At 08:42 EDT, a Boeing 757 took off from Newark, New Jersey with 44 people onboard, including two pilots and five flight attendants. United Airlines Flight 93 was en route to San Francisco when hijackers, likely armed with knife-like instruments and a box they said was a bomb (as reported by Mark Bingham), took control of the plane.
Using his cell phone, passenger Jeremy Glick called his wife to say he and some other passengers had voted to tackle the hijackers. Thomas Burnett told his wife, "I know we’re all going to die...There’s three of us who are going to do something about it." And Todd Beamer, in his now-famous statement, said, "Let’s roll."
Flight 93's voice recordings help to reconstruct what happened. Forty-six minutes after takeoff, at 9:28 EDT, the hijackers attacked while the plane was at 35,000 feet above eastern Ohio. The aircraft "suddenly dropped 700 feet."
Eleven seconds into the descent, the FAA's air traffic control center in Cleveland received the first of two radio transmissions from the aircraft. During the first broadcast, the captain or first officer could be heard declaring "Mayday" amid the sounds of a physical struggle in the cockpit. The second radio transmission, 35 seconds later, indicated that the fight was continuing. The captain or first officer could be heard shouting: "Hey get out of here-get out of here-get out of here."
At 9:32, one of the attackers spoke to the passengers:
"Ladies and Gentlemen: Here the captain, please sit down keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board. So, sit." The flight data recorder (also recovered) indicates that Jarrah [the hijacker flying the plane] then instructed the plane's autopilot to turn the aircraft around and head east.
The plane, investigators believe, was now on a path to Washington, D.C.
Using GTE airphones, passengers on board began calling friends, family, colleagues and other people on the ground. They learned of the successful attacks on the World Trade Center and advised they were going to fight back:
Five calls described the intent of passengers and surviving crew members to revolt against the hijackers. According to one call, they voted on whether to rush the terrorists in an attempt to retake the plane. They decided, and acted.
The passengers took action, beginning at 9:57:
Several passengers had terminated phone calls with loved ones in order to join the revolt. One of the callers ended her message as follows: "Everyone's running up to first class. I've got to go. Bye."
Recovered data from the plane reveals what happened next:
The cockpit voice recorder captured the sounds of the passenger assault muffled by the intervening cockpit door. Some family members who listened to the recording report that they can hear the voice of a loved one among the din. We cannot identify whose voices can be heard. But the assault was sustained.
Realizing passengers were fighting back, the hijacker flying the plane reacted:
In response, Jarrah immediately began to roll the airplane to the left and right, attempting to knock the passengers off balance. At 9:58:57, Jarrah told another hijacker in the cockpit to block the door. Jarrah continued to roll the airplane sharply left and right, but the assault continued. At 9:59:52, Jarrah changed tactics and pitched the nose of the airplane up and down to disrupt the assault. The recorder captured the sounds of loud thumps, crashes, shouts, and breaking glasses and plates. At 10:00:03, Jarrah stabilized the airplane.
Recognizing Flight 93's passengers had thwarted their original objective - of slamming into a Washington building - the attackers talked about crashing the plane:
Five seconds later, Jarrah asked, "Is that it? Shall we finish it off?" A hijacker responded, "No. Not yet. When they all come, we finish it off." The sounds of fighting continued outside the cockpit. Again, Jarrah pitched the nose of the aircraft up and down. At 10:00:26, a passenger in the background said, "In the cockpit. If we don't we'll die!" Sixteen seconds later, a passenger yelled, "Roll it!" Jarrah stopped the violent maneuvers at about 10:01:00 and said, "Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest!" He then asked another hijacker in the cock-pit, "Is that it? I mean, shall we put it down?" to which the other replied, "Yes, put it in it, and pull it down."
The heroes of Flight 93 were making significant progress:
The passengers continued their assault and at 10:02:23, a hijacker said, "Pull it down! Pull it down!" The hijackers remained at the controls but must have judged that the passengers were only seconds from overcoming them. The airplane headed down; the control wheel was turned hard to the right. The airplane rolled onto its back, and one of the hijackers began shouting "Allah is the greatest. Allah is the greatest." With the sounds of the passenger counterattack continuing, the aircraft plowed into an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 580 miles per hour, about 20 minutes' flying time from Washington, D.C.
The actions of Flight 93's passengers averted another strike on a Washington, D.C. target - most likely the Capitol. Instead, at 10:03:11 EDT the plane crashed (leaving more than one debris field) in Shanksville, Pennsylvania - about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
Four planes, originally scheduled to depart American cities within 12 minutes of each other, had caused the worst attack on U.S. soil since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. According to the official 9-11 Commission Report, the plot had been masterminded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
The American intelligence "system was blinking red," but, apparently, few people had noticed.