The Pennsylvania Crash: Cockpit Tape Offers Few Answers But Points to Heroic
Families of passengers and crew members aboard United Flight 93, the hijacked plane that crashed outside Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, will hear nothing to resolve crucial questions about their loved ones' last minutes when they listen to the cockpit voice recorder next month, say officials who 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 of 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 of 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 said.
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 of the final five to seven minutes of a desperate, fierce struggle remains open 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 the 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" numerous times.
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 to 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. The 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 was 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 saw 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, say he made no mention of smoke or an explosion when he said, "We're going down."
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, she 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 the 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. "So, 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 try 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. So, 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 listen.
"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 of 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 from the thought that they were living the last moment of their lives."