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FEATURE

'Let's roll,' The real story of flight 93

Todd Beamer was a religious family man. Mark Bingham was gay, a PR executive and a keen sportsman. Cockpit recordings from 11 September now show how these two very different men became heroes of America


Ed Vulliamy | November 11, 2001

The words everywhere. They have become America's favourite, bittersweet and articulate bumper sticker. They were used by President Bush to dispatch his bombers to the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan - but they resonate further than that. For they are also the words that closed a remarkable conversation on 11 September between a man called Todd Beamer and Lisa Jefferson, a telephone switchboard operator. The words are: 'Let's Roll'.

Jefferson was in a suburb of Chicago, at the headquarters of the GTE phone company, when she took the call that, she now says, changed her life. Beamer, the caller, was aboard the hijacked and doomed United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco.

The straight hero

Beamer, who didn't want to worry his pregnant wife, had called GTC, the company that provides the telephone service on United Airlines flights. He and Jefferson talked for 13 minutes, during which they recited together the Lord's Prayer and Psalm 23 - 'Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.'

Beamer had ideas about that valley, and how many dead it should claim. For as Flight 93 was gnarled off course, he and other passengers learnt through an extraordinary series of calls they made to relatives and partners that their plane was one of a quartet turned into terrorist guided missiles. And in the hopeless claustrophobia of a tubular steel trap 30,000 feet up, they tried to defy death.

By the time Beamer dialled GTE, his aircraft had been re-routed by the terrorists towards Washington, and perhaps on course for the White House, or the Capitol.

Beamer and other passengers decided to take on the hijackers and wrest control of the plane. The recent release of tapes from the cockpit voice recorder indicates just how close they came to doing so.

In a nation hungry for heroes Todd Beamer stands out as America's martyr - but there were other figures who played less well known but more crucial parts in the passengers' rebellion aboard Flight 93.

The gay hero

Mark Bingham was last to board the plane, having arrived late and nearly missed the flight. Bingham intrigues because he does not fit the image of the all-American hero quite as neatly as Todd Beamer, a family man from rural New Jersey with a Lord's Prayer bookmark in the Tom Clancy novel he had onboard.

Bingham was gay. He was known and loved on the San Francisco scene, a public relations executive, a graduate of Berkeley. He was a sportsman with, says former employer Holland Cartney, 'a very sensitive, creative side'.

He has become perhaps the first openly gay, great American patriotic idol, and certainly an emblematic figure in the gay community.

A posting on the website run by Andrew Sullivan, gay former editor of the New Republic magazine, reads: 'The media portrayal of gays (lots of it by gays themselves) is as effeminate, etc, as well as my personal experience with gays my age, most of whom seemed little interested in military service or aggressive pursuits in general... Well, as we found out last week, Mark Bingham could cut it. He's a hero, plain and simple. I simply can't say to myself any more that gays have no place in the military.'

Talking to The Observer last week, Bingham's friend Hani Durzy remembered how he had once fought off a mugger with a gun. He described him as someone 'who knew how to use his size and would get into situations without thinking about it - which used to amuse us and scare us. I think he knew himself that was not anyone's idea of a typical gay man'.

'He didn't politicise his sexuality at all,' said Bingham's friend and roommate Per Casey. 'It's ironic that in death he is being celebrated for something he did not think was worth politicising. And that's lucky for all of us, and unlucky for people who are biased against us. What he did is both inconceivable and great.'

'My feeling is,' says Durzy, 'that if told he would become a gay icon he would laugh. Then he would sit back and think: "but if this is going to do some good for the gay community, then so be it - good".'

Bingham had overslept on the morning of 11 September and the friend with whom he had been staying, Matthew Hall, drove like a lunatic to get him from Manhattan to Newark, screeching to a halt outside Terminal A at 7.40am.

Bingham sprang from the car, hauling an old blue and gold canvas duffle bag. He ran to gate 17, down the jetway, boarded the Boeing 757 and sat down in seat 4D, just behind the cockpit. Then he called Matthew on a cell phone: 'Hey, it's me. Thanks for driving so crazy to get me here. I'm in first class, drinking a glass of orange juice.'

Flight 93 was due to take off at 8.01am. It pulled away from the gate, but there was a delay of 41 minutes, leaving its passengers to sit and wait before setting off on what would have been a six-hour journey across the continent to San Francisco.

The crew had met an hour earlier to share out duties. LeRoy Homer's alarm had sounded at 4.45, so that he could put on his dark blue trousers, white shirt and United jacket, to become First Officer Homer. CeeCee Lyles had recently joined United after serving as a police officer; Sandra Bradshaw had a mind to quit sometime soon, to spend more time with her children.

The pilot was Jason Dahl, who had learned to fly before he could drive. On 10 September, he had sat next to Nebraska businessman Rob McQuillen and told him that his greatest fear was landing on a wet surface.

A third of the passengers and crew were there by the slimmest of chances. Dahl had rescheduled to get home to Colorado to pick up his wife and take her to London for their wedding anniversary. Deborah Welsh had been a flight attendant for 25 years and hated early flights, but had agreed to trade shifts to oblige a colleague.

And some were travelling with death in mind: John Tagliani, retired waiter at a Manhattan steakhouse and collector of baseball memorabilia, was going to claim the body of his son, killed in a car crash while on honeymoon. Lauren Grandcolas was flying home from her grandmother's funeral.

Christian Adams, deputy director of the German Wine Institute, had joked to colleagues over drinks at the airport Marriott Hotel that because his flight was leaving 15 minutes later than theirs, he would get some extra sleep.

Two men aboard had also stayed at the Marriott, paying cash for seven rooms and high-priced meals: Ahmed al-Haznawi, a student from Saudi Arabia, and Ziad Jarrah, from Lebanon. They sat in first class, with a colleague, 'blending in', as they had been trained to do.

After 41 minutes, at 8.42, UA93 groaned down runway four at Newark, light with passengers, heavy with 11,000 lbs of fuel. The view of lower Manhattan would have been a delight: the World Trade Centre towers punching their audacious glory into a blue sky. Coffee and breakfast were served.

The taking of UA93

It was at 9.30 that three men with red bandanas suddenly rushed towards the cockpit and air traffic controllers in Cleveland picked up this message: 'Hey, get out of here!' The end had begun. Cleveland then picked up an announcement, probably from Jarrah having flipped the wrong switch, with a message he thought he was delivering over the PA: 'There is a bomb on board, we are meeting their demands, we are heading back to the airport.' This, as Jarrah knew, was nonsense; the plane began to climb.

The tape recording in the cockpit is a 30-minute loop, beginning with wailing and screaming, someone pleading not to be hurt or killed.

Somebody else chokes. Shortly afterwards, both pilots were seen lying motionless on the floor just outside the first-class curtain - they had had their throats cut, according to one passenger. Within six minutes, UA Flight 93 had changed course and was heading for Washington.

Those on board, destined for destruction, relayed their final words of love and farewells over digital airwaves - and thereby into indelible technological posterity. The phone calls began, 23 from airphones, others by mobile, with passengers passing their cell phones to strangers. Through these calls those aboard UA93 learnt what was happening to America that morning.

The first terrestrial phone to ring was answered by Deena Burnett, wife of the man sitting next to Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett. 'Are you okay?' she asked. 'No,' replied Tom, 'we've been hijacked. They've knifed a guy; there's a bomb on board; tell the authorities, Deena.'

Bingham's call was to his mother was strangely formal: 'This is Mark Bingham,' her son said. Then only: 'I love you,' and he hung up.

Such behaviour may seem strange, but not to Bingham's friend and former employer Holland Carney, who sees in his economy of language the first indications of revolt aboard UA 93. 'If I know Mark, he would not have said anything about what he intended to do. I remember him coming to work one day with a huge black eye. I asked what had happened, and he said two guys had jumped him and he had fought them off. I said that was dangerous - better to give them the money - but he would have none of it. That would have been him on the plane. He was not someone afraid to act.'

Burnett made a second call, by which time Deena was watching the World Trade Centre collapse on television. Burnett fired a fusillade of questions: 'Are they commercial places?'

Jeremy Glick learnt the same news from his wife, Lyz, in upstate New York. 'Is that where we're going too?' he asked her. 'Unlikely,' said Lyz, 'there's nothing left to crash into.'

Todd Beamer's call to airphone operator Lisa Jefferson was, she says, a turning point in her life. 'I will play it over and over in my mind,' she says.

The FBI was on the other line, offering guidance. 'I asked his name and he told me. And at that point his voice went up a little bit because he said: "We're going down, we're turning round. Oh I don't know, Jesus, please help us."'

The two chatted about Beamer's family; his sons Drew and David. 'Then he said: "My wife is expecting," so we talked.' They discovered Jefferson and his wife shared the same Christian name. The conversation went from the sublime to the practical: 'He wanted me to recite the Lord's Prayer with him.' Then came the Psalm, with - according to Jefferson -- a number of other passengers now joining in, as though for a last rite.

'Lisa! Lisa!' shouted Beamer. 'I'm still here, Todd,' Jefferson said, 'I'll be here as long as you are.'

'From that point,' she says now, 'he said he was going to have to go out on faith because they were talking about jumping the guy with the bomb. He was still holding the phone, but he was not talking to me, he was talking to someone else and I could tell he had turned away. And he said: "You ready. Okay, let's roll."'

'We're all running to first class,' said flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw, implying the rebellion had begun in Bingham's compartment.

Between rows 30 and 34, the revolt had brewed along with a pot of boiling water, which Bradshaw was planning to splash into a hijacker's face.

The hijackers had chosen their flight badly: Glick was a 6'1" judo champion; Bingham was a rugby player; Burnett had been a college quarterback. Among the other passengers, Louis Nacke was a weightlifter and William Cashman a former paratrooper. The manual advising pilots to be careful and appease hijackers was about to be ripped up, along with the history of hijacking.

No one will ever know how the plan to attack the terrorists was hatched, except for an indication to The Observer from an analyst of the recorder that the scuffle began not at the back of the plane but at the front - where Bingham was sitting. 'He was one of those who would have said: "This is ridiculous, let's kick their asses,"'

Carney says There was talk of 'rushing the hijackers' - Glick, in a third call, asked Lyz if she thought it a good idea. She said she did. Deena Burnett disagreed. 'Tom, sit down,' she said. 'Don't draw attention to yourself.' 'If they're going to run this plane into the ground,' retorted her husband, 'we're going to do something.'

From 9.57, the cockpit recorder picks up the sounds of fighting in an aircraft losing control at 30,000 feet - the crash of trolleys, dishes being hurled and smashed. The terrorists scream at each other to hold the door against what is obviously a siege from the cabin. A passenger cries: 'Let's get them!' and there is more screaming, then an apparent breach. 'Give it to me!' shouts a passenger, apparently about to seize the controls.

Across the green pastures of Somerset County, Pennsylvania, gawping farmers and commuters watched a plane rock and sway out of the blue and crash to earth. Lauren Grandcolas had failed to reach her husband Jack, but left him a message. There had been 'a little problem' with the plane, but she was 'fine' and 'comfortable - for now'.

Doug Macmillan, Beamer's best friend, has quit his job to administrate the Todd Beamer Foundation, aimed at raising funds for the children who lost parents aboard UA93. He also accompanied Lisa Beamer when she took UA93 on another day along its intended, proper route.

'I had breakfast with him every week for the last eight years,' says Macmillan. 'Every Friday morning and every other Sunday night. I knew him better than most people know their family members and I want to continue that legacy, not to allow Todd's death to be in vain, not to allow the terrorists to win. I felt a calling that I needed to do this.'

Until the morning of 11 September, heroism was something that America watched in movies or read about in books. Now the country yearns for heroes, and it has them in abundance. That Bingham, Beamer, Burnett and the others saved hundreds of lives is the reason that they have become emblems of heroism.

But the richness and appeal of their story lies in the fact that they so narrowly failed to save themselves. As Carney says: 'I can so much more easily imagine Mark bouncing out of the wreckage of the plane punching a high five and saying: "we did the bastards".' —Mail & Guardian


Related
San Francisco Rugby Club
markbingham.org


Hero of Flight 93: Mark Bingham, by Jon Barrett. Advocate Books, 178 pages, $23.95 paper

If Advocate news editor Barrett has it right, Mark Bingham was a hero hovering impishly between being born and made. A flawed hero, to be sure - he drank a lot, shied away from serious commitment, and was something of a slacker through his college years. And he was contemptuous of drag queens, hyper-masculinity, effeminacy, and other nonconservative components of the queer community. On the other hand, he was fiercely loyal to friends, protective of his mother, a ferocious rugby competitor, and given to moments of impetuous bravado - for example, running with the bulls at Pamplona, Spain, not once but twice. His bravery as one of the passengers who apparently attempted to overpower the terrorist hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93 last Sept. 11 is a given in Hero of Flight 93, as it should be. Barrett's well-modulated biography nimbly juggles the question of whether Bingham, who never identified particularly strongly with gay activism, is best described as "a gay hero" or as "a hero who was gay." In the end, this book - about a man who might not merit a book, except that how he died defined how he lived - suggests, appropriately, that it doesn't matter. —Richard LaBonte

 

      

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