Flight 93 passengers saved U.S. from greater horror

Saturday, July 24, 2004

America would have been even more devastated that sunny September morning -- the Capitol aflame or the White House destroyed -- if not for a few dozen strangers on an airplane who took the kind of quick, decisive action their government was incapable of on Sept. 11.

Nearly three years on, the passenger revolt against the hijackers on United Flight 93 stands out as a moment of honor and as a success story -- if that term can be used to describe the deaths of 44 people -- among glaring government failures.

There were, of course, many heroes that day: the police, firefighters and rescue workers who risked and lost their own lives to help others. It does not diminish those feats to point out that emergency workers train for those moments. In some sense, their heroism is expected, part of a shared culture of valor.

The people aboard Flight 93 shared only a common destination, San Francisco, and no expectation of doing anything that morning other than sitting back and enjoying the flight.

Instead, aboard the hijacked Boeing 757, passengers took pre-emptive action that spared the nation even more destruction and death aimed at a pillar of U.S. democracy. Their action also gave Americans conviction that they, too, could fight back against terrorists.

And, as the final report of the Sept. 11 commission makes clear, the passengers' actions displayed a small group's ability to quickly grasp something brand-new, figure out what it meant and dream up and execute a plan at a moment of extreme stress and unimaginable fear.

'Let's roll'

With the words "Let's roll," passengers rushed down the airliner's narrow aisle to try to overwhelm the hijackers.

Relying on the cockpit recorder and flight data, the commission said terrorist-pilot Ziad Jarrah violently rocked the jet's wings and told another hijacker to block the door. With the sounds of fighting outside the cockpit, Jarrah asked, "Is that it? Shall we finish it off?"

Another hijacker, who wasn't identified, replied, "No, not yet. When they all come, we finish it off."

Jarrah then began pitching the nose of the plane up and down to throw passengers off balance.

Seconds later, a passenger who wasn't identified yelled, "In the cockpit! If we don't, we die!" And 16 seconds afterward, another passenger yelled, "Roll it!" Investigators previously have said they believe passengers tried to use a food cart to break the cockpit door.

Jarrah said, "Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest!", and he asked his fellow hijacker, "Is that it? I mean, shall we put it down?"

The other hijacker answered, "Yes, put it in, and pull it down."

Roughly 90 seconds later, the jet rolled onto its back and crashed into a Pennsylvania field at more than 580 mph, killing everyone aboard.

Aboard United 175

The record shows that on at least one other plane, United Flight 175, some passengers correctly surmised what was happening and what had to be done.

Minutes before that plane struck the World Trade Center, passenger Brian David Sweeney told his mother that the passengers were thinking about storming the cockpit to take control of the plane away from the hijackers, the Sept. 11 report says.

During Peter Hanson's haunting last telephone conversation with his father, he said, "I think they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building. Don't worry, Dad. If it happens, it'll be very fast -- my God, my God."

Moments later, Flight 175 became the second plane to crash into a World Trade Center tower.

Flight 93 was the last of the four planes to be commandeered by al-Qaida terrorists. In the passengers' final, heartrending telephone conversations with family members, information was flowing both ways. The Twin Towers were already on fire and the passengers learned of that.

And what did they do first? They took a vote before they took on the hijackers.

No one knows how many lives they saved. But at the intended target, confusion reigned.

Hundreds of people were at the White House and Capitol on Sept. 11, trying to make sense of what they were watching on television from New York and the black smoke they could see rising from the Pentagon.

Police ordered the evacuation of the Capitol after the Pentagon was hit, but it was chaotic.

The Air Force has maintained that fighter jets that had belatedly been sent aloft to intercept the hijacked planes would have shot down Flight 93 before it reached Washington.

"We are not so sure," the Sept. 11 commission said. "We are sure that the nation owes a debt to the passengers of United 93. Their actions saved the lives of countless others, and may have saved either the Capitol or the White House from destruction."

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