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From left to right: Lou Nacke, Jeremy Glick, Mark Bingham, Todd Beamer, Tom Burnett
PAULEY
By
NBC News
updated 9/11/2006 8:03:08 PM ET 2006-09-12T00:03:08

September 11th, 2001 was a day we may never forget. Three passenger planes were turned into guided missiles, thousands were killed, and our world changed forever. And there was that fourth plane that never made its target: United Flight 93.  Just days after we learned about Flight 93, then Dateline co-anchor Jane Pauley sat down with many of the victims' loved ones for an extraordinary first-hand account of what happened based on their phone conversations with those on board. On the fifth anniversary, Pauley again reports on the flight that fought back.

Skies were clear blue that morning as travelers arrived at Newark Airport’s Terminal A.  Passengers at Gate 17 might have been especially pleased to find that United Flight 93, with 182 seats, was mostly empty. With only 37 passengers, there’d be plenty of room to stretch out for the long trip to San Francisco.

And there were some big guys aboard.

Like Mark Bingham, a rugby player—

Alice Hoglan, Mark Bingham's mother:  He is powerful - he’s 6'5.  A big, physically fit guy.

Jeremy Glick was another six-footer, a very big big brother.

Jennifer Glick, Jeremy Glick's sister:  He was like a giant teddy bear. You just fell into his arms and you wanted to stay there forever.

Lou Nacke was a weightlifter: at 5’9, he was 200 lbs. of muscle and had a Superman tattoo on his shoulder.

Amy Nacke, Lou Nacke's wife:  When he was a little boy, he loved Superman.  And he’d actually had a cape on and went through a glass window (laughs), pretending to be Superman.

Boarding the plane, they all looked like ordinary people.  But soon they’d all need to be Supermen and Superwomen.

Most likely, the oldest passenger was the first to arrive that morning.  79-year-old Hilda Marcin was moving cross-country to live with her daughter in California.  She was packed and ready to leave at 4:30 a.m.

There were two couples: Donald and Jean Peterson, and Linda Gronlund and Joseph DeLuca.

Pat Cushing was a nervous flier; she and her sister-in-law, Jane Folger, were going to see the wine country.

As the COO of a medical technology firm, Tom Burnett traveled constantly—so much, he married a flight attendant.

Deena Burnett, Tom Burnett's wife: I had just finished flight-attendant training.  Several of us had, and we were going out to celebrate and my roommate was talking to this man who was sitting there.  And she introduced him to me.  And, of course, it was Tom.

The pilot, Captain Jason Dahl, had something in common with many of his passengers: He hadn’t been scheduled for this flight, but was trying to get in extra hours so he could take time off for his anniversary.

20-year-old Nicole Miller was going home after a spur-of-the-moment weekend with close friend, Ryan Brown, to meet his family back east.

Ryan Brown: We had a great great time.  She was so happy and so excited to see these things and to be in New York, have a chance to visit the family that she hasn’t really met.

Booking at the last minute, she couldn’t get on his flight, but Flight 93 was wide open. 

A toy company manager, Lou Nacke only booked his seat the night before. He had a customer on the coast with an inventory problem and offered to fly out first thing Tuesday morning to fix it.

Dr. Weisberg: He was debating whether to send a subordinate, or—in the end, he said, ‘You know, it’s my responsibility. I’d better go.’

Environmental lawyer Alan Beaven— 48 years old, with a 5-year-old daughter and two grown sons—was racing to California to repair the damage after a settlement deal collapsed.

Lauren Grandcolas was traveling from her grandmother’s funeral, but she had reason to be happy: after years of trying, she was pregnant with her first child and was about to write a book.

Jack Grandcolas, Lauren's husband:  She actually had a publisher interested. It was a book to give women guidance on how they could learn new things in life that would bring them greater self-esteem, courage, and self-confidence.

Her husband, Jack, was still asleep when she called to leave a message just before5 p.m. Calif. time:

Lauren Grandcolas message: Hey, I just want to let you know I’m on the 8:00 instead of the 9:20.

Good news: She got a standby seat on an earlier flight.  Flight 93.

Grandcolas message: So, I get to San Francisco at about 11:00 and I’ll be at the ferry terminal probably a little before 12:00. Okay? I’ll call you then. Bye.

Todd Beamer wasn’t normally one to wait ‘til the last minute to fly out for a same-day company meeting.

Lisa Beamer, Todd Beamer's wife: He and I had just gotten back from Italy Monday afternoon, and he decided he wanted to spend some time with the kids that night and have a little more time before he flew out.  So he decided to try to crunch his travel in the morning.

Jeremy Glick was a brand new father.  His wife, Lyz, had taken their three-month-old baby, Emmy, to her parents’ home while he was away on business.

He was supposed to leave Monday night, but there were problems at the airport: He decided to wait ‘til Tuesday morning.

Lyz Glick, Jeremy's wife:  His flight had been rerouted to Kennedy, he had said, and he didn’t feel like getting in to California at 3 a.m., so he figured he would go home and get a good night’s sleep and just catch the first one out.

Jane Pauley, NBC News:  Do you believe in fate?

Lyz Glick:  I do.

Pauley:  Do you believe your husband was fated to be on that plane?

Lyz Glick:  I do.  I believe that.  I believe Jeremy was meant for a higher purpose.

At 7:55 p.m., one last passenger came rushing down the gangway.  That was Mark Bingham; he’d overslept.  Bingham made a quick call before the plane backed away from the gate to tell the man he’d just started dating, that luckily, he’d just made the flight.

Four other passengers in the first-class cabin had not picked this flight at the last minute.  They’d been casing flights for months.  And their destination was not California.

The plane pulled back from the gate at 8:01, only one minute behind schedule.  At Boston’s Logan Airport, American Flight 11 had already taken off at 7:59, with United Flight 175 close behind.

All according to a carefully-timed plan: four planes, including American Flight 77 departing Washington’s Dulles Airport at 8:20. 

But the terrorists had not planned on a departure delay.  Flight 93 left the gate on time, but due to heavy runway traffic at Newark Airport that morning, it took off 42 minutes late.

That delay would give passengers on Flight 93 the time to realize that this was a suicide mission and the chance to thwart it.

Minutes after takeoff, Claudette Greene got a call.

Claudette Greene:  My sister-in-law Bonnie, Don’s sister, called me, I guess it was just before 9 o’clock, and said, “Is your television on?  You can’t believe what’s going on.”

Greene’s husband Don was flying to California that morning to meet his brothers for a camping trip.  She feared the worst.

Claudette Greene: But I remember feeling enormous relief when I heard American airlines, because I knew he was on United Airlines.  And I sort of put it out of my head.

At that moment aboard United Flight 93, only the four terrorists knew what was about to happen.  But they didn’t know how it would end.

New York City is under attack; lower Manhattan is near panic.

Flight 93 is cruising comfortably at 35,000 feet. Passengers are finishing breakfast, maybe be pulling down window shades against the glare of the morning sun.

Then, just before 9:30 a.m., four young Middle Eastern men leap from their seats in first class. They tie red bandanas around their foreheads. They all carry knives—one had been hidden in a cigarette lighter. One man claims to have a bomb strapped around his waist. Two or more rush the cockpit.

A hijacking has begun.

Within seconds, Cleveland air traffic controllers hear an American voice from inside the cockpit—likely that of Captain Jason Dahl or Co-pilot LeRoy Homer—and sounds of a struggleThe plane suddenly plunges 700 feet.

Aviation consultant and pilot Greg Feith was an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board for 22 years.

Greg Feith, aviation consultant: Anybody coming into the cockpit from behind is basically in a control position, because they have freedom of movement that the flight crew doesn’t have.

Incredibly, amidst this chaos, first class passenger Tom Burnett finds a way to call his wife, Deena.

Deena Burnett: I asked him immediately if he was okay, and he said no. He said “I’m on the airplane, United Flight 93, and it’s been hijacked.” And he said, “Please call the authorities,” and he hung up.

Deena immediately calls 911.

The air traffic controllers in Cleveland don’t know what’s happening, but at 9:32 a.m., they hear a bizarre transmission from Flight 93. It’s a hijacker, apparently trying to address the passengers—but pressing the wrong button; he’stalking to the controllers instead.

"Ladies and gentlemen, here it's the captain. Please sit down. Keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb aboard."

Cleveland repeatedly tries to raise the pilot, but the controllers get no reply, even as they see 93 beginning to climb.

The controllers know something is wrong.  They clear the airspace around the plane. Then they see Flight 93 make a hard left turn, veer sharply off course and turn toward Washington, D.C.

On board Flight 93, the hijackers herd most of the passengers to the back of the plane, where, strangely enough, the passengers and crew start to make phone calls—dozens. So many, in fact, some speculate, the hijackers may have encouraged it to ramp up the terror.

At 9:36 a.m., a flight attendant calls United’s maintenance facility in San Francisco to say the hijackers have killed a flight attendant.

Then at 9:37 a.m. just as American Flight 77 is crashing into the Pentagon, Jeremy Glick calls his wife, Lyz.

Lyz Glick: I asked him if the pilots had been in contact with them to tell them what was going on and he said that no contact had been made by the pilots, it seemed that the men had taken over the plane.

Jane Pauley:  So he was free to talk with you?  Or was he trying to speak to you surreptitiously?

Lyz Glick:  He was free to talk to me.  I was a little bit, I think, surprised by the aura of what was going on the plane.  I was surprised by how calm it seemed in the background...

Pauley:  You didn’t hear—

Lyz Glick:  I didn’t hear any screaming.  I didn’t hear any noises.  I didn’t hear any commotion.

But by now, passengers on the phone with friends and family are hearing about what’s happening on the ground, and the news is spreading across the cabin.  Tom Burnett makes a second call to his wife.

Deena Burnett: He asked me about the World Trade Center. He asked if it was a passenger airline, and I told him I didn’t know. And he said, ‘okay,’ and he hung up again, said that he had to go.

Two minutes later, at 9:39 a.m., Cleveland control picks up another transmission from a hijacker in the cockpit.

Hijacker: Hi, this is the captain. We’d like you all to remain seated. There is a bomb aboard, and we are going to turn back to the airport. And they have our demands so please remain quiet.

At 9:44 a.m. Todd Beamer picks up one of the onboard air phones and dials “0.” He’s connected with GTE supervisor Lisa Jefferson, who told Stone Phillips about the call.

Lisa Jefferson: I asked his name. He told me Todd Beamer. He’s from Cranbury, New Jersey. And at that point his voice went up a little bit because he said, ‘We’re going down. We’re going down. No, wait—we’re coming back up. We’re turning around; we’re going north. We’re going north. At this point, “I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know. I really don’t know. Oh, Jesus, please help us.”

Stone Phillips: Those were all his words?

Jefferson: Yes. Then he told me, he said "In case I don’t make it through this, would you please do me a favor and call my wife and my family and let them know how much I love them." So I told him I would.

Tom Burnett calls Deena a third time.

Deena Burnett: I said, “Tom, they just hit the Pentagon.’ He said, “Okay. Okay. I told him I had called the authorities. He said, ‘We can’t wait for the authorities. We have to do something.'

Imagine that. In less than 30 minutes more than three dozen individuals—complete strangers—have become “We.”

9:45 a.m.: Flight 93 has been in the air for just over an hour, its destination no longer California. The FAA has given the order to clear the skies nationwide: All planes are grounded.

Hijacker Ziad Jarrah, who is at the controls, has turned off the transponder which sends a radar signal with identifying information. But Cleveland Air traffic control is still able to track its erratic path. The White House, Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol are being evacuated.

Passengers know they’re running out of time.

Tom Burnett calls home a fourth and final time.

Deena Burnett: He said, ‘Okay, there’s a group of us and we’re going to do something.’ I said, ‘no.’  I said, ‘Please sit down and be still, be quiet, don’t draw attention to yourself.’ and he said, ‘No.’  He said, ‘If they’re going to drive this plane into the ground,’ he said, ‘we’ve got to do something.’

Americans to the end: Jeremy Glick tells his wife, Lyz they are going to take a vote. There’s a plan, and people willing and able to carry it out.

Lou Nacke: The guy with a “Superman” tattoo on his shoulder could probably back it up.

Mark Bingham once tackled a mugger on a San Francisco street. And that summer, he ran with the bulls in Pamplona.

Japanese student Toshiya Kuge played American football; he was a linebacker.

Richard Guadagno, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manager, was trained in hand-to-hand combat.

And Jeremy Glick wasn’t just some guy in a business suit.

Joan Glick: When he was in college, he was the national collegiate junior judo championship. So he was really strong.

There were strong women, too. Flight attendant CeeCee Lyles was a former cop.

Lorne Lyles: Ceecee was a tough one. Ceecee was a very tough cookie. Even when we play and wrestle around, I know she’s pretty tough. So I would say that Ceecee probably had her hands in her own fate because she always wanted to determine her own fate anyway.

New York Times reporter Jere Longman spent months investigating the Flight 93 story. In his book, “Among the Heroes,” Longman reports that Debby Welsh, the 6 foot-tall senior flight attendant, had overpowered a drunken passenger once, and shoved him into his seat. Passenger Deora Bodley had been captain of her high-school basketball team. And both Lauren Grandcolas and Linda Gronlund were trained emergency medical technicians.

Jere Longman, New York Times reporter: Linda Gronlund had once dislocated her leg, and had set her own kneecap in the driveway while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

Jane Pauley: Among the women, who else would have been known as tough?

Longman: Well, there was Hilda Marcin—once a man tried to snatch her purse, and she beat him over the head with her umbrella. So she wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself.

Neither was 4’6” Colleen Fraser:

Longman: She had red spiked hair. She once commandeered a para-transit bus and drove it down to Washington to browbeat the senators into passing the Americans with disabilities act.

Tom Burnett’s strength was problem solving: it was practically a job description for the COO of a medical technology firm. Working the problem is what he did best, his wife says... and that day was no exception:

Deena Burnett: He was very busy. He was taking down information. He was planning what they were going to do. And he was not interested in reviewing his life or whispering sweet nothings into the telephone, I assure you. He was problem solving, and he was going to take care of it and come on home.

Claudette Greene never heard from her husband at all that morning and she thinks she knows why.

Claudette Greene, Don Greene's wife: I’ve never actually missed the fact that he didn’t call. I think he was busy. I’m convinced he was very busy, he didn’t have time to make the call.

Don Greene may have been the answer to the ultimate question: If the pilot and co-pilot were dead... what would the passengers have done after they overpowered the hijackers?

An executive in the aviation business, Don Greene had thousands of hours in a cockpit as a private pilot. He could fly a plane before he could drive a car.

Claudette Greene: He had the knowledge to fly and land that airplane. If there was any way he could get into the cockpit and take over the airplane, I think he would have tried to do that.

And another passenger, Andrew Garcia, had experience as an air traffic controller with the Air National Guard.

The passengers and crew of Flight 93 had the skills, the training, and a plan to fight back.

The passengers and crew of Flight 93 have been preparing to move and said their goodbyes.

Flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw calls her husband and tells him she is getting scalding water ready to throw at the hijackers. Joseph DeLuca calls his dad; his girlfriend, Linda Gronlund, calls her sister, Elsa Strong. 

Elsa Strong, Joseph DeLuca's sister:  She said—“Hi, Else, this is Lin. I just wanted to tell you how much I love you.”  And she said, “Please tell mom and dad how much I love them.”  And then she got real calm and said, “Now my will is in my safe and my safe is in my closet.  And this is the combination.”  And she just told me the combination of her safe.  And then she just said, “I don’t know if I’m ever gonna get a chance to tell you again in person how much I love you, but I’m really gonna miss you.”  And she said goodbye.

Lauren Grandcolas leaves a second message for her husband, Jack... in a voice so composed, he says she might have been calling from a supermarket:

Lauren Grandcolas' message: “Honey, are you there?  Jack, pick up sweetie.  Okay, well I just wanted to tell you I love you.  We’re having a little problem on the plane.”

Jack Grandcolas, Lauren's husband:  I heard her say, "There’s a little problem on the plane, I’m totally fine, just a little problem, I want you to know how much I love you, know that...."  stopping herself from saying “I’ll call you back" as if she didn’t want to leave a haunting promise.

Grandcolas message: “I’m totally fine, I just love you more than anything, just know that.  And you know, I’m, you know, I’m comfortable and I’m okay... for now.  Just a little problem. So I just love you, please tell my family I love them too.  Bye, honey.”

Grandcolas then hands her phone to the young woman sitting next to her, and tells her to call her family. Elizabeth Wainio, calls her stepmother, Esther Heymann.

Jere Longman, New York Times reporter:  Elizabeth seemed to be speaking calmly, but her breathing was shallow, as if she were hyperventilating. And Esther said, “Elizabeth, I’ve got my arms around you, and I’m holding you, and I love you.’ Trying to calm her.  Elizabeth said, ‘I can feel your arms around me.  And I love you, too.”

Flight attendant CeeCee Lyles had already left a message for her husband, Lorne. A police officer, he’d worked the night shift and was asleep when she called:

CeeCee Lyles message: “Hi baby. Baby - you have to listen to me carefully. I’m on a plane that’s been hijacked. I’m on a plane, I’m calling from the plane. I want to tell you that I love you. I love you. Please tell my children that I love them very much- and I’m so sorry babe. I don’t know what to say- there’s three guys. They’ve hijacked the plane. I’m trying to be calm. We’ve turned around and I’ve heard that there’s planes that have flown into the World Trade Center. I hope to be able to see your face again, baby. I love you, bye.”

When the telephone rings again, this time it wakes him up, and she tells him what’s happening.

Lorne Lyles:  I thought, me just waking up, I thought she was joking, you know?  I said, “Babe, stop joking.”  She said, “No, babe, I’m not joking.  I wouldn’t call you and play like that.”

Marion Britton, a 53-year-old manager for the Census Bureau, calls an old friend, Fred Fiumano plainly terrified.

Fred Fiumano, Marion Britton's friend:  She said, “We’re gonna. They’re gonna kill us, you know, We’re gonna die.’ And I told her, “Don’t worry, they hijacked the plane, they’re gonna take you for a ride, you go to their country, and you come back.  You stay there for vacation.”  You don’t know what to say—what are you gonna say? I kept on saying the same things, ‘Be calm.’  And she was crying and - you know - more or less crying and screaming and yelling.

Lyz Glick is still talking to her husband, Jeremy and he’s telling her about the plan to stop the hijackers.

Lyz Glick:  And then, you know, I finally just decided, gut instinct, that, “Honey, you need to do it.”  And then, you know, he joked.  He’s like, “Okay, I have my butter knife from breakfast.” You know, which is totally like Jeremy.

As they both cry, Jeremy takes the time to prepare his wife for a life without him.

Lyz Glick:  We said I love you a thousand times over and over and over again, and it just brought so much peace to us, and it wasn’t even the words, I felt the feeling from it.  He told me to - he told me, “I love Emmy,” who is our daughter, and to take care of her.  Then he said, whatever decisions you make in your life, I need you to be happy, and I will respect any decisions that you make.  That’s what he said, I think that gives me the most comfort.  He sounded strong.  He didn’t sound panicked.  You know, very clear-headed. I told him to put a picture of me and Emmy in his head to be strong.

Jane Pauley, NBC News: So you were strong for him, as he was strong for you?

Lyz Glick: Mm-hmm.  I mean, neither of us panicked.  He knew that he was not going to make it out of there.

Pauley: And so did you?

Lyz Glick: I had hope.

Several of the passengers pray.  GTE Operator Lisa Jefferson says the Lord’s Prayer along with Todd Beamer.

Lisa Jefferson, GTE (Airfone operator): After that he had a sigh in his voice, he took a deep breath.  He was still holding the phone... but he was not talking to me, he was talking to someone else. And he said, ‘You ready?  Ok.  Let’s roll.’

Flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw tells her husband they are all running to first class together.  “I’ve got to go, bye,” she says... and drops the phone.

Elizabeth Wainio ends her call abruptly, too.

Longman:  Elizabeth said, ‘Mom, they’re rushing the cockpit.  I’ve gotta go.  Bye.’

Television worldwide is broadcasting the news of a terror attack on New York City.  The Pentagon is burning. And hijackers aboard Flight 93 are racing toward target number four.

It’s 9:57 a.m., and a counterattack has begun. 

Jeremy Glick has been talking to his wife, Lyz, for twenty minutes. Now he says, ‘Hold the line,’ ‘I’ll be right back.’ She can’t  bear to hear what happens next, so she hands the phone to her father, Richard Makely.

Richard Makely, Jeremy Glick's father-in-law:  There was no noise for several minutes. And then there was some screams, screams in the background, and so I said, “Well, they’re doing it...”

Lorne Lyles is still holding the phone too.

Lorne Lyles:  And then I hear commotion in the background, and then, you know, I didn’t know what to think.   Honestly, I didn’t know what to think had happened.  All I know is I got disconnected.  And I got disconnected with her screaming.

From the cockpit voice recording, officials believe passengers charged single-file up the narrow center aisle to the cockpit, using a food cart as a battering ram and a shield. New York Times Reporter Jere Longman describes the scene:

Jere Longman, New York Times reporter:  Well, from digital enhancement of the voice recorder, there’s the sound of plates and glassware crashing near the end of the flight.

Jane Pauley:  But one person would had to have been behind that cart.

Longman:  It took brave people - I mean, can you imagine if you were that first person in line rushing forward, and the curtain was closed in first class, and you had no idea what you would be encountering when you pulled that curtain back?  It took a brave person to do that.

On the cockpit tape, a hijacker can be heard shouting to hold the door...while a male American voice on the outside shouts, “Let’s get them.”

Longman:  At one point you can hear, you know, ‘In the cockpit, in the cockpit.’  And then someone says something that’s unintelligible and kind of garbled, but it’s the sense that if we don’t do that, then, “we’ll die.”

Witnesses in rural Pennsylvania see the plane flying at very low altitude, but at very high speed.

Pauley:  Is there a sense at this point that the hijackers know that the flight is going to end prematurely?

Longman:  They’re obviously threatened, and feel threatened.  And at one point, one of the hijackers suggests shutting off the oxygen supply to the cabin. As I understand it, it’s a very difficult or impossible thing to do, and it wouldn’t have any effect on the breathing of the passengers, because they were below 10,000 feet.

Witnesses see the plane making erratic wing maneuvers, rocking back and forth. The 9/11 Commission concluded the hijackers were deliberately trying to waggle the wings, knocking the passengers around like bowling pins to keep them from getting forward.

Longman:  During this part the hijackers are also praying—

Pauley:  What is the nature of their praying?

Longman: -- Saying, sort of, god - “Allah o Akbar,” god is great.

Hijacker Ziad Jarrah could be heard on the cockpit tape asking if he should just ‘finish it off’ as the counterattack began; one of his cohorts told him to wait.

The 9/11 Commission Report says that at 10:02 a.m., Jarrah, turns the control wheel hard to the right as the airplane heads down.

Longman:  In the final moments of this struggle, according to the families who heard the tape, voices that seemed muffled and distant all of a sudden became clearer. They took that as some corroboration that the passengers actually are in,  perhaps crew,  actually did reach the cockpit.

Pauley:  Do you mean, reach it?  Breach it?

Longman:  Get inside.

The end comes at 10:03 a.m.—in the loose, porous soil of a deserted strip mine in coal country near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Lee Purbaugh, a Pennsylvania steel worker, watches the plane going down. 

Lee Purbaugh, eyewitness: I heard this loud noise, and I happened to look up.  And this jet come right straight over my head.  And it went real low.  And it probably crashed down, it went nose to tail.

All morning, Lisa Beamer had kept a vigil by her television, like the wife of a missing seafarer might once have scanned the horizon from a widow’s walk.

Lisa Beamer, Todd Beamer's wife:  When I heard them say that was the United flight from Newark to San Francisco that just went down.  And I said, ‘That’s his flight.’  And my friend said, ‘No, he might be on a different one.  He might not have made it on the plane.’  I said, ‘No, I know that was his flight.’

Deena Burnett: There was a policeman at my house that they had sent over to stay with me, and he saw it first. And he turned around and he said, “I think I have bad news for you.” And when he said that, I ran to the television and I said, is ‘This Tom’s flight?’ He said yes. And I was still holding to the telephone. (crying) I held on to the telephone for three hours, until the battery went down.

Tom Burnett left three daughters; the oldest, twins, were only five at the time.

Deena Burnett:  I sat them on the bed and I told them that dad was not coming home. And Madison asked if she could call him on his cell phone.  And I told her no, that he didn’t have a cell phone in heaven.

At least 20 children lost a parent that day.  Claudette Greene, now a widow with two children, took her inspiration from Jackie Kennedy.

Claudette Greene:  I remember thinking, “How does she do that?” Because I had been to funerals of people weeping and sobbing and falling apart.  And I was so impressed with her and the dignity she had.  And it hit me that night: it’s because she had children. She was there for them. And I have thought about her every day since.

In an instant, Flight 93 became a legend. On a day when America was caught unaware, 40 ordinary men and women gave us hope that any one of us would have done what they did.

In the years since, we’ve learned how much bigger this disaster could have been.

In the days after 9/11, there were reports that fighter jets from Langley Air Force Base were scrambled to shoot down Flight 93 before it reached Washington.

Those fighter jets were not scrambled in response to the hijacking of flight 93.

In fact, newly released tapes show NORAD, which defends North American airspace, didn’t even hear about Flight 93 until after it crashed.

NORAD: United 93, have you got information on that yet?

CONTROLLER: Yeah, he’s down

NORAD: What, he’s down?

CONTROLLER: Yes

NORAD: When did he land? Because we have confirmation-

CONTROLLER: He did- he did- he did not land.

NORAD: Oh, he’s down?

CONTROLLER: Yes

And there was still confusion at NORAD about the shoot-down protocol as late as 10:30 a.m..

In other words, Flight 93 could very well have gotten to Washington, to the U.S. Capitol, perhaps, or at the very least a well-populated area, if the passengers and crew hadn’t done what they did.

We will never know exactly which passengers and crew waged that counterattack, which ones reached the cockpit, and whether any of them could have stopped the plane from going down.

It doesn’t matter.

We do know that because of their collective courage, hundreds, maybe even thousands of lives were saved.   They were all of them real heroes; they’ll be remembered in many different ways. 

Deena Burnett, who recently remarried, wrote a book inspired by her husband, Tom. Their three daughters often ask about their dad.

Deena Burnett: You know, just the simple everyday things.  We can go shopping and they may be looking at men’s clothes and pick up a shirt and say, “Mom, would dad like this shirt?”  They may see a pair of shoes and ask simple things like, “Were dad’s feet this big?”  (chuckle)

You know, they want to know all the details.  They want to know just all the little everyday things that we take for granted in loving one another and in knowing one another.  It’s important to them.

There have been two TV movies in the past year, and many family members consulted on Universal’s feature film "United 93."

This includes Lyz Glick, who has also remarried. Five-year-old, Emmy was just three months old when her father, Jeremy, died.

Last year, passenger Lauren Grandcolas’ dream of becoming an author came true. Her husband and sisters helped finish the book she began writing before her death.

One day, there will be a national memorial and park in Shanksville, Pa. in honor of the crew and passengers of Flight 93, in honor of the 40 men and women whose lives intersected for a little over two hours. They barely knew each other, might not have known each other’s names—but they gave one another courage and a chance to live or die with dignity: 40 individuals who helped us see the best in ourselves on a very dark day.

The men and women of Flight 93 won’t merely be remembered, but remembered as heroes.  40 strangers forever united in a nation’s gratitude for what they did. Given the choice, they chose to act.

Deena Burnett: Thinking about the heroism that they displayed, the American spirit that was portrayed, it’s overwhelming. And I hope that people looking at Flight 93 and the circumstances surrounding what happened aboard that flight, I hope they realize what an incredible legacy they left each of us, as American citizens, to continue what they started.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

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