Remembering the 40 heroes aboard Flight 93 and how they thwarted 9/11 hijackers

Since 2001, a great deal of attention has been paid to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon. But less so for Flight 93. The U.S. Capitol was the likely target of where hijackers had planned to crash the plane. Instead, passengers and crew forced the plane down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania — now an important touchstone site in the community. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we commemorate the lasting legacy of the September the 11th, there's been understandably a great deal of attention to the attacks on the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon, but less so for Flight 93, the United Airlines flight on which passengers and crew fought back against the terrorists and thwarted their plans.

    It's believed the U.S. Capitol was the intended target for that hijacked plane. But, instead, because of their intervention, the plane went down in a field in rural Pennsylvania.

    That site has become an important touchstone for the family and friends of those who died.

    William Brangham is back now with a conversation about that memorial and the story of those who perished.

  • William Brangham:

    The Flight 93 Memorial in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, is dedicated to the 40 passengers and crew members who brought down that flight and averted potentially a much worse disaster.

    There's one part of the memorial that the general public can visit, but there are also many acres that are considered sacred ground, where parts of the plane came down.

    Throughout the past two decades, Gordon Felt has been the president of Families of Flight 93. His brother Edward was on that plane. He was a 41-year-old engineer with two daughters when he died.

    And Gordon Felt joins me now.

    Gordon, thank you very much for being here. I know this is obviously a very difficult time. And this anniversary is certainly something that has captured the nation's attention. And I just wonder how that sits with you and other family members at this time, at this milestone.

    Gordon Felt, Families of Flight 93: Well, once again, the eyes of the world are back on Flight 93, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

    It's an opportunity for us to look back over 20 years, reflect on our losses, reflect on the ripple effect of September 11 and how it continues to create loss and create great strife for us.

    But it's also a unique opportunity for us to reach out to a new generation of students and even young teachers to help tell the story of Flight 93, about the heroism, about the sacrifice, the honor that was demonstrated by our loved ones that morning.

  • William Brangham:

    I was struck recently by the service members and women who died in Afghanistan as they were, that few weeks ago, leaving Afghanistan, and how many of them were babies or just toddlers when 9/11 originally happened?

    Do you think that we have done a good enough job of remembrance, of remembering what happened on that day and what has happened since?

  • Gordon Felt:

    I think it's critical that we have to actively remember.

    It's far too easy to move on, to forget our losses, forget the lessons that we learned. There's no question September 11 was an extraordinarily difficult day in our nation's history, with the loss of thousands of innocent people, and since then with the continued loss of thousands upon thousands of our military service men and women.

    And it's — we can't afford to just move on now that we're out of Afghanistan, just kind of let's look for the next issue to focus on.

  • William Brangham:

    Can you tell me a little bit about your brother Ed?

  • Gordon Felt:

    Ed was a gentle, caring genius, no doubt about it.

    He loved his family deeply, more than anything. He loved learning. He loved mentoring. He loved meeting people. He loved solving problems. He was a computer engineer that traveled the world problem-solving for his company.

    Ed was a lead engineer in one of the teams that helped establish the protocols for early Internet financial transactions. We never really understood what he did. He tried to explain it to us, but he was operating at a far higher plane than most mortals.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Gordon Felt:

    But I do know that Ed always had time for anyone, certainly for his children, his family, the people he worked with.

    He would give you the shirt off his back. And he is missed greatly. And he was the patriarch of our family. He was the one you could always call. He was unflappable, again, a problem-solver. He would talk through issues. He would — until they were solved. And that's who he was.

  • William Brangham:

    A problem-solver and a mentor, certainly the kinds of people we need more of.

    I know that you and many others fought very hard for this memorial to come to fruition. For people who visit that memorial, what do you hope that they take away from that visit?

  • Gordon Felt:

    Well, there's a couple of important aspects that we want people to take away as they drive out of the Flight 93 National Memorial.

    First one, when they're here, we want them to learn the story, the facts of the day, to learn about the individual people, those 40 heroes that were on board that got up that morning. You know, on the morning of September 11, my brother got up and had breakfast with his eldest daughter. They read The Wall Street Journal. That was their habit.

    And then he got in a car service to go to Newark Airport and we never saw him again. And all the thousands of people that died that day had similar stories. They just were going about their business.

    We want visitors that come to this memorial to realize that it could have been any one of us that day. It didn't make a difference how old you were, how young you were, what your profession was, what the demographics were. That didn't make a difference.

    And by remembering the individuals, by saying their names, by learning about those individuals, that makes it personal. We can relate to that. And then, after the personal side, in saying the names and remembering those individuals, it's critical that we also remember what they did collectively.

    The passengers and crew members of Flight 93 had 35 minutes; 9:28 was when the hijacking began; 10:03 was when the plane came down here in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

    In those 35 minutes, they were able to get information from the ground to understand what was going on, to realize that their plane was also going to be used as a missile, that, unless they did something, those terrorists were going to dictate the terms on how their lives ended.

    Under that extraordinary pressure, they were able to actually come up with a plan on how to try to take the plane back. They voted on that plan. They prayed together. And then they acted. They fought to retake that plane. And while we know they lost their lives in the process, they did something extraordinary.

    The passengers and crew members of United 93 revealed true heroism that morning. And, for that, we need to remember and honor them.

  • William Brangham:

    Right.

    The day after that awful event, we all remember that sense of national cohesion that we all felt. And maybe it's naive in some way to think that that could have sustained for two decades, but do you see us more divided? Do you see us more cohesive?

  • Gordon Felt:

    Oh, there's no question we're more divided.

    I long for September 12. It is possible. We have it in us. We have demonstrated that we are able to function together respectfully, communicate, problem-solve. We have strayed a long way from where we were that day.

    And I think that we have to work diligently to try to get back on track as a nation, so that we can once again be one people working to do good work and working to do what's right.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Gordon Felt, president of Families of Flight 93, thank you so much for your time.

    And we all hope that this week of commemoration is as gentle as possible for you all. Thank you.

  • Gordon Felt:

    Thank you.

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