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Chaos in Flight 93's Cockpit

Jurors in Moussaoui's sentencing trial hear the pilots' anguished pleas, passengers fighting back -- and hijackers' cries of `Allah is the greatest!'

April 13, 2006|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The government completed its case against Zacarias Moussaoui on Wednesday with its single most chilling piece of evidence -- a tape from the cockpit of Flight 93 that recorded the terrorists overwhelming the pilots on Sept. 11, 2001, slashing their throats and praising Allah before crashing the jet into a Pennsylvania field.

The recording, more than 31 minutes of terror, begins at 9:31 a.m. with terrorists forcing the two pilots at knifepoint to give up control of the aircraft. Apparently dragged outside the cockpit onto the flight deck, the pilots can be heard begging for their lives. "I don't want to die!" one shouts.

Within two minutes, the pilots dead or dying, one of the hijackers proclaims, "Everything is fine. I finished."

For the next 20 minutes, the plane, originally headed west to San Francisco, turns east on a flight path toward Washington and the U.S. Capitol.

Two minutes after 10, passengers seem to be breaking through the cockpit door, fighting with the hijackers in a futile effort to take back the controls. "Go! Go!" they encourage one another. "Move! Move!" But the terrorists have flipped the plane upside down. They spin it downward.

In its final plunge, the hijackers shout over and over: "Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest!"

The tape ends.

The alternately frantic, pleading and brutal voices from Flight 93, heard by the public for the first time, made for an emotionally draining morning of testimony as prosecutors sought the death penalty for Moussaoui, an Al Qaeda member who has pleaded guilty to terrorism charges.

Prosecutors first showed jurors photos of the cockpit voice recorder. The red-and-white device was cracked but intact, embedded with much of the rest of the plane debris and human body parts along a line of trees near the strip-mining community of Shanksville, Pa.

James Cash, a National Transportation Safety Board official, explained to jurors how a small, open microphone sits in an overhead panel above the captain's seat. It is constantly recording on a solid-state memory loop, he said.

As the cockpit recorder played, the government also displayed a computer image on television monitors throughout the courtroom, synchronized with events on the tape. The images included the plane's altitude measurements and flight path and a small, simulated image of the plane itself, sometimes rocking back and forth when the terrorists jerked on the controls to keep the passengers at bay.

The United Airlines flight had taken off about 50 minutes earlier from Newark, N.J. On board were the two pilots, 33 passengers and five flight attendants. Sitting among them were the man soon to be piloting the jet, Ziad Jarrah, and three so-called muscle hijackers.

By the time they breached the cockpit at about 9:31 a.m., two other hijacked planes had already slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. Near Washington, the Pentagon was about to be hit by a third plane. In the air above eastern Ohio, the death struggle was just beginning.

The first word of trouble was captured by two ground-control recordings that were played for jurors Tuesday.

The pilots screamed "Mayday!" four times, then yelled "Get out of here! Get out of here!"

The cockpit voice recorder picked up from there at 9:31:57 a.m. with the plane apparently under the control of terrorist Jarrah. Speaking to passengers and flight attendants over the plane's intercom system, he tells them in broken English to remain calm.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Jarrah says. "Here the captain. Please sit down; keep remaining seating. We have a bomb on board. So sit."

He is followed by shouts apparently aimed at the pilots as the three muscle hijackers force them onto the floor of the flight deck just outside the cockpit.

"Don't move. Shut up."

"Come on, come.... Sit, sit, sit down."

An air-traffic controller interjects from somewhere on the ground, obviously confused over what he is hearing. "We just -- we didn't get it clear," he says. "Is that United 93 calling?"

In Arabic comes this answer: "Jassim."

"In the name of Allah, the most merciful, the most compassionate."

There is more noise from the flight deck. It is all in English, a mixture of hijackers and the two United pilots.

"No," pleads a pilot. "No, no, no, no."

"Go ahead, lie down. Lie down. Down, down, down."

"Please, please, please."

"Please, please, don't hurt me."

"Oh, God."

There follow more demands. "Down, down, down. Sit down. Shut up."

Then a pilot: "I don't want to die." And from the pilot again, or the other pilot: "I don't want to die. I don't want to die."

The pilots are not heard from again. Instead, in Arabic, someone yells, "That's it. Go back. That's it.... Everything is fine. I finished."

Many of the passengers and flight attendants start reaching for phones. In calls to emergency numbers and loved ones, they report that it appears the pilots' throats have been cut -- that they are dead or gravely wounded on the floor up front.

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