Courage In The Air

Crash investigators say Madeline Amy Sweeney kept her composure almost to the very end. As terrorists seized the controls of American Airlines Flight 11, the flight attendant phoned a supervisor on the ground in Boston to give the alarm. It sounded at first like an ordinary ransom hijacking, albeit a particularly brutal one. Sweeney, the mother of two small children, calmly told Michael Woodward how a group of Middle Eastern passengers on the Boston-to-Los Angeles plane had stabbed two flight attendants, slit a passenger's throat and stormed the cockpit. She described the hijackers and listed their seat numbers. Then she said the plane had suddenly turned and was dropping fast. She tried to contact the pilot, but there was no answer. Woodward asked the plane's location. Sweeney looked out a window. She said: "I see water and buildings--Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" The call broke off, and the 767 plunged into the north side of 1 World Trade Center.

In the face of death, Sweeney performed an indispensable service. Her coolheaded account of the hijacking has helped law enforcers and security experts understand an unprecedented act of terrorism. Since that day, investigators followed up on dozens of last-minute phone calls from the four captured planes, including two placed by political commentator Barbara Olson, who gave one of the earliest warnings that American Flight 77 had been hijacked. Before the terrorists slammed the Washington-to-L.A. plane into the Pentagon, she managed to tell her husband, U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, that men armed with knives and box cutters had taken over the cockpit and forced the passengers, pilots and crew into the back of the plane. Gradually the investigators are assembling a picture of how the hijackings happened--and how to guard against such attacks in the future.

Still, the courage of Sweeney and Olson was only a prelude to the drama of United Flight 93. Passengers on that plane decided to go down fighting. Authorities think the hijackers' target was a government site in Washington, possibly the Capitol. Instead, the 757 crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania, killing everyone aboard. Investigators give special credit to five passengers: Todd Beamer, 32, Mark Bingham, 31, Tom Burnett, 38, Jeremy Glick, 31, and Lou Nacke, 42. "Those passengers on this jet were absolute heroes, and their actions during this flight were heroic," declared FBI Director Robert Mueller during a visit to the crash scene. Eight days after the attack, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter introduced a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the passengers and crew of Flight 93. He said the bill could be expanded to recognize acts of heroism on the other three flights as well.

Flight 93 frustrated the hijackers' plans from the start. The San Francisco-bound plane took off from Newark at 8:41 a.m., 40 minutes behind schedule. It was carrying what the airlines call a "light load": only 37 of its 182 seats were occupied. Many of the passengers had ended up on this flight by accident. Bingham, a San Francisco publicist in first class, had missed his plane the day before because of a hangover from a friend's birthday party. Glick, an Internet sales manager in business class, had missed his Monday flight when he got stuck in traffic en route to the airport. He was glad to get an extra day at home with his wife and their 3-month-old daughter. Nacke, a toy-company executive in the seat behind him, had booked the flight only the night before. He rarely traveled, but he was doing a favor for a good customer.

The jetliner had been in the air only four minutes, not even long enough for the seat-belt lights to be turned off, when American Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center. By then the hijackers were in control of the other two planes. Both towers were in flames and Olson was on the phone to her husband when traffic controllers in Cleveland picked up a radio transmission from Flight 93. There were screams, silence, then more screams and a nearly unintelligible voice saying what sounded like "Bomb onboard." Three minutes later, at 9:38 a.m., the plane made a hairpin turn just south of Cleveland and headed toward Washington.

In panicky phone calls, passengers described how three men in red bandannas took control of the passenger cabin, herding everyone to the back of the plane. Glick called his wife in New York and asked if two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center, as another passenger had told him. Bingham called his mother. She heard men talking in low voices, and she thinks her son was hatching a plan with the others. Burnett, a medical-company executive who had been sitting next to Bingham, called his wife in California. She begged him to sit down and do nothing. "No," he said, "if they're going to run this into the ground, we have to do something." His last message: "I love you, honey."

Beamer, an Oracle software executive, tried to call his wife from an in-flight phone, but it rejected his credit card. His call was routed to Lisa Jefferson, a Verizon supervisor in Oak Brook, Ill. One passenger was dead, he told her, and a hijacker in the rear of the plane claimed to have a bomb. "We're going to do something," Beamer told Jefferson. "I know I'm not going to get out of this." He gave her his wife's number and made her promise to relay a message: "Tell her I love her and the boys." He asked Jefferson to say the Lord's Prayer with him. The last words she heard were, "Are you ready, guys? Let's roll."

Nacke never managed to reach his wife, but United later told the family he was apparently one of the fighters, without giving further details.

Perhaps because they knew their plane would be used as a weapon against other innocent people, the five Flight 93 strangers were able to band together in the final minutes of their lives. They were big guys: Bingham, a 6-foot-5 rugby player; Glick, 6 feet 2, also a rugby player and a judo champion; Beamer, 6 feet 1 and 200 pounds; Nacke, a 5-foot-9, 200-pound weight lifter 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 cockpit voice recorder indicates someone, probably a hijacker, screaming, "Get out of here. Get out of here." Then grunting, screaming and scuffling. Then silence.

Only in an extraordinary situation could families derive comfort from the details of a plane crash that claimed their loved ones. But that's what relatives of the Flight 93 heroes say. "I need the picture," says Alice Hoglan, Bingham's mother. "It does help. It gives me a lot of comfort knowing that Mark died engaged in a really brave effort."

Courage In The Air | News