by Jere Longman, The New York Times
Families of passengers and crew members aboard United Flight 93, the
hijacked plane that crashed outside Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, will
nothing to resolve crucial questions about their loved ones' last minutes
when they listen to the cockpit voice recorder next month, say officials
have heard the tape or read transcripts of it.
Officials said the tape, a loop that records the last 30 minutes of a
flight, did not record the moments when the hijackers got into the cockpit
and does not resolve how they took over or whether the pilot and co-pilot
were then killed. It also does not make clear whether the passengers were
able to force their way into the cockpit in an effort to regain control
the plane or whether the hijackers crashed the Boeing 757 deliberately or
just lost control of it.
But the tape seems to confirm that the passengers acted heroically in
trying to overtake the four hijackers and keep the plane from being crashed
into the White House or other national landmark. A government transcript
the recording shows that moments before the plane crashed, one of the
hijackers shouted, "They're coming," perhaps a warning as he looked at the
charging passengers through the peephole in the cockpit door, officials
The families are scheduled to listen to the recording on April 18 in
Princeton, N.J. A number of family members had petitioned the Federal Bureau
of Investigation to hear the tape, no matter how disturbing its contents.
After initially declining the request, F.B.I. officials say they have
changed their minds.
Little but intermittent conversation and stretches of silence is on the
first 20 to 25 minutes of the tape, after the hijackers gained control but
before the passengers tried to wrest it back. Much of what can be heard
the final five to seven minutes of a desperate, fierce struggle remains
to interpretation, officials cautioned.
A woman can be heard pleading for her life, asking not to die. At another
point, someone appears to be gurgling. Rustling and scuffling, a groan and
shouts in English and Arabic can be heard.
All this coincides with the time that four passengers, Todd Beamer, Honor
Elizabeth Wainio, Jeremy Glick and Thomas E. Burnett Jr., along with two
flight attendants, CeeCee Lyles and Sandra Bradshaw, reported in phone calls
that passengers were advancing down the 757's single aisle to take control
of the plane after learning that other hijacked planes had crashed into
World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
At one point, someone in an accented voice said, "No, no," leading
officials to speculate that the hijackers might have been arguing with each
other over the controls. The hijackers could be heard saying "God is great"
Sounds of what seemed to be breaking glass and crashing dishes were also
picked up by the recorder, microphones located in the pilots' headsets and
in the ceiling of the cockpit. This was first reported by Newsweek in
December. Officials have theorized that plates and bottles and glasses may
have been hurled by passengers. Or they may have fallen from trays and carts
as the hijackers waggled the wings of the plane up and down in an effort
keep the passengers from moving forward. Eyewitnesses reported seeing the
wings moving up and down in the final minutes.
"We don't have all the answers, but there is no question in my mind that
the passengers were heroes in the truest sense of the word," said Wells
Morrison, the deputy on-scene commander for the F.B.I., who declined to
discuss specifics of the voice recorder or evidence found at the crash site.
"Everyone should be proud of their actions."
The tape also recorded unnerving background sounds. A two-tone alarm
sounded because the plane was flying up to 150 miles per hour faster than
the instructed limit of 425 m.p.h. for its low altitude, officials said.
air resistance as the plane rushed so close to the ground created a constant
rush of wind.
"It could have even broken the sound barrier for a while," said Hank
Krakowski, who was director of flight operations control at United's system
control center near O'Hare Airport in Chicago on Sept. 11.
Recent reporting has revealed other intriguing information about what
said and done on the flight. While authorities have said that the hijackers
on the four flights had knives and box cutters, one passenger aboard Flight
93, Mr. Burnett, told his wife in a cellphone call that the terrorists also
had a gun.
On a tape of a 911 call made by Mr. Burnett's wife, Deena, to the
sheriff's department in Contra Costa County, Calif., Ms. Burnett said: "My
husband just called me from United Flight 93. The plane has been hijacked.
They just knifed a passenger and there are guns on the airplane."
Investigators said they found no evidence of a gun at the crash site.
Earlier reports have said that a previously unidentified passenger,
Edward Felt of Matawan, N.J., said in a 911 call from a restroom that he
a puff of smoke and heard an explosion, leading some to cite this as
evidence that the plane was shot down by the military to prevent it from
crashing into sensitive targets. But the 911 dispatcher, John Shaw, and
others who have heard the tape, including Mr. Felt's wife, Sandra Felt,
he made no mention of smoke or an explosion when he said, "We're going
Officials said the victims' remains were too badly damaged in the crash
to tell whether anyone had been stabbed or injured in the struggle.
But Patrick Welsh, the husband of Deborah Welsh, the flight's purser,
said he was told by United that one flight attendant had been stabbed early
in the takeover. It was "strongly implied," he said, that his wife had been
a victim, given her position in first class and the likelihood that she
would have stood between the hijackers and the cockpit. "Knowing Debby,
would have resisted," Mr. Welsh said. "She didn't meekly submit to anything.
She could handle herself."
Alice Hoglan, a United flight attendant who was phoned by her son, Mark
Bingham, a passenger on the plane, while the hijacking was in progress,
called him back at 9:54 a.m. and left two messages on his cellphone, urging
him and the other passengers to rush the cockpit because the flight appeared
to be a suicide mission. Her son, who she believes helped try to retake
plane, apparently never got the messages, but Ms. Hoglan later retrieved
them from the phone company.
"Mark, apparently it's terrorists and they're hellbent on crashing the
aircraft," Ms. Hoglan said in the second message, urgency in her voice.
if you can, try to take over the aircraft. There doesn't seem to be much
plan to land the aircraft normally, so I guess your best bet would be to
to take it over if you can, or tell the other passengers. There is one
flight that they say is headed toward San Francisco. It might be yours.
if you can, group some people and perhaps do the best you can to get control
of it. I love you, sweetie. Good luck. Goodbye."
More than six months later, Ms. Hoglan said, she did not expect to gain
any consolation from hearing the voice recorder. Still, she wants to
"I hope," she wrote in an e-mail message, "that as we families sit
together and listen to the tape, we will, amid all the violence and
confusion and ugliness, be able to recognize some brief familiar voices
our heroic sons and daughters, husbands and wives. I hope we can be assured
that our loved ones spent their last half-hour engaged in the purposeful,
focused and urgent labor of defeating the murderers aboard - distracted
the thought that they were living the last moment of their lives."