Calls from doomed flight on 9/11 show chaos, fear

Moussaoui jurors hear testimony about plane that crashed in Pa.

April 12, 2006|By RICHARD A. SERRANO | RICHARD A. SERRANO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Passengers and flight attendants aboard the hijacked plane that crashed Sept. 11, 2001, in a Pennsylvania field made more than three dozen frantic phone calls depicting chaos and fear aboard United Airlines Flight 93 and a realization by many passengers that they were about to die, according to testimony yesterday in the sentencing trial of Zacarias Moussaoui.

Although the phone calls described plans for battling the hijackers, they suggested a fatalism at odds with the sometimes upbeat story line in books and movies about the effort by a group of passengers to wrest control of the plane from the four terrorists.

The calls also showed that most of the passengers were confused about how many hijackers had commandeered the plane, where they came from or whether they had knives, a bomb or both.

They also learned through the phone calls that two other planes had been flown into the World Trade Center in New York, so they expected that their hijackers "were going to take this one down as well," as one passenger put it.

The calls were summarized in the testimony of Detective Sgt. Ray Guidetti of the New Jersey State Police. Prosecutors said 37 phone calls were made by 13 passengers and flight attendants, most of them using airplane phones.

Prosecutors plan to wrap up their case today by playing the cockpit recording tape that was recovered from the field near Shanksville, Pa., where the plane crashed.

That recording has been played only for relatives of the dead passengers and crew members. When it is played for the Moussaoui jury, it will be the first chance for the public to hear the way some passengers dealt with the hijackers in the cockpit.

The prosecutors played two other tapes from the cockpit that were picked up by ground control. In those tapes, the pilots shouted as hijackers broke into the cockpit.

"Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!" a pilot screamed in the first tape.

In the second tape, 30 seconds later, a pilot shouted: "Mayday! Get out of here! Get out of here!"

At that point, the plane, which was bound from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, had just crossed over Ohio. The hijacker pilot, identified as Ziad Jarrah, turned it back and headed east.

Testimony has indicated that top al-Qaida leaders had planned for that plane to crash into the U.S. Capitol. Instead, the fight ended in a nose-dive into the Pennsylvania field after passengers tried to overcome the terrorists.

Aboard were two pilots, five flight attendants, 33 passengers and the four hijackers.

Guidetti was assigned to a special FBI anti-terrorism task force in Newark, and he methodically led the jury through what law enforcement agencies have pieced together about the last minutes of the flight.

Honor Wainio called her parents. "She realized she was going to die," Guidetti said. "But she had to go because everyone was running toward the cockpit."

Linda Gronlund called her sister and left a voice mail message. "Men with a bomb," she said. She knew the World Trade Center had been attacked and was "afraid the hijackers were going to take this one down as well," Guidetti said.

Mark Bingham made four calls. He reported the plane had been "hijacked by three men with a bomb." Then he sent his love "in case he did not see them again."

Flight attendants also were calling. Sandra Bradshaw speed-dialed a United Airlines office three times.

Bradshaw said the plane was flying erratically and "seemed to be taking a few dives." She was boiling water in the rear of the plane "to throw on one of the hijackers." In another call to her husband, she expressed her love for him and their children. "She knew she was going to die," Guidetti said.

Some tried to fight back, storming the cockpit in a desperate bid to seize control or at least prevent the hijackers from flying the plane into another target.

Passenger Todd Beamer tried to make four calls. The first three did not go through. The fourth was to a telephone operator, who could hear commotion and Beamer shouting, "The plane is going down."

"Are you ready?" someone said in the background.

"Let's roll," someone said, the oft-quoted signal from a passenger who led the effort to retake the plane.

Guidetti was the last witness on a day during which prosecutors presented survivors and witnesses at the Pentagon, where a third plane crashed on Sept. 11.

Moussaoui, 37, pleaded guilty a year ago to conspiring with al-Qaida in the Sept. 11 plot. The jury will decide whether he gets life in prison or is executed.

After Guidetti described the calls from Flight 93, Moussaoui yelled, "Let's roll to victory!"

Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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