"Cautioned by the FBI not to reveal the contents of the tape, the few family members who spoke to reporters after listening to the contents were guarded in their remarks"
Flight 93 tape ends doubts for families
Recording confirms for loved ones the hero status of the passengers who fought 9/11 terrorists
By Stevenson Swanson
Chicago Tribune national correspondent
Published April 19, 2002
PRINCETON, N.J. — Hearing a violent struggle that was recorded in the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 93 as the plane plummeted toward the ground on Sept. 11 confirmed for family members Thursday that their relatives died trying to wrest control of the plane from its hijackers.
In an unprecedented departure from standard procedure in air crash investigations, the 30-minute recording was played at the behest of grief-stricken family members, about 70 of whom listened to the tape at a hotel here.
"I heard what I wanted to hear today," said Deena Burnett, widow of Thomas Burnett Jr., who is believed to have been one of the leaders of a passenger revolt that ended in the crash near Shanksville, Pa. "There’s never been a doubt in my mind that everyone on board was a hero and acted heroically. This tape confirms that."
The last minutes of the tape are muffled by the sound of rushing wind as the plane plunged from the sky, family members said, but the recording was clear enough that American and Arabic-speaking voices could be discerned.
Flight 93 was the last of the four hijacked planes to crash on Sept. 11. It was the only plane that did not strike a target during the attacks in New York and Virginia. Many passengers aboard the San Francisco-bound flight had been tipped off by cell phone calls reporting that the other three planes had been used as fuel-laden missiles to strike the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"These are clearly people who were informed of the unthinkable, they digested it, and acted upon it," said Hamilton Peterson, whose father, Donald, was a passenger on the plane, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field, killing 40 passengers and crew and four hijackers. "I think it’s a message to the world that the American spirit is alive and kicking."
Cautioned by the FBI not to reveal the contents of the tape, the few family members who spoke to reporters after listening to the contents were guarded in their remarks. But some, including Burnett, indicated that they believed they recognized their relatives’ voices on the tape.
Some find comfort
"I found more comfort in listening to the tape than I expected," said Burnett, who was among the most insistent of the family members that they be allowed to hear the tape. "Oddly enough, [my feeling is] one of joy. I feel more at peace. I think we all heard something that was unexpected."
She refused to elaborate, but she said that Justice Department officials told the family members that the tape would be played in court as part of the federal government’s criminal case against alleged hijacking accomplice Zacarias Moussaoui, possibly as early as this fall.
Not all of the families of Flight 93 victims listened to the tape. Some declined to come to Princeton on Thursday, and some who did decided at the last minute not to listen to the tape.
"They said it was very graphic detail of what went on in the cockpit. They said it was horrifying," said Mitchell Zykofsky, 43, whose stepfather, John Talignani, died in the crash. "That was enough for me to decide that I didn’t want to hear it."
Shortly after Sept. 11, family members said they wanted to hear the cockpit voice recording, one of two "black boxes" that airplanes carry to give investigators clues to the cause of a crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which usually takes the lead in investigating crashes, rarely allows anyone but investigators to hear the recordings, although they have sometimes been played in legal cases, generally in closed courtrooms.
In rare instances, including the 1994 crash of American Eagle Flight 4184 in Roselawn, Ind., family members have been allowed to hear the tapes only after a cause has been established in a crash and litigation has been settled.
Because the Flight 93 crash was immediately classified as a criminal matter, the FBI has been the lead agency in the investigation. At first, the FBI refused to allow families to listen to the cockpit recording. But family members persisted, and last month the FBI reversed itself. Pilots fear the decision may set a precedent for future crash tapes to be released.
Playing the recording "goes against the fundamental principles of the recordings, the gathering of useful information to determine the cause of an accident," said Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association. The pilots group has long argued that the tapes should stay closely guarded, arguing that leaks "lead to sensationalism and speculation."
Officials who have heard the tape say it does not clearly establish what made the plane crash or whether passengers were able to overwhelm the hijackers. The tape, a 30-minute loop, begins after the hijackers have seized control of the cockpit. At one point, a woman is reportedly heard crying and pleading for her life. The sound of someone choking is also reportedly audible, as are many expressions in Arabic, including "God is great."
Listening to tape
The day was divided into two sessions, with the families of crew members hearing the tape in the morning and passengers’ families in the afternoon.