Passengers, pilot tried to foil hijackers
As the nation reels over the coordinated terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon Tuesday, tales of heroism are beginning to emerge.
Reports tell of at least two passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania while apparently headed toward Washington, D.C., calling their wives to say they would try to overpower their attackers.
Pilot and the controllers
The pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, the first airliner to hit the trade center Tuesday, secretly sent messages to controllers on the ground during the flight, according to a report in The Christian Science Monitor today.
The paper, citing interviews with two unnamed air traffic controllers in Boston, said the pilot was apparently triggering a "push to talk" switch in the cockpit, probably on the plane's steering wheel, known as a yoke.
"The button was being pushed intermittently most of the way to New York," one of the controllers said. "He wanted us to know something was wrong. When he pushed the button and the terrorist spoke, we knew. There was this voice that was threatening the pilot and it was clearly threatening."
During the transmissions, the pilot's voice and the heavily accented voice of a hijacker were clearly audible, the controllers said.
The transmissions were all recorded and the paper said the tapes were turned over to federal law-enforcement officials.
Controllers were first tipped off that something was wrong on Flight 11 when the aircraft failed to follow an instruction to climb to its cruising altitude of 31,000 feet.
"He was cleared to continue his climb and he did not," one of the controllers said. "He was given permission to turn to go around (other airplane) traffic at 29,000 (feet). So he (the controller) issued a further climb, and (the plane) does not respond. That was the first indication we had of a problem," the controller told the newspaper.
The controller handling the plane then tried repeatedly to raise the aircraft on the radio but got no response. He then switched to an emergency frequency but again failed to establish contact.
At about the same time, some 20 minutes into American Airlines Flight 11's trip, the aircraft's transponder stopped working. Without the transponder — indicating the jetliner's flight path — the plane was still visible on radar, but its altitude was a matter of guesswork.
"Then the plane turned (south toward New York), and then they heard the transmission with the terrorist in the background," the controller said.
"The voice upset him (the controller) because he knew right then that he was working a hijack. Several other people heard the voice, and they could tell by the sound of it, intuitively, that this was a bad situation," the controller said.
The controllers also said that they heard a hijacker say something like, "We have more planes, we have other planes," although the statement's import was not understood.
Another controller in the Federal Aviation Administration Control Center in Nashua, N.H., confirmed the events.
"The person in the cockpit was speaking in English. He was saying something like, 'Don't do anything foolish. You're not going to get hurt,' " the second controller said.
During the final 17 minutes, the controller handling the plane and back-up support watched the jet's radar signal turn over eastern New York and head south along the Hudson River.
Although radio transmissions from the plane could be heard most of the way, transmissions were very intermittent, one of the controllers says, and he is not sure how many minutes of cockpit communications were recorded.
Transmissions continued off and on for at least 10 minutes after the turn, he says.
There was another communication to the ground.
A flight attendant is reported to have made a frantic call, saying several passengers had been stabbed.
The controllers did not know when the U.S. military was contacted, though doing so is routine after a hijacking is known to be under way. Typically, the Air Force scrambles interceptor jets in the case of hijackings, one controller says.
Two F-15 jets were reportedly dispatched from Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts. Just before or after the military planes got off the ground, however, the controllers reported they had lost site of Flight 11's radar signal over Manhattan.
At 8:45, about 17 minutes after its turn toward New York City, Flight 11 slammed into the World Trade Center's north tower.
Passengers fight back
Heroic passengers aboard United Flight 93, hijacked from Newark, N.J., apparently decided to attack their attackers and foiled a plot to drive the plane into a Washington, D.C., target.
Though they died, they undoubtedly saved the lives of many innocents on the ground.
Passenger Jeremy Glick of West Milford, N.J., called his wife from the plane to tell her they had been hijacked by three knife-wielding Arabs wearing red headbands.
They had turned the Boeing 757 — originally headed for San Francisco — toward Washington by brandishing a box they said contained a bomb, he said.
Glick's wife, Lyzbeth, told him two other hijacked planes had just hit the trade center. At that point, Glick knew he was riding on a flying bomb that could have killed many more than those aboard.
Family members say he put the phone down, then came back to tell his wife the men on board had taken a vote and were going to try to overpower the hijackers.
"He knew that stopping them was going to end all of their lives," Glick's brother-in-law told The Washington Post. "But that was my brother-in-law. He was a take-charge guy."
Before heading forward to sacrifice his life to stop the terrorists, Glick told his wife he loved her and their 3-month-old daughter.
A short time later, after some unusual flying maneuvers, Flight 93 plunged into an old coal field southeast of Pittsburgh. All 45 aboard were killed.
Government officials believe the plan had been to plunge the jet into the White House, the Capitol, or just outside Washington at Camp David.
Glick was not the only passenger who managed to make a last call. Passenger Thomas Burnett called his wife, Deena, four times to discuss the situation. She told him about the trade-center disaster.
"I know we're all going to die. Three of us are going to do something about it," Burnett said, according to the family's priest, the Rev. Frank Colacicco.
Burnett, 38, vice president of a California medical-devices company and the father of three children, told his wife one of the passengers already had been stabbed to death and the rest had little hope of survival.
He ended the call with a last "Love you, honey."
Mark Bingham, 31, who lived in Manhattan and in San Francisco, was sitting in the rear of the first-class section.
He managed to call his mom, Alice Hoglan, to say goodbye.
"The fact that he was so close to the action, it is likely that he was able to get at these guys," she told reporters. "It gives me a great deal of comfort to know my son may have been able to avert the killing of many, many innocent people."
Bingham, who ran The Bingham Group public-relations firm, with offices on both coasts, was a college rugby star who once wrestled a mugger to the ground, his mother said.
Flight 93 was the longest in the air Tuesday, and it was the last to crash. After taking off from Newark, it flew west until Cleveland, then suddenly turned around and made a beeline for the nation's capital.
The Cleveland control tower said the plane made a 180-degree turn and went to a low altitude. A witness on the ground called 911 to report a large aircraft flying low and banking from side to side.
The plane went down at 10:40 a.m. in rural Pennsylvania.
At the crash scene Wednesday, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., was sure the rural area was not the target.
"Some heroic individual brought this plane down," he said. "How they avoided hitting a structure is incredible."
Information from Reuters and New York Daily News is included in this report.