It happened on a serene Tuesday morning. Perfect weather. Clear sky. Locals saw a Boeing 757 jerking through the air at an awkward angle and speeding toward Earth.
Farmers watched in slack-jawed amazement. Commuters pulled over to see a commercial airliner bounce from the sky and slam into the ground. When the plane hit soil it sounded like the world had come apart at the bolts. A mile-high column of black smoke rose into the air. The clear sky was ruined.
Earlier that morning United Flight 93 had been due for takeoff from Newark International Airport at 8:01 a.m. But, because this is America (Land of the Free and Home of the Flight Delayed) the flight was running late.
It started out as a normal flight, the passengers and crew were chatty that morning. Forty-one ordinary people made conversations over Styrofoam coffee cups. It was the usual talk. They chatted about their kids’ soccer games. Work. The new fad diet that wasn’t making their thighs any smaller.
In the cockpit, pilot Jason Dahl was going through his preflight stuff. He was 43, cobby build, with a smile that looked like he could have been your favorite uncle Lou. Jason always carried a little box of rocks with him. They were a gift from his son. Directly after this flight, Jason was going to take his wife to London for their fifth anniversary.
In the passenger area you had folks like John Talignani (age 74), retired bartender, stocky, cotton-white hair, a World War II vet, a no nonsense kind of guy. He was one of the millions of longsuffering, anguished souls who call themselves New York Mets fans.
You had Deora Bodley (20), a college junior. The vision of loveliness. They say she was one of those natural beauties that caused young men on sidewalks to crash headfirst into lampposts. Deora wanted to be a children’s therapist.
And Jean Peterson (55). She was traveling with her husband, Don (66). They were going to Yosemite for vacation. Jean was a retired nurse, but she didn’t want to take up the rocking chair. So Jean became a crisis counselor. She helped pregnant teenagers figure out their lives.
One of the flight attendants was Lorraine Bay (58). She’d been an attendant for 37 years. Meaning, she was either a glutton for corporate punishment, or she loved her job. Lorraine was a maternal figure to other airline employees, and she was always sending letters. That morning she’d mailed a few postcards to friends. Just to say hi.
CeeCee (33), a Florida girl. She was new to the flight-attendant scene. Only nine months ago she’d been a police officer in her hometown of Fort Pierce. She was a law enforcement officer to the core, unafraid of confrontation. Her last words on a phone conversation, as the plane went down under terrorist attack, were: “We’re getting ready to do it now. It’s happening.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After the plane took off, it was obvious that there were bad men on this flight. Somewhere around 9:30 a.m. three aggressive men in red bandannas rushed toward the cockpit with malicious intentions.
I’m neither going to tell you about those men, nor about what they planned to do, nor who they planned to kill. Enough has been written about these wicked men. What I will tell you about the men in bandannas is that they chose the wrong plane to mess with. Flight 93 was not filled with 41 passive church mice.
Onboard you had Jeremy Glick (31), a six-foot-one, national collegiate judo champion and blackbelt. Mark Bingham (31), a rugby player. CeeCee, the streetwise former cop.
And Tom Burnett (38), once a college quarterback, sturdy as a hickory stump. Tom Burnett made his last phone call to his wife and said, “If they’re gonna run this plane into the ground, we’re gonna do something.”
And they did. All 41 regular Americans made their countermove at 9:57 a.m. All that is known about their actions comes from the flight audio recorder. The recording plays a collection of sounds. Difficult sounds. Sounds that will shake you.
Your mind’s eye can see the action play out. There is the sound of passengers storming a flimsy cockpit door. Noises from a crashing beverage-service cart. Flinging dishes. Shattering glass. Ice cold screams. Shouts. Punches. Slaps. Groans. Gags. Pleas for help.
One passenger voice shouts, “Let’s get’em!”
Another passenger, maybe struggling for the flight controls, hollers, “Give it to me! Give it to me! Give it to me! Give it to me!”
More shouting. More fighting. Then. Click. The recording stops. The plane goes down. The earth in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, rumbled like an act of God.
Todd Beamer (32), raised in Chicago, tried to call his wife only minutes before his death. But he couldn’t reach her. So he dialed zero on the in-flight phone.
He got a customer service rep named Lisa. He was all over the map, emotionally, says Lisa. Todd kept saying, “Please call my family and let them know how much I love them.”
And in the quiet moments before Todd and the others would assault the violent men, Todd asked Lisa to say the Lord’s Prayer with him. She did. Then he asked her to say the 23rd Psalm along with him. She did that, too.
Over the phone, Lisa could hear dozens of voices reciting the verses along with Todd minutes before their death. The timeworn Psalm filled the cabin like perfume, or the smell of rain, or fresh baked bread.
“Yea, 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.
“Thou preparest a table for me in the midst of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.”
Which is where they are right now.
All 41 of them.