The world changed on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. Today, we’ll honor the memory of those who lost their lives that day as we look at the historical accuracy of the movie United 93.
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About the movie United 93
There are some days that you never forget.
Some events that are so shocking, even if you weren’t involved, where you were when it happened gets imprinted on your memory.
When I woke up on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, I went to work as if it were any other day. But it wasn’t any other day. Normally, I probably would’ve asked for the entire day off, but I worked as the Sports Editor at a daily newspaper, so I had to get that day’s edition out before I could take off.
As it was, I’d asked for the afternoon off and planned a birthday dinner for my wife at the time.
We always kept the TV on at the newspaper. That day wasn’t any different in that regard. Most days, the quiet droning of the reporters blended into the background hustle and bustle of keyboards clacking, papers shuffling or the printing press itself a few rooms away.
I was in the middle of writing an article when we noticed something a little different on the TV. It was just after the first plane hit, and the scene was chaotic.
Everyone in the newsroom left their desks and huddled around the small TV. No one said anything. Eyes were glued to the screen.
Then, all of a sudden, another airplane made its way onto the screen. What the … it just crashed into the other tower! What is going on?
I don’t remember what I wrote about that day. It probably wasn’t anything worthwhile anyway. Covering sports didn’t really seem that important.
That afternoon, I stuck to my plans. My ex and I spent about an hour on the road that day as we drove to and from the restaurant across town. Our route took us past McConnell Air Force Base. As we drove by, there was a line of cars headed into the base that had to be at least five miles long. More cars kept getting added to the back-end, but the line never seemed to move.
Many years later, I’d work at an Air Force Base myself and hear stories from people who were sitting in those cars. Well, not those cars in particular — I worked at a different Air Force Base. But, they had to wait in the line themselves as the base immediately went on high alert while simultaneously calling any off-duty airmen and women back to base.
There were no airplanes in the sky. It was a strange feeling.
With everything that was going on, I don’t even remember seeing anything about the other airplanes that crashed on TV before I left the office. But, I remember hearing about it as we listened to the radio in the car on the way to dinner.
I can hardly believe that was 17 years ago.
It took many years before we started to get answers to the questions that were asked by the world that day. Even today, there’s plenty of unanswered questions.
So, in honor of those events that shook the world that Tuesday morning, today we’re going to look at one of the movies that dives into the story of the passengers who witnessed the terror firsthand.
Learn the true story behind United 93
Before we see anything on screen, we hear something. It sounds like a prayer in Arabic.
Then we see a book. Khalid Abdallah’s character, Ziad Jarrah, is holding the book. It’s not a prayer, he’s reading it. We can’t tell what the book is, but the implication from the film is that it’s the Quran.
The room he’s in isn’t anything special. It looks like a hotel room.
Another man enters. It’s Omar Berdouni’s character, Ahmed al-Haznawi.
“It’s time,” Haznawi tells Jarrah.
Then, after seeing the title of the movie, we see two other men. Jamie Hardin’s character, Ahmed al-Nami, and Lewis Alsamari’s character, Saeed al-Ghamdi. Along with Haznawi and Jarrah, the four men arrive at Newark Airport separately. Two groups of two.
The specifics of all of that is made up for the movie. What is true from this opening sequence is the characters. The rest of it, we just don’t know. It’s not like the four men we see arriving at the airport documented what they said and did for us to find later.
With that said, though, investigators have been able to a few things about the four men after the fact.
Let’s start with Ziad Jarrah who, at the time of the attacks, at age 26 was the oldest of the four.
Jarrah was born in Lebanon to a wealthy family. At age 21, he studied at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany. It was around here that we believe he met others who would be involved in the September 11th attacks as they formed what investigators refer to as the Hamburg cell. Somewhere around 1999, we believe Jarrah was recruited by Osama bin Laden for the attacks.
In June of 2000, Jarrah arrived in the United States and began training at the Florida Flight Training Center. There, he learned how to pilot airplanes until January of 2001.
On September 7th, 2001, Jarrah left Fort Lauderdale, flying to Newark, where he stayed until the 11th.
The next-oldest at the time of the attacks was Ahmed al-Nami. He was two years younger than Jarrah, at 24 years old on September 11th, 2001.
We don’t know as much about Nami’s early days. He was born in Saudi Arabia, and we know he went to Afghanistan to train at an al-Qaeda camp. That’s where we believe he met some of the others involved in the attacks.
Thanks to documentation from his tourist visa, we know Nami arrived in the U.S. in May of 2001. He moved into the same apartment as Saeed al-Ghamdi in the Miami area. More specifically, Delray Beach, Florida. The two lived there until paying cash for tickets on the same flight as Jarrah and Ahmed al-Haznawi to Newark.
Speaking of Saeed al-Ghamdi, he was the next-oldest of the group at age 21 on September 11th. Like Nami, he was born in Saudi Arabia.
In November of 2000, Nami applied for a visa to enter the U.S., but he was denied. He applied again in June of 2001, and this time was approved for a two-year visa.
Although some have debated the authenticity of this, still others believe that in August of 2001, Ghamdi sent this message online to his girlfriend:
The first semester commences in three weeks. Two high schools and two universities. … This summer will surely be hot …19 certificates for private education and four exams. Regards to the professor. Goodbye.
That “girlfriend” was not a girlfriend at all … Ghamdi didn’t have a girlfriend … but the message was sent to a man named Ramzi bin al-Shibh, someone who was a key figure in the planning of the attacks. And we all know what happened roughly three weeks later.
The last of the four we haven’t talked about yet is Ahmed al-Haznawi. He was the youngest of the four on September 11th — which was exactly one month before his 21st birthday.
We don’t know a lot about his early years, but he likely was trained in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. In November of 2000, he was approved for a two-year U.S. visa. But, he didn’t arrive right away. He stayed in Saudi Arabia for Ramadan.
It wasn’t until June of 2001 that he arrived in Miami. He lived with Ziad Jarrah in an apartment in Fort Lauderdale, getting his drivers license in July of the same year.
On September 7th, he filled out a change of address form and was given another copy of the same license.
Did he lose his license that quickly? We don’t really know, but some theories suggest perhaps that’s so multiple people could use the same license — the same identity.
He arrived in Newark with Jarrah on that same day, September 7th, on the same flight as the other three soon-to-be-hijackers.
With that brief history of the four hijackers of United flight 93, let’s hop back into the movie’s timeline where the four men arrive for their flight from Newark to San Francisco. That was United flight 93’s original destination.
In the airport, we see people lining up for the queue at the security station. The four men put their bags on the conveyor belt for an x-ray scan and walk through a metal detector. One of the men gets pulled aside to be scanned with a wand, but nothing goes off. Nothing seems out of the ordinary.
Even though the movie doesn’t share the timing of this, we get another clue into whether or not the four men arrived together or separately by the times they checked in.
Saeed al-Ghamdi was the first of the four to check in for his flight, when he did so without any luggage at 7:03 AM.
Ahmed al-Nami checked in at the same time as Ghamdi, but he checked two bags. At 7:24 AM, Ahmed al-Haznawi checked in with one bag while Ziad Jarrah checked in without any luggage at 7:39 AM.
Of the four, Haznawi was the only one to get randomly selected for extra security. His bag was checked, but nothing out of the ordinary was found.
Now, if you’ve been to the airport recently you might be wondering — how could they have gotten through so easily? No one had to take their shoes off, take off their belts or anything? How could the weapons they used get through security?
Seems like a valid question.
The movie is correct in showing the ease with which you could get through airport security. In fact, it was because of the attacks on September 11th that many would call into question just how good airport security really was if all the hijackers were able to make it onto the plane with knives.
At that time, you could board airplanes with small, pocket knives. Those weren’t considered that big of a deal.
The same goes for ID. While we talked briefly about some of the four men on United 93 getting drivers licenses, not all the hijackers that day had proper ID. But, all the flights were domestic flights, so the requirement for proper ID was a bit more relaxed than for international flights.
In fact, it used to be that you could walk right up to the gate without a ticket. Not to date myself, but I remember going to the airport with my family as a kid and greeting family members as their planes arrived straight out of the gate.
Of course, you can’t do any of that now. The requirements for ID has changed; and most of that was implemented in the wake of September 11th.
Heading back into the movie, the next scene introduces us to the head of the National Air Traffic Control Center in Herndon, Virginia. It’s Ben Sliney, and we see him entering the room to some clapping and a voice off screen saying, “Congratulations on the promotion, Ben!”
As far as we can tell, the day seems to be starting off much like any other day.
And that’s true, with one important distinction. Yes, we see the clapping and congratulations on the promotion in the movie, but the film never really tells us what it’s for.
Well, after about 25-years of working his way up the chain in the Federal Aviation Administration, or the FAA as they’re more commonly called, Ben Sliney was promoted to the position of National Operations Manager at the FAA.
Basically, he was the man in charge at the National Air Traffic Control Center.
So, that clapping and the congratulations the movie glosses over quickly was because of Ben Sliney’s promotion to the position of National Operations Manager of the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA.
His first day on the job? September 11th, 2001.
Oh, and the actor playing Ben Sliney? Ben Sliney. Yup, that’s the real person playing himself in the movie — something the filmmakers did for a lot of the roles.
Back in the movie, the boarding begins for United flight 93. People are going about their normal pre-flight routines in the waiting area. Calling family, reading the newspaper or a book.
In the waiting area, we see Ziad Jarrah make a phone call before boarding. We don’t know who it’s to, but all we hear him say is, “I love you.”
As Jarrah was still checking in, at 7:39 AM, Haznawi and Ghamdi were boarding the airplane. They both sat in business class — first class — with Haznawi sitting in seat 6B while Ghamdi was in 3D. At 7:40 AM, Nami boarded. He was also in business class, sitting in seat 1B.
Eight minutes later, at 7:48 AM, Jarrah boarded the plane and took his seat, 3C, in business class.
In a 2002 investigation into one of the conspirators of the plot, Jarrah’s girlfriend, Aysel Sengun, told investigators about her relationship with him. This took place during a trial in Germany, where Aysel was born.
And yes, she was his real girlfriend … Jarrah was the only of the hijackers on United 93 that day to have a girlfriend.
Unlike some of the other hijackers, Jarrah had a plan for the future. He wanted to marry Aysel, have kids and become a commercial airline pilot. At least, that’s what Aysel believed.
She said Jarrah called her the morning of September 11th. He didn’t say much, but he kept repeating, “I love you” three times.
When she asked what was wrong, he hung up.
Later, it’d come to light that the call Jarrah made was from a public payphone in the airport, not from a cell phone like we saw in the movie.
This little bit of information on Ziad Jarrah shows him as being different the other three hijackers aboard United 93. He seemed to be close to his family. The others had left their families behind, rarely communicating with them beforehand.
He’d trained for this moment since his days as a part of the Hamburg cell in Germany. But, as the hour drew closer, many have speculated that perhaps Jarrah was the only one of the four on board United 93 who had some hesitation about what he was about to do.
As United 93 boards, the movie takes us to the Boston Air Traffic Control Center. One of the controllers focuses in on American flight 11, telling it to turn 20 degrees to the right.
Then, we’re back on United 93 briefly as the last passenger arrives, and the plane starts to leave the gate. Bouncing back and forth, we shift back to Boston as American 11 didn’t seem to respond to the order to turn 20 degrees.
“American 11. Boston center, do you read?”
Another controller tries, “American 11. This is Boston. Do you read?”
Then, all of a sudden, the controller hears static. Someone is saying something, but he can’t quite make it out.
“Boston, say again please,” he tries to get American 11 to repeat whatever they said. No reply.
The controller calls over his supervisor. He’s sure he heard someone speaking a different language. That wasn’t the pilot. Immediately, he assumes this might be a hijack situation. Word is sent from Boston to Ben Sliney at the National Air Traffic Control Center.
While we don’t know the specifics of how quickly the controller jumped to the conclusion that it might be a hijacking situation, the basic gist of that is true.
What the movie doesn’t mention, though, is the timing of what’s happening.
American Airlines flight 11 took off from Boston at 7:59 AM on that Tuesday morning. At around 8:14 AM, just fifteen minutes later, five hijackers forced themselves into the cockpit. We don’t really know how many were injured initially, but most have estimated there were at least three people injured, maybe even killing one of them.
Mohamed Atta, one of the ringleaders of the whole plan, took over the controls as pilot.
About ten minutes later, at 8:24, is when one of the controllers at Boston overheard Atta speaking to the passengers on the plane. Just like the movie shows, he couldn’t make out exactly what was said at first.
It’s the first communication from any of the hijackers, and something that would later be turned into the first chapter of the 9/11 Commission Report.
“We have some planes,” was the title of the first chapter.
What Atta said at 8:24 AM to the passengers on board American 11 was, “We have some planes. Just stay quiet, and you’ll be okay. We are returning to the airport!”
At 8:25 AM, Atta followed up the chilling first message with another warning, “Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just say quiet.”
What the movie doesn’t mention is that wasn’t the only communication with American 11. The FAA wasn’t made aware of this as quickly as the communication they heard from Atta immediately, but about five minutes after the hijackers took over American 11, two of the flight attendants, Betty Ong and Madeline Sweeney, called American Airlines’ operations center from one of the airphones. We’ll learn more about Madeline’s call later, but Betty’s call started at 8:19 AM, and for about 25 minutes she stayed on the line, giving us most of what we know about the hijacking on American 11.
“The cockpit isn’t answering the phone. There’s somebody stabbed in business class. They can’t breathe in business class,” Betty described. “They’ve got Mace or something. I don’t know, but I think we’re getting hijacked.”
Then she continued, “Our first-class galley attendant and our purser are stabbed. We can’t get into the cockpit. The door won’t open.”
Many have speculated that the passengers aboard American 11 believed the hijackers were taking them back to the airport. It must be a ransom they’re wanting, so they’ll go back to the airport and everything will be over soon.
Others have suggested, based on Betty’s call, that perhaps some of the passengers on American 11 thought there was a medical emergency in business class, but that they didn’t really know what else was going on.
Back in the movie, as they’re trying to figure out if it’s a hijacking or not, there’s a mention of code 7500. Did American 11 issue a code 7500? No, they didn’t. So, do we really know if this is a hijacking?
The movie doesn’t specifically mention what code 7500 is, but the implication is that it has something to do with hijacking.
And that’s true.
They’re what pilots refer to as squawk codes, something that refers to the original use of the codes during World War II through a system code-named Parrot.
There’s thousands of squawk codes from 0000 to 7777, but there’s three that every pilot knows by heart: 7500 means hijacking, 7600 means radio emergency and 7700 means an emergency.
Looking at American 11 through history, the movie is correct in stating they never issued a 7500-hijacking code. We don’t really know why, but the speculation has been that the hijackers took over the cockpit so fast that they didn’t have the chance to.
Back in the movie, news of American 11’s possible hijacking starts to spread from the Boston Air Traffic Control Center to the National Air Traffic Control Center and finally to the military side, the Northeast Air Defense Command Center, or NEADS.
Even without confirmation, the military takes action. Greg Henry’s character, Colonel Robert Marr, is in charge at the Command Center and orders Otis called to put their airplanes on alert.
There’s been some discrepancy with the exact times, with Colonel Marr himself first stating in 2003 for the 9/11 Commission that he gave the scramble order around 8:36 AM, but others have questioned that timing since the news first made it to the NEADS at 8:36 AM.
So, a more commonly accepted timing is that at 8:41 AM, Colonel Marr ordered fighters at Otis Air Force Base near Falmouth, Massachusetts to scramble.
Today, Otis is known as the Otis Air National Guard Base, since it’s transfer from the Air Force to the Air National Guard.
Meanwhile, back in the movie, United 93 is cleared for takeoff. The movie doesn’t show times at all, but United 93 took off at 8:42 AM. It was supposed to take off at 8:00, but it was postponed due to something we’re all familiar with when flying — congestion. The airport was busy, so even though the plane pushed back from the gate at about 8:00, it didn’t take off until 8:42.
In the movie, we see the New York Air Traffic Control Center tracking American 11. The transponder was turned off, so they’re trying to get other airplanes to help them find it. One of those planes is United 175.
They’re still trying to get it to respond when the tracker just disappears from the screen.
“What do you mean it disappeared?” One of the controllers asks.
It disappeared right around Manhattan, comes the reply. It just disappeared.
The movie sends us back to the NEADS, and they’re asking if the Otis birds are in the air yet.
Then, back in New York, we’re in a control tower when they see a bunch of smoke in the distance.
Wait, what’s that? There’s smoke coming out of the Trade Center.
Back in the Federal Air Control Center, they hear about the smoke and turn on CNN. There’s a report on the screen that a small airplane crashed into the World Trade Center.
Ben Sliney immediately starts to connect the dots. Look at the size of that hole … that’s not a small airplane. And we lost American 11 over the city? This isn’t good.
All of that is true.
At 8:42, United 175 reached out to the FAA with what would turn out to be one of their own final transmissions. They were responding to the FAA’s call for any information on American 11.
UAL 175: New York UAL 175 heavy.
FAA: UAL 175 go ahead.
UAL 175: Yeah. We figured we’d wait to go to your center. Ah, we heard a suspicious transmission on our departure out of Boston, ah, with someone, ah, it sounded like someone keyed the mikes and said, ah, everyone, ah, stay in your seats.
FAA: Oh, okay. I’ll pass that along over here.
Do you remember earlier when we learned about the phone call that one of the flight attendants on American 11 made? That was Betty Ong, and she relayed that the flight was hijacked as early as 8:19 AM.
Well, we also learned that Betty wasn’t the only one to make a call from American 11. At 8:44 AM, another flight attendant named Madeline Sweeney made a phone call to the flight services department at American Airlines. She reported the stabbings that Betty had reported earlier and confirmed again the plane was hijacked. She also mentioned that the plane seemed to have been rerouted from its original flight path.
Now, American 11 was a flight from Boston to Los Angeles. To make their way to New York City, the plane went further south than they had planned.
On her phone call, Madeline explained, “Something is wrong. We are in a rapid descent we are all over the place.”
The person on the other end of the line asked her if she could look out the window to identify where they were.
“I see water. I see buildings. We’re flying low. We’re flying very, very low … we’re flying way too low. Oh my God! We’re flying way too low! Oh my God!”
That’s the last communication we got from American Airlines flight 11. At 8:46 AM, it crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing everyone.
Meanwhile, 153 miles away, at that exact moment, the first of two F-15 fighters took off from Otis in response, heading toward New York City to intercept the hijacked plane. The second followed moments afterward.
But, there was a problem. The F-15s didn’t know where they were going. They needed more precise location of the airplane to be able to intercept it.
This statement from the official 9/11 Commission Report gives us an insight into the confusion:
F-15 fighters were scrambled at 8:46 from Otis Air Force Base. But NEADS did not know where to send the alert fighter aircraft, and the officer directing the fighters pressed for more information:
“I don’t know where I’m scrambling these guys to. I need a direction, a destination.”
Because the hijackers had turned off the plane’s transponder, NEADS personnel spent the next minutes searching their radar scopes for the primary radar return. American 11 struck the North Tower at 8:46.
Shortly after 8:50, while NEADS personnel were still trying to locate the flight, word reached them that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
Radar data show the Otis fighters were airborne at 8:53. Lacking a target, they were vectored toward military-controlled airspace off the Long Island coast. To avoid New York area air traffic and uncertain about what to do, the fighters were brought down to military airspace to “hold as needed.” From 9:09 to 9:13, the Otis fighters stayed in this holding pattern.
In summary, NEADS received notice of the hijacking nine minutes before it struck the North Tower. That nine minutes’ notice before impact was the most the military would receive of any of the four hijackings.
Oh, and yes, it’s true that CNN first reported a small airplane crashed into the World Trade Center.
This came from some of the first eyewitness reports that CNN managed to scrape together just a few minutes after the impact. Some people thought it looked like a small propeller plane hit the Trade Center.
Another report suggested maybe it wasn’t a propeller plane, but a small passenger jet — maybe a 737.
In truth, American 11 was a Boeing 767-223ER. Clearly not a small airplane.
Back in the movie, United 93 has reached its cruising altitude. Meanwhile, at the FAA, Ben Sliney is still trying to make sense of what he just saw on CNN when the camera cuts to New York’s air traffic controllers.
They’re looking for United 175, which has also gone off the radar when one of the guys spots it in the sky. He points, there it is! Wait, it’s flying right toward the smoke … why is it flying so low?
Then, a stunned silence …
Do you remember that communication from United 175 about American 11? That was at 8:42. Four minutes later, American 11 crashed into the North Tower.
We don’t know the exact timing, but right about that time, the five hijackers on board did the exact same thing as on American 11 — they did that on United 175 as they forced their way into the cockpit, overpowered the pilot and took over the controls with one of their own becoming the new pilot.
Less than a minute after American 11 hit the North Tower, United 175’s transponder code changed as it started to change direction toward New York City.
That wasn’t noticed, though, because at the New York Control Center, the same controller happened to be assigned to both American 11 and United 175. Since he knew American 11 was hijacked, that was the focus. He simply didn’t notice the transponder code changes for United 175 until about 8:51.
At that point, they tried to reach out to United 175. There was no response.
After repeated attempts to contact United 175 failed, at 8:53, the controller started to raise the alarm that there might be another hijacking.
At 9:00 AM, one of the passengers on United 175 made a phone call to his dad.
“It’s getting bad, Dad. A stewardess was stabbed. They seem to have knives and Mace. They said they have a bomb.
“Passengers are throwing up and getting sick. The plane is making jerky movements. I don’t think the pilot is flying the plane. I think we are going down. I think they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building. Don’t worry, Dad. If it happens, it’ll be very fast. My God, my God.”
The call got cut off.
At 9:02, United 93 reached its cruising altitude. Just like the movie shows.
One minute later, at 9:03 AM, United 175 crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Because of the crash from American 11 that had hit the North Tower 17 minutes earlier, there were several cameras facing the World Trade Center. That’s why we have so much footage of the second plane hitting the South Tower.
As a little side note, some of the only known footage of the initial impact of the first plane into the North Tower came from a documentary film maker named Jules Naudet. He was filming a story on New York firefighters. In the footage, we can see a firefighter on screen. There’s the sound of a plane overhead that catches his attention, causing the firefighter to look up. Then, the camera does the same and manages to find the plane just in time to see it hit the tower and burst into flame.
Back in the movie, we’re back on board United 93 as the hijackers start to get antsy. Ahmed al-Nami gets up and goes to the restroom. When he comes back, he stops by Ziad Jarrah.
“We have to do this now!” he says.
But, Jarrah orders him back to his seat. “I’ll let you know when the time is right,” he says.
Right now, it’s a good time to point something out about the movie. While we didn’t see inside the airplane for American 11 or United 175, we do get to see inside United 93. But the truth is, we don’t really know what happened on United 93.
Sure, there’s the flight recorder. The full audio recording has never been publicly released, even though transcripts have. But, there’s a lot you can’t tell from transcripts. Especially since the movie was released on April 28th, 2006.
It was only 16 days before the movie’s public release that the government released the transcripts from the cockpit voice recording. So, the filmmakers didn’t have that to work from. Although, they did have access to many of the victim’s loved ones who had been granted access to listen to the recording.
And, sadly, as I’m sure you already know, it’s not like we have any eye witnesses to tell the tale. So, everything we see in the movie happening on United 93 after it left the gate in Newark is really nothing more than an educated guess at how things might have gone.
For example, in the movie, we see a message come through to the pilots. We see the two pilots, Captain Jason Dahl and First Officer LeRoy Homer read the message.
The message says, “Your wife called. Wanted to make sure you’re ok.”
If you pause the movie on the screen, you’ll get some more information. The contact on the screen says it’s Ed Ballinger from United Airlines. The time is 9:22.
The movie doesn’t really mention what the messaging system is called, but we know it’s the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS.
We also know that message was sent through ACARS. What we don’t know that the movie shows is how LeRoy reacted to it. It’d make sense to have it be something like what we saw in the movie, shrugging it off — but we just don’t know.
We see another message come through in the movie. This time, the message says, “Beware any cockpit intrusion—Two a/c [aircraft] hit World Trade Center.”
As the movie shows, this message must’ve caused some surprise. Is that true? What sort of aircraft? What does that have to do with a cockpit intrusion?
There’s a lot of questions there, so in the movie we see Captain Dahl ask for confirmation.
And that’s true.
One thing that American Airlines never did was to send any cockpit warnings through ACARS to their pilots. United, on the other hand, did. It wasn’t something they ordered across the board, but rather it was something that a single person, flight dispatcher Ed Ballinger, took on himself to do. He took the initiative to transmit the message we saw to 16 flights.
One of them was, as the movie shows, United 93. Although the timing was a little off. According to the official 9/11 Commission Report, Ed started transmitting his warning message at 9:19. The one that got transmitted to United 93 happened at 9:23, not 9:22 like the movie shows.
It was received in the cockpit at 9:24.
But hey, that’s pretty close.
At 9:26 AM, Captain Jason Dahl responded to Ed’s message asking for confirmation, just like the movie shows. His message said simply, “Ed, confirm latest mssg plz—Jason.”
Two minutes later, the hijackers attacked.
Before we see this happen, though, let’s hop back into the movie because there’s an important plot point that gets mentioned. Two, actually.
The first happens when we see conversations at NEADS. One of the guys briefly mentions they’ve lost another airplane, American 77 out of Dulles.
This is a minor mention here, but it’s also true.
American Airlines flight 77 was one of the four airplanes hijacked on September 11th. The movie doesn’t really focus much on this one, which is why we haven’t talked about it in this episode yet.
To learn a little more about this flight, we’ll have to go back in time a little bit to 8:10 AM. That’s when Flight 77 was scheduled to take off from Washington Dulles bound for Los Angeles.
It was a Boeing 757 with 58 passengers. Due to congestion at the airport, it ended up leaving a little late … at 8:20. By the time 8:46 rolled around, it had reached cruising altitude.
The last normal communication with American 77 was at 8:51 AM. We don’t know exactly when the hijacking began, but investigators estimate it was somewhere between 8:51 and 8:54.
That estimate came because of the communication at 8:51 indicating everything was alright, and at 8:54, the airplane started to deviate from its flightpath, heading south.
There were phone calls from the flight, which helped investigators afterward piece together some of the clues. There were five hijackers that passengers reported from their calls to have knives or box cutters.
The passengers were forced to the rear of the airplane and, like many of the others, passengers mentioned the hijackers saying they had a bomb and were using Mace.
At 8:56, the airplane’s transponder was turned off and air traffic control lost it on the radar.
Four minutes later, Gerard Arpey, the Executive Vice President of American Airlines found out about the situation with American 77 and, after already knowing about American 11, he made the call to stop all American flights in the northeast region of the United States. Basically, if a plane is on the ground, it’s staying there.
That was about three minutes before United 175 hit the South Tower. When that happened, at first, they thought maybe it was American 77. But then, American Airlines found out that United was missing an airplane, too. That’s the aircraft that hit the South Tower, not American 77.
So, Arpey made the call to expand the grounding of all American flights across the nation.
At 9:29 AM, one minute after Captain Dahl on United 93 asked for confirmation of the message he saw about the two aircraft hitting the Trade Center, American 77’s autopilot was disengaged by the hijacker and it started to descend at a high rate of speed about 38 miles west of the Pentagon.
Back in the movie, we see the hijackers begin their attack on United 93. This happens when Saeed al-Ghamdi walk up to one of the flight attendants. Putting a knife to her throat, he yells, “Allah Akbar!”
In the back of business class, Haznawi pulls out a knife. Echoing Ghamdi’s words, he stabs the guy in front of him. Blood starts pouring out, and chaos ensues.
We didn’t really talk about this before, but earlier in the movie we saw Haznawi go into the bathroom and put together a bomb made out of wires, clay and a battery. If that doesn’t sound like a real bomb to you that’s because, at least according to the movie, it’s not. It’s a fake, but it’s enough to scare the passengers into not trying to fight back.
And the truth is, well, we just don’t know. We’ve already learned about multiple reports of people calling from the other airplanes saying that the hijackers had a bomb. Or, at least, they said they had a bomb. Was it a real bomb?
That part we don’t know for sure. It’d seem across the board, the hijackers were just trying to do whatever they could to buy time while they piloted the planes to their doom.
To get a better idea of what we do know about how this all began, here’s the relevant section from the official 9/11 Commission Report:
The hijackers attacked at 9:28. While traveling 35,000 feet above eastern Ohio, United 93 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!”
One thing we don’t know is why the hijackers on United 93 waited for so long. On American 11, the hijackers waited just 15 minutes before taking over the cockpit. On United 175, about 30 minutes. American 77 was hijacked in less than 35 minutes.
As for United 93, for some reason it took 46 minutes for the hijackers to begin their assault. We don’t know why, and according to the official report coming out of the investigation, there’s nothing to indicate the flight was anything but normal in those first 46 minutes.
At 9:28 AM, First Officer LeRoy Homer was heard by ground control screaming, “Mayday! Mayday!”
Here’s the actual recording of that call:
Cleveland’s air traffic control was nearby and tried to reply, “Somebody call Cleveland?”
Nothing … then, 33 seconds later, LeRoy’s voice came across the radio again. This time, he was screaming both “Mayday!” and “Get out of here! Get out of here!”
United 93 dropped 685 feet as the pilots were attacked and before Ziad Jarrah took control of the plane.
Back in the movie, we see the four hijackers take control of the cockpit fairly quickly. When they do, they kill both pilots, Captain Jason Dahl and LeRoy Homer. Then, they capture one of the flight attendants and keep her in the cockpit for a short period of time.
Unfortunately, we don’t know the fates of Captain Dahl and First Officer Homer. However, it’s not likely that they were killed right away like the movie shows because their voices were heard on the voice recorder.
Instead, investigators assume LeRoy was knocked unconscious and removed from the cockpit while Captain Dahl was injured, but stayed in the cockpit with Jarrah.
We know this because he could be heard in the background moaning on the cockpit’s voice recorder. It’d seem even while being injured, Jason was trying to mess with the controls to stop Jarrah. Each time, Jarrah would say something to Jason in English, then talk to the hijackers in Arabic.
One thing Captain Dahl did before he was injured, though, was crucial — he switched the microphones for the pilots to transmit to the radio. So, when the pilots thought they were transmitting to the passengers in the cabin, they were actually talking to air traffic control.
At 9:31 AM, Ziad Jarrah made this announcement to the passengers — it was picked up by air traffic control.
Now, I’ll admit that recording is a bit hard to understand. According to the 9/11 Commission, this is what Jarrah was saying:
Ladies and gentlemen: here the captain. Please sit down, keep remaining seating. We have a bomb on board. So sit.
Now that you know what he was saying, here’s the recording one more time.
Back in the movie, we’re at NEADS as the military is still trying to figure out why the fighters aren’t in the right place. Then, they see something on one of their screens — CNN is reporting smoke at the Pentagon.
There’s stunned silence. The movie doesn’t mention timing, but that report was one coming just minutes after American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 AM.
Back on board United 93, two minutes after American 77 crashed into the Pentagon, Ziad Jarrah made one more announcement to the passengers:
And again, that’s tough to know what he’s saying, so here’s the transcript given by the 9/11 Commission later:
Here’s the captain: I would like to tell you all to remain seated. We have a bomb aboard, and we are going back to the airport, and we have our demands. So please remain quiet.
Knowing what he’s saying, maybe you can make it out better the second time … so here’s Jarrah’s announcement one more time.
Back in the movie, after American 77 crashed into the Pentagon, we see Ben Sliney react to it by doing something unprecedented. He issued an order to land every single plane. Nothing in the air.
According to the movie, that’s a process of landing over 4,200 airplanes as soon as possible — no matter the destination.
And that’s true.
Remember, this was Ben Sliney’s first day on the job. At 9:42 AM, the FAA Command Center learned about the crash at the Pentagon. That’s when Ben Sliney made the order to land every plane.
Although, it’s worth pointing out that some other people have made the claim that they’re the one to make the call.
People like Richard Clarke, the National Security Council’s antiterrorism director and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.
They might’ve made similar decisions around the same time, but it was Ben Sliney’s order that was the one to make it happen.
According to the official 9/11 Report, there were somewhere around 4,500 airplanes in the air at the time. Landing them was no small task by any means. And, despite the tall order, every one of those airplanes landed without incident.
In the movie, as we’re on United 93, the passengers initially seem to think if they go along with the hijackers they’ll go back to the airport. A ransom will be demanded, and it’ll be a horrifying experience, but no one expects to die. Do what you’re told, and you’ll survive.
Then, a man named Thomas Burnett calls his wife. That’s when the passengers first hear about the other attacks. His wife mentions the two planes that hit the Trade Center. Then, more passengers are on the phone and they find out about the Pentagon.
That’s when the passengers start to realize they might not get out of this alive if they sit back and do what they’re told. Maybe the only way to survive is to take action.
Thomas Burnett is played by Christian Clemenson in the movie, by the way.
That’s true, although the movie’s timeline is a little off.
The first call from Tom Burnett to his wife happened at 9:30 AM. That’s seven minutes before the Pentagon was struck, and about a minute before Jarrah’s first announcement to the passengers.
Tom relayed information to his wife about what was happening, that a passenger had been stabbed and that he thought the bomb the hijackers claimed to have was a fake.
When Tom’s wife told him about the attack on the World Trade Center he said noticed the hijackers, “talking about crashing this plane … Oh, my God! It’s a suicide mission!”
During his last call with his wife, Tom said, “Don’t worry … we’re going to do something.”
In the movie, we see more calls from passengers.
“Hi, mom it’s me. I’m on the airplane and it’s been hijacked. I’m just calling to tell you I love you … and goodbye.”
The heartbreaking kind.
This is true. In all, 26 phone calls were made from the airphones on United 93. We don’t know how many were made from mobile phones.
Most of these calls were either to emergency services of some sort, to loved ones or to leave a message on an answering machine one last time.
Some have speculated that if the hijackers hadn’t taken so long to take over the plane, perhaps those phone calls would’ve happened sooner, before or during the other attacks. Meaning, those calls might not have warned the passengers about the attacks and United 93’s fate might’ve been very different.
In the movie, we see how the passengers organize their fight back. Just before beginning their attack on the hijackers, we see David Alan Basche’s version of Todd Beamer whisper, “You guys, what are we waiting for? Come on, let’s roll, come on, let’s go already.”
Todd Beamer was a real passenger on United 93, and the phrase “let’s roll” is something that has turned into a sort of a rallying cry for those wanting to honor the memories of those who lost their lives.
Although that brief phrase is something Todd really said, it didn’t happen like we saw in the movie. You see, it happened when Todd placed his own call on the airphone. He didn’t want to call his wife and make her worried, so instead he chose to call the GTE-Verizon switchboard.
The agent who answered was soon overwhelmed with the call, and it was passed to a supervisor named Lisa Jefferson.
They talked back and forth for a short while, with Todd letting Lisa know what they planned on doing. The passengers along with some of the crew were planning on jumping on the hijackers, and either regaining control of the airplane or flying it into the ground so they couldn’t finish their mission.
Todd told Lisa, “If I don’t make it, please call my family and let them know how much I love them.”
Todd told Lisa about his family. He had two boys. His wife was pregnant. Then, he said, “Oh, God!”
After a brief moment, he said, “Lisa.”
On the other end of the line, Lisa perked up at this. You see, she had never told Todd her first name. She’d introduced herself as Mrs. Jefferson. But, she replied to Lisa, of course — that’s her name. She said, “Yes?”
Todd paused for a moment. “Oh, that’s my wife’s name.”
“Oh, that’s my name, too, Todd,” Lisa told him.
Then, Todd asked Lisa to again to call his family in case he didn’t make it. She agreed.
In the background, she could hear some muffled voices of the other passengers or crew. Then, Todd’s voice replied to whatever they said, “Are you ready? Okay. Let’s roll.”
Those are the last words Todd Beamer said to Lisa Jefferson. Todd’s own wife, also named Lisa, would later write a book called, Let’s Roll!: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage that’s all about Todd’s life and her dealing with the grief after the events on September 11th.
Oh, and if you’ll notice from what we’ve learned so far, all the other aircraft hijacked on September 11th had five hijackers. United 93 had four. According to the official 9/11 Commission Report: The operative likely intended to round out the team for this flight, Mohamed al-Kahtani, had been refused entry by a suspicious immigration inspector at Florida’s Orlando International Airport in August.
So, that’s why United 93 had four hijackers compared to the three other planes with five each. It’s also worth pointing out that many of the passengers who phoned from United 93 mentioned only three hijackers. Investigators assumed that’s because Ziad Jarrah, the pilot, probably stayed in the cockpit the whole time. So, the passengers only noticed three, even though there was a fourth.
Going back to the movie, after the passengers begin their attack, the plane starts rocking from side to side. Ziad Jarrah is doing this in an attempt to stop the passengers from breaking into the cockpit.
But, they do. They overwhelm the hijackers, break into the cockpit and manage to overwhelm Jarrah.
As they start fighting for control of the yoke, Jarrah yells, “Allah Akbar!” one more time. There’s a vicious fight. We can see the controls on the plane indicate that it’s starting to roll upside-down.
Outside the window, there’s a green field. It gets closer and closer. Then, black. Silence.
As I mentioned before, a lot of what actually happened on United 93 is left open for speculation. We don’t really know for sure. We’re left trying to piece together the puzzle from the clues we do have, like Lisa Jefferson’s conversation with Todd Beamer.
Here’s the official account of what happened from the 9/11 Commission Report:
At 9:57, the passenger assault began. 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.”
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.
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.
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 all 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 cockpit, “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 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 overwhelming 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 counter-attack 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.
Jarrah’s objective was to crash his airliner into symbols of the American Republic, the Capitol or the White House. He was defeated by the alerted, unarmed passengers of United 93.
That speed of 580 mph, by the way, is about 933 km/h.
There were two men who happened to be near the field and saw the airplane. One of them, Eric Peterson, described what he saw in a news report, “When the plane came through here, I could see the wingtips were vertical. I could see the roof of the plane and the tops of the wings,” he said.
Then gesturing to the location of the crash site, he continued, “It was going upside down and all at once it made the 45-degree angle and it went right down where that big tree is, right where my finger is pointing.”
In the end, there were four planes hijacked that September morning.
American Airlines Flight 11 was the first to crash into North Tower of the World Trade Center, taking with it the lives of all 92 people on board. That’s 76 passengers, 11 crew members and five hijackers.
An estimated 1,600 other people were killed in the World Trade Center and the rescue workers trying to help.
United Airlines Flight 175 was the second to crash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Everyone on board died. That’d be 65 people total, or 51 passengers, nine crew and five hijackers.
Another 900 or so people, including rescue workers, were estimated to be killed in the South Tower.
There’s a total of 189 fatalities were associated with American Airlines Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon. That’s including the 64 people on the plane, made up of 53 passengers, six crew and five hijackers.
Another 125 people in the Pentagon were killed.
Thanks to the heroics of the people on board United 93, their airplane caused the least fatalities. Unfortunately, though, those heroics cost all 44 people on board their lives. That’s 33 passengers, seven crew members and four hijackers.
One of those crew members we learned about was Captain Jason Dahl. He was the pilot of United 93.
He never got to talk to his wife, Sandy, before he was killed. But, if he did, I’m sure it’d be filled with many of the same sentiments as those who did call loved ones. A lot of, “I love you” and “goodbye” … but, I’d like to think there might’ve been something else in there.
Maybe something about their fifth wedding anniversary on September 13th.
KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES
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- United 93 (2006) – IMDb
- United 93 (2006) – Plot Summary – IMDb
- United 93 Movie True Story – Flight 93 Passenger Photos – Paul Greengrass, Director
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