WASHINGTON – America would have been even more devastated that sunny September morning -- the Capitol aflame or the White House destroyed -- if not for a few dozen strangers on an airplane who took the kind of quick, decisive action their government was incapable of on Sept. 11 (search).
Nearly three years on, the passenger revolt against the hijackers on United Flight 93 (search) stands out as a moment of honor and as a success story -- if that term can be used to describe the deaths of 44 people -- among the glaring government failures.
There were, of course, many heroes that day: the police, firefighters and rescue workers who risked and lost their own lives to help others. It does not diminish those feats to point out that emergency workers train for those moments. In some sense, their heroism is expected, part of a shared culture of valor.
The people aboard Flight 93 shared only a common destination, San Francisco, and no expectation of doing anything that morning other than sitting back and enjoying the flight.
Instead, aboard the hijacked Boeing 757, passengers took pre-emptive action that spared the nation even more destruction and death at a pillar of U.S. democracy. Their action also gave Americans conviction that they, too, could fight back against terrorists.
And, as the final report of the Sept. 11 commission makes clear, the passengers' actions displayed a small group's ability to quickly grasp something brand-new, figure out what it meant and dream up and execute a plan at a moment of extreme stress and unimaginable fear.
The report, released Thursday by the 10-member bipartisan panel after a 20-month investigation, cited multiple intelligence failures that contributed to the deadliest terror attack in U.S. history and caught citizens and government officials alike off guard.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed when 19 hijackers flew airliners into New York's Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside.
The report shows that on at least one other plane, United Flight 175, some passengers correctly surmised what was happening and what had to be done.
Minutes before that plane struck the World Trade Center (search), passenger Brian David Sweeney told his mother that the passengers were thinking about storming the cockpit to take control of the plane away from the hijackers, the Sept. 11 report says.
During Peter Hanson's haunting last telephone conversation with his father, he said, "I think they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building. Don't worry, Dad. If it happens, it'll be very fast -- my God, my God."
Moments later, Flight 175 became the second plane to crash into a World Trade Center tower.
Flight 93 was the last of the four planes to be commandeered by al-Qaida terrorists. In the passengers' final, heartrending telephone conversations with family members, information was flowing both ways. The Twin Towers were already on fire and the passengers learned of that.
In deciding to rush the cockpit, the passengers, thinking quickly, knew or could guess that these hijackers, too, intended to turn the plane into a missile. They also could have reasoned that they were not altering their own fates. They probably were going to die in a fiery crash.
And what did they do first? They took a vote before they took on the hijackers.
Their actions caused the hijackers to give up on their plan to fly to Washington and deliberately slam the plane into a Pennsylvania field.
No one knows how many lives they saved. But at the intended target, confusion reigned.
Hundreds of people were at the White House and Capitol on Sept. 11, trying to make sense of what they were watching on television from New York and the black smoke they could see rising from the Pentagon.
Police ordered the evacuation of the Capitol after the Pentagon was hit, but it was chaotic.
The Air Force has maintained that fighter jets that had belatedly been sent aloft to intercept the hijacked planes would have shot down Flight 93 before it reached Washington.
"We are not so sure," the Sept. 11 commission said. "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."