Thoughts on 9/11: Shanksville

Flight 93 Memorial

With all the postmortems and reflections, there hasn’t been enough thought given to the martyrdom of Flight 93 and its passengers on that disastrous day. Paige Williams wrote hers today in The New Yorker, part of which is worth repeating here. The legacy of 9/11 has been a history of American overreach and decline, as many have reminded us. The forty passengers and crew on Flight 93 helped display the contrary.

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.

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