A single decision made in the air over western Pennsylvania turned ordinary people into American heroes.
Good Morning America's hero of the year award goes to the men and women who fought the terrorists on board United Flight 93. "Facing certain death, this brave group overtook the hijackers," ABCNEWS' Charlie Gibson said today. "No one can calculate how many lives they saved by diverting the plane, and no one can measure the courage it required."
It began on the morning of Sept. 11, when a group of 40 strangers did nothing more than get on a plane, United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco. Minutes later, the plane was hijacked by three knife-wielding terrorists.
The passengers chose to give their lives — a sacrifice that became apparent first to their families, then to the world. Eerily, the men who hijacked Flight 93 allowed the passengers to use air phones, which allowed their families to join them in the crucible of their last minutes. Through those last shattering phone calls, officials were able to piece together what happened.
Plans to Fight Back
"There were three guys who had taken over the aircraft and they said they have a bomb," said Alice Hoglan, whose son Mark called her from the plane.
The passengers' loved ones told them of the destruction that the terrorists had already done. The passengers knew their flight was meant to be the fourth in a quartet of suicide attacks. But three passengers told their loved ones that they wouldn't let it happen.
Within minutes of the hijacking, a small group of passengers — Todd Beamer, Jeremy Glick, and Mark Bingham forged a makeshift SWAT team and assembled a breathtaking plan.
Lyzbeth Glick spoke to her husband just before the plane crashed in Pennsylvania.
"He had asked me, 'are they going to crash this plane into the World Trade Center?" Glick said. "And I said, 'I don't think so, you know. It's not there anymore.'"
Lisa Beamer, the wife of Todd Beamer, said that she thinks that the men probably came close to saving their own lives, too.
"I think they succeeded in their mission to save the people on the ground and were this close to saving themselves," she said.
A Diverse Alliance
The passengers decided to fight, to sacrifice their own lives for those of people they did not even know. The mission leaders were a mismatched threesome of strangers who came to symbolize American diversity.
Todd Beamer was a devout Christian and a former high school quarterback. He tried to phone his wife, Lisa, but could only reach the GTE operator, Lisa Jefferson.
"When [hijackers] turned the plane around, that's when he just hollered out, `Oh, Jesus,'" Jefferson said. He also asked her to say "The Lord's Prayer" with him.
"I think he thought, 'OK, I've done what I need to do and now it's time to act,'" Jefferson said.
Jeremy Glick, who was Jewish, was a national judo champion.
"I believe that my husband Jeremy and the other two men that were with him made it into the cockpit and I think that they probably killed the hijackers," his wife, Lyzbeth Glick said.
Mark Bingham, who was gay, played rugby and had just returned from running with the bulls in Spain.
"You can hear screams and commotion," Jefferson said. "You can hear — I could hear the flight attendant next to him screaming. And I could hear men, their voices were raised and there was just a lot of commotion going on."
A Spitfire to the Last
We will never know how many other passengers joined in who couldn't call home. Like Linda Gronlund, a lawyer with a brown belt in karate, William Cashman, a former paratrooper with the 101st airborne and Rich Guadagno, a California law enforcement officer.
Flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw did call her husband.
"She told me that her flight had been hijacked by three guys with knives and that she was in the back of the airplane getting hot water together because they were going to rush them and throw the hot water on them and try to take the airplane over," Phillip Bradshaw said. "My wife was a spitfire. She was very brave."
Jefferson, the operator, remembered the last words from Beamer, one of the hero passengers.
"The line was still open," she said. "He turned from me to speak to someone else. And he said, `Are you ready?' I couldn't hear their response. He said, `OK. Let's roll.' That's the last I heard from Todd Beamer."