Nation is still struggling to learn the lessons of Sept. 11

Anniversary: Discovery Channel film honors the heroes of Flight 93, but its title risks oversimplifying the hijackings of four years ago.

September 11, 2005|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has been overshadowed by the Hurricane Katrina disaster, but television viewers will be reminded tonight of how much the catastrophes share, in at least one respect: In both, civilians were initially left to fend for themselves as officials struggled to grasp what was unfolding.

The Flight That Fought Back is a Discovery Channel docudrama about the heroic resistance of the hijackers aboard Flight 93. It reminds us of something else as well, though -- the ways in which the context for such civilian heroism can sometimes be lost in our search for an uplifting aspect of an otherwise catastrophic event.

The 90-minute film, which airs at 9 p.m., offers a compelling picture of what may have occurred on United Airlines Flight 93 bound from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco. Some of the 40 passengers and crew on board stormed the cabin and brought the plane down in Somerset County, Pa., before it could be crashed into the White House or Capitol. The film honors their courage without undue sensationalizing.

If only, however, the film's creators had been as considerate of other victims of 9/11 -- and of the historical record -- in naming the film. The Flight That Fought Back is, on its face, an accurate descriptor of Flight 93. But implicit in it is a misplaced slight against the passengers of the other three planes hijacked that day.

The title draws attention to the fact that passengers on the other flights apparently didn't fight back as they were being flown toward their deaths and further destruction below. It may seem petty to take issue with a movie's title, particularly when the title's lack of nuance is partly made up for in the film itself and when the producers no doubt intended no slight. But the problem with this title reflects a broader muddiness in the way the country has recalled 9/11 and reacted to it.

Passengers on Flight 93 decided to "fight back" because the flight included some truly heroic and selfless men and women. But, they also fought back because -- thanks to cell phones and the chronology of that morning -- they knew something that passengers on the other planes probably didn't know: The 9/11 hijackers intended to crash the planes into high-profile buildings filled with thousands of people.

It's easy to forget now how much the world shifted that morning -- not only in the way this country views itself and its vulnerability, but, more specifically, also in the way we view perils on airlines. Very few, aside from author Tom Clancy and a handful of intelligence experts, had conceived of hijackers taking control of planes to fly them into buildings, rather than use them to reroute flights, make threats and achieve demands. That is why the standard protocol for dealing with hijackers remained the one attempt to maintain calm and land the plane as quickly as possible.

It was part of the shock of that morning that the most dreadful potential of a hijacked plane was revealed to us, which seemed obvious in retrospect. But it was far from obvious to those first confronted by the plot, as the day's record shows in painful terms.

When air traffic controllers saw Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles veering off course toward New York, they assumed the hijackers were taking it to Kennedy Airport, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. It was only in the last moments that a flight attendant speaking by phone with an airline manager realized with horror that this was not the case: "We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low...Oh, my God, we are way too low," she said, as the phone call ended, just before the plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

At least some passengers on the next plane to crash, Flight 175, may have had an inkling of the hijackers' intentions: the 9/11 Commission reports that one passenger left a phone message for his wife at 8:59 a.m. saying that some passengers were thinking about storming the cockpit. But only four minutes later, the flight crashed into the South Tower.

On Flight 77, from Washington to Los Angeles, a passenger calling her husband after the hijacking was informed of what had happened in New York. But if there was talk of resisting, there was only so much time to act on it -- about a dozen minutes later, the plane crashed into the Pentagon.

The circumstances on Flight 93 were different, as the film's script points out but does not emphasize. At least five passengers learned in phone calls after the plane's hijacking what had happened with the other planes. Those passengers had more time to digest the information, since the plane had traveled further west than the other three before it was hijacked. It was in the air for more than half an hour between the hijacking and its crash in Shanksville, Pa., where it still had 20 minutes to go to Washington.

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