ON SEPT. 11, 400 miles from the collapsed World Trade Center towers, three dozen passengers and crew aboard United Flight 93 remained in airborne purgatory. Starting at 9:30 a.m., for some 30 minutes, 14 of them managed to telephone either loved ones or operators on the ground.
Public relations man Mark Bingham got through to his aunt's home in California. "This is Mark," he began. "I want to let you guys know that I love you, in case I don't see you again." Then, "I'm on United Airlines, Flight 93. It's being hijacked."
Two other callers from the plane not only provided information but also gleaned vital news from those they phoned. Tom Burnett, chief operating officer for a medical-devices firm, made a number of brief calls to his wife, Deena. Speaking quietly, he asked her to contact the authorities and told her that a male passenger had been stabbed — later that he had died. A woman, perhaps a flight attendant, was being held at knifepoint, and the hijackers claimed they had a bomb.
Jeremy Glick, a salesman for an Internet services company, also managed to phone. In a long conversation with his wife, Lyz, Glick said the hijackers had "put on these red headbands. They said they had a bomb...they looked Iranian." The "bomb" was in a red box, he said. The couple told each other how much they loved each other. Glick said, "I don't want to die," and his wife assured him that he would not. She urged him to keep a picture of her and their 11-week-old daughter in his head, to think good thoughts.
Burnett's wife, who had been watching the news on television, told him that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. "My God," he responded, "it's a suicide mission." By the time he phoned a third time, after news of the crash into the Pentagon, she told him about that, too. Burnett seems to have been seated beside Glick, and apparently relayed all this information to him.
Were they to do nothing, the two men must have agreed, they were sure to die anyway when the hijackers crashed the plane. They resolved to fight for their lives. "A group of us," Burnett told his wife, "are getting ready to do something." "I'm going to take a vote," Glick said on his call. "There's three other guys as big as me and we're thinking of attacking the guy with the bomb."
So began the minutes of brave resistance, the clearly defined act of courage that has lived on in the national memory. Glick and others were equipped in more ways than one to confront the hijackers. He was 6-foot-1 and a former college judo champion. Burnett, at 6-foot-2, had played quarterback for his high school football team. Mark Bingham was a huge man, 6-foot-4, and at 31 still playing rugby. A few years earlier, he had fended off a mugger who had a gun. His mother got the impression, as he talked from Flight 93, that her son was talking "confidentially" with a fellow passenger. She felt that "maybe someone had organized a plan."
At 9:42, a GTE-Verizon supervisor based near Chicago began handling a call from yet another powerfully built Flight 93 passenger. Todd Beamer, a star Oracle software salesman, was married with two sons, and his wife was expecting again. He first dialed his home number, but either failed to get through or thought better of it. Instead, explaining that he did not want to upset his pregnant wife, he asked phone supervisor Lisa Jefferson to pass on a loving message.
As they talked, Beamer suddenly exclaimed, "Shit!...O my God, we're going down...Jesus help us." From the passengers around Beamer came prolonged shrieks of terror. Then he said, "No, wait. We're coming back up. I think we're okay now."
Shaken, Beamer asked Jefferson to say the Lord's Prayer with him. "Our Father, who art in heaven..." Just before Beamer and the operator had begun talking, Cleveland control lost Flight 93's transponder, the signal that indicates an airplane's location and altitude. At 9:55, the hijacker pilot set a navigational aid relating to the plane's direction. He was heading, it indicated, for Washington, D.C.
Jeremy Glick, still on the phone to his wife, Lyz, said, "I know I could take the guy with the bomb." Then, joking — he had mentioned that the hijackers had knives — "I still have my butter knife from breakfast."
Todd Beamer, continuing his conversation with GTE supervisor Jefferson, told her that he and a few others were getting together "to jump the guy with the bomb." Was he sure that was what he wanted to do? "Yes," came the response. "I'm going to have to go out on faith...I don't have much of a choice."
THE PLANE WAS flying erratically again. Operator Jefferson heard the sounds of an "awful commotion": raised voices, more screams. Then, "Are you guys ready?" and Todd Beamer's voice saying, "Let's roll!" — a phrase that, in family life, he liked to use to get his children moving.
"Okay," Jeremy Glick told Lyz, "I'm going to do it." His wife told him he was strong and brave, that she loved him. "Okay," he said again. "I'm going to put the phone down. I'm going to leave it here and I'm going to come right back to it." Lyz handed the phone to her father, ran to the bathroom, and gagged.
Flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw was in the galley, boiling water for the passengers to throw on the hijackers. On the phone to her husband, she signed off quickly. "Everyone's running up to first class. I've got to go. Bye..."
The cockpit voice recorder registered the moment the hijackers realized what was happening. At just before 9:58, a hijacker asks, "Is there something?...A fight?" There is a knock on the door, followed by sounds of fighting. Then, in Arabic, "Let's go, guys! Allah is greatest. Allah is greatest. O guys! Allah is greatest...O Allah! O Allah! O the most gracious!" Then, loudly, "Stay back!"
A male voice, a native-English-speaking voice that Tom Burnett's wife has recognized as that of her husband, is heard saying, "In the cockpit. In the cockpit."
Followed by a voice exclaiming, in Arabic, "They want to get in there. Hold, hold from the inside...Hold."
Then, from several English speakers in unison, "Hold the door..." And from a single English speaker, "Stop him," followed repeatedly by "Sit down! Sit down!" Then, again from an English speaker, "Let's get them..."
Flight 93, now down to 5,000 feet, had begun rolling left and right. Jeremy Glick's father-in-law, listening intently on the phone his daughter had handed him, now heard screams in the background. On the cockpit voice recorder, there is the sound of combat continuing. Then, in Arabic, "There is nothing...Shall we finish it off?" "No. Not yet." "When they all come, we finish it off." Then, from Tom Burnett, "I am injured." The flight data recorder indicates that the plane pitched up and down, climbed to 10,000 feet, turned. Glick's father-in-law, phone clapped to his ear, heard more shrieks, muffled now, like those of people "riding on a roller coaster."
In Arabic, on the voice recorder, "O Allah! O Allah! O gracious!"
In English, "In the cockpit. If we don't, we'll die!" In Arabic, "Up, down. Up, down...Up, down!"
From a distance, perhaps from Todd Beamer, "Roll it!"
Crashing sounds, then, in Arabic, "Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest!...Is that it? I mean, shall we pull it down?"
"Yes, put it in it, and pull it down."
"Cut off the oxygen! Cut off the oxygen! Cut off the oxygen!...Up, down. Up, down...Up, down." More violent noises, for as long as a minute, and then — apparently from a native English speaker — "Shut them off!...Go!...Go!...Move!...Move!...Turn it up."
In Arabic, "Down, down...Pull it down! Pull it down! DOWN!"
Apparently from an English speaker, "Down. Push, push, push, push, push...push."
In Arabic, "Hey! Hey! Give it to me. Give it to me...Give it to me...Give it to me...Give it to me...Give it to me...Give it to me...Give it to me."
Intermittent loud "air noise" on the cockpit recorder.
Moments later, in Arabic, "Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest!"
Sounds of further struggle, and a loud shout from a native English speaker, "No!"
Two seconds later, in Arabic, in a whisper now, "Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest!"
Jeremy Glick's father-in-law, still listening on the ground, heard high-pitched screams coming over the line Glick had left open when he left to join the rush to the cockpit. Then "wind sounds" followed by banging noises, as though the phone aboard the plane was repeatedly banging on a hard surface.
After that, silence on the phone. Silence on the cockpit voice recorder. Then, in less than a second, the recording ended.
NEAR THE LITTLE town of Shanksville, Pa., a man working in a scrap yard saw an airliner, flying low but seemingly trying to climb, just clear a nearby ridge. Half a mile away, another man saw the final plunge. It was "barely 50 feet above me," he said, "rocking from side to side. Then the nose suddenly dipped and it just crashed...There was this big fireball and then a huge cloud of smoke."
It was 10:03. Thirty-five minutes had passed since the hijackers struck, four minutes since the passengers counterattacked.
The grave of Flight 93 and the men and women it had carried was an open field bounded by woods on the site of a former strip mine. The voice recorder, recovered days later, would be found buried 12 feet under the ground. There were no bodies, it appeared, only shreds of clothing hanging from the trees. For a while, a white cloud of "sparkly, shiny stuff like confetti" floated in the sky.
Three hundred miles away, in the town of Cranbury, N.J., Todd Beamer's wife, Lisa, saw the first pictures of the crash site on television and knew her husband was dead.
In Windham, N.Y., someone told Jeremy Glick's wife, Lyz, that there might be survivors. Then her father returned from the garden, where — at the request of the FBI — he had kept open the line on which Jeremy had called. He had waited, waited, for an hour and a half. Now, as he came back in, Lyz saw that her father was weeping.
Hundreds of miles apart, the two wives, now widows, sank to their knees in grief. Sudden, unforeseeable grief was invading homes across the country, across the world.
Excerpted from the book The Eleventh Day. ©2011 by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan. Reprinted with permission of Ballantine Books.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The mystery behind China's aggressive push into space
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- The 5 best and worst states for a well-lived life
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The 6 best low-cost smartphones
- Why Texas' abortion rates aren't falling as quickly as everyone expected
- Yes, Republicans can impeach President Obama
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- What religious traditionalists can teach us about sex
- Why GOP reformers are bound to fail
Subscribe to the Week