a female voice implores. ‘Oh, dear God, I don’t want to die!’ Even after hearing the tape, however, Patrick Welsh remains uncertain whether the words were actually uttered by his wife.
‘It’s not necessarily Debbie,’ he told the Mail. ‘It’s an assumption. But if it was her, it’s possible that her screams of resistance are what motivated other people to take some action.
‘If she was killed, she was probably the first hero to die on that plane because she said "No, I can’t let you in there," so they probably cut her throat. I can live with that as long as I don’t spend time going over some cinematographic vision of it. I try to look at the valour. That gives me some comfort.’ The cockpit voice-recorder, which operates on a continuous 30-minute loop that wipes out the previous half-hour, begins at around 9.35am, by which time the terrorists have been in control for about three or four minutes.
Perhaps Zacarias Moussaoui – who had some limited knowledge of flying jets – was intended to have acted as pilot, before his untimely arrest, as the police believe, because the man who replaced Captain Dahl (thought to have been Ziad al-Jarrah, aged 26) was hopelessly inept.
One of the victim’s relatives, who asked not to be named, said he and his ‘co-pilot’ had no idea what the instruments were called, and identified them by their colours not their names.
They tried to set the autopilot to hit their target in Washington but couldn’t make it work. It kept switching off.
There was the constant sound of papers rustling, presumably as the hijackers tried frantically to make sense of their instructions.
‘It was a ship without a rudder,’ the source said.
Amid the confusion and the engine noise, the cockpit tape is at times almost impossible to decipher.
The fact that the terrorists speak Arabic among themselves and broken English when addressing the passengers and crew makes the task harder still.
However, Nicole Miller’s mother Cathy Stefani, who scribbled down notes as she listened, agrees.
‘They weren’t sure where they were going, or how to turn the plane,’ she says.
‘They were questioning if they should bring back the pilot (supporting Sandra Dahl’s belief that either her husband or Homer was still alive and capable of flying) because they didn’t know what they were doing. That’s the way I heard it.’ As the hijackers fought to salvage their mission, meanwhile, the passengers had quietly started preparing their epic fight-back.
Those in first class, plus one or two in the seats immediately behind them – including Lou Nacke, a 5ft 9ins, 15-stone body builder with a Superman tattoo – had been herded together at the front of the plane. Those in economy were being held 40ft away at the rear.
Probably believing at first that they were ‘only’ being taken hostage, their first instinct was to offer no resistance. As the first mobile and seatback phone calls reached their wives and parents, however, and news of the World Trade Centre attacks was conveyed, they realised they were aboard a flying bomb.
If they must die, they decided, they would go down fighting. The mood of growing defiance, relayed during those last heartrending calls home, has become the stuff of legend.
In the calm, measured tones he would use when addressing a board meeting, the medical equipment company chief Tom Burnett questioned his wife Deena in an effort to assess their options.
Had the Twin Towers been hit by commercial passenger planes, he asked her.
Had any more planes been crashed since the Pentagon?
The hijacker guarding the rear passengers claimed to have a bomb strapped to his belt, he mused, but he doubted whether this was true.
By his fourth and last call to California he had made up his mind to act.
Sobbing, his wife begged him to sit down; wait for the authorities to act; avoid attracting attention to himself.
‘We can’t wait, Deena,’ he said firmly. ‘If they are going to run this plane into the ground, we’re going to do something.’ Mrs Burnett told her husband she loved him and asked what else she should do. ‘Just pray, Deena, just pray,’ he said, hanging up for the last time.
Crouching behind their seats, other passengers made similar decisions.
Jeremy Glick told his wife Lyz that a vote was being taken on whether to act.
‘What do you think we should do?’ he asked her.
‘Honey, you need to do it,’ said Mrs Glick, who had been watching the carnage unfold on her father-in-law’s TV in upstate New York.
At the back of the plane, software company account manager Todd Beamer could not get through to his five months-pregnant wife Lisa, caring for their two young children in picturesque Cranbury, New Jersey.
So he pressed zero on the seatback phone and reached the operator, Lisa Jefferson.
As the plane shuddered and lurched, Lisa remained on the line, reassuring him while amassing as much information as possible about the position of the aircraft.
At one point Beamer shouted: ‘We’re going down!
We’re going down!’ Then he realised they were simply turning, probably back towards the White House.
PROUDLY, he told Lisa about his sons, David, three, and Andrew, one. The devoutly religious Beamer asked her to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, the Lord Is My Shepherd, with him.
Then, leaving the phone dangling, he stood up. ‘Are you guys ready?’
Jefferson could hear him say. ‘Let’s roll.’ By now the plane was hurtling across Pennsylvania at 7,500ft or lower, and less than 30 minutes from Washington DC. The president had ordered F16 fighters to scramble, and shoot it down before it could threaten the capital.
In the event, the plane was destroyed before the F16s arrived but frustratingly the cockpit tape recording is not sufficiently clear to tell us exactly what caused it to crash.
From what they have gleaned, and their intimate knowledge of the victims’ characters, however, each relative has formed a mental picture.
Christine Fraser imagines her feisty sister Colleen, 51, who was born with rickets and championed disabled people’s rights, using her walking stick to trip the hijackers.
Jack Grandcolas pictures his wife Lauren, 38, a fiercely independent magazine executive, doing battle with a champagne bottle.
Even Carole O’Hare believes her 79-year-old mother would have done something to help.
This may sound like wishful thinking, but it may be a remarkably accurate view.
We know, for instance, that the 5ft 2ins stewardess Sandra Bradshaw was preparing to wade into battle armed with boiling water from the galley because she told her husband Tom as much on the phone.
Shortly before 10am, as the tape-recording reaches a terrifying crescendo, Deena Burnett is also convinced she can hear her husband directing operations like a military general.
‘Roll it! Roll it!’ he shouts, seemingly urging his companions, possibly armed with plastic knives, to batter down the cockpit door with the drinks trolley. A male, probably Burnett again, also yells: ‘We’re going in!’ AVOTE had been taken; the resolution democratically passed. Quite possibly, therefore, almost all the passengers and whoever remained alive among the crew had overpowered the two hijackers on guard duty and followed Burnett towards the front.
Did they, perhaps, succeed in retaking the cockpit? Did they manage to reinstall Dahl or Homer?
Perhaps passenger Donald Greene, a competent 52-yearold amateur pilot, made it to the controls? Did al- Jarrah and his inept cohorts – who were themselves audibly terrified during their final moments – cling on until the end?
Or was the pilot’s seat empty when the plane went down?
We will probably never know.
Whatever the truth, the grim echoes of what must be a terrifying life-and-death struggle between passengers and hijackers can be heard.
There are loud crashes and bangs; what sounds like metal ripping and objects smashing; indecipherable cries and moans in English and Arabic.
All this is overlaid by the ghoulish wail of a two-tone alarm, vainly warning that the plane is flying too low.
As the aircraft enters its final dive, however, the commotion suddenly dies away and the only noise is that of whooshing air.
‘It sounded like a rollercoaster,’ Cathy Stefani says.
‘All those noises, then the wind rushing down – and then nothing. Just silence. It just went so quiet.’ The ‘rushing’ sound almost certainly resulted from massive decompression caused by the rapid descent.
If so, this would have rendered everyone aboard unconscious before the 757 crashed at a 45-degree angle near the Pennsylvania hamlet of Shanksville.
For the grieving relatives of Flight 93 – who did not even have the bodies of their heroes to bury – this is one small mercy.
This September 11, the families will gather for a commemorative service at the crash site. There they will see 40 hand-painted red, white and blue ‘Angels of Freedom’, each inscribed with the name of the passenger or crew member they lost.
On the plaque beside the miniature figures, someone has written the following words: ‘Few can begin to understand what drives men to such desperation. But the world must now know that the resolve of this nation is both unshakeable and unstoppable. This day, ordinary Americans took extraordinary steps to help their fellow Americans, and by doing so gave the greatest sacrifice.
‘And so these Angels of Freedom stand not as a memorial to those who died, but rather as a celebration of their lives, for which we will forever be in their debt.’
GRAPHIC: BATTLE PLAN: SHORTLY AFTER HEARING ABOUT THE ATTACK IN NEW YORK, ABOVE, CAPT JASON DAHL, INSET, AND HIS PASSENGERS TURNED ON THE HIJACKERS
LOAD-DATE: July 28, 2002