Heroic passengers on doomed Flight 93 prevented a worse catastrophe

True Crime

MYSTERY WIRE — As the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks approaches, those stark images of hijacked airplanes striking the Twin Towers will play over and over in our heads. But as bad as those attacks were, things could have been much worse had another of the hijacked planes succeeded.

James Reston, Jr.

There are no video images of the ill-fated Flight 93 as it crashed into the Earth in rural Pennsylvania, far short of its intended target, the U.S. Capitol.

Acclaimed writer James Reston, author of the recent historical novel “The 19th Hijacker” thinks the passengers who overwhelmed the hijackers on Flight 93 committed one of the most heroic acts in American history. But also, that their story has been overwhelmed by the images of the two planes that slammed into the Twin Towers and the third that struck the Pentagon.

Reston thinks the impact of Flight 93 striking the Capitol would have been even more catastrophic. “Had the U.S. Capitol been destroyed, 9/11 would have been in so unimaginably worse,” Reston said during a recent interview. “It would have destroyed the American government, it would have killed many legislators, it would have ruined the building, it’s almost impossible to imagine how the American government would have gone forward if that had been successful. And what I’ve been able to show, I think, is that it was a very, very close call.”

United Airlines Flight 93 was hijacked by four al-Qaeda terrorists as part of the September 11 attacks. The original terrorist’s plan had five people, but one of them was arrested in Florida before the flight.

The hijackers stormed the aircraft’s cockpit 46 minutes after takeoff. It was then when some of the passengers began formulating a plan to regain control of the jet.

There “were some very athletic guys” among the passengers according to Reston. “A quarterback on a high school team, a bungee jumper, an all star field hockey player. So there were about five of them that had real chops as athletes. And then of course, the last thing of all was the decision of getting together in a democratic way at the back of the plane and deciding whether to attack the cockpit or not, it was an act of democracy. And they decided to move and act.”

“Once they made the decision to roll they rushed forward, took over you know, obviously overwhelmed the two minders with their box cutters back there and that probably wasn’t so difficult for that group. And then they grabbed the console of the flight attendants, the carriage for the drinks and the food and they pushed that to the cockpit door and kept slamming against the door. We have the cockpit recorder, where you actually hear the slams against the cockpit door and you also hear the the interchanges between the hijacker pilot Ziad (Samir) al-Jarrah was his name and his minder, his quote unquote copilot, but he was really there to make sure that Jarrah did the right thing. And there was an interchange as to whether they should carry on and just hope that the door wasn’t going to be broken down or scuttle the whole plane and it’s totally harrowing, harrowing audio. Many years ago I did a book and a play about Jonestown, and the last moments of Jonestown are similarly terrifying. But what the hijacker pilot and his mate exchange is whether to put it down, no not yet. More slams, maybe the sounds of cracking of the door. It’s not quite clear. But one of them says Okay they’re going to get in, put it down. And and as if that’s not the only thing to say there seems to be a slight disagreement between the hijacker pilot and his minder as to whether to crash the plane and I think by inference, there was a struggle between the two, where the minder actually seized control of the joystick and actually pushed it down for it to crash.”

James Reston, Jr.

Reston has come up with at least five happenstances that all together led to Flight 93 crashing into the ground and not into the Capitol:

  • Flight 93 departed 25 minutes later than the other hijacked planes because of traffic at Newark airport
    • This allowed passengers to hear and read about the other hijackings and crashes that had already happened.
  • Hijacking took place later in this flight than the others
    • On Flight 93 the hijacking happened 46 minutes after takeoff. On the other hijacked planes it happened approximately 20 minutes into the flight allowing, again, for more information to reach the passengers and crew about the hijackings.
  • Passengers had cell phone service
    • This also allowed passengers to learn about the other hijackings and made it able for some to call call family.
  • Four terrorists hijacked Flight 93 instead of five
    • On August 3, 2001, an intended fifth hijacker, Mohammed al-Qahtani, flew into Orlando from Dubai. He was questioned by officials, who doubted he could support himself with only $2,800 cash to his name, and suspicious that he intended to become an illegal immigrant as he was using a one-way ticket. He was sent back to Dubai, and subsequently returned to Saudi Arabia. This made it easier for the passengers to take on the two hijackers who remained outside the cockpit.
  • Passengers included several large athletic men
    • These men were capable of taking swift, physical action against the hijackers who were armed with only box cutters.
United Airlines / Air Traffic Control audio from Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001.

Flight 93 crashed into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. All 44 people on board were killed, including the four hijackers. The aircraft was scheduled to fly from Newark International Airport in New Jersey to San Francisco International Airport in California.

N591UA taxiing on September 8, 2001, three days before it was hijacked.

Reston’s latest book “The 19th Hijacker” is a historical novel that looks at the human drama that might have led to the hijacking of Flight 93 and the extraordinary events that prevented a more consequential tragedy.

“The book has such a sense of authenticity that it could have happened this way,” according to Reston. “And that’s what a good historical novel does that the historical novelist does all the factual research that is possible to do before launching over into the realm of imagination, touching those areas that factual that there are no facts to deal with.”

James Reston, Jr. comes to the subject of 9/11 with a lengthy resume in U.S. history and the government. Reston was an assistant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall before serving in the US Army from 1965 to 1968. He was also David Frost’s Watergate advisor for the famous Nixon interviews in 1976 and 1977. These interviews became the most watched public affairs television program in American history.


Below is the transcript of the interview between George Knapp and James Reston, Jr.

George Knapp  
So here we are coming up on 20 years of 9/11. And of course, we’re all going to be inundated with the images of the Twin Towers going down again, and when Americans think about that terrible day, that’s the image that they remember. But the other story, Flight 93 is so compelling, it kind of gets lost in the shuffle, right?

James Reston, Jr
It’s a real paradox that that’s thought to be sort of the afterthought of 9/11 because it didn’t hit anything except the ground in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. And the heroic behavior of the passengers on Flight 93 is such an extraordinary story in American history, it may be the most heroic story of ordinary Americans in our entire history books. Because it’s so extraordinary, it completely overshadowed the rest of the story on Flight 93. And that’s what I focused on in the novel and also in this American Heritage piece that I’ve just published.

George Knapp  
Walk me through the potential impact if that if those terrorists had succeeded, and smashing that plane into the Capitol, I mean, those images of the Twin Towers falling are seared into all of our brains. And it had such a major psychological effect on Americans and people all over the world. But imagine, for us, what would have happened if they had succeeded in smashing that plane into the Capitol?

James Reston, Jr.  
Well, as horrible as the other two, or other three crashes were, the ones in New York related to the American economy and that affects millions upon millions of people, particularly more wealthy people. The crash into the Pentagon was an attack on the American military, American military might. And that affects a lot of people also. But had the US Capitol been destroyed. 9/11 would have been in so unimaginably worst, because it would have destroyed the American, the working American government, it would have killed many legislators, it would have ruined the building, it’s almost impossible to imagine how the American government would have gone forward, if that had been, if that had been successful. And what I’ve been able to show, I think, is that it was a very, very close call that the US Capitol was not destroyed that day. A close call because of a number of happenstances in American, in the story of that flight, that were simply accidents of history, they could not have happened. And the fact that they did happen actually saved the Capitol.

George Knapp 
You detail both in the essay that I mentioned, and in your book, “The 19th Hijacker”, of the amazing sequence of events, so much of what happened was really luck. Right, just luck?

James Reston, Jr.
It was luck. It was luck. And that point I think has just not registered with the American people yet. Maybe it will be through the work that I’ve done here. But there were several critically important things that were accidents. One was that the plane left 25 minutes later than the other three planes. Of course, the plot was for four to leave it about the  same time and hit the target about the same time. Well, this one was delayed because of traffic in Newark Airport, didn’t take off until 25 minutes later. That’s happenstance, number one. Happenstance number two is that they didn’t hijack the plane until much later than the other three. So that it was way out over eastern Ohio when the plane was actually taken over. That meant that there was a period of something like 25 minutes between the hijacking and when it actually went into the ground in Shanksville and probably 35 minutes before it would have hit the Capitol. And then there’s a third happenstance about cell phone traffic that the passengers were able to get on their cell phones once the plane was hijacked. I didn’t really know that that was possible. At any rate they did and of course they learned about the other three attacks and quickly realized that they were part of the same plot. And then the fourth happenstance was that that particular terrorist crew was comprised of only four individuals as opposed to five in the other three planes. And the concept was that there would be two pilots, hijacker pilots in the cockpit and three to manage the passengers in the passenger part of the plane. Well, one of those that was designated for Flight 93 got apprehended coming into Florida. So it meant that there were only these two fairly scrawny guys who were controlling those passengers. And the last happenstance is the passenger crew itself, but who is in that 33 passengers were some very athletic guys, a quarterback on a high school team, a bungee jumper, an all star field hockey player. So there were about five of them that had real chops as athletes. And then of course, the last thing of all was the decision of getting together in a democratic way at the back of the plane and deciding whether to attack the cockpit or not, it was an act of democracy. And they decided to move and act. So there are five or six happenstances that could clearly have been very different. And it was just as you say, luck that that happened that way.

James Reston, Jr. 
Of course, you know, we didn’t have a camera there when that plane went down, unlike the Twin Towers. So we were able to see the aftermath and not the crash itself. But you’ve been able to do so much research in reconstructing the events that happened on that plane. Can you walk us through the best scenario that you’ve been able to reconstruct about those final moments? The decision in the back of the plane, what was the final words, “Okay, let’s roll”, gives you goosebumps hearing that. How they approached and do you think you know what happened in those final minutes.

James Reston, Jr. 
Once they made the decision to roll they rushed forward, took over you know, obviously overwhelmed the two minders with their box cutters back there and that probably wasn’t so difficult for that group. And then they grabbed the console of the flight attendants, the carriage for the drinks and the food and they pushed that to the cockpit door and kept slamming against the door. We have the cockpit recorder, where you actually hear the slams against the cockpit door and you also hear the the interchanges between the hijacker pilot Ziad (Samir) al-Jarrah was his name and his minder, his quote unquote copilot, but he was really there to make sure that Jarrah did the right thing. And there was an interchange as to whether they should carry on and just hope that the door wasn’t going to be broken down or scuttle the whole plane and it’s totally harrowing, harrowing audio. Many years ago I did a book and a play about Jonestown,  and the last moments of Jonestown are similarly terrifying. But what the hijacker pilot and his mate exchange is whether to put it down, no not yet. More slams, maybe the sounds of cracking of the door. It’s not quite clear. But one of them says Okay they’re going to get in, put it down. And and as if that’s not the only thing to say there seems to be a slight disagreement between the hijacker pilot and his minder as to whether to crash the plane and I think by inference, there was a struggle between the two, where the minder actually seized control of the joystick and actually pushed it down for it to crash.

George Knapp 
Well, the hijackers knew it was a suicide mission going in. The passengers who were trying to take control the plane also had to know it was a suicide mission, right, that they were going to die?

James Reston, Jr.  
Well, certainly at some point they felt that certainly the chances were great that they were going to, to die. But there’s another extraordinary thing about about this, and that is that it was in that 20 minute period when they had to decide whether to move or not to move. History would have told them that the hijackings from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s always eventually eventually ended in the plane being landed somewhere and negotiations being held on the basis of demands of some sort or another, and ultimately, the passengers would get released. So in that 20 minute period, they had to completely scrap all of that history of hijacking to realize that this was totally a new ballgame. And that it was a suicide mission.

George Knapp 
20 years later, we really, I mean, it’s changed us so much, in so many ways, some subtle, some not so subtle, and a lot of them in bad ways. Would you agree?

James Reston, Jr.  
Well, I think there was a great avoidance about a 9/11 for a very long time, certainly up until the 10th anniversary, which was about the time when I started to work on my book. And one could really, 10 years ago, have the kind of conversation that we’re having right now. Because, of course, understandably, the perpetrators of that mission were regarded as human monsters. And if you regard them as human monsters then no way you can sort of think about what their motivations might have been. Any of the subtleties that we’ve been talking about here about the way the thing rolled out and so forth. It was just these were monsters, and they did this horror, horrible thing. 20 years on, I think there’s a considerable change, there seems to be a welcome to understand 9/11. Not only what happened, like what we’re talking about now. But what the importance of it was to American foreign policy, for example, what impact it had on the relationship of the West, America and Europe towards the middle east and Islam, and you know, the Arab people’s generally, that seems to be opening up for discussion now at the 20th anniversary. Now, at the end of the war in Afghanistan the question is arisen all the time about is Afghanistan going to be another haven for terrorists the way it was before, and that’s something that is to be a matter of concern. But we have learned, I think, a tremendous amount in the US intelligence, about how to monitor Afghanistan, per se, for bad guys starting to train for international missions. We know who they are, we have much, much better cyber assets. We have all those people who fell flat on their face of the government that collapsed and the people who were in the army that might be human intelligence about bad guys operating in Afghanistan. So I’m not so worried post Afghan collapse about Afghanistan being a haven again, for terrorists.

George Knapp 
You have a great deal of personal experience and knowledge of recruitment and radicalization of people like these hijackers. Can you share some of that with us and how that might be used now to create new enemies who might want to try to pull something similar on us?

James Reston, Jr.  
Well, my whole literary career began coming out of the US Army in the 1960s during the Vietnam era when I was trained in the recruitment of foreign agents. Before 9/11, I had just published in sequence really four books about the clash between Islam and Christianity in ancient history, and I was really looking for a way to bring that knowledge into a modern case. What 9/11 presented was the opportunity to tap all of that knowledge if those other four books, clash of civilizations between the west and the east and also to tap my experience as an Army Intelligence Officer in the recruitment of agents, how Islamic history and Islamic ideology could be used in the process of recruiting a terrorist. And that’s the story that I have told in fiction, because I couldn’t tell the story of the Shanksville pilot, in fact, because he was dead. And there was very little that was known about him. But piecing together a lot of information from different ways that a profile could be constructed of how not a very bright guy could get sucked into the al Qaeda system and be a candidate to be one of these suicide bombers. But what interested me immensely about the Shanksville pilot was that he was a character in conflict. He had not bought in completely like the others, in Nazi lockstep, to the mission because he was in love with a woman in Germany. And he was pulled between these two commitments one to al Qaeda and one to this woman who he had married in an Islamic ceremony. So just as a storyteller, that really intrigued me about how to, if you will, humanize a story that was right at the center of an event that utterly changed American history.

George Knapp 
It seems like you write nonfiction and fiction equally well, and have succeeded in both formats. But you can tell a story in nonfiction that is more powerful than a fact based fiction story. The nonfiction and novel, “The 19th Hijacker” you could write things in a more powerful way that wouldn’t have a greater impact on the reader than a straightforward nonfiction story.

James Reston, Jr.  
Yes, especially if they’re in nonfiction, there wasn’t really any information that could be used to create a complicated and compelling story. That just the facts were just simply not available, what little facts there were classified and continue to be classified because of these ongoing criminal proceedings in Guantanamo Bay. So it was impossible, would have been impossible, it is impossible to write a nonfiction, a fine important book about one of these hijackers, as a factual matter.

George Knapp  
Here we are, from the vantage point of 20 years later. And I think we can now recognize all the serious mistakes that we made along the way . We invade Afghanistan to go after the bad guys, good. And then we stay there for 20 years. We invade Iraq, that had nothing to do with it. We set the Islamic world on fire. It was a great recruitment tool. We impose changes here in the US, the NSA massive surveillance program of American citizens. We spend trillions and trillions of dollars, 1000s and 1000s of American lives and hundreds of 1000s of Muslim lives. Have we learned a lesson? Are we prone to do this kind of thing again?

James Reston, Jr. 
Well, can we did it again after Vietnam, didn’t we? So have we learned a lesson? There was that period after Vietnam, this was a great thing that Ronald Reagan would say and he’s campaigning that America suffered from a Vietnam syndrome, which was meant we couldn’t do anything. We were now so wounded by the Vietnam experience that we were just paralyzed. We’re obviously going to go into a long period of self analysis as a nation now about how this could have happened. I mean, it starts right in the first anecdote that you mentioned right there about deciding instead of just going laser beam after the criminals that brought our buildings down, like Tora Bora. I mean, if you can’t, as an American military, surround a mountain with all your assets, and find a guy holed up in a cave somewhere, then you know, you’re not as good as you think you are. But had we been good and done that and apprehended Osama bin Laden right there in the days and weeks after 9/11 and his henchmen, what then? Instead of what W Bush said was, we have to basically destroy all of the Taliban because they gave refuge to al Qaeda. And then we have to basically occupy that nation for 20 years, and as you say, then go on to the absurdity of Iraq. You know, certainly, I think wise people are saying that that decision by George W. Bush to widen the whole thing to the whole nation of Afghanistan, one of the worst decisions ever made in American history. So history doesn’t repeat itself does it? So so there won’t be just the same scenario like this one, but I’m, you know, rather heartened by some of the things that I’m hearing from President Biden about a fundamental change in the tone of foreign policy in the future, vis-à-vis trouble spots around the world that we’re just not going to, you know, load up the 82nd airborne and go kill people.

George Knapp  
I think the one thing that sticks with me and bothers me the most to come out of that whole era was the torture, the use of torture, black locations, torture taxis. The idea I grew up thinking of us as the good guys that we wouldn’t do that kind of thing, regardless of the efficacy or usefulness of torture, the fact that we would stoop to that in response to those world events, it leaves a mark on me. I don’t know about you.

James Reston, Jr.  
Oh, deep, deep mark. And yes, I mean, we’ve lost something very wonderful about this country, starting with Vietnam. Certainly, this is piling on and that particular thing of, you know, we’re, we’re the indispensable nation with the highest moral standards. Clearly, we’re not. As a former intelligence officer, you know, we were taught back in the Vietnam period that that torture was pointless, that it was, you know, somebody in excruciating pain is going to say anything that you want them to say. And it would be unactionable and unreliable information. So how it came that these psychiatrists were employed by the CIA and others to think of the most foolish things to do to people to make them spout something is yes, is a terrible, terrible strain. I’m waiting to hear from Biden on that particular issue. And I’m really glad you brought that up, because that is very much something that needs to be into the conversation in the coming year or two.

George Knapp  
One last question just for the readers who are going to see advertisements or mentions of your book, “The 19th Hijacker” tell him but give us a pitch on why people should read it and what you hope they learn from it.

James Reston, Jr.  
Well, it’s a good read. It’s an exciting book. It’s a thriller, basically. I think readers will welcome it. Readers there that are talking to me say, very very pleasing to me that the book has such a sense of authenticity that it could have happened this way. And that’s what a good historical novel does that the historical novelist does all the factual research that is possible to do before launching over into the realm of imagination, touching those areas that factual that there are no facts to deal with. So I think what I would posit that it’s very, very interesting, not especially enjoyable read, but that it is full of insight, I believe, into that event into one character. And it’s a novel that really only has three characters. One is that is the perpetrator. The second is the lover, the woman, and it’s really told through the eyes of the woman, and you never really know whether she is part of the conspiracy or not, and kind of frumpy German policemen. Because there is the story of how a suicide bombing plane could have happened. But there is also the story of the aftermath of 9/11. When all law enforcement all over the world was terrified, there was going to be a second wave of attacks. And I think it is authentically so that the actual woman because there was an actual woman, lover of the Shanksville pilot was thought to be an excellent source as to whether there would be a second wave of attacks. And so the reader will have to make up his or her mind whether she is part of the conspiracy or not, that’s part of the quandary of the reading. So I hope it will find a wide readership and I hope you’ll read it.

George Knapp 
I’ve started it already and I’m looking forward to finishing it. It’s a thrill and an honor to talk to you. I’ve admired your body of work, your career over the years and I wish you all the best of luck with this and hope we get a chance to talk again.

James Reston, Jr.   
I’d be delighted.

George Knapp  
Thank you.

James Reston, Jr.   
Thanks for your interest, take care.

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