Editorial: The lesson of United 93
There are things that you can’t take back.
Fire a bullet and it goes forward. Strike a match and it will burn.
On September 11, 2001, the dominoes started to fall at 5:43 a.m. when two men checked in at the US Airways ticket counter in Portland, Maine. A small plane took them to Boston.
They boarded another aircraft at Logan International Airport, bound for Los Angeles. Instead, it ended its journey, and the lives of its passengers and many others, buried in the heart of the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m.
A similar itinerary took another Boston flight into the South Tower. A Dulles plane aimed at the Pentagon.
United 93 should have left Newark Airport at 8 a.m. There was lots of traffic. It was delayed until 8:42 a.m., according to the 9-11 Commission’s 2004 staff report. It was not at cruising altitude when the first tower started to burn, when the first victims were gone.
At 9:03 a.m., the second plane hit the World Trade Center. Everyone with a television watched. No one knew that Dulles flight had already been hijacked.
At 9:08 a.m., United grounded flights in the New York area. It was 26 minutes too late for United 93.
It was another 20 minutes before four hijackers took control of United 93. Nine minutes later, the Pentagon was in flames.
Something could have been done at so many points along the way to stop any of the horrible things that happened that day. The knives on the hijackers could have been found by security. Delays could have been longer. Information could have been relayed faster. Shock could have paralyzed someone or adrenaline could have spurred reaction in just the right way.
It didn’t. Except on United 93.
The last of the four planes to take off, with one already used as a weapon, United 93 had 33 passengers, five flight attendants and 2 pilots, in addition to the hijackers. In a world connected by phones and internet, they were not cut off from what was making the world watch the skies. They found out about New York and Washington.
The passengers on United 93 refused to be the bullet fired from a gun. They chose, instead, to be the match that struck a flame. They burned fast and bright and instead of becoming a weapon against another high profile target and an instrument of murder, they opted for martyrdom, taking back the plane and burying it in a Somerset County field.
Events happen around us. Sometimes we can’t see the bad stuff soon enough to prevent it. Sometimes it’s too late to stop it.
But if there is one enduring lesson to take from United 93, it is that it is never too late to take the information you have, the knowledge that something horrible is happening, and change the outcome, even a little bit, even if it’s only better for someone else.