An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Another Tragedy on 9/11

Sep 3, 2021 by

Commentary and Interview:

As we approach the end of September, we have tried to honor all those who died 19 years ago on 9/11. Further we have to honor those whose medical conditions also resulted in their deaths. Social media has also been honoring the brave EMT’s paramedics, firemen, policemen and women as well as other individuals who simply tried to do the best they could on that day. It seems fitting that we should “NEVER FORGET”. We thank all those who submitted comments about our earlier interviews about 9/11 this past month.

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Another Tragedy on 9/11

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Professor Elder, the vast majority of Americans know about the twin towers of the World Trade Center being destroyed on 9/11, and some know about the attack on the Pentagon. But there was another terrorist attack on that day that resulted in death for many passengers on a plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. First, what was the exact name of the plane and flight, and how many people were on that plane?

On September 11, 2001, 37 passengers boarded United Airlines Flight 93 at the Newark International Airport in Newark, New Jersey. The flight had a crew of seven. Four terrorists boarded the Boeing 757 between 7:03 am and 7:39 am, and sat in first class. None of them had aroused suspicion as they passed through security on the way to the boarding gate.

  1. When did it take off, and where was it heading?

United Airlines operated Flight 93 daily, with service from Newark International Airport to San Francisco. It had a departure time of 8:00 am, and on 9/11 it left the gate at 8:01 am. As it turned out, the large volume of air traffic that day delayed the actual time of take-off for 40 minutes. Sadly, at virtually the same time that Flight 93 took off, the first flight hijacked that day (American Airlines Flight 11) crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

  1. Apparently, a number of passengers had cell phones and were able to call friends and relatives. Surely there was a lot of chaos, but what can we reconstruct from some of those calls?

Once it became apparent that terrorists had hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, a number of passengers and crew members attempted to make phone calls. Because of the thousands of people attempting to make phone calls that day, not everyone on board United Airlines Flight 93 managed to make a successful connection.

Eventually, two crew members and ten passengers did have their phone calls reach their intended destinations. According to all accounts, these individuals reported that the terrorists had a bomb, and had killed or incapacitated the pilot and the co-pilot. Some of the individuals on board United Airlines Flight 93 called their spouses, while others called their parents.

One tried to call his wife, but reached an operator instead. While they gave information about the events transpiring aboard the airplane, they also heard that other flights had undergone the same experience, and had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

This seems to have provided the motivation for a number of passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 to decide to take things into their own hands, determined that the hijackers would not utilize their flight for that same purpose.

  1. Do we know the intended target of the terrorists?

After the terrorists took control of United Airlines Flight 93, they changed course and began to head the airplane toward Washington DC. Since one hijacked airplane would crash into the Pentagon that morning, it seems that the terrorists on board United Airlines Flight 93 planned to target some other site in the nation’s capital. They could have had the White House in mind, but evidence exists that suggests they knew that facility had an almost impenetrable defensive shield around it. It therefore seems likely that they actually intended to fly the airplane into the US Capitol Building.

Two individuals who played a large role in organizing and planning the attacks on 9/11 later asserted that the US Capitol Building was indeed the target. But because of the way that events played themselves out for United Airlines Flight 93, we will never know with absolute certainty where the terrorists intended to crash the airplane.

  1. “Let’s roll,” a few words that will echo forever about that day, were said as four brave Americans decided to take matters into their own hands. Who said those words, and what was the context?

No one will ever definitively know what happened aboard United Airlines Flight 93, but based on phone calls made by the crew and the passengers a plausible narrative can be constructed.

First, a passenger named Jeremy Glick told his wife that the passengers had undertaken a discussion about whether to try to regain control of the airplane or not. Apparently, a consensus emerged to undertake that course of action. At that point in time, a flight attendant named Sandra Bradshaw revealed to her husband that she had started boiling water, with the intention of incapacitating the hijackers by throwing the water on them.

Finally, we have the recording of a phone call that a passenger named Todd Beamer made. He had attempted to call his wife, but an operator named Lisa Peterson answered his call instead. Beamer discussed the situation on United Airlines Flight 93 with her, finally informing her that a number of the passengers had decided to try to overpower the terrorists in the cockpit. The last thing that Peterson heard was Beamer saying “Let’s roll.”

From that point on, transmissions from the cockpit supply the evidence of what ensued. These recordings came about in an unusual manner. It seems likely that before the hijackers overcame them, the pilot or the co-pilot had opened a microphone channel, and this allowed ground control to monitor everything that the hijackers said from that point on.

When Beamer and the other passengers attacked the cockpit, sounds of a person in agony seem to indicate that they succeeded in subduing at least one terrorist guarding the cockpit. It also seems likely that the passengers used a food and beverage service cart as a battering ram to try to gain entry into the cockpit. Some individuals who have listened to transmissions from the cockpit believe that Beamer and other passengers may have breached the door and fought the terrorists for control of the plane.

In the official 9/11 Commission Report, however, a different conclusion emerged. That group felt that the terrorists believed that the passengers might succeed in gaining entrance into the cockpit, and to prevent them from regaining control the terrorists decided to deliberately crash the airplane. Whether the crash happened deliberately or accidentally, it resulted in denying the terrorists a fourth opportunity that day to inflict hundreds of casualties on the United States.

  1. Exactly how many perished on that terrible day?

From the phone calls made that day from United Airlines Flight 93, it appears that after the passengers had decided to storm the cockpit, they had agreed that they would wait until the flight reached a rural area. Because of that, the flight crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and only the 44 people on the flight died.

  1. Is there a monument there is Shanksville to commemorate this event?

It did not take long for Americans to begin to memorialize the site where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed, as within days after 9/11 people began to leave mementoes there. In 2003, the federal government created the Flight 93 National Memorial Advisory Commission, and work began on creating a permanent commemoration of that event.

Over 1,000 individuals submitted designs for consideration, and the commission finally announced that it had selected a proposal titled the “Crescent of Embrace.” For a number of reasons, the commission eventually asked for modifications to the proposal, including changing the shape from a crescent to a circle. Ground-breaking took place in November of 2009, and a formal dedication occurred on September 10, 2011. While some elements of the memorial have come to fruition (most notably a wall of names and a visitor’s center), work is still proceeding on other aspects of the project.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

The physical area of the Flight 93 National Memorial has US Highway 30 as a northern boundary. If visitors exit the memorial and turn east onto that roadway, after 115 miles of travel they will reach Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

There on July 1, 1863, a detachment of Union cavalry guarding the approaches to that community found themselves assaulted by a force of Confederate infantry twice their size. Undaunted, the cavalry held their ground for as long as they could, risking their lives to save Gettysburg from falling into enemy hands. Over the next few days, thousands of other Union soldiers made similar stands. Their resolute defense ultimately proved successful, as the Confederates retreated on July 4.

Months later, at the dedication of a national cemetery created as a resting place for the Union soldiers killed in the battle, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech known today as the Gettysburg Address. In it, he spoke of how those individuals had given “the last full measure of devotion.”

It is therefore fitting that US Highway 30—known as the Lincoln Highway—links two places where brave Americans gave their lives to spare their beloved country the depravations that enemies of the United States planned to inflict on the nation.

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