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09/20/2001 - Updated 10:00 AM ET

Passengers likely halted attack on D.C.

By John Ritter and Tom Kenworthy, USA TODAY

Unknown to each other, Jeremy Glick, Tom Burnett, Todd Beamer and Mark Bingham were just four businessmen boarding an early morning, cross-country flight. Thirty-something, successful, take-charge guys, fate brought them together on San Francisco-bound Flight 93 last Tuesday. Three of them had been scheduled to leave sooner.


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Boarding with them on that clear, warm morning in Newark, N.J., was another group of men well known to one another. They were four men who had trained long and hard for this day. Saeed Alghamdi, Ahmed Alhaznawi, Ahmed Alnami and Ziad Jarrahi were bound together in a suicide plot, the FBI says, bent on turning the United Airlines jetliner into a guided missile and crashing it into a national landmark.

It now seems likely that those two groups of men — the gung-ho American businessmen and the militant extremist hijackers — became locked in a desperate struggle aboard Flight 93. The Americans apparently tried to save the jet or make sure it didn't reach its target; the hijackers were intent on completing their holy mission.

America is hailing the 37 passengers and 7 crewmembers on Flight 93 as heroes. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter has gone as far as promoting them for Presidential Medals of Freedom.

Six days after the jet plowed into the soft earth of a former strip mine in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, killing all aboard, details are emerging about the terrifying last minutes of Flight 93.

The Boeing 757's two black boxes, recovered deep in the jet's impact crater, may yield clues. In particular, investigators hope to piece together the tale of Flight 93 from the cockpit voice recorder, designed to preserve the last 30 minutes of in-flight talk. FBI and National Transportation Safety Board experts were analyzing it over the weekend.

For now, the case for hero status rests on the emotional accounts of relatives who talked to passengers calling from cellphones and seat-back phones after the hijackers took over the jet.

In interviews since the crash, relatives have asserted that loved ones knew other jets already had slammed into the World Trade Center towers. They hatched a plan to thwart their captors. They knew they probably would die in the effort. The last words relatives heard included those of one man who said, "We're going to do something," and another who said, "Let's roll."

What caused Flight 93's abrupt final dive just after 10 a.m. isn't known. The Americans could have overpowered the hijackers and deliberately ditched the jet to save lives on the ground. A cockpit struggle could have caused whoever was flying the jet to lose control. It has even been suggested, though vigorously denied by the Pentagon, that the jet was shot down.

Jets relatively easy to fly

From radar logs, this much is known: After a 40-minute delay, the jet took off from Newark at 8:44 a.m. from Gate 17, Concourse A and flew west, climbing to 35,000 feet. The cabin, with about 180 seats, was less than one-quarter full. Passengers probably had spread out for more comfort on the 5-hour cruise to San Francisco.

Five flight attendants served breakfast. The flight was routine for just over an hour, when the jet suddenly turned south as it reached Cleveland and headed back the way it came.

By then, the hijackers, wielding knives and threatening to detonate a bomb, must have been in control. Beamer, one of the four businessmen thought to have led a counterattack, picked up a seat-back phone, operated by GTE. In the call that reached a GTE supervisor, Beamer said hijackers had herded 26 passengers into first class.

Beamer, nine other passengers and the five flight attendants were ordered to sit in back. This group likely included the four businessmen. Beamer said he didn't know what happened to the two pilots and the remaining passenger.

Investigators believe hijackers on all four doomed jets last Tuesday had enough training, some of it acquired at flight schools in the USA, to switch courses and take aim at their targets.

Manufacturers have gone to great lengths to make modern jets like the Boeing 757 and 767 easy to fly. Cockpit controls behave similarly to controls on small private planes. Hijacker pilots might not have been capable of a flawless landing, but flying the jets would not have been a problem. It's also likely that they knew how to reset flight computers to change course.

At the least, on that bright, clear day with hundreds of miles of visibility, the hijackers could have turned the jet around, checked the compass and dead-reckoned their way to the nation's capital.

Distress calls go out

Not long after the jet's U-turn, calls started going out to loved ones on the ground. Lauren Grandcolas, 38, of San Rafael, Calif., returning from her grandmother's funeral in New Jersey, twice left messages for her husband, Jack. In her second call, she said there was trouble but did not elaborate.

At some point, an unidentified passenger made a 911 call from a cellphone in a bathroom. "This is not a hoax," the caller insisted.

Calls from Glick, Burnett, Beamer and Bingham offer the most compelling evidence of an onboard rebellion. FBI investigators say they've found nothing to contradict such a scenario. And others could have been involved.

There was Andrew Garcia, 62, of Portola Valley, Calif., returning from a meeting. His family got a call, they think from him, but only one word, "Dorothy," his wife's name, was heard before the line went dead. The Garcias think he would have joined any insurrection.

There was also Richard Guadagno, 38, a refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from Eureka, Calif., who had federal law-enforcement training. His colleagues believe he would have been involved.

Glick called a little more than an hour into the flight. The Internet company executive, 31, had been scheduled to leave home in West Milford, N.J., the day before. At 7:30, before boarding, he called his wife, Lyz, who was staying with her parents in New York's Catskill Mountains. His father-in-law said she was still asleep.

His second call was far more urgent: "There's bad men on the plane, let me talk to Lyz," Glick told his father-in-law, Richard Makely.

For 20 minutes, as the jet streaked across western Pennsylvania, Lyz and Jeremy, former high school sweethearts with a 12-week-old daughter, talked for the last time.

She stayed calm. He wanted to know if what he'd heard from another passenger who was calling home, that the Trade Center towers had been hit, was true. She reluctantly told him it was.

"He knew something very bad was going to happen," Lyz told NBC's Dateline. "What he needed to know was what was going to happen. Were they going to blow the plane up, or was it going to crash into something, because that made all the difference."

Glick, a 6-foot-1, 220-pound judo champion, said he and others were formulating a plan, hashing over whether passengers should rush the hijackers. He asked Lyz what he should do. "I finally just decided: 'Honey, you need to go for it.' "

The hijackers had already stabbed one person to death. Jeremy told Lyz to stay on the line. The jet was no more than 30 minutes from Washington.

Recited 23rd Psalm

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Beamer, 32, an Oracle executive from Hightstown, N.J., learned from the GTE supervisor, Lisa Jefferson, about the other hijackings. He told her that two hijackers had locked themselves into the cockpit.

Beamer told Jefferson he and others were going to "jump on" the hijacker with the bomb, who was guarding the passengers in the rear. He mentioned Glick by name.

Jefferson heard shouts and commotion, and then Beamer asked her to pray with him. They recited the 23rd Psalm. He made Jefferson promise to call his wife, Lisa, due with their third child in January, then dropped the phone. Jefferson heard Beamer say, "Let's roll." Silence followed.

Burnett was on the phone to his wife, Deena, four times. The first time he assured her he was OK but asked her to call authorities. She dialed 911, and a dispatcher put her through to the FBI.

An executive at a Pleasanton, Calif., medical products company, Burnett, 38, was by all accounts a man capable of taking matters into his own hands. "He is absolutely the kind of person you not only would think might be involved but you would expect to be involved," says his boss, Keith Grossman. "And be shocked if he wasn't."

When Burnett called back, his wife told him about the World Trade Center attacks. On his third call, they discussed whether a bomb was aboard. Burnett thought the hijackers were bluffing.

In his last call, the 6-foot-2 former high school quarterback, said, "We're getting ready to do something."

"Who?" Deena asked.

"A group of us," he said. "We're going to do something."

Bingham's role is less clear. He sat in first class with Burnett, but in a call to his mother, Alice Hoglan in Saratoga, Calif., made no mention of plans to take on the hijackers.

But Hoglan is sure her son was in the middle of it. Bingham, 31, owner of a San Francisco public relations company, was a 6-foot-5 rugby player who had run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, just this summer, and he had once wrestled a gun away from a mugger.

"He doesn't seek out trouble, but he won't run away from it either," Hoglan says. "If he sees something wrong, he sets it right."

The scenario of passengers fighting with the hijackers and disrupting the flight is consistent with what eyewitnesses on the ground saw as the jet neared the ground. They saw it wobble hard left, then wobble hard right.

When Glick asked his wife to stay on the line, she handed the receiver to her father. Makely says there was silence, then screams in the background, followed by more silence, then more screams. Then nothing. It was 10:10 a.m.

F-16s waited over Washington

For days after the crash, rumors swirled among air traffic controllers that Flight 93 had been shot down, though sources never offered any specific information indicating the jet had been attacked. Reports from witnesses said an F-16 fighter had been in the area. And when investigators recovered crash debris 8 miles away, it seemed to lend credence to the theory that the jet had been hit.

But the lightweight debris — papers and insulation — could have been carried that far by winds, experts say. The Pentagon unequivocally denies that military aircraft downed the United jet.

However, F-16s flying over Washington were ready to intercept it, according to Vice President Cheney. "It doesn't do any good to put up a combat air patrol if you don't give them instructions to act," Cheney said on NBC's Meet the Press. "The president made the decision on my recommendation as well. ... If the plane would not divert, if they wouldn't pay any attention to instructions to move away from the city, as a last resort our pilots were authorized to take them out."

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz credits the men on the jet. "I think it was the heroism of the passengers on board that brought it down," he said.

The families of Flight 93's victims, as well as the nation as a whole, have no doubt they are heroes. Strangers thrown into a no-win situation, they rose to the task, made the supreme sacrifice and saved who knows how many other lives in the process.

"I think it shows that one person can make a difference, that one person in this country has the opportunity to change this world," says Lyz Glick.

Contributing: Alan Levin