Monday, Aug 20, 2018
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Worlds collide in midair

PITTSBURGH - Late. They were late. United Flight 93 had been scheduled to take off at 8:01 a.m. Now it was sitting on the tarmac, waiting for clearance to leave for San Francisco. Tucked into a flatland from which the New York skyline shone in the distance, Newark International Airport was ringed with construction. Two days earlier, a fire had started at one of the sites, closing the airport. Flights already delayed by construction were backed up even further.

The Flight 93 passengers had walked down the concourse of Terminal A, where they breezed past the security gate, then walked the 100 yards down to a long, circular hallway from which the boarding ramps jutted out like spokes. At Gate 17, they strode an additional 70 feet down the jetway, made a left turn, and were inside the Boeing 757.

It was a space that different people from different worlds were meant to share for the five-hour flight across a continent filled with immigrants and their descendants.

Thomas Burnett, Jr., 38, a senior vice president and chief operating officer for a medical research company in San Ramon, Calif., had been living on planes for six days.

Christine Snyder's husband of two months was waiting for her back in Kailua, Hawaii, where she worked as an arborist. On the drive to the airport she marveled at the billboards, wires, transmission lines, industrial plants - things she didn't see back home.

Also on board were four men from an entirely different world. Ziad Jarrah, their leader, had been born in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon in 1975. Outwardly, it would have been hard to know the turmoil that boiled inside him. Born into an apolitical and secular family of Sunni Muslims, Jarrah attended Christian schools as a youth, studied aviation in Europe, and told the man in Florida who had taught him close-quarters hand-fighting that he loved living in America.

“Find ways to blend in with your opponent and control him,” the instructor, Bert Rodriguez, told Jarrah in May, when he walked into US-1 Fitness, a gymnasium in Dania Beach, Fla., and paid $500 cash for the course.

Now, settling into a seat in first class, Jarrah blended in. No one on board would have guessed that back in the Florida apartment he'd left four days earlier, he had set up a full-size, cardboard replica - three panels in all - of the cockpit of the airplane they had just boarded.

No one could have known that he and his three companions, seated throughout the plane, had stayed in the same hotel as some of the passengers the night before.

No one could have known that, in the skies over Pennsylvania, the worlds of Thomas Burnett, Christine Snyder, and Ziad Jarrah, would meet in a cataclysm of cool rage and desperate courage, as passengers tried to take back their airplane, all the time unaware that an Air Force jet, scrambled from a base in Virginia, was closing in with orders to shoot the plane down before it got to Washington.

By the time United Flight 93 was in smoldering pieces in a field outside the Somerset County village of Shanksville, the F-16 was 14 minutes away from the range at which it could have brought down the 757 with heat-seeking missiles.

Flight 93 became an asterisk to a day of horror 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 a war without rules against an enemy without a state.

What made Flight 93 different was a decision made somewhere over the skies of western Pennsylvania, after passengers learned on cell phones that they were likely to be flown into a building as the fourth in a quartet of suicide attacks.

They decided to fight.

They became casualties of a strange new combat against an enemy as old as hatred and as unclear as the muffled shouts and groans investigators would later hear on the cockpit voice recorder dug out of a reclaimed strip mine on a Pennsylvania hillside.

This is their story.

In December, 1999, 40 people were living lives as ordinary and remarkable as those doled out to everyone else by the hand of fortune.

Sandra Waugh Bradshaw was juggling dual careers - flight attendant and mother. She was home in Greensboro, N.C., with her year-old daughter, Alexandria.

Alan Beaven was practicing law in San Francisco. Kristin Gould White was researching medical history at Ivy League schools. Richard Guadagno was studying guitar. Pilot LeRoy Homer, Jr., was living life as a newlywed.

In the town of Abha, Saudi Arabia, a skinny, 21-year-old student of Islamic law - it is called Sharia - was leaving on a religious trip. Under the rules of Islam, every man must, once in his life, travel to the city of Mecca. Then there were the other trips, the optional, minor pilgrimages known as "Umra." It was on Umra that Ahmed Al-Nami left for Mecca. But he was supposed to come back.

Alan Beaven was up at 4. He had a rental car to drop off at the airport from the Catskills home he was sharing with his wife and 5-year-old daughter, Sonali. An environmental lawyer with an office in Oakland, Calif., he had one last case to try before leaving with his family to do volunteer work in India.

Before he left, Mr. Beaven woke his wife, Kimi, to say good-bye.

"All I want from California is for you to come back safe and sound," she said.

Jarrah arrived at the Airport Marriott Hotel a day earlier, according to two employees, and paid cash for seven rooms. He and his companions ate the night before at Priscilla's, the hotel's upscale restaurant.

With Jarrah was his roommate from Florida, Ahmed Al-Haznawi, a 20-year-old student from Baljurshi, Saudi Arabia, along with Al-Nami, the man who disappeared on his visit to Mecca, and Saeed Al-Ghamdi, a young man about whom almost nothing is known.

Since arriving in the United States in late 1999, Jarrah studied at two south Florida flight schools. Before moving to the United States, Jarrah studied aeronautical engineering in Hamburg, Germany, where he shared a room with another Muslim student named Mohamed Atta, later identified as the man who flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center.

After moving to Florida, Jarrah and his companions were regularly in touch with Atta.

On Sept. 5, Jarrah and Al-Haznawi, the son of a Muslim prayer leader, visited Passage Tours in Fort Lauderdale and booked two one-way tickets to Newark. Two days later, Al-Ghamdi and Al-Nami stopped in and paid $140 each for flights aboard Spirit Air to Newark.

The night before boarding Flight 93, in their hotel rooms, Jarrah would have opened a list of instructions, kept in a notebook that apparently was written by his old friend, Atta.

It instructed them to bathe, wear cologne, shave excess hair from their bodies, and check the knives they carried.

"You must make your knife sharp and you must not discomfort your animal during the slaughter," it read.

"Completely forget something called 'this life.' The time for play is over and the serious time is upon us."

It instructed them to turn to two Shuras - chapters - of the Qur'an , al Tawba and al Anfa, which translate to "Repentance" and "The Spoils of War." In Al-Anfa, the 32nd verse reads:

Remember how they said: "O Allah! If this is indeed The Truth from Thee, Rain down on us a shower Of stones from the sky, Or send us a grievous Penalty."

The crew of United Flight 93 gathered one hour before they were scheduled to take off. Such meetings are routine. Pilot and first officer decide who will handle the takeoff and landing, who will take charge of the controls in mid-flight. Numbers of passengers are reviewed.

The pilot was Jason Dahl, 43, of Denver. Mr. Homer would fly alongside him as first officer.

Sandy Bradshaw, 38, would work the back of the plane, in economy class. After the first of her two children was born two years ago - she also had a 16-year-old stepdaughter - she had cut back on her workload. Her husband, Phil, a US Airways pilot, had urged her to quit. She was thinking about it.

CeeCee Lyles, 33, of Fort Myers, Fla., had perhaps the most unusual resume among the flight crew.

She'd been a police officer and detective for six years in Fort Pierce, Fla. In late 2000, she left that job to pursue her lifetime dream: to be a flight attendant.

The switch displeased some relatives. Air travel, they told CeeCee, seemed more dangerous than police work. Mrs. Lyles laughed it off. She had married Lorne Lyles, a police officer in Fort Myers, and between them they were raising a blended brood of four boys.

The crew boarded its flight 35 minutes ahead of the scheduled departure. The attendants started preparing the in-flight breakfast.

Flight 93 was near cruising altitude when a system-wide message came over its monitor. United control warned pilots in the air of potential "cockpit intrusion," meaning some passenger might try to seize a plane.

They acknowledge the message.

A few minutes after 9 a.m., with the World Trade Center to their backs and in flames, Flight 93 would have reached 31,000 feet and 515 miles an hour. At some point - the best estimation is about 46 minutes into the flight west - four men in the cabin stood up and put red bandanas around their heads.

Two of the men forced their way into the cockpit. One took the loudspeaker microphone, unaware it could also be heard by air traffic controllers, and announced that someone had a bomb onboard and the flight was returning to the airport. He told them he was the pilot, but spoke with an accent.

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., or 9:20 Eastern time.

It was Tom.

"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."

Mrs. Burnett dialed 911.

Jeremy Glick picked up a GTE Airfone just before 9:30 a.m. and called his in-laws in the Catskills. The family had been transfixed in front of a television, watching news coverage of airliners smashing into the World Trade Center in New York. Mr. Glick's mother-in-law, Joanne Macklin, answered.

Jeremy phoned and asked for his wife Lyz.

He described the men as Arabic-looking, wearing red headbands, carrying knives. Most of the passengers had been forced into the rear of the plane. Mr. Glick's mother-in-law went to another phone line and dialed 911. As Jeremy and Liz spoke, New York state police patched in on the call. Mr. Glick asked his wife: Was it true that planes had been crashed into the World Trade Center?

Yes, she said. Mr. Glick thought so. Another passenger had been on the phone home and heard the same thing.

Around 9:30, Mrs. 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.

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 his 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.

Mr. Beamer told Ms. 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 Ms. Jefferson to promise to call his wife, and their two sons, David, 3, and Andrew, 1.

Somewhere outside Cleveland, United Flight 93 made a sharp turn and began flying east, toward Washington.

The phone rang again at the Burnett household at 9:45. Tom was alive.

"They're taking airplanes and hitting landmarks all up and down the East Coast," Deena Burnett 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.

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.

Honor Elizabeth Wainio dialed her stepmother, Esther Heymann, in Baltimore.

"Mom, we're being hijacked. I just called to say good-bye," she said.

They passed a few quiet moments.

"It hurts me that it's going to be so much harder for you all than it is for me," Ms. Wainio said.

Sometime shortly before 10 a.m., Tom Burnett called home one last time.

"A group of us is going to do something," he told Deena.

The authorities, at that moment, had scrambled three F-16 fighter jets from Langley AFB in Hampton, Va. The planes, armed with heat-seeking, Sidewinder missiles, were authorized to knock down any civilian aircraft that appeared headed toward a target on the ground.

The fighter jets were 14 minutes out of range and closing in.

Still on his own phone call, Todd Beamer was pouring out his heart to his family through Lisa Jefferson, the Verizon supervisor he'd reached on his Airfone.

They prayed the 23rd Psalm: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters ....

From the back of Flight 93, CeeCee Lyles reached her husband, Lorne. "Babe, my plane's been hijacked," she said.

"They're getting ready to force their way into the cockpit," she told him.

When he had finished talking with Lisa Jefferson, Todd Beamer put down the phone, still connected with the outside world.

"Are you guys ready? Let's roll," he said.

"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.

Dennis Roddy is a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Contributing to this report were Post-Gazette reporters Cindi Lash, Steve Levin, Jonathan Silver, and Tom Gibb.

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