Sunday, September 1, 2002
On Sept. 11, 2001, as relatives and friends said goodbye to some 3,000 victims of the terrorist attacks, the rest of the world was just starting to get to know them.
The first page of Jere Longman's "Among the Heroes" lists the 40 passengers and crew members who died on the only hijacked jet to miss its target that day. It's a testament to the poignancy of their story ï¿½ and the power of the media ï¿½ that many of these names will already be familiar to most readers.
Longman credits victims of United Flight 93 with more than merely foiling the hijackers and forcing the jet to crash in a field in Shanksville, Pa. The passengers tried to fight for the security Americans lost that day, Longman says, "and thus, they won the first battle in the new war against terrorism." The subduing of the alleged shoe bomber by airline passengers three months later proves this, he adds.
Despite this note of hyperbole, Longman, a correspondent for The New York Times, plays it straight. He pays tribute to the passengers through prodigious research, including flight data, phone calls, reports on the contents of the cockpit recorder and his interviews with the family of nearly every person on that flight.
Longman avoids novelistic prose and never puts thoughts that he could not possibly know into someone's head. He provides a source for every assertion and readily admits to conjecture when there's not sufficient evidence about an event. This respectful tone adds to the power of the story.
While the book aims to be comprehensive, perhaps definitive, spotty communication to the ground and poor quality of the cockpit recorder mean we may never know certain details about the event.
Why were there only four hijackers while the other three planes hijacked that day had five? Why did the passengers believe there were only three hijackers on board? Why did the plane, en route from Newark to San Francisco, fly to Cleveland before turning around to head for Washington? And what was the plan that the passengers referred to but never described to anyone on the ground?
From passenger Todd Beamer's command, "Let's roll!" Longman paints a picture of what probably happened in the plane's chaotic final moments. A prosecutor conjectures that the passengers used a food cart to try to ram the cockpit door open and take control of the aircraft, family members tell Longman. Whether they actually seized the controls, he makes a strong case for their having forced the plane down.
("Let's Roll!" by Lisa Beamer, Todd's widow, was recently published by Tyndale House).
Longman also swiftly debunks theories that the jet was shot down, accounting for planes in the air around Shanksville at that time and for the F-16s that had scrambled to protect Washington after the second plane hit the World Trade Center.
To fill out the story, the book intersperses the Sept. 11 events with the passengers' stories. These sketches, which make readers see the passengers as individuals rather than as victims, are an affecting memorial. But Longman also has a political purpose: to leave no doubt that the people on the flight, because of their backgrounds, were compelled to fight back.
Many were successful in business, others adept at planning. Some were gifted athletes (and very large, to boot). Two men on the flight had aviation experience. More impressive, at least two had faced down men with guns, and a flight attendant had been trained to do so for her former career in law enforcement.
At times these accounts feel schematic. More engaging are sections including the one about Kristin White Gould. She ran in the same literary circle as Thomas Pynchon, publicized an early Rolling Stones appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and became a medical journalist. It's difficult to say if she would have taken part in the cockpit siege or its planning, but we're rewarded by Longman's colorful indulgence.