United Airlines Flight 93 was a passenger flight, which was hijacked by al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001. It crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing all forty people on board. No one on the ground was injured. The aircraft involved was a Boeing 757 and it was flying United Airlines daily scheduled, morning domestic flight, from Newark International Airport to San Francisco International Airport.
The hijackers breached the aircraft's cockpit and overpowered the flight crew, approximately fifty minutes after takeoff. One of the hijackers was a trained pilot; he took control of the aircraft and diverted it back toward the east coast of the United States, in the general direction of Washington. Although their specific target is unknown, it is believed the hijackers were heading for either the White House or the Capitol Building. When the plane was sixty miles southeast of Pittsburgh, it crashed into a rural, unpopulated field. Of the four aircraft hijacked on September 11, United Airlines Flight 93 was the only one that failed to reach the hijackers intended target.
The first warning Flight 93 received was at 9:23 a.m., when an Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System [ACARS] message came into the cockpit, along with other routine radio traffic. By 9:28am, Flights 11 and 175 had already crashed into the World Trade Center and Flight 77 was nine minutes away from the Pentagon. Shortly afterwards, Flight 93 dropped seven hundred feet in thirty seconds, due to the fact that the hijackers had taken over the airplane. They announced, they had a bomb on board and they demanded all of the passengers move to the rear and sit down.
At this time, the passengers and crew began making phone calls, using GTE air phones and mobile phones. Altogether, they made thirty-five calls. Ten passengers and two crew members were able to successfully connect with their loved ones. Initially, they were providing information to family and friends; then they were getting information from family and friends.
At 9:31 a.m., Tom Burnett made the first of four phone calls to his wife, explaining the plane had been hijacked, by men claiming to have a bomb. He also said a passenger had been stabbed and he thought the bomb threat was a ruse, to control the remaining passengers.
During one of Tom Burnett's calls, his wife informed him of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
He then realized the hijackers were going to crash this plane, because this was a suicide mission; not a ransom demand, or a hostage situation. Burnett then began asking his wife for more information about the previous attacks. He ended his last call to his wife by saying, "Don't worry, we're going to do something.”
It is believed Debbie Welsh – one of the flight attendants – had already fought off one of the hijackers, before she was subdued. Mark Bingham called his mother at 9:37 a.m. and reported the plane had been hijacked by three men, who claimed to have a bomb. Jeremy Glick called his wife at 9:38 a.m. and Glick managed to remain connected to his wife, until the end of the flight. It was Glick who reported to his wife, much later in this same call, that the passengers had voted to rush the cockpit and attack the hijackers. Joseph DeLuca called his father at 9:44 a.m. and Todd Beamer contacted an FAA operator, at the approximately the same time.
Todd Beamer told the operator that the flight was hijacked and the pilots were either dead, or badly wounded. Sandra Bradshaw called her husband at 9:49 a.m. and told him, she was preparing scalding water, to throw in the hijackers eyes. At 9:55 a.m., Flight 93 passed within one thousand feet of a microgravity flight, causing the planes trajectory to become even more erratic. A few seconds later, Todd Beamer realized the passengers had to act immediately and he asked them if they were ready to storm the cockpit.
Upon receiving an affirmative response from them, Beamer then said, “Let’s roll.” These were his last recorder words. Glick’s statement to his wife was now coming to fruition.
The hijackers became aware of the revolt at 9:57 a.m. The pilot then pitched the nose of the airplane down, in order to disrupt the assault. He realized Washington was no longer a possibility and some believe he might have considered Pittsburgh as a secondary target. At 10:02 a.m. – amidst the frenzied and continued sounds of the passenger counterattack – the aircraft picked up speed, to approximately 550 mph. The Investigation Commission Report concluded the hijackers remained at the controls, but must have judged the passengers were only seconds from overtaking them. Therefore, they panicked and lost operational control of the plane.
The passengers used a food cart, in order to smash the door and breach the cockpit. They killed one of the hijackers, before the plane crash landed. At 10:06 a.m., the flight impacted at 563 mph, at a forty degree nose down, inverted altitude. Forty people died; there were no survivors.
The passengers were: Christian Adams, Todd Beamer, Alan Beaven, Mark Bingham, Deora Bodley, Marion Britton, Thomas Burnett, William Cashman, Georgine Corrigan, Patricia Cushing, Joseph DeLuca, Patrick Driscoll, Edward Felt, Jane Folger, Colleen Fraser, Andrew Garcia, Jeremy Glick, Kristin Gould, Lauren Grandcolas, Donald Greene, Linda Gronlund, Richard Guadagno, Toshiya Kuge, Hilda Marcin, Waleska Martinez, Nicole Miller, Louis Nacke, Donald Peterson, Jean Peterson, Mark Rothenberg, Christine Snyder, John Talignani and Honor Wainio. The crew members were: Captain Jason Dahl and First Officer LeRoy Homer; Flight Attendants - Lorraine Bay, Sandra Bradshaw, Wanda Green, CeeCee Lyles and Deborah Welsh. All passengers were posthumously nominated for the Congressional Gold Medal.
The New York City Fire Department has a rigorous training program that every candidate
must pass, prior to being hired. After they begin their careers, they must undergo additional
periodic training. Much of this training focuses on: making difficult decisions instantaneously;
locating point of origin, in a fire; entering burning buildings correctly; etc.
More than heroic
Now what they did on September 11, 2001 was beyond heroic. They were all heroes; well trained and well prepared heroes. In addition to the excellent training firemen receive, they were all somewhat familiar with the danger in the towers. They didn’t think the buildings were going to collapse that quickly; therefore, the level of desperation and immediate, impending doom, which existed on Flight 93, didn’t exist in the towers. No one – from the newest probationary firefighter, all the way up to the supervising Battalion Chief – knew they had only fifty-six minutes, before the south tower building was going to collapse.
The men and women who acted selflessly on flight 93 were heroes also; heroes of a completely different order. These people had no training. They were not firemen, police officers or Army Rangers. They were: businessmen, industrialists, bankers, lawyers, etc. They were certainly not in a situation which was somewhat familiar to them. They were in a nightmare; traveling at 560 miles per hour; getting closer to the Earth’s surface with every passing second.
How could these men and women – who were flying in an unstable plane; which was flying much too low and much too fast – make coherent and courageous decisions? They realized they only had minutes, maybe even seconds, to implement a plan. The sheer: weight, bulk, speed, angle and acceleration of the plane, should have been enough to terrify them. But, in spite of all of these enormous obstacles, they made logical decisions. Instead of becoming frozen with fear, they overcame an impossible predicament and acted in a completely selfless way. They did all of this, in order to benefit people, whom they didn’t even know.
Prior to storming the cockpit, Todd Beamer asked the representative he had on the phone, to join him in prayer. They prayed together; less than fifteen minutes before Todd died. Many other passengers also were able to remain calm and focused during this tragedy. Deora Bodley, of San Diego, California was the youngest person on Flight 93; while Hilda Marcin was the oldest. They both were more worried about their families, than they were about themselves. This is a remarkable thing, when you consider the situation they were currently dealing with. Thomas Burnett seemed more worried about his wife than about himself. His bravery and focus were mystifying considering the situation. He told his wife, “We have to do something. We can't wait for the authorities; it's up to us. I think we can do it.” Burnett formulated much of the plan regarding: taking out the ‘muscle hijackers’; gaining entry into the cockpit; getting pilot Donald Greene safely into the cockpit; etc. Thomas Burnett, along with Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham and Jeremy Glick, all mentioned the need to attempt this, while over a sparsely populated, rural area. Let’s wait until we are over a rural area, before we rush the cockpit.
Courage beyond belief
I am not even going to pretend to understand that type of courage. To put your own fear to the side, in order to safeguard the lives of strangers, in Pittsburgh is mind boggling. For anyone, regardless of how brave, to think that clearly and that selflessly, during that nightmare, is truly remarkable; the perfect combination of heroism and altruism.
The heroes of Flight 93 have been honored by several organizations. A national design competition was held, to create a public memorial in the Pennsylvania field where Flight 93 crashed. This memorial was dedicated on September 10, 2011. This is a lasting testament, to the courage under fire the passengers and crew, of Flight 93 showed on September 11, 2001. The entire nation, not just those in Pittsburgh, owe each and every one of them, our undying gratitude. The courage and selflessness they displayed on September 11, 2001, was truly remarkable; humankind at its greatest moment.
I was teaching a social studies class in Brooklyn, when the first plane hit the North Tower. From my classroom window, I saw the second plane hit the South Tower. A month later, I drove to Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I believe some good can come out of any situation, regardless of how horrific that situation is. Seeing all of those people in downtown Manhattan and Shanksville, Pennsylvania was awe inspiring for me.
I don’t know what al-Qaeda’s primary objective was; if they had one. But, unless it was to bring Americans closer together and make them stronger, they failed miserably. The spirit of the courageous passengers and crew of Flight 93 lives on in all Americans, who believe in freedom and liberty.
John Zullo has a home in Greentown, Pike County, Pa. He is a member of the Hemlock Farms writing group. Zullu has many published articles; 11 published short stories and two published novels: Hiacin House and The Delford Redemption. His article, 93 Heroes, was published in the Brooklyn Spectator 16 years ago and in the Hemlock Farms Paper last year (2017).