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The Nation

Tapes From Flight 93 Prove Heroic Acts, Relatives Say

Tragedy: Unprecedented listening session inspires pride and anger. Family members say federal officials asked them not to reveal specific details.

April 19, 2002|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRINCETON, N.J. — With pride, sadness and anger, families of the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93 listened Thursday to a tape of the hijacked plane's last moments, confirming their belief that their loved ones fought to the finish.

Some emerged saying they had recognized their relatives' voices amid the bedlam that ended the 31-minute cockpit voice recorder tape. The passengers are believed to have prevented a second hijacked plane from crashing into a Washington-area landmark on Sept. 11 by rushing the cockpit.

"These were clearly people who were informed of the unthinkable . . . digested it and acted on it," said Hamilton Peterson, a Washington lawyer whose father, Donald A. Peterson, was killed. "I think it is a message to the world that the American spirit is alive and well. . . . The heroics are manifest."

Martha Burnett O'Brien and Mary Jurgens said they heard their brother's voice. Bay Area businessman Tom Burnett is believed to have been an organizer of the passenger revolt.

Her recognition "is based on 38 years of knowing him," O'Brien said. "My sister and I both straightened up when we heard that voice, and we looked at each other and mouthed, 'That was Tom.' That's what we did. It was good to hear his voice."

She did not reveal what he said. Other family members said federal authorities asked them not to divulge details of the recording.

More than 100 relatives of the 40 passengers and crew members listened in somber silence inside a red brick hotel complex on a warm spring day. (Four hijackers also were aboard the flight.)

Parts of the tape were hard to follow, family members said after the four-hour session.

An aircraft noise like the wind rushing made it difficult to hear. But there were clear sounds of a battle at the end: dishes crashing in the passenger cabin and distinctly American voices rising over the commotion.

The flight from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco had taken off 40 minutes late on Sept. 11, moments before the first attack on New York. After the plane was hijacked over Ohio, passengers called their relatives on cell phones and learned the World Trade Center had been hit by hijacked aircraft. Flight 93 had turned around to the east and was heading for Washington when it crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

"Those 31 minutes do record some heroic actions on the part of our loved ones," said Alice Hoglan of Los Gatos, whose son Mark Bingham is believed to have taken part in the passenger revolt.

"I am extremely proud that Mark Bingham was able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his fellow passengers and fight against these terrorists. It was really powerful, excruciating and disturbing to listen to, but beautiful at the same time. I'm very proud. Very proud."

Federal prosecutors and FBI agents interviewed family members, seeking to bolster their case against Zacarias Moussaoui, who is believed to have been training to become the fifth member of the squad that hijacked Flight 93. Moussaoui is charged with conspiring to kill more than 3,000 people in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"We don't want to screw that case up--we want to nail" Moussaoui, said Tom Burnett Sr., a teacher from Minnesota and father of passenger Tom Burnett. "I was angry on Sept. 11, and I've been angry ever since. When I hear that [tape], it makes me angrier."

In Washington, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said the government is reaching out to the families and wants to "include them in the process of justice." Ashcroft had no comment on the contents of the tape.

Justice Department victim assistance specialists were present at the Marriott hotel, as well as volunteer grief counselors, medical personnel and clergy. The tape was played in a ballroom off-limits to all but the families and others cleared by the government. FBI agents guarded the corridors and entrances.

Some relatives came to the hotel to talk to prosecutors and the FBI but did not stay to hear the tape.

Justice Department officials opened the session by saying they expect jury selection in the Moussaoui trial to begin in September and a trial the following month, family members said. A transcript projected on a large screen helped the families follow the recording.

O'Brien said portions of the tape were very clear, and the transcript enabled her to pinpoint events. Jurgens, her sister, said the passengers' struggle with the hijackers sounded like "this is war."

Paul Britton, a Lutheran minister from Long Island, came to memorialize his sister Marion, a U.S. census manager from New York. "She loved a good story, and she loved a good meal," he said, speaking before the tape was played.

Britton recalled how his sister had taken care of their elderly parents while he was assigned to a congregation in another state. He said Marion had many stories about that time that he will never have the chance to hear. "I am going to tell [the FBI] how I lost a piece of my memory," he said.

"It is another piece of completion," Britton added, "but I don't look for any comfort out of this day."

*

Times staff writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in Washington contributed to this report.

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