"I never want to forget 9/11"

Alice Hoglan's son Mark Bingham died on Flight 93, in a final struggle captured on cockpit tapes heard only by family members. With pride, grief and anger, she tells what happened.

Published July 23, 2004 7:39PM (EDT)

Alice Hoglan doesn't read the news like you and I do. The final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, made public in its entirety Thursday, exposes the incompetence of America's intelligence agencies. It whisks open the White House doors to reveal an administration asleep to the imminent threat of Osama bin Laden, even with alarm bells about al-Qaida going off all around it.

But at first glance, Hoglan doesn't see policy failures in the report, the government's definitive word on events surrounding Sept. 11. Hoglan sees her only son, Mark Bingham. She sees the magnanimous, crazy, irrepressible guy she raised alone flying home to San Francisco to act as an usher in the wedding of his Egyptian college buddy, Joe Salama. As she has for nearly every day of the past two and a half years, Hoglan imagines the desperate last moments of Mark's life, when his plane, United Flight 93, crashed into a dry field in Shanksville, Pa.

Only later does Hoglan allow the report, rough drafts of which have been available online for the past year, to flood her consciousness. There they are, the CIA, FBI, State Department and Department of Defense bumbling around overseas like a hapless group of private detectives, each unaware of what the other was uncovering, incapable of sharing what they found. Hoglan can only sigh when she reads the testimony of former CIA director George Tenet, who summarized the mangled communication by confessing, "The victims and the families of 9/11 deserve better."

Really, what more can she say about what's in the report? "It's very discouraging," she says. "It's horrible, just horrible. For good reason, a lot of Sept. 11 families are up in arms about it." Up in arms is an understatement. For many family members, the pain of losing their loved ones on Sept. 11 remains as raw as ever. You feel it when you talk to them; your heart, like theirs, still breaks.

Hoglan has spent the past two years summoning all her strength to prevent her anger from swallowing her. "And it's a whole other kind of strength and internal fortitude," says Todd Sarner, 33, a therapist and one of Mark Bingham's best friends since high school. "Alice is a survivor. Not just an 'I'm-getting-by survivor.' But, 'I'm absolutely not going to be a victim, I'm going to do whatever I can with my life.' She's like a soldier: Let's move on and do positive things."

Indeed, in the "wreckage of her life," as Hoglan says, she has found the voice of an activist. A flight attendant for 18 years with, of all airlines, United, Hoglan now canvasses the country, arguing that the greedy airlines need to get off their bottom lines and invest in more rigorous security. Bingham was gay and so Hoglan often appears at public rallies to undercut stereotypes about sexual preference. One wry comment is pretty much all it takes. "I don't think sexual orientation was discussed in the pitching aircraft that was Flight 93," she says. As passengers and crew banded together to charge the hijackers, "I'm pretty sure there was no screening."

Given her activism, Hoglan has become that peculiar American phenomenon, a minor celebrity for all the wrong reasons. "Some people think she has done too many interviews," says Sarner. "But her point has always been that talking about Mark helps her. She is partly dealing with her grief by telling the world about her son."

It's true. You never get the feeling while talking to Hoglan, 54 -- whom you might call your basic hippie mom from the Santa Cruz Mountains, where she still lives -- that she's exploiting Sept. 11 for any personal gain or profit. You sense a genuine selflessness in her goals, a warmness in her levity and soft laughter. After all, at age 51 Hoglan acted as a surrogate mother for her sister-in-law and gave birth to triplets. "Just lending out the womb," she says with a grin. At times, though, you are stopped short by her unknowable despair.

It's a despair shared by all the 9/11 families. Coincidentally, just minutes before he picks up the phone in his New Jersey home, Jerry Guadagno and his wife, Beatrice, have returned from visiting the cemetery where the ashes of their son, Richard, are entombed. A dedicated naturalist, unswervingly serious about law enforcement, Richard Guadagno had recently been appointed manager of the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, when he perished on Flight 93, surely in revolt with all the other passengers and crew. Jerry Guadagno, 79, speaks haltingly but intently about his son. He hasn't studied the National Commission report and is not sure he will. The stress of reliving his son's death is getting, simply, too much to bear. "When you lose a son, there's nothing worse than that," he offers. "Nothing comes close to losing a child. It's been devastating to our family. Life is just not the same."

But Guadagno is grateful for the final report -- if for no other reason than what has made him angrier than anything over the past two years is how President Bush and a truculent administration consistently stifled a full-scale investigation, refusing to release White House files and documents. In fact, if it weren't for the zealous lobbying of outraged family members of Sept. 11 victims, the National Commission report would never have seen the light of day.

"When the investigation was first met with stonewalling by the administration, I was terribly hurt," Guadagno says. "My son was murdered, and all I was doing was looking for some answers. For the administration to stonewall like that is unforgivable."

Hoglan and I saw "Fahrenheit 9/11" together. You could hear people in the theater catch their breath as Lila Lipscomb, the working-class mother from Flint, Mich., recounted the moment that she heard her son, Sgt. Michael Pederson, had been killed in Iraq: "The grief grabbed me so hard that I even fell on the floor. ... Why is it my son that you had to take? He didn't do anything. He wasn't a bad guy. He was a good guy. Why did you have to take my son?" You could only imagine what Hoglan was thinking. She was staring into her lap, crying.

Still, more often that not, you are infected by Hoglan's desire to set the record straight, to stave off the creep of historical amnesia. "I never want to grow complacent about that day," she says. "I never want the world to forget it." That often means stealing past the official remarks encompassing Sept. 11 and detailing her own agonizing experiences of events surrounding the infamous day.

Always, she remembers her son. A fit and muscular 6'4", the 31-year-old Bingham was a fearless athlete who had attended UC Berkeley on a rugby scholarship. Head of his own San Francisco public relations firm, hyping ambitious dot-coms, Bingham boomed down city streets with a huge spirit, lighting up everybody in his wake. He was also the crazy man, the guy who dove off the highest cliff in Maui, who ran with the bulls in Pamplona -- and wasn't happy until he got gored -- who grabbed a gun from a mugger one night in San Francisco's Castro District. Hoglan smiles with chagrin as she relates the time that Mark, three sheets to the wind during a Cal-Stanford football game, ran onto the field and tackled the Stanford mascot, a massively tall and awkward tree. He was handcuffed and carted off to a Berkeley jail.

The harrowing final half-hour of Flight 93 has often been recreated by journalists, dramatists, and surely, screenwriters by the score. Hoglan, however, describes the fatal descent with details missing from past accounts -- minute facts that have been sealed in her mind from listening to the plane's cockpit voice recorder twice. (Family members of Flight 93 are the only Americans, except for national security personnel, to have heard the tapes.) The story rushes out of her on a wave of pride for her son, her excited voice often cracking under the strain of her memory. Be assured, though, she says, she is only offering her own faithful interpretation of the facts, based on "examining all the documents and listening to every piece of testimony."

The cockpit voice recording lasts 31 minutes. In the first few minutes, says Hoglan, you hear one of one the United pilots yelling to a hijacker, "Get out of here, get out of here." Next comes a struggle and "this breathy, rapid conversation in Arabic, and someone laboring to breathe, gurgling. I guess I don't have to explain why that would indicate that he had received a bad throat wound." (When the FBI played the cockpit tapes for the family members of Flight 93, they flashed English subtitles on a screen for the Arabic dialogue.)

Two hijackers then drag the slain pilots out of the cabin, return to the cockpit and close the door. Following scuffling and fiddling around in the cockpit, Hoglan says, you hear one man telling the other in Arabic, "Sit, sit, sit." A third hijacker stands guard outside the cockpit door and a fourth herds the passengers into the back of the plane. The next 20 minutes of the cockpit tape, says Hoglan, "are consumed in a lot of sounds of automatic pilot being turned on and off, and occasionally you hear one of the other guys in the cockpit, chanting prayers, 'There is no God but God.'"

Around this time, Hoglan's son called home. "Mom, this is Mark Bingham," he said with a strange formality, suggesting, Hoglan says, his grace under pressure. "I just want to tell you that I love you. I'm on a flight from Newark to San Francisco and there are three guys on board who have taken over the plane. They say they have a bomb. You believe me, don't you, mom?"

"Oh, Mark, I believe you," Hoglan responded.

Hoglan now surmises that passengers in the back of the plane were beginning to advance toward the cabin. On the cockpit recorder, Hoglan says, comes the sound of one of the terrorists knocking at the cockpit door. "Let the fellows in now," a hijacker in the cabin says.

"I remember this well," she says. "You hear one terrorist saying to the other what sounds like 'iraq,' which means 'fighting.' In other words, 'Are passengers fighting in the back?' Then you hear this frantic knocking on the door. 'Let him in, let him in.' Then, 'Hold it up to the door so they will see it and be afraid.'"

The "it" is a fire ax mounted on the back of the cockpit. The hijackers believed that by brandishing the ax through the cockpit's peephole, the passengers would turn back. But the hijackers didn't know how a peephole works, Hoglan explains, they didn't know that passengers couldn't see through it from outside the door.

The last five minutes of cockpit tape, Hoglan says, are bone-chilling. "You hear the excruciating sound of the wind going over the wings because the airplane is flying at such a low altitude." You also hear a lot of muffled yelling, she adds, as if the passengers in the back of the plane had psyched themselves up like football players and were now ready to bolt madly down the field.

It was impossible to distinguish voices on the tape, or who was playing what position. But Hoglan knew Bingham had to be in the middle of the charge.

At this point, Hoglan says, a struggle mounts in the rear of the plane. It's the moment when Todd Beamer, an account manager for Oracle, utters the now famous line, "Let's roll." A few seconds later, Hoglan says, "you hear somebody being killed, probably strangled. And then you hear Todd Beamer saying something like, 'God help us.'

"That's when they run forward and you hear this 'rrrraaahhh' getting closer to the cockpit. You visualize guys running forward and yelling, trying to get their blood up. They're unarmed and they're going after these guys they know have killed people and have knives. You hear them say, 'In the cockpit, in the cockpit, in the cockpit!' Then you hear this terrible bloodscream. I know it's silly, but it sounds like somebody who is a non-native speaker, probably the terrorist by the door. Next you hear this terrible crashing of a food cart, and I'm a flight attendant, so I've heard crashing carts before.

"They ram the door with the cart and all of a sudden you hear these voices in English getting louder. Remember, the terrorists are at the controls, and the plane is heaving back and forth at very low altitudes. If you've ever tried to walk in turbulence, you know how tough that is. I think the hijackers are now in this terrible struggle and know they are going to be subdued by the passengers, so they start thrashing the airplane around, more than ever."

Hoglan says that an Arabic voice inside the cockpit then asks, "Finish her now?" The answer comes back, "No, not yet." Then, she adds, "maybe a minute later, with more scuffling and struggling in the background, the very last thing you hear is a low voice spoken in English: "Pull it up, pull it up." It probably signals the last struggle, they are probably trying to get control of the airplane. Maybe their hands are on the controls when the plane goes into the ground."

Reams have been written about the heroes on Flight 93, and heroes they most definitely are. But in passing years a stem of resentment has risen from the hallowed ground around Flight 93, with some family members claiming exhaustion at the story of only a handful of passengers, led by Bingham and Beamer, leading the revolt. Hoglan herself is careful not to promulgate the myth of a hardy few. Sincerely, she says, "everyone on the flight was a hero to me. I can recite the names of all 40 of the passengers and crew on Flight 93."

She knows she has been criticized for bragging about Bingham to the press, but, she says, can you blame her? "Mark was everything to me. He set me on the spiritual quest that I've been on for most of my life. It was really my son who forced me to deal with most of the issues in my life. It was my son who has grown me up."

When the subject turns back to why their loved ones had to die on Flight 93, Hoglan and many of the family members remain distraught. Even now, there are unanswered questions. The National Commission report contains scads of important insights, but it remains sketchy on just what happened inside the hijacked planes, despite all the evidence amassed from phone calls made by passengers and crew members to friends and airline headquarters.

Most distressing to Hoglan and other family members are phone calls made by flight attendants on American Flight 11, the first jet to hit the World Trade Center. The calls by Madeline (Amy) Sweeney, who identified the hijackers as Middle Eastern men with a bomb, and Betty Ong, to American's flight center, came at least 20 minutes before Flight 93 took off. Immediately after the valiant women's calls, shouldn't the airlines or FAA have acted to ground all planes, including Flight 93?

One of the ten commissioners, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, suggested as much during the hearings. Of all the facts presented, Kerrey said, the one that "caused scales to fall from my eyes was listening to Betty Ong ... talk to the ground and hear the ground surprised by a hijacking. I mean, not only were we not at a high state of alert in our airports, we were at ease." He went on: "And it's baffling to me why some alert wasn't given to the airlines to alter their preparedness to go to a much higher state of alert. It seems to me a lot of things would have changed if that would have happened."

Does Hoglan, who has more than 20 years in the airline business, and who has studied the minute-by-minute actions of all four jets that were hijacked on Sept. 11, believe that Flight 93 could have been prevented from taking off? "Yes, I do," she says. "Clearly, there was an awful lot of blame before that, and I doubt that any quick action or well-intended action on the part of these people at American would have prevented what happened. But it might have. They might have been able to get word to the FBI and get the planes grounded."

More adamant is Bonnie Greene Le Var, 56, director of a New York nonprofit group, Corporate Angel Network, that arranges for children with cancer to fly on private jets to clinics; her brother, Donald Greene, was on Flight 93. Yes, Greene admits, her conviction that the plane could have been grounded is fed by the pain of her loss. But at the same, she knows a thing or two about the airline business. Her and Donald's father, Leonard, invented safety flight instruments -- stall warning indicators, to be exact -- now installed on virtually every commercial airliner. Donald was executive vice president of the family company, Safe Flight, when Flight 93 crashed.

Transportation authorities "could have grounded my brother's plane," Le Var says, her brusque New York accent underscoring her anger. "They knew who was hijacking those planes that hit the World Trade Center. They knew exactly what was going on. But they wasted time grounding all the planes. Remember that scene in "Fahrenheit 9/11" with Bush sitting in the school for seven minutes? You might say seven minutes isn't much -- but it's a lot. You know how many planes take off in seven minutes every single day? I don't know. Maybe Albert Einstein wouldn't have known how to react, known to immediately ground all the planes. But somebody should have. Somebody should have had the smarts to figure that out."

The commission report fails to deliver a conclusive answer to whether Flight 93 could have been grounded; rather, it states that personnel at the FAA and North American Aerospace Defense Command were unprepared and "struggled under difficult circumstances to improvise a homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge they had never before encountered and had never trained to meet." The report does conclusively state, though, that "We are sure that the nation owes a debt to the passengers of United 93. Their actions saved the lives of countless others, and may have saved either the Capitol or the White House from destruction."

You will get no argument from Hoglan or any of the family members associated with Flight 93 on that point. But praise in the long run will get you nowhere with people you've betrayed. Especially newborn activists like Hoglan. "People ask me, 'Don't you want closure?'" she says. "And the truth is, I'd like to go to my death tortured by the events of Sept. 11. I want to be angry about it."

By Kevin Berger

Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon.

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