Flights start routinely, end in incomprehensible tragedy

Posted: Thursday, September 13, 2001

They were heading to celebrations, a wedding, a family reunion.

They were returning from vacations.

They all had plans, to see a son, to start a new job, to go to a conference.

On a bright September morning, four planes on the East Coast took off routinely -- then everything changed in a terrible moment and the flights veered toward tragedy.

It was about 8 a.m. at Boston's Logan International Airport when a Boeing 767 pushed out slowly from Gate 26 and headed down the runway.

American Airlines Flight 11 was embarking on a 2,606-mile cross-country flight to Los Angeles. With 92 passengers and crew aboard, about two of every three seats were empty.

At the helm was Capt. John Ogonowski, a former Air Force pilot and father of three who had just celebrated his 52nd birthday. He was a farmer, too, a man who loved the land.

Flight 11 was popular with American crews because it was a one-leg trip with a layover in Los Angeles. Celebrities often were on board.

Tuesday's passengers included a retired couple heading to a family reunion, a father going to visit his college-bound son, the producer of the hit TV show ''Frasier,'' an actress and a plant manager who made this long commute weekly.

All was routine. But soon the horror began.

Terrorists had hijacked the plane. How they passed the security and metal detectors is not yet known. They were carrying knives, according to Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Later on, it would be discovered, according to the Boston Globe, that the bags apparently belonging to one of the hijackers didn't make the flight; it contained a copy of the Koran, an instructional video on flying commercial planes and a fuel consumption calculator.

At 8:16 a.m., Flight 11, made a turn. Eleven minutes later, the 159-foot jet headed down the Hudson River toward its final destination, the 110-story twin towers of the World Trade Center.

With the sun shining on the glass-and-steel skyscrapers, the jet was headed straight for the north tower.

Like a missile, it plowed into the building, unleashing an inferno. It was around 8:48 a.m.

More terror was ahead.

When United Airlines Flight 175 departed from Gate 19 at Logan Airport, again there were no signs of trouble.

It, too, was a Boeing 767 scheduled for the identical trip across the United States to Los Angeles. Only 56 passengers were on board, along with a crew of nine. The pilot, Victor Saracini, had been a United captain since 1985.

The passengers included a young woman who had graduated first in her class at Boston University and planned to move to San Francisco to begin a new job and a couple heading to a joyous occasion: their daughter's wedding. Louis Neil Mariani, 59, of Derry, N.H., was on the plane. His wife, Ellen, had taken a separate flight.

''He was chuckling because he got the cheaper flight,'' she said. ''He gave me a kiss and said, 'I'll see you one or two minutes after your plane (lands).'''

But terrorists commandeered Flight 175, too, and were heading the doomed flight in the same direction as Flight 11.

Peter Hanson, traveling with his wife and young daughter, called his parents.

''All I want to say is they went down together,'' said Hanson's mother, Eunice. ''They stayed together in death. That's the only consolation I have.''

Flight 175 made its first turn toward New York at 8:36 a.m., then a second turn in northern New Jersey 19 minutes later.

At one minute before 9 a.m., the doomed flight made its final turn, heading on a collision course with the World Trade Center.

At 9:03, with television cameras trained on the smoking skyscraper and America watching, the second plane pierced the south tower.

When American Airlines Flight 77 left Washington's Dulles International Airport for Los Angeles, nothing seemed amiss. There were 64 passengers and crew aboard the Boeing 757.

After departing shortly past 8 a.m., the plane flew straight out to the Ohio-Kentucky border, then turned left. Once again, terrorists took over.

How many was unclear, but the Justice Department later said between three and six hijackers, armed with knives and box cutters, seized control of the four planes.

This time, they had set their sights on the White House and Air Force One, according to President Bush's spokesman.

And this time, a passenger calmly called her husband in the final moments before her fiery death.

Barbara Olson, a lawyer, TV commentator and wife of U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, twice called her husband as the plane was being hijacked. She described some details, including that the attackers were using knife-like instruments and forced passengers to the back of the jet.

''She called from the plane while it was being hijacked,'' said her husband. ''I wish it wasn't so, but it is.''

Others killed included flight attendants who were husband and wife.

At about 9:43 a.m., the jet smashed into the Pentagon, carving a gaping hole across five floors that was still burning hours later.

Just 38 passengers and a crew of seven were aboard United Airlines Flight 93, heading from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco.

As the Boeing 757 approached Cleveland, the plane unexpectedly made a 180-degree turn and headed back toward Pennsylvania. Cleveland Mayor Michael White said air traffic controllers reported they could hear screaming over the cockpit radio.

Then came a distress call to a 911 dispatcher. ''We're being hijacked!'' an unidentified man said.

What happened on Flight 93 may always remain a mystery. But there are hints of a brave resistance.

''A group of us are going to do something,'' passenger Thomas E. Burnett Jr., 38, told his wife, Deena, in a call.

Burnett was aware of the World Trade Center explosions and during four phone calls, he told her he and other passengers would try to take action against the hijackers.

''He thought he was going to be home. He was going to solve this problem,'' Deena Burnett said at her home in San Ramon, Calif., Wednesday. He also told his wife that one passenger had been stabbed.

Mark Bingham, 31, was sitting in seat 4D when he called his mother to report the hijacking. He told her the plane had been taken over by three men, who said they had a bomb.

Bingham's mother, Alice Hoglan, thinks her son may have helped prevent the hijackers from hitting a more populated area.

''It gives me a great deal of comfort to know that my son may have been able to avert the killing of many, many innocent people,'' she said.

One other call was made aboard Flight 93 on this day that the nation will never forget.

Lauren Grandcolas of Marin County, Calif., told her husband that she loved him.

''She was very brave,'' Jack Grandcolas said, ''and very, very calm.''

At 10 a.m., the plane nose-dived into a Pennsylvania field.

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