Above is a memorial to the dead in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Given the anniversary, I figured I’d repost this old column from a few years back.
United Flight 93 was one of the airliners hijacked on 9/11, on its way to D.C. when it went down in Pennsylvania. It was the last to crash, and its passengers, in contact with the ground via cell phones, were the first of those whose planes had been turned into cruise missiles to realize that they weren’t involved in an ordinary hijacking. Wives and loved ones conveyed the heartsick message that the hijackers were crashing the airliners into landmarks and important buildings.
There were many heroes on board that day, but the one that sticks out in my mind was a big, strong, affable guy named Todd Beamer. He was a quintessential American as they like to imagine themselves, the kind of solid masculine guy who wore plaid shirts and baseball hats, a former college athlete who knew how to handle himself, but wasn’t looking for trouble. Upright, decent, a family man. We know, from the testimony of loved ones on the other ends of phones, that Todd was among those leading an effort to take the plane back by force, or die trying.
One woman, speaking to her husband, heard Beamer in the background just as they made their move: “You guys ready? Let’s roll”.
Beamer and his new band of brothers were the first group of passengers to understand what was really going on, and they wouldn’t stand for it. It’s thought they rushed to the front using a drink cart as a battering ram, and Beamer’s wife is quite sure that he broke at least one terrorist in half when they got to the cockpit door – the cockpit had guards posted outside, and somebody must have dealt with them. Probably Beamer. The passengers can be heard on the “black box” cockpit recording, breaking the door down, when the terrorists decide to crash the plane. From their flight path, their mission was plainly to hit something in Washington, maybe the Capital Building, maybe the White House. Beamer and the others wouldn’t have known the specifics, but from their conversations with the ground they understood full well that something of national significance was in the cross-hairs, and they wouldn’t have it. They had a faint hope of seizing control of the jet, as they had among them a private pilot, but really it came down to this: they would rather die on their feet than let the worst happen. There was nothing else for it, and time was running out, so: let’s roll.
Meanwhile, two F-16 pilots who’d been preparing for a training sortie rushed to get airborne in a pair of fighters that had been fuelled for the training mission, but were of course unarmed, and there was no timely way to do anything about that. They roared into the sky, pushed close to supersonic, and formulated a plan to collide with the airliner in order to stop it. They were the last military line of defence. The only available armed “quick reaction alert” F-16s on air defence duty that day had sped out to sea, as per their standing orders – any aerial threat had to be coming in from the ocean, right? – and were thus out of the play. It was up to these two pilots, one of them a member of the USAF’s first generation of female combat aviators, to execute what amounted to a kamikaze mission in their unarmed jets, and they didn’t hesitate. One resolved to clip the airliner’s tail, the other would go for the cockpit. As they sped towards their quarry, they expected to die. But the passengers of United 93 had already done the job.
The clip above is the climax of the astonishingly moving film directed by Paul Greengrass, and while it will certainly break your heart, you have to see the whole movie.
Also, this is worth a read: