On United 93’s heroes and the empty skies that followed the 9/11 terror attacks

I grew up in a suburb just outside Chicago and O’Hare International Airport. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t hear the roar of planes flying directly over my house or somewhere just off into the distance — until Sept. 11, 2001. Like most Americans, there was a tangled mess of thoughts swirling through my head after seeing American 11, United 175, and American 77 crash into the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon, respectively. As commercial flights were grounded in in the wake of the attacks, I remember noticing the silence and then feeling shame for thinking it contained an eerie beauty. To this day the shame still lingers, which is why I feel it is important to share the history of United 93 and the 33 passengers who stood up to their executioners.

The following is a brief excerpt from the 9/11 Commission Report:

At 9:57, a passenger assault began. Several passengers had terminated phone calls with loved ones in order to join the revolt. One of the callers ended her message as follows: “Everyone’s running up to first class. I’ve got to go. Bye.”

The cockpit voice recorder captured the sounds of the passenger assault muffled by the intervening cockpit door. Some family members who listened to the recording report that they can hear the voice of a loved one among the din. We cannot identify whose voices can be heard. But the assault was sustained.

In response, Jarrah immediately began to roll the airplane to the left and right, attempting to knock the passengers off balance. At 9:58:57, Jarrah told another hijacker in the cockpit to block the door. Jarrah continued to roll the airplane sharply left and right, but the assault continued. At 9:59:52, Jarrah changed tactics and pitched the nose of the airplane up and down to disrupt the assault. The recorder captured the sounds of loud thumps, crashes, shouts, and breaking glasses and plates. At 10:00:03, Jarrah stabilized the airplane.

Five seconds later, Jarrah asked, “Is that it? Shall we finish it off?” A hijacker responded, “No. Not yet. When they all come, we finish it off.” The sounds of fighting continued outside the cockpit. Again, Jarrah pitched the nose of the aircraft up and down. AT 10:00:26, a passenger in the background said, “In the cockpit. If we don’t we’ll die!” Sixteen seconds later, a passenger yelled, “Roll it!” Jarrah responded with violent maneuvers at about 10:01:00 and said, “Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest!” He then asked another hijacker in the cockpit, “Is that it? I mean, shall we put it down?” to which the other replied, “Yes, put it in it, and pull it down.”

The passengers continued their assault and on 10:02:23, a hijacker said, “Pull it down! Pull it down!” The hijackers remained at the controls but must have judged that the passengers were only seconds from overcoming them. The airplane headed down; the control wheel was turned hard to the right. The airplane rolled onto its back, and one of the hijackers began shouting, “Allah is the greatest. Allah is the greatest.” With the sounds of the passenger counterattack continuing, the aircraft plowed into an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 580 miles per hour, about 20 minutes flying time from Washington, D.C.

Jarrah’s objective was to crash his airliner into symbols of the American Republic, the Capitol or the White House. He was defeated by the alerted, unarmed passengers of United 93.” — (The 9/11 Commission Report. 7- 8.)

It is almost impossible to fathom what it must be like to fight for ones life on a hijacked plane — let alone an aircraft where the hijackers perform barrel rolls and roller coaster maneuvering to obtain their objective. How many lives were saved because of the actions of those 33 passengers on Flight 93? There is no way to calculate an exact number, but the final intended destination — Washington, D.C. — gives us a clue.

Americans said “Never forget” after the 9/11 terror attacks, but it sadly feels like many of them want to forget. While it is indeed dangerous to allow painful memories to (ironically) hijack our collective psyche, the same can be said for losing important lessons from history.

Beauty can be found in incredibly horrific experiences, and the bravery and heroism displayed by the passengers of Flight 93 is a sterling example. If you have a moment to yourself today, say a prayer for the lost souls of September 11, 2001, and the loved ones they left behind.