The Real Story of Flight 93

The terrorists had years to plan their hijacking. The passengers had just minutes to respond. But a band of patriots came together to defy death and save a symbol of freedom. What happened on that flight—and inside the cockpit.

By Karen Breslau, Eleanor Clift and Evan Thomas

Dec. 3 issue —  In the first few days after September 11, Lisa Beamer could not sleep for more than an hour. Then she would wake up and cry. She worried about the boys, David, 3, and Drew, 19 months, and the new baby due in January. David wanted to know why, if their father loved them so much, he had gone to be with Jesus. And there was that one nagging question. Why had her husband, a man so attached to his cell phone that Lisa had to confiscate it when they went on vacation, not called her from the plane? Other passengers had called home from Flight 93 to say goodbye and talk to their loved ones. Why not Todd?

THEN ON FRIDAY night, Sept. 14, she got a call from her crisis counselor at United Airlines. Todd Beamer, it turned out, had made a call; it had been routed to an Airfone operator in Chicago. The counselor said she had a message for Lisa, but she was worried it might be too much to handle. “Read it to me right now,” said Lisa. She did not ask why it had taken the FBI three days to let her know about her husband’s last words. The letter was short and to the point. It recounted a conversation between Todd and an Airfone supervisor, Lisa Jefferson, and some last words that will never be forgotten. The next morning the two Lisas had a tearful conversation. Jefferson told Beamer that her husband had been calm and matter-of-fact. Lisa Beamer was relieved; she had not wanted her husband to die in terror.

Actually, Todd had been afraid. They all had been deathly afraid. More than once, he cried out for his Savior. But Beamer, like so many other passengers and crew aboard Flight 93, overcame his fear. They did not wait to die. They went out fighting, and by doing so they may have saved countless others and spared a symbol of democracy and freedom from destruction.

Osama bin Laden is said to have thought that the United States has become soft and weak (a judgment he may have been reconsidering as he fled from cave to cave last week, chased by U.S. commandos and bombers). Bin Laden is also reported to be deeply historical, to recall with immediacy the struggles and triumphs and humiliations of the Islamic world of a century or a thousand years ago. He might have been wise to have learned more about the historical willingness of Americans to die for liberty. The first American flag flown by the patriots of the early Revolutionary War was not the Stars and Stripes but a banner showing a coiled snake, with the inscription don’t tread on me. America’s latest war for freedom did not begin with a speech by George W. Bush or a cruise-missile attack on a terrorist-training camp in Afghanistan. It began with a group of citizen soldiers on Flight 93 who rose up, like their forefathers, to defy tyranny. And when they came storming down the aisle, it wasn’t the Americans who were afraid. It was the terrorists.

For the past two months, NEWSWEEK has interviewed the families and friends of the passengers of Flight 93 to learn their story. Many of the details are missing; many questions remain. But informed sources described in detail to NEWSWEEK the words and sounds picked up by the cockpit voice recorder on Flight 93, information that has never been revealed before. The tapes shed light on a central mystery: they strongly suggest that the hijackers flew the plane into the ground under ferocious assault from the passengers. The picture is one of shock, struggle, fear—but the lasting impression that remains is of courage, the kind of extraordinary bravery ordinary Americans can show.

The four hijackers who took over Flight 93 were not supermen by any means. They were one shy of a full team—the other three planes were each seized by five men. Al Qaeda’s September 11 attacks were executed with frightening efficiency, but Flight 93 was the exception. From the outset the timing was off. Investigators believe that the hijacked Boeing 757 was supposed to join a deadly aerial ballet, choreographed to send four airliners swooping into their targets in New York and Washington within minutes of each other. But unlike the other flights on that crystal-clear morning, Flight 93 was delayed at chronically clogged Newark International Airport for nearly 45 minutes. It did not take off until 8:42, six minutes before American Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Aboard the other planes, the hijackers moved quickly to seize control. But on Flight 93 the four terrorists waited for breakfast to be served.

The lead man, Ziad Samir Jarrah, sat in 1B, the first seat on the left side of the aisle. If he had followed the instructions (titled “The Last Night”) from his ringleader, Mohamed Atta, he would have bathed carefully, shaving “excess” body hair. He might have been sitting quietly, as instructed, silently praying 1,000 times, “There is no God but God.” He had been told to be “happy, optimistic, calm” because he was “heading for a deed that God loves and will accept.” Perhaps he was thinking about his girlfriend back in Germany. He had written to tell her that he would not be coming home. “I have done what I had to do,” he wrote. “You should be proud, because it is an honor and in the end you will see that everyone will be happy.” Or maybe he was thinking about the martyr’s reward promised in the letter from Atta: “This is the day, God willing, you spend with the women of Paradise.”

At about 9:25 a.m., in the sparsely filled main cabin, passengers were settling back for a snooze or popping open their laptops or picking up a novel for the long coast-to-coast flight. Sun glinted off the wings; the engines droned quietly. But passengers up front in first class may have observed something strange and unsettling: four Middle Eastern-looking passengers—Jarrah and three younger men behind him in seats 3C, 3D and 6B—tying red bandannas around their heads.

In the cockpit the captain, Jason Dahl, and his first officer, LeRoy Homer, had already been warned to be on the alert for trouble. About 20 minutes earlier—shortly after 9 a.m.—a message had flashed on the cockpit computer screen, sent out to all United Airlines pilots by the home office. American Flight 11 had already crashed into the first World Trade Center tower, and United 175 had just plowed into the second tower. American Flight 77 had been hijacked and was headed for Washington, D.C. Dahl and Homer were not told these details, just given a general warning: “Beware, cockpit intrusion.” One of the two pilots simply typed, “Confirmed.”

At about 9:25 the pilots checked in with Cleveland air-traffic control, uttering a jaunty “good morning.” Suddenly the air-traffic controller could hear the sound of screaming and scuffling over the open mike. “Did somebody call Cleveland?” the controller asked.

No answer. Just the muffled sounds of struggle. Then silence.

It’s not clear what was happening in the passenger cabin. In their instructions the hijackers were told: “Shout ‘Allahu akbar,’ because this strikes fear in the hearts of the unbelievers.” And: “When the confrontation begins, strike like champions who do not want to go back to this world.” Before September 11, airline pilots were routinely instructed not to resist hijackers but rather to go along with their demands. There does not appear to have been much of a negotiation aboard Flight 93. After 40 seconds of silence, one of the pilots keyed on the microphone again, allowing Cleveland air control to hear more muffled clamor and someone—presumably one of the pilots—frantically shouting, “Get out of here! Get out of here!” The mike went dead again.

Every commercial aircraft has an automatic cockpit voice recorder. It records on a continuous loop, with every 30 minutes erasing the previous 30 minutes. The purpose is to allow safety investigators to hear everything that was said in the cockpit during the final half hour of flights that crash. The tape of the cockpit voice recorder of Flight 93 begins shortly after 9:30 a.m. The sounds it picked up were grim. Someone is crying and moaning, pleading not to be hurt, not to be killed. Investigators are not sure what happened, but the hijackers may have seized a flight attendant and held a knife or box cutter to her throat to bring the captain out of the cockpit. Or they may have just barged into the cockpit—the door was locked, but designed to withstand no more than 150 pounds of pressure. Some investigators speculate that the hijackers may have slashed the throats of the pilots as the two men were still strapped into their seats. The cockpit voice recorder picked up the sound of someone choking. When a hijacker took over the controls, he knocked the plane off autopilot. Signals from the transponder show the aircraft jumping up and down. Then there are the voices of the hijackers, speaking in Arabic, reassuring each other: “Everything is fine.”

In San Ramon, Calif., a prosperous suburb in the hills of the East Bay across from San Francisco, Deena Burnett was preparing breakfast for her three girls. The phone rang. It was her husband, Tom, and she thought he sounded odd. “Are you OK?” she asked. “No,” he said, speaking quickly in a low voice. “I’m on a plane, it’s United Flight 93, and we’ve been hijacked. They’ve knifed a guy, and there’s a bomb onboard. Call the authorities, Deena.” Then he hung up.

At Cleveland Center, the air-traffic controllers furiously tried to raise Flight 93. Other planes in the area began listening in to the traffic. They heard a breathless, heavily accented man’s voice muttering something from the Flight 93 cockpit. “It sounded like someone said they have a bomb onboard,” said the pilot of a private jet. “That’s what we thought,” said a controller. They were hearing right. A thickly accented voice came back on the air: “Hi, this is the captain. We’d like you all to remain seated. There is a bomb onboard. We are going to turn back to the airport. And they have our demands, so please be quiet.” Investigators think the voice belonged to Jarrah, and that he had flipped the wrong switch, thinking he was addressing the passengers over the PA system when he was calling Cleveland control instead. On the cockpit voice recorder, Arabic voices can be heard realizing their mistake. They know they are being overheard by air-traffic control and other planes in the area. The CVR picks up numerous clicks and snaps as the hijackers fiddle with switches and knobs, trying to make sure they are no longer on the open airwaves.

Back in San Ramon, Calif., Deena Burnett was on the phone with the FBI when she heard her call-waiting beep. It was Tom, calling a second time from Flight 93. “They’re in the cockpit now,” he said. Deena told him about the World Trade Center. He sounded surprised and began peppering her with questions. Were the planes commercial? How many were involved? Deena said she didn’t know. “We’re turning back to New York,” he said. “No, we’re heading south.” Actually, the plane was pointing southeast—toward the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.In upstate Windham, N.Y., where Lyz Glick had taken her 12-week-old baby to visit her parents, the phone rang. Her husband, Jeremy, was calling from Flight 93, pouring out an incredi-ble story. He described “three Iranian-looking men” wearing red headbands and saying they had a bomb. When she heard the word “bomb,” Lyz panicked for a moment. Jeremy calmed her. For several minutes husband and wife said “I love you” over and over. Jeremy told Lyz how important it was for her and their little girl, Emerson, to be happy, and that he would respect any decisions she had to make in the future. Then he began asking more immediate questions. Was it true, as other passengers were saying, that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center? Lyz said it was. “Is that where we’re going, too?” he wondered aloud. “Or are they just going to blow it up?” Lyz said she doubted that the target was the World Trade Center; there was nothing left to crash into. Lyz asked if the hijackers had machine guns. “No machine guns, just knives,” Jeremy answered.

Jeremy Glick was a 6-foot-1, 220-pound former NCAA judo champion. He told his wife that there were some other big men on the plane. Herded into the back by the hijackers, the passengers were beginning to whisper among themselves. They were talking about “rushing the hijackers.” Jeremy asked his wife: did she think it was a good idea?\

United flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw called her husband, Phil, in Greensboro, N.C. “Have you heard what happened?” she began. “Have you heard? We’ve been hijacked.” Phil was stunned, speechless. She was calling from the coach-class galley in the rear of the plane. There was talk of doing something, she said. She and several of the other flight attendants were filling coffeepots with boiling water—to throw at the hijackers.

Back in rows 30 to 34, where most of the passengers had been confined, a rebellion was in the works. No one seems to have paid too much heed to the guard—investigators believe it was a Saudi 20-year-old identified as Ahmed Alhaznawi—who had a red box strapped around his waist. He said it was a bomb, but he seems to have inspired more derision than fear. If the hijackers had hoped for a timorous and infirm group of passengers, they picked the wrong plane. In addition to judo expert Glick and Tom Burnett, a take-charge type who had been a quarterback in college, there was Todd Beamer, who had never been the biggest or fastest guy on the court as a college point guard but who was known as a “gamer,” the team member who makes the winning play. Mark Bingham, 6 feet 5, had played rugby at Cal on a national-championship team. A risk taker, he had once been arrested for tackling the Stanford mascot at a football game. Lou Nacke, at 5 feet 3 and 200 pounds, was a weight lifter with a Superman tattoo on his shoulder. Rich Guadagno, an enforcement officer with California Fish and Wildlife, had been trained in hand-to-hand combat. Flight attendant CeeCee Lyles had been a detective on the Ft. Pierce, Fla., police force. William Cashman was a former paratrooper with the 101st Airborne; at 60, the ex-ironworker was still fit. Linda Gronlund, a lawyer, had a brown belt in karate. Lauren Grandcolas had organized a sky-diving expedition; on her fridge was a note, get busy living or get busy dying. Alan Beaven, 6 feet 3, was a rock climber and former Scotland Yard prosecutor. The hijackers had been training for two years; the passengers came together in a few minutes. But the odds were not hopeless. There was even a pilot among them: Don Greene, the vice president of a company that made safety devices for airlines, had flown single-engine aircraft. With the right instructions from air-traffic controllers, he might have been able to land the highly automated Boeing 757.

At about 9:45 a.m., Tom Burnett called Deena again. She had just heard that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon, and she was sure it was Tom’s. “Tom, you’re OK,” she said, sobbing. “No, I’m not,” he replied. Deena told him what had just happened at the Pentagon. “My God,” he said. Deena said, “They seem to be taking planes and driving them into designated landmarks all over the East Coast. It’s as if hell has been unleashed.”

Tom told her that the hijackers claimed to have a bomb, but he was skeptical. “I think they’re bluffing,” he said. “We’re going to do something,” he went on. “I’ve got to go.”

Todd Beamer may have been having trouble with his credit card, or he may just have punched 0 into the Airfone. In any case, his call at 9:45 was routed to the GTE Customer Center in Oakbrook, Ill. An operator told supervisor Lisa Jefferson that she had a call from a man who said his plane was being hijacked. The call did not sound like a prank. “This is Mrs. Jefferson,” said the GTE supervisor, in her calmest, most professional voice. “What is your situation?” she asked, and began to work through the checklist in the GTE distress-call manual. (How many people onboard? Any children? How many injuries? How many hijackers? Are they armed?) In an equally calm and businesslike way, Beamer rattled off the details (3 hijackers, 2 with knives; 10 passengers in first class, 27 in coach, 5 flight attendants; no children that he could see). A flight attendant had relayed to him that there were two people—she believed they were the captain and first officer—lying dead or gravely wounded on the floor in first class. Beamer asked Jefferson, “Does anybody know what they want? Money? Ransom? What?”In the cabin, the hijackers must have realized that the passengers were stirring against them. They apparently decided to abandon the main cabin and hole up in the cockpit. On the cockpit voice recorder, one of the hijackers can be heard telling another to let “the guys in now,” presumably meaning the other two hijackers. There is also a cryptic reference in Arabic to bringing back “the pilot,” but investigators aren’t sure what they meant. Did they need one of the United pilots, lying bleeding on the floor of first class, to fly the plane? One of the hijackers begins praying. Another suggests using an ax—there is one hanging in the back of the cockpit, to break out in case of fire—to scare the passengers into submission.

In the back of the plane, knots of passengers were moving about, talking to each other, debating how to strike. At one point Jeremy Glick told Lyz that the passengers were taking a vote. “What do you think we should do?” he asked.”Go for it,” answered Lyz. She was no longer panicked. She knew that her husband had no choice—that if he was to die, he would at least die trying to get home to her and Emerson. “Do what you have to do,” she said. Jeremy took heart. There was some discussion, he said, among the passengers about what they could use for weapons. “I’ve got my butter knife from breakfast,” he joked.

Tom Burnett called Deena for the fourth time. A friend would be arriving shortly to take the girls to school. Deena didn’t know what else to do but to let them go ahead. It seemed like the best way to protect them from what was happening.

Have any more planes hit the ground since the Pentagon? Tom asked. No, said Deena. “We’re going to do something,” said Tom. Deena pleaded: “Tom, sit down. Be still. Be quiet. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Wait for the authorities.” Tom replied, “We can’t wait. Deena, if they are going to run this plane into the ground, we’re going to do something.” Deena told him she loved him and asked what else she should do.

“Just pray, Deena, pray.” He hung up the phone.

In the cockpit, the hijackers apparently decided to try to subdue the restless passengers by knocking them off their feet. Switching off the autopilot, the hijacker pilot sent the plane lurching and bobbing.

For a moment Todd Beamer’s composure cracked. “Jesus, we’re going down,” he said, his voice rising. Then he steadied. “We’re coming back up,” he told Lisa Jefferson. “No, I think we’re just turning around. We’re heading north. I don’t know where we’re heading.”

Up to this moment, Beamer had been all business. “Lisa,” he said suddenly. “Yes?” responded Jefferson. “That’s my wife,” said Beamer. “Well, that’s my name, too, Todd,” said Jefferson. “Oh, my God,” said Beamer. “I don’t think we’re going to get out of this thing. I’m going to have to go out on faith.” Jefferson tried to comfort him. “Todd,” she said, “you don’t know that.” Beamer asked her to promise to call his wife if he didn’t make it home. He told her about his little boys and the new baby on the way. Then he said that the passengers were going to try to jump the hijackers. “Are you sure that’s what you want to do, Todd?” asked Jefferson. “It’s what we have to do,” he answered. He asked her to pray with him. Beamer kept a Lord’s Prayer bookmark in his Tom Clancy novel, but he didn’t need any prompting. He began to recite the ancient litany, and she joined him:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

“Jesus help me,” Beamer said. He recited the 23d Psalm. Then Jefferson heard him say:

“Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.”

In the minutes before they fought to save their dignity and honor, if not their lives, the passengers of Flight 93 showed small acts of kindness and grace. They said goodbye to their families and to each other. Lauren Grandcolas left a message for her husband, Jack, on the answering machine. There had been a “little problem” with the plane, but she was “fine” and “comfortable.” She paused and added, “for now.” She sounded steady and strong. Choosing her words carefully, she repeated, “I’ll call, I’ll...” Then she stopped herself and told Jack how much she loved him and her family. Linda Gronlund somehow had the presence of mind to tell her sister, Elsa, her safe-deposit-box combination after, voice cracking, she told Elsa how much she loved her. Elizabeth Wainio, 28, reached her stepmother, Esther, in Catonsville, Md. She said she had been frightened, but that a nice woman next to her had comforted her and told her to call home. After a while Wainio fell silent, then apologized, saying she should be using the time to talk. “You don’t have to, Elizabeth,” her stepmother said. “I’ve got my arms around you.”

In Greensboro, N.C., as he talked to his wife, Sandy, Phil Bradshaw could hear a group of men reciting the 23d Psalm: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil...

Sandy told him it was time to go. “We’re running to first class now,” she said. CeeCee Lyles called her husband, Lorne. “Babe,” she said, “my plane’s been hijacked.” They talked about their love and their four boys. Suddenly Lorne heard screaming, and CeeCee yelled, “They’re doing it! They’re doing it!” Elizabeth Wainio ended her phone call with her stepmother, saying, “I’ve got to go, they’re breaking into the cockpit. I love you. Goodbye.”

The distance on a Boeing 757 from the rear galley to the cockpit door is 110 feet. It’s not known who led the charge, or how many followed. When NEWSWEEK interviewed the families and friends of the passengers of Flight 93, they all imagined their loved one in the hero’s role—whether it was a grandmother whaling away at a hijacker with her purse or a disabled sister tripping a hijacker with her cane. In a sense they were all right; resistance—fierce, unyielding resistance—was the spirit of Flight 93.

Beginning at 9:57, the cockpit voice recorder began to pick up the sounds of a death struggle. There is the crash of galley dishes and trays being hurled, a man’s voice screaming loudly. The hijackers can be heard calling on each other to hold the door. One of the passengers cries out, “Let’s get them!” More crashing and screaming. In a desperate measure to control the rebellion, a hijacker suggests cutting off the oxygen. Another one tells his confederates to “take it easy.” The end is near. The hijackers can be heard talking about finishing off the plane, which has begun to dive. The hijackers cry out, “God is great!” The cockpit voice recorder picks up shouting by one of the male passengers. It is unclear whether the passengers have breached the cockpit or are just outside the door. The hijackers apparently begin to fight among themselves for the controls, demanding, “Give it to me.”

In the hilly country of Somerset County, Pa., eyewitnesses saw a plane rocking from side to side, like a seesaw, as it plunged toward the earth. The crater in the field was 50 feet deep after it hit, but nothing compared with what the Capitol or the White House might have looked like if Flight 93 had kept on its course for an additional 20 minutes or so.

Amid her sorrow, Lisa Beamer can laugh a little now about her strange celebrity as the Hero Widow, about falling asleep sitting next to Mario Cuomo in the greenroom of a TV studio, about the time she asked the CNN limo to stop at Macy’s so she could get a new maternity dress on the way to “Larry King Live.” She still goes from time to time to Todd’s den. She knows she should clean some things out before the new baby arrives, but she doesn’t want to touch his stuff. It was on his desk that she found, on a folded piece of paper at the bottom of his in-box, a passage quoting Teddy Roosevelt:

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena... who strives valiantly, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in worthy causes. Who, at best, knows the triumph of high achievement and who, at worst, if he fails, fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

In daring and dying, the passengers and crew of Flight 93 found victory for us all.