NEW YORK--On the first anniversary of the crash of United Airlines Flight 93, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge delivered a speech at the site of the disaster in western Pennsylvania. "Faced with the most frightening circumstances one could possibly imagine," he told grieving relatives of the passengers and crewmembers aboard the fourth plane hijacked on 9/11, "they met the challenge like citizen soldiers, like Americans." He recited the now-familiar story of passengers learning by phone about the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, deciding to fight back and breaking into the cockpit--a heroic act that led to their own deaths while sparing countless others in Washington.
"The terrorists were right to fear an uprising," Ridge rhapsodized. "The passengers and crew did whatever they humanly could--boil water, phone the authorities, and ultimately rush the cockpit to foil the attack."
Ridge's boss repeatedly used United 93 to close his standard stump speech. Calling the passenger revolt "the most vivid and sad symbol of them all," George W. Bush said: "People are flying across the country on an airplane, at least they thought they were. They learned the plane was going to be used as a weapon. They got on their telephones. They were told the true story. Many of them told their loved ones goodbye. They said they loved them. They said a prayer; a prayer was said. One guy said, 'Let's roll.' They took the plane into the ground."
The legend of Flight 93 had everything a nation caught with its pants down needed to feel better about itself: guts, heroism, self-sacrifice. Best of all, it was marketable--by Hollywood and by a president willing to surf on a kind of heroism notably absent from his own life. (Theatrical release of the second "United 93" movie is scheduled to open April 28.) Lisa Beamer, widow of the passenger credited with the call-to-arms "let's roll," wrote a bestselling book by the same name, applied for a trademark on the expression, and is now working the Christianist lecture circuit.
Actually, the 9/11 Commission found, the evidence indicates that what Todd Beamer (or someone else) said was not "let's roll," but "roll it"--possibly referring to an airplane service cart the passengers may have wanted to use to break down the door into the cockpit. Too bad--"Roll it" sounds less cinematic, and more like a book about cinematography.
The first indication that government officials were covering up the truth about United 93 came with their refusal to make public the cockpit voice recording (CVR). Releasing CVRs after a crash has long been standard practice; pilots' last, usually profane, utterances have become a cliché. Yet the FBI stonewalled victims' relatives for months after 9/11.
"While we empathize with the grieving families," assistant director John Collingwood wrote one widow, "we do not believe that the horror captured on the cockpit voice recording will console them in any way." And yet, if the tape contained inspiring proof of the passenger revolt and its success, it would have been one hell of a lot more consoling than Tom Ridge's oratory. Why not release it?
Finally, after seven months of political pressure, the FBI allowed United 93 relatives to listen to the CVR. The feds told the families not to reveal what they'd heard. "They said the information on the tapes could be possibly used in the prosecution of [alleged "20th hijacker" Zacarias] Moussaoui, and anything that we say could affect the case in a negative way," said the brother of one of the victims.
Though they studied the recording, the 9/11 Commission found zero evidence that the passenger revolt succeeded, that they made it into the cockpit and, as Bush claimed, "took the plane into the ground." Tom Kean & Co. offered only conjecture: "The hijackers remained at the controls but must have judged that the passengers were only seconds from overcoming them."
"Must have." At a time when war can be justified by waving around a bottle of fake anthrax on TV, "must have" is judged adequate proof.
Another eyebrow-raising portion of the official account of Flight 93 states that "the passengers and flight crew began a series of calls from GTE airphones and cellular phones" after the hijacking. Ever forgotten to turn off your cellphone during a flight? I have. Try it yourself: Cellular telephone calls tend to drop when you're driving at 60 miles per hour; passenger jets travel up to 10 times that speed. Moreover, there's zero signal, and thus no ability to place a call, above 8,000 feet. Flight 93, en route from Newark to San Francisco at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, dropped 700 feet when it was hijacked at 9:28 am. Cell calls? Not likely.
The Bush Administration has alternately claimed that the White House, then the Capitol, and finally the White House again was the target of the Flight 93 hijackers. Sure, it's possible that the same terrorists who didn't know that New Yorkers don't start work until nine--the World Trade Center was struck at 8:42--wouldn't have thought to check Bush's schedule to find out whether he'd be home that morning. But if the White House was the objective, why not hit it first? After all, if Bush had been home when the news from New York first broke, he would have been whisked away to Dick Cheney's secret undisclosed location. If the government doesn't know what the target was, they shouldn't say that they do.
What happened to United 93? There was almost certainly a passenger uprising. Did it succeed? Probably not.
The 9/11 Commission Report says that "at some time between 10:10 and 10:15" Dick Cheney ordered the Air Force to shoot down the plane, which had turned east towards Washington. The plane had already crashed at 10:03. But the regional air traffic control center in Cleveland asked the FAA whether military fighter jets should be dispatched at 9:36, giving the Air Force more than enough time to intercept before the fatal plunge into the field at Shanksville. Was United 93 shot down, despite the official story?
Local media accounts offer some evidence of that possibility. The September 13, 2001 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, for example: "In a morning briefing, State Police Major Lyle Szupinka confirmed that debris from the plane had turned up in relatively far-flung sites, including the residential area of Indian Lake [two and a half miles from the crash site]."
Flight 93 "headed down...rolled onto its back," and crashed, leaving a smoldering crater. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette again: "[Indian Lake marina employee John] Fleegle said he climbed on the roof of an abandoned cabin and tossed down a burning seat cushion that had landed there. By Wednesday morning, crash debris began washing ashore at the marina. Fleegle said there was something that looked like a rib bone amid pieces of seats, small chunks of melted plastic and checks." Seats and bones don't fly two and a half miles from a crash. Their location could indicate an initial explosion, such as that from a missile hitting a plane.
If the Air Force shot down Flight 93 to protect the capital, it was the only time on 9/11, or since, that the Bush Administration has done something to keep America safe. Whether they were concerned about being second-guessed or for the financial health of the airline industry, we'll never know. We do know that they've become knee-jerk liars, even covering up the rare occasions when they do something right. Perhaps they don't really know what happened up there. If so, they ought to say that rather than promote more fairy tales about Flight 93.
The passengers did try. The only thing that takes away from their heroism is Bush's lies. So. Now that Zacarias Moussauoi has been convicted, where's that tape?