Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Heroism, Fatalism Aboard Flight 93

Jurors in Moussaoui's sentencing trial hear about passengers' calls. Some chose to take on the hijackers, but a sense of doom filled the cabin.

By Richard A. Serrano, Times Staff Writer, April 12, 2006

Image hosting by Photobucket
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Passengers and flight attendants aboard the hijacked plane that crashed Sept. 11, 2001, in a Pennsylvania field made more than three dozen frantic phone calls depicting chaos and fear aboard United Flight 93 and a realization by many passengers that they were about to die, according to court testimony Tuesday.

The phone calls described brave schemes for battling the hijackers — a flight attendant was boiling water to throw on them, a passenger was hoping to fight back with a breakfast knife — consistent with the well-known accounts of heroic passengers swarming the four terrorists. But they also revealed a fatalism among many passengers who were gradually realizing they would become part of the day's death toll.

The calls also showed that most of the passengers were confused about how many hijackers had commandeered the plane, where they came from or whether their weapons were knives or a bomb or both.

And their chance at survival seemed all the more futile when they learned through the phone calls that two other planes had been flown into the World Trade Center in New York; they expected that their hijackers "were going to take this one down as well."

The calls were summarized by a police officer testifying in the Zacarias Moussaoui sentencing trial. Prosecutors said 37 phone calls were made by 13 passengers and flight attendants, most of them using air phones.

Two of the calls were from cellphones, including one made from one of the plane's rear lavatories to a county sheriff's office in Pennsylvania. Edward Felt, a passenger, barely was able to report that there was a "hijacking in progress" when he was disconnected.

Prosecutors plan to wrap up their case today by playing the cockpit recording tape that was recovered from the strip mining field near Shanksville, Pa., where the plane crashed.

That recording has been played only for relatives of the passengers and crew. Its airing for the Moussaoui jury will mark the first time the public will hear how some passengers dealt with the hijackers in the cockpit.

The prosecutors Tuesday played two other tapes from the cockpit that were picked up by ground control. In those tapes, the pilots shouted as hijackers broke into the cockpit.

"Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!" a pilot screamed in the first tape.

In the second tape, 30 seconds later, a pilot shouted: "Mayday! Get out of here! Get out of here!"

At that point, the plane, bound from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, had just crossed over Ohio. The hijacker pilot, identified as Ziad Jarrah, turned it back and headed east.

The trial has shown that top Al Qaeda leaders had planned for that plane to crash into the U.S. Capitol building in Washington. Instead the flight ended in a nose dive into the Pennsylvania field after passengers tried to overcome the terrorists.

Aboard were two pilots, five flight attendants and 33 passengers. Also along were four hijackers — one fewer than the teams of five assigned to each of the three other planes that struck the trade center and the Pentagon.

To document for the jury the Flight 93 calls, prosecutors brought Det. Sgt. Ray Guidetti of the New Jersey State Police to the witness stand. He was assigned to an FBI anti-terrorism task force in Newark, and he methodically led the jury through what law enforcement had pieced together from passengers' family members and friends of the last minutes of the flight.

Honor Wainio called her parents. "She realized she was going to die," Guidetti said. "But she had to go because everyone was running toward the cockpit."

Linda Gronlund called her sister and left a voicemail message. "Men with a bomb," she said. She knew the trade center had been attacked and she was "afraid the hijackers were going to take this one down as well," Guidetti said.

Thomas Burnett Jr. expected the hijackers to just ditch the plane. He feared they planned simply to "fly it into the ground," Guidetti said.

Marion Britton called a friend. Guidetti said the friend told her: "Don't worry. They'll probably take you to another country." But like the others, Britton was bracing for the worst. She said two people's throats had already been cut.

"It felt like the plane was turning and was going to crash," Guidetti said Britton told her friend. The friend then heard screams and the phone went dead.
Mark Bingham made four calls. He reported the plane had been "hijacked by three men with a bomb." Then he said he was sending his love, Guidetti said.

Flight attendants also were calling. Sandra Bradshaw three times speed-dialed a United Airlines office. She reported there were only two hijackers, one in the cockpit, the other in first class. She said the men "appeared to be Islamic" and that "the little guy was wearing a red band on his head."

Bradshaw said the plane was flying very unevenly and that it "seemed to be taking a few dives." She was boiling water in the rear of the plane "to throw on one of the hijackers." In another call, to her husband, she expressed her love for him and their children. "She knew she was going to die," Guidetti said.

Others, however, did think it worthwhile to try to fight back, and famously stormed the cockpit in a desperate bid to seize control — or to at least prevent the hijackers from flying the plane into another target.

Jeremy Glick called his wife. He told her the plane had been hijacked by "three males appearing to be Iranian … dark-skinned and with red bandanas on their heads." Guidetti said Glick also told her that "two hijackers were in the cockpit and a third had a red belt with a box that constituted some kind of a bomb."

He said they "all had knives" but that three passengers "about as big as" him were planning to try to take back the plane. Their idea was to first rush "the little guy with the bomb." But he said he was only able to "arm himself with a breakfast knife."

Todd Beamer tried to make four calls. The first three didn't go through. The fourth was to a phone operator. He reported there were three males with knives, and "one wearing a bomb." He believed the pilot and copilot were dead or injured on the floor in first class.

The phone operator could hear commotion and Beamer shouting, "The plane is going down!" "Are you ready?" someone said in the background.

Then someone said, "Let's roll" — the oft-quoted signal from a passenger who led the revolt.

Guidetti was the last witness on a day in which prosecutors presented Pentagon survivors and witnesses. An aircraft also crashed there on Sept. 11.

Sgt. Jose Rojas Jr., a Pentagon police officer, said he saw the trade center on fire on his TV and rushed outside his security post. "We're next!" he yelled. "We're going to get hit next!" At that moment, the plane hit the huge military complex.

Rojas anguishes over why he lived.

"I used to smoke. I used to drink a little," he said. "But then I started right back up. I'm not proud of smoking and drinking again. I've talked to pastors, but that's my way of dealing with it."

The government also presented three officers from the Pentagon who survived the crash, only to live with self-imposed guilt that their comrades had perished.

All testified in uniform. All cried.

Army Lt. Col. John Thurman said: "I feel incredibly lucky. I survived because nothing fell on me initially and I never lost my bearings. But there's guilt about being a survivor — guilt about getting a lucky break."

Navy Lt. Nancy McKeown said she could not save two staff members in her first-floor office. "I turned to go back in," she said, sobbing. But two rescue workers grabbed her arm. "We need to get you out of there," they told her.

The 37-year-old Moussaoui, a French citizen, pleaded guilty a year ago to conspiring with Al Qaeda in the Sept. 11 plot. The jury will decide whether he gets life in prison or is executed.

After the Pentagon testimony Tuesday, Moussaoui cried out, "Burn all the Pentagon the next time!"

After Guidetti had described the calls from Flight 93, Moussaoui yelled, "Let's roll to victory!"