The devastation would have been far worse on 9/11 had the fourth flight hit its target — the heart of American government.
VIDEO: Headed For The US Capitol: How The Flight 93 Heroes Averted A Bigger Disaster On 9/11
This article is an abridged version of Remembering Flight 93: “Okay. Let’s Roll!” by James Reston Jr. and Richard Whittle. It appears in American Heritage magazine’s September-October 2021 edition. The video is first in a series of History Minutes produced to accompany and capture moments in history.
On that terrible day of September 11, twenty years ago, the revolt of the passengers on Flight 93 resulting in the plane hijacked by Al Qaeda terrorists crashing in Shanksville, Pennsylvania is rightly celebrated as one of the greatest heroic events in American history.
The lore of that amazing group, however, has come to so dominate American knowledge and understanding of that flight that the larger terror and implications of the fourth plane have been obscured. It is little understood how close the U.S. Capitol came to destruction that day, and how much its survival intact is due to happenstance. The passenger revolt is only the last of those happenstances.
Equally important were the flight timelines of the four airliners hijacked that day and how those timelines altered the execution of the plot carried out by nineteen terrorists sent by Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Just as crucial was the composition of the terrorist team that took over Flight 93 over eastern Ohio forty-four minutes after it took off from Newark, N.J., putting the Boeing 757 on a course toward Washington, D.C., instead of San Francisco. The fact that Flight 93 took off late from Newark Liberty International Airport is the first critical precursor to the eventual fate of both the plane… and the U.S. Capitol.
The drama of the hijacking of Flight 93 has obscured understanding of how close the U.S. Capitol came to destruction.
The strategy of the 9/11 plot called for all four airliners to depart within minutes of one another and reach their intended targets at roughly the same time. American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 left Boston Logan International Airport fifteen minutes apart heading for the same destination, Los Angeles. American Airlines Flight 77, also originally bound for Los Angeles, pushed back from the gate at Washington Dulles International Airport at 8:10 a.m. But due to airport congestion in Newark, the departure of Flight 93 was delayed twenty-five minutes. The plane took to the air only at 8:42 a.m. Four minutes later, American Flight 11 out of Boston hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC).
In response, authorities immediately grounded all planes at New York-area airports. Had Flight 93’s departure from Newark been delayed a mere few minutes more, the plane would not have taken off at all. United Flight 175, the second plane the hijackers took over after departure from Boston, hit the South Tower of the World Trade Centers at 9:03 a.m., twenty-one minutes after Flight 93 was in the air.
What has become clear only with the passage of time is that public awareness of airplane hijackers in 2001 was based on an old model of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. An American Journal of International Law study found that between Jan. 1, 1969, and the end of 1972, a phenomenal 277 U.S. and foreign aircraft were hijacked. Airliner hijacking had become a favorite weapon for Arab terrorists. But the modus operandi was usually to take one or more planes, land them in some location relatively safe for the terrorists, and hold the passengers hostage while demands were made. The passengers and the planes were used as bargaining chips. In most cases the passengers were eventually released
Against this historical background, U.S. and other authorities might at first have assumed on Sept. 11, 2001, that the Islamic hijackers were following the usual pattern. Al Qaeda’s plot to use planes as suicide bombs was nearly inconceivable and marked a bloodcurdling and unforeseen new chapter in the sordid history of hijackings.
“I expected to see fuselage, remnants of a plane . . . I didn’t see anything, but pretty much smoke and some fires,” testified FBI investigator Arnold Bernard later. “There’s not a lot of evidence of the airplane.”
Unlike the passengers on Flight 93, those aboard the other three planes would have been in the dark about what was happening until the very end. Undoubtedly, their hopes rested on the old model of safe landing, negotiations, and eventual release. A suicide mission to destroy the great symbols of American economic, military, and political power could scarcely have been imagined – certainly not within the space of thirty minutes.
With three “muscle hijackers” armed with box cutters and knives aboard each plane other than Flight 93, and with less time to act between hijacking and impact, the chances of passengers on Flights 11, 175, and 77 being able to overpower their hijackers and prevent them from hitting their targets would have been slim.
But Flight 93 had only two muscle hijackers rather than three posted in its cabin to control passengers. This manpower shortage is the second critical factor that spared the U.S. Capitol that day. An Al Qaeda operative who was supposed to be the third minder, Mohammed al Qahtani, had been apprehended by immigration officials as he attempted to enter the United States at Orlando Airport on August 5, 2001, where he arrived as a passenger from Dubai.
Al Qahtani had only $2,800 in his possession, and he was unable to state where he was going in the United States or why he had made the trip. In his questioning he became hostile with immigration officials, and so he was turned back to Dubai.
The wavering commitment of the hijacker pilot of Flight 93 on 9/11, Ziad Jarrah, is another part of the dynamic that saved the Capitol. Unlike the other 9/11 hijackers, Jarrah was Lebanese, not Saudi Arabian. The product of an upstanding middle-class family from Beirut, his uncle was a member of the Lebanese Parliament, and his extended family owned a number of commercial establishments in the Bekaa Valley.
To the co-chairs of the blue ribbon 9/11 Commission, former Governor Tom Kean of New Jersey and former U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana, Jarrah was a figure of special interest. They found him intriguing partly because of his middle-class origins but much more importantly, because he nearly pulled out of the operation a month before 9/11 due to his relationship with a Turkish-German woman named Aysel Şengün.
In carrying on his love affair, Jarrah was violating a cardinal rule of Al Qaeda to sever all relationships with family and loved ones. In the months before 9/11, however, Jarrah had married Şengün in a quiet Islamic wedding and had visited her in Germany several times. She, in turn, spent two weeks with Jarrah in Florida during his flight training. And so, as the date for what Al Qaeda called the “Planes Operation” came closer, Jarrah faced a choice: to honor the oath of allegiance he had sworn to Osama Bin Laden or to break that oath and flee with his wife to some far-flung refuge. On the night of September 10, 2001, Jarrah sat down in a Newark motel and wrote his wife a love letter. In acknowledging his choice he displayed his confusion, his rationalization, and his moral weakness.
“Everyone has his time,” hijacker Jarrah told his new wife. “And this is my time.”
Jarrah was not a very bright bulb. As with schooling earlier in his life when he had required an extra year of high school and struggled with his schoolwork in college in Hamburg, Germany, Jarrah was a slow learner requiring special accommodations. After a long struggle, his graduation from flight school was a cause of joyous celebration for his flight instructor. (She fled abroad shortly after 9/11 to avoid scrutiny as one who had trained a terrorist to fly commercial aircraft.)
Some people still espouse the notion that Jarrah’s intended target might have been the White House, but that is highly unlikely, partly because of Jarrah’s limited aptitude as a pilot. The most skilled flyer among the terrorists was the hijacker pilot of Flight 77, Hani Hanjour. He had had more flight training than the others and was given perhaps the most difficult target – the Pentagon. After taking off from Dulles International Airport in Virginia, Air Traffic Control radar showed Flight 77 flew across West Virginia to Eastern Kentucky, where the hijackers took control and made an abrupt about-face toward Washington.
Coming in over Alexandria, Va., at 7,000 feet, Hanjour found himself too high to hit his target and turned off the auto pilot. With the plane now in his personal control, he expertly executed a sharp 330-degree turn, descending to 2,200 feet and achieving his intended flight path. Then he advanced the throttle to maximum power. The plane slammed into the Pentagon at 530 miles per hour. As it neared the building, the Boeing 757 was so low to the ground it clipped an antenna on a vehicle and severed some light posts.
Jarrah’s likely target was the U.S. Capitol rather than the White House because he lacked the flying skills to hit a smaller target.
There is nothing in Flight 93 hijacker pilot Ziad Jarrah’s background to suggest that he had either the skill or the cold-blooded calm of Hanjour to execute unplanned, spontaneous maneuvers, close to the ground and at a high rate of speed. Jarrah’s target was clearly and incontrovertibly the U.S. Capitol. From high in the air, the White House is a needle in an urban haystack, a three-story mansion nestled among tall office buildings and stately trees. The U.S. Capitol is easy to see from the air for anyone, trained pilot or not.
After its late departure from Newark, Flight 93 proceeded west routinely for 46 minutes. It is unclear why it took the hijackers so long to act. The plane was taken over at 9:28 a.m., fifteen minutes later after takeoff than the other three planes were hijacked that day. By contrast, Flight 11, piloted by the mastermind of the plot, Muhammad Atta, was hijacked 20 minutes after it was airborne. As a result, Flight 93 was much farther away from its intended target than the other planes when Jarrah took the controls. This, too, was a crucial factor in sparing the Capitol.
As Jarrah took the plane toward Washington, Flight 93 passengers began to make cell phone and Airfone calls. They quickly learned that three other planes had been hijacked and had been flown into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon.
They were now pawns in Osama bin Laden’s grand plot against America. With red bandanas tied around their foreheads, the two muscle hijackers aboard Flight 93 seemed not to care whether passengers were contacting their loved ones. They even goaded the passengers to make their calls, scoffing that those would be their last.
“We’re going to do something,” were Tom Burnett’s last words to his wife Deena. “I’m putting a plan together.”
Thirty-seven phone calls were dialed from the last five rows of the plane. One passenger, Jeremy Glick, spoke to his wife for 25 minutes. Dialing from an Airfone in Row 26, passenger Linda Gronlund left a voice mail for her sister at 9:46 saying, “Apparently they flew a couple of planes into the World Trade Center already and it looks like they’re going to take this one down as well.” Over the Airfone in Row 32, passenger Todd Beamer told GTE operator Lisa Jefferson that the United Airlines pilot and first officer lay injured or dead on Flight 93’s First Class cabin floor. Beamer told the operator he and other passengers were planning to try to overwhelm the hijackers and retake the aircraft.
To the desperate passengers, however, the two hijackers mustn’t have seemed overly intimidating. According to the 9/11 Commission report, they were small men, between 5’5” and 5’7” tall. Among the passengers, by contrast, Todd Beamer was an athletic star in high school and college, six feet tall, weighing 200 pounds. Passenger Tom Burnett had been a high school quarterback in Bloomington, Minnesota. Mark Bingham had run with the bulls at Pamplona. Don Greene was a wrestler in high school and at Brown University and licensed to fly small planes.
The decision to storm the cockpit began with a profound act of democracy, a vote to storm or not to storm. If the revolt succeeded, the hope was that controllers could talk Don Greene through a safe landing. Then, over the Airfone in Row 32, operator Lisa Jefferson heard Todd Beamer’s immortal words, the quintessential line of Flight 93:
“Are you ready? Okay. Let’s roll!”
What happened next is well known. As the passengers swept forward, overwhelming the two diminutive muscle men, and using a food cart as a battering ram, Jarrah rolled the plane left and right sharply to knock them off balance, then pitched the plane up and down, testing the aircraft’s structural limits.
With the cockpit door close to splintering, there was an audible interchange between Jarrah and his Al Qaeda minder in the cockpit. “Shall we finish it off?” Jarrah asked. “No, not yet. When they all come in, we finish it off,” came the reply.
Jarrah mouthed the takbir twice – “Allahu Akbar” (God is the greatest.) Then, after more crashing sounds, the other terrorist told Jarrah, “Yes, pull it down.”
There was a pause, followed by Jarrah screaming over and over, “Give it to me. Give it to me!” This suggests that in the last seconds Jarrah lost his nerve. There appears to have been a struggle between Jarrah and his minder, as if the minder had seized the yoke from Jarrah and was pushing it forward to crash the plane in the final act.
In its final seconds, the big 757 rolled onto its back before plunging into the mud and hemlock trees of Shanksville upside down.
“I really don’t think people appreciate what could have happened if those heroes had not done what they did,” Alan M. Hantman told us. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was the Architect of the Capitol and was at his desk when Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville.
At the center of American democracy, the U.S. Capitol is also a symbol of American ingenuity, resolve, and resiliency.
The Capitol is a construction of brick, stone and other masonry, steel, Aquia Creek sandstone, Indiana limestone and Georgia marble capped by a massive, nine-million-pound cast iron dome. Beside its significance to the American soul, it is also a symbol of American ingenuity, craftsmanship, resolve, and resiliency. Richly furnished, the Capitol is also a living museum of art. Its chambers, meeting rooms and hallways are filled with irreplaceable paintings and sculptures.
Much of that treasure surely would have been lost if Flight 93 had hit its intended target and the aviation fuel aboard that Boeing 757 burned as the fuel aboard Flight 77’s did at the Pentagon. Thousands of lives also could have been lost in what at the time was a fully occupied building, many of them in the dining rooms, kitchens, barber shops and other facilities on the first floor and basement levels of the Capitol.
Even if the physical damage Flight 93 striking the Capitol might have caused cannot be precisely calculated, the shock to America’s pride is easy to imagine. This surely was a central goal of Al Qaeda. The World Trade Centers were symbols of American economic might, the Pentagon a symbol of military prowess. The Capitol is the apotheosis of the American nation.
Politically and militarily, damaging or even destroying the Capitol would have done little to change the U.S. military response. The Oct. 7, 2001 invasion of Al Qaeda’s bases in Afghanistan and the decade-long quest that followed to make Osama bin Laden pay with his life, would have proceeded apace.
But with the Capitol a shell for a few years, how much more xenophobic would the country have become than it already was? How much more vitriolic would our political discourse have been? And how much more preoccupied with the clash of civilizations between the east and west?
Editor’s Note: James Reston Jr. is the author of 18 books including his just published novel about 9/11, The 19th Hijacker. Mr. Reston wrote the cover article for American Heritage’s June issue on the Vietnam Wall and is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Richard Whittle is the author of The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey and Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution.
Edited by Alex Willemyns and Claire Swift, Visuals additionally edited by John Diaz, Zoey Zou and Bennett Chess