by Michael Handley
The 40 passengers and crew who fought back against their hijackers aboard United Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001 performed one of the most courageous acts in U.S. history, former President George W. Bush said Saturday at a ceremony dedicating the first phase of a memorial at the nation’s newest national park near Shanksville, Pa., where Flight 93 crashed.
Ed Felt, my colleague at the Internet infrastructure start up software company BEA Systems, was one of the passengers on Flight 93 that day. Ed was traveling on Flight 93 from the BEA’s east coast office to the company’s headquarters office in San Jose, CA – a flight other BEA employees, and I, frequented. Ed was one of the top five software engineers at our billion-dollar start up company having just received a U.S. patent in August 2001 for software he designed for BEA.
The hijackers of Flight 93 intended to crash the plane in Washington DC, likely the White House, but never made it because of the determination and valor of the passengers and crew.
Flight 93 became an American profile in courage on that day that claimed almost 5,000 lives, toppled buildings that stood like a twin Colossus on the New York shore, took down one side of the Pentagon, and ushered in two wars.
What made Flight 93 different was a decision reached somewhere over the skies of Western Pennsylvania, after passengers learned on cell phones that their hijackers planned to crash their Boeing 757 plane into a building as the fourth in a quartet of suicide attacks.
Here is the story of Ed and the other 39 passengers and crew members of United Flight 93.
A few minutes after 9 a.m. Flight 93 was near cruising altitude of 31,000 feet and 515 mph when a system-wide message came over its monitor. United air traffic control warned pilots in the air of potential “cockpit intrusion” attempts — meaning passenger might try to seize a plane. The Flight 93 pilots acknowledged the message. The World Trade Center hundreds of miles behind Flight 93′s position was already in flames as a second plane crashed into the WTC south tower at 9:03 a.m.
At some point shortly after Flight 93 pilots acknowledged the hijack warning — the best estimation is about 40 minutes into the flight — at least three of the hijackers stood up and put red bandanas around their heads. Two of them forced their way into the cockpit. One of the hijackers announced over the plane’s public address system, unaware it could also be heard by air traffic controllers, that someone had a bomb on board and the flight was returning to the airport. He told them he was the pilot, but spoke with an accent.
Those aboard quickly began to understand that it was more than a hijacking…
Deena Burnett was waking up at her home in San Ramon, Calif. She’d gone down to the kitchen to fix breakfast for her three daughters. The phone rang. She recalls it was around 6:20 a.m. — 9:20 Eastern time.
It was Tom, her husband calling from the plane. “Are you all right?” she asked. “No. I’m on United Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco. The plane has been hijacked. We are in the air. They’ve already knifed a guy. There is a bomb on board. Call the FBI.” Deena Burnett dialed 911.
Jeremy Glick picked up a GTE Airfone just before 9:30 a.m. and called his in-laws in the Catskills. His wife, Lyz, and daughter, Emerson, were visiting. The family had been transfixed in front of a television, watching news coverage of airliners smashing into the World Trade Center in New York. Glick’s mother-in-law, JoAnne Makely, answered. “Jeremy,” she said, “Thank God. We’re so worried.” “It’s bad news,” Glick replied. He asked for Lyz.
Lyz recalls no background noise. No commotion. He described the men as Arabic-looking, wearing red headbands, carrying knives. One told passengers he had a bomb. Most passengers had been forced to the rear of the cabin. Glick’s mother-in-law went to another phone and dialed 911. As Jeremy and Lyz spoke, New York state police patched in on the call.
Glick asked his wife: Was it true that planes had been crashed into the World Trade Center? Yes, she said. Glick thought so. Another passenger had been on the phone home and heard the same thing.
Around 9:30, Deena Burnett’s phone rang again. It was Tom.
“He didn’t sound frightened, but he was speaking faster than he normally would,” she said. He told her the hijackers were in the cockpit. “I told him a lot of planes had been hijacked, that they don’t know how many,” she said. “You’ve got to be kidding,” he replied. “No,” she said. Were they commercial planes, airliners, he asked her. She didn’t know. “OK,” he said, “I’ve got to go.” He hung up.
Deena looked at the television. The Pentagon suddenly appeared, a hole torn into its side by an oncoming airplane. She wondered if it was her husband’s flight. Deena Burnett started crying.
Alice Hoglan was visiting her sister-in-law, Kathy Hoglan, in Saratoga, Calif., when the phone rang. It was 9:42 Eastern time.
Kathy’s nephew, Mark Bingham was on the line. “Alice, talk to Mark,” Kathy said, handing her the phone. “He’s been hijacked.” “Mom? This is Mark Bingham,” the voice said. It sounded strange for her son to introduce himself by his full name. She knew he was flustered. “I want to let you know that I love you. I’m on a flight from Newark to San Francisco and there are three guys who have taken over the plane and they say they have a bomb,” he said. “Who are these guys?” Alice Hoglan asked. There was a pause. Hoglan heard murmurs of conversation in English. Mark’s voice came back. “You believe me, don’t you?” he asked. “Yes, Mark. I believe you. But who are these guys?” There was a pause. Alice heard background noise. The line went dead.
Todd Beamer was near the rear of the plane, trying to use his company’s Airfone account. For some reason, he couldn’t get authorization for the call. Finally, he was routed to a Verizon customer service center in Oakbrook, Ill. He told the operator his airliner had been hijacked. He was patched through immediately to Lisa Jefferson, a Verizon supervisor. It was 9:45 a.m.
Somewhere outside Cleveland, United Flight 93 had made a sharp turn and began flying east, toward Washington, D.C.
Beamer told Jefferson he was sitting next to a flight attendant. He could see three hijackers, armed with knives. One insisted he had a bomb. Twenty-seven of the passengers had been herded to the rear of the plane, where the hijacker with the bomb was guarding them, he said. Two hijackers were in the cockpit. A fourth was in first class. He asked Jefferson to promise to call his wife, and their two sons, David, 4, and Drew, 2.
While Beamer was on the phone with Lisa Jefferson, Deena Burnett’s phone rang again. Tom was still alive.
“They’re taking airplanes and hitting landmarks all up and down the East Coast,” she told him. “OK,” he replied. “We’re going to do something. I’ll call you back.” Click.
In Fort Myers, Fla., Lorne Lyles didn’t hear the phone ringing. He’d worked the night shift and had lain down to sleep at 7:30. At 9:47 a.m., the answering machine picked up a call from his wife, CeeCee, stranded in the back of the airplane. When the tape was played back hours later, CeeCee Lyles could be heard praying for her family, for herself, for the souls of the men who had hijacked her plane. “I hope I’ll see your face again,” she said.
Lyz Glick was still on the phone with Jeremy. She stood in her parents’ living room while the television screen filled with the sight of two burning towers.
“You need to be strong,” she said. Lyz and Jeremy spoke of their love for each other. “I need you to be happy,” he told her, “and I will respect any decisions that you make.” Then he told her the passengers were taking a vote: Should they try to take back the plane? “Honey, you need to do it,” Lyz told him.
Phil Bradshaw was home in Greensboro, N.C., on the telephone, talking with a friend about the horrors on television. The line clicked. He asked his friend to hold. It was Sandy Bradshaw, his wife, the flight attendant.
“Have you heard what’s going on? My flight has been hijacked. My flight has been hijacked by three guys with knives,” she said. Who was flying the plane? Phil asked his wife. “I don’t know who’s flying the plane or where we are,” she said. Sandy Bradshaw, who was trained never to spill hot coffee on a paying customer, slipped into the airplane’s galley and began filling pitchers with boiling water.
From the back of Flight 93, CeeCee Lyles finally reached her husband, Lorne.
“Babe, my plane’s been hijacked,” she said. “Huh? Stop joking,” he said. “No babe, I wouldn’t joke like that. I love you. Tell the boys I love them.” The pair prayed. In the background, Lorne Lyles could hear what he now believes was the sound of men planning a counterattack. “They’re getting ready to force their way into the cockpit,” she told him.
When he had finished talking with Lisa Jefferson, finished relaying his love for his family, finished praying the Psalm that asked for green pastures and still waters, Todd Beamer put down the phone, still connected with the outside world.
“Are you guys ready? Let’s roll,” he said.
Honor Wainio was still on the line with her stepmother.
“I need to go,” she said. “They’re getting ready to break into the cockpit. I love you. Goodbye.”
“Everyone’s running to first class,” Sandy Bradshaw told her husband. “I’ve got to go. Bye.”
CeeCee Lyles let out a scream.
“They’re doing it! They’re doing it! They’re doing it!” she said. Lorne Lyles heard a scream. Then his wife said something he couldn’t understand. Then the line went dead.
It was 10:06 a.m. when air traffic control lost radar contact with Flight 93.
Gordon Felt, Edward Felt’s older brother, said he believes his brother and everyone on the plane were heroes for overpowering the hijackers to save others on the ground. I too believe they were heroes, every one.
Edward Felt, 41, of Matawan, N.J., was married and the father of two children. Kenneth W. Basnicki, 49, Marketing Director, BEA Systems was attending a breakfast meeting it the WTC North Tower Windows on the World on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Ken perished as the north tower collapsed.