The Selfless Heroism of the Passengers of United Flight 93

On September 11, 2001, United Airlines Flight 93 had forty passengers and crew members on board, travelling non-stop from Newark to San Francisco. The passengers ranged in age from twenty to seventy-nine. They were from New Jersey, California, Connecticut, Colorado, Germany, Japan, Minnesota, Maryland, Florida, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and New York. Among them was…

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On September 11, 2001, United Airlines Flight 93 had forty passengers and crew members on board, travelling non-stop from Newark to San Francisco. The passengers ranged in age from twenty to seventy-nine. They were from New Jersey, California, Connecticut, Colorado, Germany, Japan, Minnesota, Maryland, Florida, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and New York. Among them was a federal wildlife biologist, a former bookkeeper, a toy-company executive, an arborist, a retired bartender, attorneys, college students, and an ironworker who had helped build the World Trade Center.

Forty-five minutes into the flight, at around 9:30 A.M., air-traffic controllers received two radio transmissions—a frantic “Mayday!” and the sounds of violent struggle, followed by “Get out of here!” United 93 plummeted seven hundred feet, over eastern Ohio. A hijacker, one of four, was heard announcing that there was a bomb on board. Using autopilot, the hijackers pointed the jetliner toward Washington, D.C. Its transponder disabled, the flight became harder to track. The plane’s cockpit voice recorder captured the sound of a woman struggling with a hijacker; she then went silent.

The crew and passengers, herded into the back of the plane, used the onboard phones, and their personal cell phones, to call people on the ground. Learning that other hijackers had just flown jetliners into both towers of the World Trade Center, they held a vote. Unarmed civilians, unbound by duty, they included a college judo champ, a former air-traffic controller, and a retired registered nurse. In an act that has become American lore over the past twenty years, the passengers and crew members chose to attack the knife-wielding hijackers and “retake the plane.”

They rushed the first-class cabin, carrying out what the 9/11 Commission’s report called a “sustained” assault. One of the plane’s data recorders captured “loud thumps, crashes, shouts, and breaking glasses and plates.” The hijacker flying the plane, as if to throw the assaulters off balance, rocked the aircraft left and right. One hijacker asked, “Shall we finish it off?” Another said to wait. A passenger shouted, “In the cockpit. If we don’t, we’ll die!” The hijacker soon asked again, “Shall we put it down?” This time, the answer was yes. The 9/11 Commission concluded that the hijackers “judged that the passengers were only seconds from overcoming them.”

The plane roared low across pastoral Somerset County, Pennsylvania, skimming the village of Lambertsville. The aircraft flipped, then crashed at nearly six hundred miles per hour near Shanksville. People miles away felt the ground shake.

Lieutenant Heather (Lucky) Penney, an F-16 pilot who was ordered airborne that day, later told Garrett Graff, the author of “The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11,” that she and fellow D.C. Air National Guard pilot Marc Sasseville “fully expected to intercept Flight 93 and take it down.” A fourth hijacked plane had already hit the Pentagon. Flight 93 crashed about twenty minutes away, by air, from Washington. Penney said, “The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves.” Sasseville said, “They made the decision we didn’t have to make.”

One passenger’s widow recalled that her husband had said, by phone, “We’re waiting until we’re over a rural area.” The authors of the 9/11 Commission’s report highlighted the passengers’ selflessness: “Their actions saved the lives of countless others, and may have saved either the Capitol or the White House from destruction.” The report reached an astonishing conclusion: “the defense of U.S. airspace on 9/11” was “improvised by civilians.”

Claudette Greene, whose husband, Donald, was aboard Flight 93, once said that she hoped that the national memorial would become “an important source of public education on the issue of terrorism and how it stems—very simply—from the lack of education, even here at home.” The attacks of 9/11 were called “the ultimate teachable moment,” but educators have never reached a consensus on “precisely what students should learn,” the scholars Diana Hess and Jeremy Stoddard, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education, have noted. Middle- and high-school textbooks and videos have tended to prioritize what Hess and Stoddard call “lower-order thinking,” which demands little more than rote memorization. Most of the curricula that Hess and Stoddard examined did not challenge “students to critically examine the roots of the attacks.” Some textbooks from the mid-two-thousands failed to provide even the number of people killed, or that Al Qaeda was responsible.

In recent years, research has shown that the country’s political polarization is affecting the way 9/11 is taught and contextualized in classrooms. In 2019, Stoddard put out a survey of more than a thousand middle- and high-school teachers and found that many of them still avoided such “controversial” aspects as the invasion of Iraq and the detainment of terrorism suspects at Guantánamo Bay. Among the barriers to teaching 9/11 events, teachers mentioned their fear of upsetting parents or administrators. Stoddard and Hess had noted, “Many prominent conservatives took umbrage at what they interpreted as classroom responses designed to foster a critique of the U.S., while many from the opposite side of the political spectrum worried that 9/11 would be exploited to promote a jingoistic form of nationalism.”

Conspiratorial thinking has increased, along with a “rising misunderstanding of Islam.” In 2016, there was a surge of anti-Muslim bullying in U.S. schools. Students, who primarily got their information from family, friends, the internet, or social media, often conflated the religion with terrorism. Maureen Costello, who directed the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program, said after the 2016 election that students emulated the behavior of Donald Trump. During the campaign, Trump had repeatedly vilified Muslims. Costello added, “We could not avoid the fact that children were imitating him.”

Valor is easier to grasp than complex international dynamics and rank political motivations. In Shanksville, the determination of Flight 93’s passengers and crew became a signature component in the community’s effort to preserve the history of 9/11. At the Flight 93 National Memorial, which fully opened on September 10, 2015, National Park Service rangers lead lectures and field trips (often via Zoom, these days) in which they narrate the last moments of the passengers and crew. A National Park superintendent recently said that it was “critical for the Memorial to teach the power individuals have to make a difference.” In May, the Friends of Flight 93 National Memorial, a nonprofit, sought to inspire a mind-set of public service by creating an award for people who “suddenly found themselves forced to make a decision to help others, placing their own life at risk.”

Flight 93 went down on the barren site of an old strip mine, where generations of laborers had extracted bituminous coal. All around it was beauty: Somerset County is known as the “Roof Garden of Pennsylvania” for its verdant, rolling hills.

Locals arrived first at the scene of the crash, expecting to see a fuselage and perhaps even survivors. Instead, they found it “eerily” quiet. The plane’s explosive impact, compounded by seven thousand gallons of jet fuel, had vaporized nearly everything. Those on board had not just died; they had all but disappeared. First responders found a crater marked by the ghostly imprint of airplane wings, at the edge of a smoking, sizzling forest of hemlock. The county coroner, Wally Miller, later told NPR, “You could hear this melted plastic dripping out of the trees.” Miller thought of the families of the passengers and crew, who likely envisaged “caskets that they could open up, and see somebody.” He had to inform them that they could expect to recover, as NPR explained, no more than “a tooth, or a fragment of a bone.” F.B.I. evidence-recovery teams walked the site shoulder to shoulder, or crawled on their hands and knees.

The logistical challenges of investigating the crash of Flight 93 were materially different from those in New York and Washington, D.C. In Shanksville, there was no collapsed structure or rubble. In a rural area, it was harder to get supplies that were more readily available in cities, especially now that flights were grounded. Working with locals, investigators found a way to get Tyvek suits, twenty wheelbarrows, recycling bins, kiddie swimming pools (for disinfecting rubber boots), allergy pills, hundreds of tubes of lip balm, stainless-steel tables, tents, and refrigerated trailers. They had to pave a path to the crater, and build sifting screens.

Much of the emotionally and physically demanding work fell to those who lived and worked in Somerset County—excavators, pastors, hospital staff. The coroner deputized undertakers so that they could help process human remains at a temporary morgue. A local plumber ran cold-water lines to the facility, allowing for four extra wash sinks. A janitor’s closet became a darkroom, for developing X-rays. Glenn Kashurba, a local psychiatrist and Red Cross volunteer, collected oral histories, which he published. In “Quiet Courage,” he wrote that one first responder said, “The first night was bad. I closed my eyes, and I would see whatever I saw that day.”

Several days after the crash, the families of Flight 93’s passengers and crew started visiting the site. Mark Schweiker, then the Lieutenant Governor, said, “If anyone wanted to know the nature of overwhelming grief, then they only needed to spend a few days on that hillside.”

All forty passengers and crew members were identified by DNA, dental records, or fingerprints. None of the hijackers’ families reportedly provided genetic information, so, by process of elimination, investigators designated certain biological evidence as Hijacker A, B, C, and D, keeping it separate from the rest. The F.B.I. completed its investigation in about two weeks. The coroner ordered the crater backfilled, layered with topsoil, and seeded with a mixture of wildflowers and grass.

Federal authorities and the Flight 93 families spent years planning a memorial that encompassed the crater, meadows, and forest. The families and the Park Service envisioned a memorial “quiet in reverence, yet powerful in form.” The planners asked themselves why the actions of Flight 93’s passengers and crew were “important to the nation.” Ultimately, they pointed out the value of creating a place where “all generations” could “find meaning and inspiration” from their sacrifice.

Paul Murdoch Architects, of Los Angeles, won a design contest for the memorial. Working with Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, their plan used the natural bowl-shaped contours of the earth to create a circular “field of honor” bordered by a half-circle of trees. They titled the plan “Crescent of Embrace.” Some critics complained about the designs’ inclusion of a crescent, an Islamic symbol. Chief among them was one passenger’s father. His fears echoed the conspiracy-tinged comments of a conservative blogger who fixated on the use of a crescent and what he believed was one structure’s similarity to a minaret. Gently, yet publicly, other Flight 93 families condemned these views. One passenger’s widow told reporters, “Wow. Such hate.” The architects tweaked the design and changed the schematic’s name to “Circle of Embrace.”

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