This morning, I had the opportunity to attend the retiring of a faded, wind-battered US flag. When it was unfurled to be saluted one last time, I couldn’t help thinking of what day it is today and about all the people twenty years ago who went out to do their jobs, many for one last time. Some knew they had a dangerous job to do that day. Rick Rescorla, a Cornish Vietnam vet and Morgan Stanley security officer in the World Trade Center, had drilled the employees under his charge for emergency evacuations, anticipating the possibility of a terrorist attack. Thanks to him, many of those employees survived the attacks, despite being near the top of the building. Some of Rescorla’s last known words were, “As soon as I make sure everyone else is out.” He was last seeing running up the stairs one last time.
Many other people did not anticipate what that day would bring, like those on United flight 93. It’s obvious from reading the words of Todd Beamer in his last known conversation (below) that he did not want to die. I think it would be fair to say it scared him. But he was willing to do the job before him, his family in the forefront of his mind, probably hoping it would end well while knowing it likely would not. He completed his task on September 11 over an empty Pennsylvania field. He stood up for himself, his family, and the community of strangers who make up his country one last time.
For many others, though, the heroic work and the struggles went on for weeks and even years after that day, sorting through rubble or misinformation or lingering trauma. They got up each morning knowing they had to face it again – one last time over and over. I’m sure there were days they didn’t want to, but their fight wasn’t over. Like the worn flag, they were there day after day, collecting battle scars visible or invisible. I would guess that those who met their one last time on September 11th had similarly been there for the daily grind, facing the daily battles they believed worth the struggle, however imperfectly, until that fight was a part of them.
That’s what I hope I (and we) never forget – that even though our nation and the world have problems, we can be brave enough to face them, whether it’s the rare “one last time” or the slower but equally as heroic step by step, day by day fight for something better, something worthwhile.
*Transcript of Todd Beamer’s last phone call – I wasn’t able to verifty that this is authentic, but it matches all the information I’m able to find about his final conversation. Also, I don’t who if anyone owns the rights to this; please let me know if this is a copyright infringement, and I will paraphrase instead.
Todd: Hello… Operator…listen to me…I can’t speak very loud. – This is an emergency. I’m a passenger on a United flight to San Francisco… We have a situation here…Our plane has been hijacked…can you understand me?
Lisa: (exhaling a deep breath to herself) I understand… Can the hijackers see you talking on the phone?
Lisa: Can you tell me how many hijackers are on the plane?
Todd: There are three that we know of.
Lisa: Can you see any weapons? What kind of weapons do they have?
Todd: Yes… they don’t have guns… they have knives – they took over the plane with knives.
Lisa: Do you mean…like steak knives?
Todd: No, these are razor knives…like box cutters.
Lisa: Can you tell what country these people are from?
Todd: No… I don’t know. They sound like they’re from the Mid-east.
Lisa: Have they said what they want?
Todd: Someone announced from the cockpit that there was a bomb on board. He said he was the captain and to stay in our seats and stay quiet.He said that they were meeting these men’s demands and returning to the airport… It was very broken English, and… I’m telling you… it sounded fake!
Lisa: Ok sir, please give me your name.
Todd: My name is Todd Beamer.
Lisa: Ok Todd… my name is Lisa… Do you know your flight number? If you can’t remember, it’s on your ticket.
Todd: It’s United Flight 93.
Lisa: Now Todd, can you try to tell me exactly what happened?
Todd: Two of the hijackers were sitting in first class near the cockpit. A third one was sitting near the back of the coach section. The two up. front got into the cockpit somehow; there was shouting. The third hijacker said he had a bomb. It looks like a bomb. He’s got it tied to his waist with a red belt of some kind.
Lisa: So is the door to the cockpit open?
Todd: No, the hijackers shut it behind them.
Lisa: Has anyone been injured?
Todd: Yes, they… they killed one passenger sitting in first class. There’s been lots of shouting. We don’t know if the pilots are dead or alive. A flight attendant told me that the pilot and copilot had been forced from the cockpit and may have been wounded.
Lisa: Where is the 3rd hijacker now Todd?
Todd: He’s near the back of the plane. They forced most of the passengers into first class. There are fourteen of us here in the back. Five are flight attendants. He hasn’t noticed that I slipped into this pantry to get the phone. The guy with the bomb ordered us to sit on the floor in the rear of the plane… Oh Jesus… Help!
Lisa: Todd… are you ok? Tell me what’s happening!
Todd: Hello… We’re going down… I think we’re going to crash… Wait – wait a minute. No, we’re leveling off… we’re ok. I think we may be turning around… That’s it – we changed directions. Do you hear me… we’re flying east again.
Lisa: Ok Todd… What’s going on with the other passengers?
Todd: Everyone is… really scared. A few passengers with cell phones have made calls to relatives. A guy, Jeremy, was talking to his wife just before the hijacking started. She told him that hijackers had crashed two planes into the World Trade Center… Lisa is that true??
Lisa: Todd… I have to tell you the truth… it’s very bad. The World Trade Center is gone. Both of the towers have been destroyed.
Todd: Oh God —help us!
Lisa: A third plane was taken over by terrorists. It crashed into the Pentagon in Washington DC. Our country is under attack… and I’m afraid that your plane may be part of their plan.
Todd: Oh dear God. Dear God… Lisa, will you do something for me?
Lisa: I’ll try… if I can… Yes.
Todd: I want you to call my wife and my kids for me and tell them what’s happened. Promise me you’ll call.
Lisa: I promise – I’ll call.
Todd: Our home number is __________… You have the same name as my wife… Lisa… We’ve been married for 10 years. She’s pregnant with our 3rd child. Tell her that I love her… (choking up)…I’ll always love her…(clearing throat) We have two boys. David, he’s 3 and Andrew, he’s 1…Tell them…(choking) tell them that their daddy loves them and that he is so proud of them. (clearing throat again) Our baby is due January 12th…I saw an ultra sound…it was great…we still don’t know if it’s a girl or a boy…Lisa?
Lisa: (barely able to speak) I’ll tell them, I promise Todd.
Todd: I’m going back to the group—if I can get back I will…
Lisa: Todd, leave this line open…are you still there?…
Lisa: (dials the phone.) Hello, FBI, my name is Lisa Jefferson, I’m a telephone supervisor for GTE. I need to report a terrorist hijacking of a United Airlines Flight 93…Yes I’ll hold.
Goodwin: Hello, this is Agent Goodwin.. I understand you have a hijacking situation?
Lisa: Yes sir, I’ve been talking with a passenger, a Todd Beamer, on Flight 93 who managed to get to an air phone unnoticed.
Goodwin: Where did this flight originate, and what was its destination?
Lisa: The flight left Newark New Jersey at 8 A.M. departing for San Francisco. The hijackers took over the plane shortly after takeoff, and several minutes later the plane changed course – it is now flying east.
Goodwin: Ms. Jefferson…I need to talk to someone aboard that plane. Can you get me thru to the planes phone?Lisa: I still have that line open sir, I can patch you through on a conference call…hold a mo-
Todd: Hello Lisa, Lisa are you there?
Lisa: Yes, I’m here. Todd, I made a call to the FBI, Agent Goodwin is on the line and will be talking to you as well.
Todd: The others all know that this isn’t your normal hijacking. Jeremy called his wife again on his cell phone. She told him more about the World Trade Center and all.
Goodwin: Hello Todd. This is Agent Goodwin with the FBI. We have been monitoring your flight. Your plane is on a course for Washington, DC. These terrorists sent two planes into the World Trade Center and one plane into the Pentagon. Our best guess is that they plan to fly your plane into either the White House or the United States Capital Building.
Todd: I understand…hold on…I’ll…I’ll be back..
Lisa: Mr. Goodwin, how much time do they have before they get to Washington?
Goodwin: Not long ma’am. They changed course over Cleveland; they’re approaching Pittsburgh now. Washington may be twenty minutes away.
Todd: (breathing a little heavier) The plane seems to be changing directions just a little. It’s getting pretty rough up here. The plane is flying real erratic…We’re not going to make it out of here. Listen to me…I want you to hear this…I have talked with the others…we have decided we would not be pawns in these hijackers suicidal plot.
Lisa: Todd, what are you going to do?
Todd: We’ve hatched a plan. Four of us are going to rush the hijacker with the bomb. After we take him out, we’ll break into the cockpit. A stewardess is getting some boiling water to throw on the hijackers at the controls. We’ll get them…and we’ll take them out. Lisa… will you do one last thing for me?
Lisa: Yes… What is it?
Todd: Would you pray with me?
They pray: Our father which art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, And forgive us our trespasses As we forgive our trespassers, And lead us not into temptation But deliver us from evil For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory Forever…Amen. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…He makes me to lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside the still waters, He restores my soul, He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.
Todd: (softer) God help me…Jesus help me…(clears throat and louder) Are you guys ready?… Let’s Roll!