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What Really Happened on Flight 93

Aired September 11, 2002 - 14:22   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: We have talked a lot about the strength that was exposed once we worked our way through the pain and bitterness of September 11, and there is probably no better metaphor for American resilience that day than what happened aboard United Flight 93.
Now, while firefighters were on the ground in New York and they were walking straight into burning buildings, a handful of very different passengers were plotting their own utterly selfless move, storming the cockpit, trying to seize it from the control of the hijackers. And much has been said and written about Flight 93, but recent FAA briefings may give us some new insights.

Here is Miles O'Brien.


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It began as a routine flight to San Francisco, carrying a typical group of passengers and crew. By the time United Flight 93 was over, violently, heroically over, in a Pennsylvania meadow, there was nothing about it that was part of what we once called the norm.

The Boeing 757 rolled down runway 4 left at Newark Airport at 8:41 that morning, about 40 minutes late. It flew northeast toward Manhattan, turning left to the west over New York Harbor. Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center were just off the right wing. Five minutes later, the first hijacked airliner would plow into the North Tower.

On the ground, the first clue this flight was part of the terrorist armada came about 50 minutes later, here inside the dimly- lit FAA radar room in Overland, Ohio, Cleveland's Center, it is called. At 9:32, with the Twin Towers already ablaze, controllers here watched the flight drop, then climb erratically, and heard some odd, troubling radio transmissions.

RICK KETELL, AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: The first transmission that sounded like struggle in the cockpit, it was pretty clear. And then, we had a second transmission also that was a struggle in the cockpit, and you could hear the pilots, what appeared to be the pilots, yelling, "Get out, get out." And a lot of -- and the other noise that appeared to be a struggle.

O'BRIEN: Captain Jason Dahl and First Officer Leroy Homer lost that struggle. Fifty minutes into the flight, United 93 was now controlled by four suicidal terrorists. They were led by 26-year-old man, Ziad Jarrah. Raised in Lebanon, he met 9/11 mastermind, Mohammed Atta, in Germany. Then enrolled in a Florida flight school.

In a matter of minutes, United 93 turned hard left over Cleveland and began homing in on Washington.

Controllers heard a pair of nearly identical radio transmissions, apparently meant to be public address announcements.

KETELL: The transmission was to the back of the people, basically letting them know who was in control of the airplane and trying to keep the people -- to sit down.

O'BRIEN: But, of course, they ultimately would not sit down for this affront. Using cellular and air phones, passengers and crewmembers unleashed a torrent of calls to their loved ones. They said the hijackers claimed to have a bomb and had already killed at least one passenger.

By now, the Pentagon was also in flames, and call by frantic call, the people on board Flight 93 pieced together their dreadful fate, and then decided to do something about it.

KATHY HOGLAN, WIFE OF FLIGHT 93 VICTIM: He just said, "I want to let you all know that I love you very, very much, in case I don't see you again."

DEENA BURNETT, WIFE OF FLIGHT 93 VICTIM: I told him about the Pentagon being hit, and he relayed the information to the people around him. He then told me that he was putting a plan together to take the airplane back from the hijackers. "There is a group of us who are going to do something."

O'BRIEN: There was talk of using a drink cart as a battering ram, and boiling water as a weapon. We will never know.

But we do know controllers watched Flight 93's radar track gyrate wildly, and then disappear in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The 757 plowed into the ground inverted at 10:07.

(on camera): So, what was the intended target of the Flight 93 terrorists? Was it the White House, CIA headquarters, Camp David? Or was it the most easily-identifiable landmark in the city, the U.S. Capital Dome? Whatever it was, we were spared that tragedy, because ordinary people took some extraordinary action.

JERE LONGMAN, "AMONG THE HEROES": On this day of unthinkable defeat, the people on Flight 93 provided our, you know, one moment of victory, that on the day where we lost control of our lives inside of our borders, the people on Flight 93 literally tried to take that control back.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): And from that moment on, passengers and flight crews were well aware they are the last line of defense.


O'BRIEN: One year later, there are still persistent rumors that United Flight 93 was, in fact, shot down by U.S. fighter jets, but the facts, as we know them, strongly indicate that did not happen. For one thing, the debris field does not indicate that. But beyond that, the timeline released by the Pentagon and by the FAA does not seem to support that.

Let's back up for just a moment and look at what happened with the fighter jet scramble in general that day, starting with American Airlines Flight 11 in Boston. It took off at 8:00, as you well know, flew west on its prescribed flight plan. At 8:13, it was followed by United Flight 175, which began its flight, appeared to be going normal on its flight plan, until 8:20, and that's when the trouble began.

American Flight 11, when it was over upstate New York, stops responding to controllers. They begin to get the sense there is some kind of trouble. At this point, they don't know what it is, whether it's technical or otherwise.

As the timeline progresses, and we get down to 8:40 in the morning, and at this point, the controllers have determined beyond a shadow of a doubt that American Airlines 11 is, in fact, a hijacking scenario. They contact NORAD to scramble the fighters.

And this is what happens after that: Fighter jets, which are stationed at Otis Air National Guard Base, F-15s specifically on Cape Cod, begin the process of getting ready to take the air.

Meanwhile, American Airlines Flight 11, at 8:46, crashes into the North Tower, as we know. The next time to know about is 8:52. Those F-15s from Otis Air National Guard Base launched and begin a super sonic ride right across Long Island Sound. The next time that we know about, 9:02, United 175 hits the South Tower, as we well know. Those Otis F-15s are still over Long Island Sound. The distance between the two is just a little bit too far; 71 miles or about 7 or 8 minutes, and they could do nothing, obviously, to stop that attack.

Now, as we move on later in the morning, 8:20 in the morning, American Airlines Flight 77 leaves Dulles. United Flight 93 is preparing to depart from Newark on their flights. As that timeline continues, we move into 8:42 when that United 93 flight actually begins its flight.

The trouble begins at about 9:24 when the FAA has the sense that American Flight 77 has been hijacked. It has done its U-turn, and is homing in on Washington at this time. At this point, United 93, it appears to be a normal flight.

As the time goes on, 9:37 -- or excuse me -- at 9:30, two F-16s from Langley Air Force Base down in Hampton Roads, Virginia began their flight toward the Washington area to scramble and intercept whatever planes might be headed to Washington. American Airlines Flight 77, as you know, crashed at 9:37 into the Pentagon. Those Langley F-16s still on their way. Meanwhile, United Flight 93 is still apparently acting normal, but controllers would soon find out that it was hijacked. As a matter of fact, that comes at 9:40. The transponder ceases transmitting, the flight begins to drastically go down and the up. And controllers realize that is a hijacking scenario.

Finally, United Flight 93 continues its path toward Washington, as we now know. It crashed in Shanksville, as we well know. Those F- 16s from Langley Air Force Base are here. The distance between those two, about 100 miles, 100 miles difference. It was obviously too little and too late to do anything about it.

The FAA tells us that today, that scenario would not play out this way, Paula, that what took many minutes that morning is now set up in an entirely different way. The communication is instantaneous with NORAD, and what took minutes would now take seconds -- Aaron.

BROWN: Miles, thank you.




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