I remember many things from when I was five years old — losing teeth, watching “Leave It To Beaver” with my babysitter, giggling as one of my classmates went to the principal’s office for dumping a little carton of chocolate milk on his head. September 11, 2001, is one of the things I can’t. Despite its shock and significance, it’s a memory I just can’t pull.
Vivid, however, is my memory of the first time I hauled my mom’s 9/11 coffee table book out of its dusty nook and saw the picture of the falling man. That’s an image you can’t unsee, and as a youngster whose only concept of the terror attack was that some plane hit some building, that photograph immediately instilled the gravity of what those events meant for the 3,000 people on whose tombstones is engraved September 11, 2001, and the millions more whose lives will never be the same.
I also remember in great detail the time I visited the memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, looking out over the field where Flight 93 went down. I listened through the phones mounted onto the visitors’ center wall to the final words of men and women who should still be speaking today, and I pored over the timeline of events trying to imagine what it would have been like to be aboard the aircraft and to experience the wave of realization that there would be no exit and that my final moments would be spent in horror with strangers.
Those tactile experiences from my youth and adolescence left me with heavy questions. Why would a man jump out the window? I wondered. Why would someone storm the cockpit?
It’s that second scenario, of the plane that didn’t strike the Twin Towers but went down in the middle of an empty field, that I think about most. Now that I’m older and can grasp the circumstances, I better understand why someone would storm the cockpit. The weightier question now is: Would I have?
It’s a question we all should ask. None of the ordinary passengers aboard United Flight 93 on that September morning had any idea they would soon be voting whether to try wrestling their flight away from terrorists, meaning their quick, mid-air decision to do so was one they had made long before they boarded the plane, in their principles and everyday habits.
Men like 32-year-old Todd Beamer — a husband, father of two boys with a baby girl on the way, brother, son, account manager, Sunday school teacher, baseball lover, and Christian. Beamer, who was flying for work, was on the morning flight because he had opted to spend the prior night with his family instead of taking the evening flight.
Beamer and his fellow travelers were only four minutes into their journey from Newark to San Francisco when American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. By the time hijackers had commandeered their aircraft, Flight 175 had already crashed into the South Tower, and Flight 77 was headed for the Pentagon. Any sense that Flight 93’s situation might have a happy ending surely evaporated as soon as its passengers got the news of the other planes.
That didn’t stop Beamer and his fellow brave passengers from deciding to take action, ultimately voting on a plan to storm the cockpit because, like the other three planes, this one would also be headed for a high-profile building in a densely populated area if the terrorists could proceed uninterrupted.
Like others aboard the flight, Beamer tried to call his wife from a credit card payphone on the back of one of the seats, but his call went instead to customer service and ultimately to airphone supervisor Lisa Jefferson, who would later describe him as “a soft-spoken, calm gentleman.” Jefferson talked with Beamer, prayed with him, and later relayed his parting words of love to his wife and children — and his final candid words of bravery to the rest of the world: “Let’s roll.”
“I feel that Todd played a great role,” Jefferson later said of the passengers’ plan to storm the cockpit. “Because when he told the guys, ‘Are you ready?’ — I assume that they were waiting on his cue — then they responded to him. And he said, ‘Okay, let’s roll.’”
What is it that enables a man to look death square in the face and say, “Let’s roll”? How courageous must you be to face your brutal end and, rather than think of yourself, to think of the people still firmly planted on Earth who might be in harm’s way? How does a young, hard-working wife and mother like policewoman-turned-flight attendant CeeCee Lyles dial her husband to say “I love you” and “goodbye” with a calm voice?
As then-Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly said after hearing that Flight 93 had gone down in Pennsylvania: “I think an act of heroism just took place on that plane.”
But heroes aren’t born. They are formed. There’s an obvious contrast in the brave men and women of Flight 93 two decades ago and most Americans today.
The former stared down death and, despite fear, spent their final breaths in service to each other and to Americans they had never met. They clung to their humanity and their freedom in one hand and their faith in the other and bravely forged ahead for the good of others. Their untimely deaths represent thousands of other lives spared, for if the passengers hadn’t taken action, the plane likely would have shredded the U.S. Capitol and everyone inside.
The latter group, the Americans of 2021, compose a culture mired in an unhealthy relationship with death. Here we kill off the weak and innocent and chalk it up to empowerment and choice. We consume death as entertainment and shrug at mid-day murderous carjackings and cities leveled by lethal riots. We tremble and rage at the risk of contracting an endemic virus and demand that others sacrifice for our own comfort.
I might never wrestle Islamic terrorists as I plummet through the sky. But there are questions I must answer — questions you must answer — about death, sacrifice, family and strangers, and the God that Beamer and Lyles served. If we are unwilling to display small acts of valor in our everyday choices or make small sacrifices in our personal relationships, then the answer to Would we storm the cockpit? is a resounding and damning No.
As we near another anniversary of that dark September day, don’t just remember the heroes. Strive to be like them.