Ten Years Later: The September 11 Attacks
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United Airlines Flight 93

Title: FBI investigators comb the crater
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United Airlines Flight 93's Boeing 757-222 was the fourth aircraft hijacked by Al Qaeda hijackers on September 11, 2001. It took off from Newark International Airport at 8:43 a.m. bound for San Francisco International Airport. Normal flight time was six hours. The flight was nearly 45 minutes late for its scheduled takeoff time of 8:01 a.m. On board were 2 pilots, Captain Jason M. Dahl and First Officer LeRoy Homer; a crew of 5 flight attendants; and 37 passengers (including the 4 hijackers). The plane held 11,489 gallons of aviation fuel.

The hijack team had little difficulty passing security. Security checkpoints at Newark International Airport were operated by Argenbright Security under contract to United Airlines. Only two of the four hijackers had luggage and only one of them triggered the CAPPS (Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System) process—Ahmed al-Haznawi's luggage was checked for explosives.

This hijack team was the smallest of the four. Ziad Jarrah was the team leader and designated pilot. He sat in first-class seat 1B, nearest the cockpit door. Other members of the team, Saeed al-Ghamdi, Ahmed al-Haznawi, and Ahmed al-Na'ami, were in seats 3C, 3D, and 6B, respectively. The hijackers seized control of the aircraft at 9:28 a.m., just minutes after the pilot received a warning about possible cockpit invasions on the cockpit computer device ACARS (Aircraft Communications and Reporting System). The cockpit door was no obstacle, taking only about 150 pounds of pressure to knock down. In addition, the flight attendants had keys to the cockpit door—another means of access to the cockpit.

Exactly how the hijackers gained access to the cockpit will never be known, but they took control relatively easily. They probably took a key to the cockpit from the flight attendant in first class. Within minutes of the assault, the hijackers had complete control of the aircraft. Both pilots were down—either killed or seriously incapacitated. Ahmed al-Haznawi, Saeed al-Ghamdi, and Ahmed al-Na'ami took turns controlling the 33 passengers and 5 flight attendants. Matters were complicated by having about a dozen passengers in the first-class section, with the rest seated in the back of the plane. Unlike the other teams, these hijackers were lenient on passenger discipline. After injuring 1 of the passengers, the hijackers controlled the others and the crew by threatening them with a bomb. To keep discontent down, they encouraged passengers and crew to contact their families by cell phone. Passengers made more than two dozen phone calls. This relaxed style came back to haunt the hijackers, for passengers who contacted family members learned that three other aircraft had been hijacked and had been turned into flying bombs.

As passengers began to realize there was no possibility of survival, plans circulated among some of the more aggressive men on board to attack the hijackers and regain control of the aircraft. By this time the passengers suspected that the hijackers had no bomb. About a dozen of them had experience in action sports, including football, rugby, and judo. Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, Jeremy Glick, and several others decided to wait until the aircraft cleared populated areas to begin their attack. They were under no illusion about their probable fate, and showed extraordinary courage and compassion for others by waiting for the aircraft to fly over a rural area. They had other allies in CeeCee Ross-Lyles, one of the flight attendants, who was a former police officer; Rich Guadago, an enforcement officer with the California Fish and Wildlife Service; Linda Gronlund, a lawyer who had a brown belt in karate; and William Cashman, a former paratrooper with the 101st Airborne. Finally, Don Greene, vice president of Safe Flight Instrument Group, was a pilot with experience in single-engine aircraft, who could follow instructions to land the aircraft.

The passengers waited for their opportunity. In the meantime, flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw started boiling water to be used against the hijackers. Sometime around 10:00 a.m. the passengers attacked the hijackers using a food tray container to smash into the cockpit area. Earlier the hijackers had all retreated into the cockpit area. A voice recording from the black box (cockpit data recorder) indicated the fierce nature of the struggle. For the next seven minutes the outcome was in doubt.

Jarrah was the pilot, and his contingency plan was to crash the aircraft if it seemed as though the hijackers would lose control of the plane. Evidently this is what happened, for the aircraft crashed upside down at a 45-degree angle, creating a crater 30 feet or more in diameter. The plane crashed in a reclaimed mining area, where the ground was relatively soft, and plunged deep into the ground.

The fuel tanks exploded, leaving a blackened crater. Smoke from the explosion allowed local volunteer authorities to find the site soon after the crash. The crash was reported by numerous witnesses, and a visual inspection from a passing unarmed Air National Guard C-130H cargo jet on a mission from Washington, D.C., to Minnesota confirmed the crash site.

The violence of the crash left no survivors. The black box was excavated 15 feet into the crater, and the cockpit voice recorder was found 25 feet down. Only body parts were recovered. Sixty percent of the recovered remains were identified by a combination of fingerprint verification, dental records, and DNA analysis.

In commercial air disasters the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) handles investigations, but because this was a case of air piracy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) assumed control although the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); the NTSB; and the Pennsylvania State Police also assisted. Nothing could be done at the site, however, without the permission of the FBI. Early in the investigation 2,000 people worked at the site daily.

The probable target of Flight 93 was the U.S. Capitol. Earlier meetings by Al Qaeda leaders had determined that the White House would present navigational problems. They had preferred that the White House be the target, but the Capitol was a target more easily recognized by inexperienced navigators.

Stephen E. Atkins


Further Reading
Aust, Stefan, et al. Inside 9/11: What Really Happened. New York: St. Martin's, 2001; 9/11 Commission. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. New York: Norton, 2004; Trento, Susan B., and Joseph J. Trento. Unsafe at Any Altitude: Failed Terrorism Investigations, Scapegoating 9/11, and the Shocking Truth about Aviation Security Today. Hanover, NH: Steerforth, 2006; Cameron, Robert and Alistair Cooke. Above London. San Francisco: Cameron and Company, 1986; Beamer, Lisa, and Ken Abraham. Let's Roll! Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2002; Kashuba, Glenn J. Quiet Courage: The Definitive Account of Flight 93 and Its Aftermath. Somerset, PA: SAJ, 2006; Longman, Jere. Among the Heroes: United Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back. New York: Perennial, 2003.
 

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