The heroes of Flight 93: Interviews with family, friends detail the courage of everyday people

They waited, the way people wait on a plane.

You can picture them spreading out inside this mostly empty flight to San Francisco, the smokestacks and cranes of the Newark skyline looming outside their windows.

You can hear them working their cell phones, calling their friends, their offices.

For 41 minutes they waited on the tarmac to take off. Two pilots, five flight attendants and 37 passengers. Among them, four men knew they were all waiting to die.

When United Flight 93 finally took off, it began a journey that would end not in San Francisco, as planned, or smashing into some Washington target, but in an aching glory.

Since Sept. 11, the story of the passengers who fought their hijackers on Flight 93 has become an icon of good thwarting evil, a story of sacrifice and courage that a nation has embraced in a time of fear and uncertainty.

No one will ever know exactly what happened on that plane. But new interviews with the family, friends and co-workers of passengers who made last-minute calls give a more complete account of their desperate struggle.

At the same time, questions emerge about the role of the fourth hijacker and raise the possibility that instead of a single plot to overcome the terrorists, passengers and flight attendants in different parts of the plane may have hatched separate plans. While most attention has focused on a group of tall, athletic men who apparently planned to rush the hijackers, at least one flight attendant told her husband she was boiling water to use as a weapon.

The clues from the wreckage are small: a knife concealed inside a cigarette lighter, a manual of prayers and instructions written in Arabic, a cockpit-voice recorder, still under analysis, that reportedly holds a garble of American and Arabic voices.

But the key to whatever took place on Flight 93 may be the 41 minutes it sat on the ground.

It gave the passengers enough time to hear about the three other hijacked planes that smashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon that morning.

The delay took the plane off the precise schedule the terrorists had likely relied upon and put it on one that gave the passengers and crew knowledge, knowledge that incited them to fight back and to say goodbye to loved ones before the jet plunged into a reclaimed strip mine in Pennsylvania, taking with it everyone aboard.

It was 5 a.m. Tuesday and still dark when Deborah Welsh's husband carried her bag down the stairs of their second-floor walkup in Hell's Kitchen in New York.

Welsh, who had been a flight attendant for more than 25 years, usually avoided early-morning flights, but she had agreed to trade shifts with another worker.

Her husband, Patrick, wasn't even sure where she was going when she set off for the bus, wearing her uniform and the navy cap that he jokingly said made her look like the sailor on the Cracker Jack box.

At a friend's home in New Jersey, public-relations executive Mark Bingham, scrambling to pack his old college rugby duffel bag after oversleeping the 6 a.m. alarm, forgot his belt.

Nicole Miller, carrying a purple backpack stuffed with her textbooks, set off with her boyfriend, Ryan Brown, hoping to switch their separate flights back to California, so they could fly together.

And so it began, people making their way to Newark International Airport, Terminal A, Gate 17.

There was the Japanese college student and the German wine expert. The refuge manager for the Fish and Wildlife Service, flying home from his grandmother's 100th-birthday party. The Good Housekeeping magazine marketer, on her way back from her grandmother's funeral.

There was the advocate for the disabled, who stood less than 4 feet tall and carried herself like a giant. The retired restaurant worker, flying to San Francisco to claim the body of his son, killed in a car crash on his honeymoon. The toy-company executive who sported a Superman tattoo on his shoulder.

Almost one-third of the people on Flight 93 were there by the slimmest of chances: cancellations, bad weather and simple changes of plan. The pilot, Jason Dahl, who had learned to fly before he could drive, rescheduled to get home to Colorado early so he and his wife could fly to London for their anniversary.

Among the passengers and crew, authorities say, were four young men who had trained for months and perhaps years for this moment, learning how to fight in small spaces and fly jets, lifting weights and reciting prayers.

They all sat on the plane, delayed by the airport's heavy morning traffic, as American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 left Boston. They sat there as American Airlines flight 77 left Washington.

At 8:42 a.m., Flight 93 took off, light with passengers, heavy with 11,000 gallons of jet fuel for its cross-country flight. Nicole Miller's boyfriend watched it leave from his own plane, as it sat on the tarmac.

Six minutes later, the north tower of the World Trade Center erupted in flames.

For the next 30 minutes, it appears, Flight 93 soared west across Pennsylvania as havoc erupted behind it. Flight attendants, passenger accounts suggest, poured coffee and served breakfast.

One of the attendants, CeeCee Ross Lyles, was at the beginning of her career. She had dreamed of being a flight attendant since she took her first plane trip at age 6 but had just realized her dream a year ago, leaving after six years of work as a police officer. Another, Sandra Bradshaw, was thinking about leaving her job so she could stay home with her children.

At some point, before the plane reached Cleveland, the hijackers took over the plane, armed with knives and the threat of a bomb.

Around 9:30 a.m., air traffic controllers in Cleveland heard someone in the cockpit say, "Hey, get out of here!" a source said. Then a voice, in what was described as a thick Arabic accent, was heard that appeared to be addressing passengers, even though it was radioed to air traffic control.

"This is your captain," the man said. "There is a bomb on board. Remain in your seats. We are returning to the airport."

How the hijackers overpowered the pilots remains unclear. One passenger would report in a telephone call that two people lay on the floor in the first-class cabin, either injured or dead. They appeared to be the pilot and co-pilot, he said, relating information from a flight attendant. Another told a friend that two people's throats were slit but didn't identify them. A third saw only one injured.

At least five passengers and flight attendants described the hijackers in their calls in similar terms: three men, wearing red bandannas, one with some sort of box strapped around his waist that he claimed was a bomb. One passenger reported that two of the hijackers were in the cockpit and a third guarded passengers in first class from behind a curtain.

None of the callers mentioned a fourth hijacker, although the FBI has identified four men in connection with the hijacking.

Those men are Saeed Alghamdi, Ahmed Ibrahim A. Al Haznawi, Ahmed Alnami and Ziad Jarrah.

It may be that the people who made calls were unable to see the fourth hijacker. Some news reports have suggested one may have already gained access to the cockpit, as an uniformed guest pilot sitting in the spare jump-seat. Or, some terrorism experts suggest, he may have played a role as a backup, perhaps remaining unidentified among the other passengers or hiding in the bathroom until he was needed.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said Friday that their "best information" shows that four were involved.

By 9:36 a.m., United Flight 93 had suddenly changed course, according to flight-path information provided by Flight Explorer, a firm that supplies real-time radar tracking data. The plane had made a U-turn and headed back toward Washington.

In the cabin, passengers frantically began making calls, 23 from the seat-back phones alone from 9:31 to 9:53 a.m. Others passed cell phones to people who had been strangers just minutes before.

Why so many people were able to make calls while apparently under guard by hijackers could be that, as one passenger reported, there was no hijacker among the passengers in coach.

Some of the telephone calls were short — no more than a few rushed words of fear or love.

Lauren Grandcolas, flying home to San Rafael, Calif., from her grandmother's funeral, left a message for her husband saying her flight had been hijacked but she was "comfortable, for now."

Linda Gronlund and Joe Deluca, on their way to San Francisco for a vacation together, took turns. She called her sister to say she would miss her. He called his father.

"The plane's been hijacked," he said. "I love you."

Andrew Garcia, an Air National Guard air traffic controller and plane buff, only managed to get out his wife's name, "Dorothy," before his phone went dead.

Other passengers, though, managed to conduct fairly lengthy, even repeated conversations during the plane's final minutes, constructing a jumbled puzzle of what was happening inside the Boeing 757.

Deena Burnett was feeding her three daughters breakfast and watching the news in horror when the telephone rang in her home in San Ramon, Calif.

"Are you OK?" she asked her husband, Tom, 38.

"No," he said. "I'm on the airplane and it's been hijacked."

He told his wife the hijackers had stabbed someone. He told her to call the authorities, and he hung up.

When he called back, she was on the line to the FBI. She told him about the World Trade Center, the first he knew of the attack. He paused. "Were they commercial airplanes?" he asked.

Deena Burnett didn't think so. Cargo or private planes, she said.

"Do you know anything else about the planes?" No, she said.

"Do you know who was involved?" Again, she said no.

He told her the man who was stabbed had died.

The hijackers are talking about running the plane into the ground, he said. Then he said he had to go.

His third call came about 9:41 a.m., shortly after a plane had hit the Pentagon. "OK," he said. "We're going to do something."

In his fourth and final call, just before 10 a.m., Burnett said he was sure the hijackers didn't have a bomb, that he thought they had only knives.

"There's a group of us who are going to do something," he repeated.

Deena Burnett thought about her years of training as a flight attendant. She was taught to appease hijackers, to meet their demands, to stay in the background. She told her husband to sit down. "Don't draw attention to yourself," she said.

She told him she loved him. She felt he thought he was coming home that night. This was simply a problem that he was going to solve, as he had solved many others.

As Burnett talked with his wife, three other men who may have joined him in whatever plans were being hatched made calls of their own.

Across the aisle in Seat 4D, Mark Bingham, 31, called his mother. He was so rattled that when Alice Hoglan got on the line, her son told her, "This is Mark Bingham."

His message was brief: The plane had been hijacked by three men and he loved her.

In the rear of the plane, Jeremy Glick, also 31, a sales manager for a Web site firm and former judo champion, called his wife from a seat-back phone. He described three Middle Eastern men brandishing knives and a red box.

His wife told him about the attacks at the World Trade Center. He tried to grasp the hijackers' plans — to blow up the plane or fly it into a target?

The passengers had taken a vote among themselves, he said. They had decided to try to take back the plane.

"I told him to go ahead and do it," Lyzbeth Glick said on "Good Morning America. "I trusted his instincts, and I said, 'Do what you have to do.' I knew that I thought he could do it."

Beamer, 32, an account manager for Oracle, called a stranger. He picked up a seat-back phone and hit "0," and at 9:45 a.m., he was connected first to a dispatcher for GTE Airfone, and then to Lisa Jefferson, the operator's supervisor.

For 13 minutes, Beamer told Jefferson everything he could, passing along information he gleaned himself and from a flight attendant. The passengers remained in their seats, she said he told her, and the flight attendants were forced to sit in the back of the plane.

He told her how much he loved his pregnant wife and two sons, and he asked her to call them. He asked her to recite the Lord's Prayer and 23rd Psalm with him.

Moments later, Beamer told Jefferson about the plan, that the passengers were going to run up the long, narrow aisle to the first-class cabin and attack the hijacker there.

"I'm going to have to go out on faith," Beamer said.

He turned to someone else, and he said, "Are you ready?" Then, in the last words Jefferson would hear from him, "OK. Let's roll."

Sandra Bradshaw, the flight attendant, also identified three hijackers when she called her husband in Greensboro, N.C. She had been moved to the back of the plane, she said, but she and other passengers had a plan. They were going to rush their captors; she was boiling water to throw on them.

Another passenger, Elizabeth Wainio, also apparently talked of a plan to rush the hijackers. In a call she made to her stepmother in Baltimore, using the cell phone lent to her by Lauren Grandcolas, she said, "I've got to go now, Mom, they're breaking into the cockpit," according to the mother of another passenger, who said she spoke with family members about the call. Wainio's parents declined comment.

The accounts of these calls — if accurate — would indicate that at least four people were somehow plotting to attack the hijackers. If Beamer's report is accurate, they were seated in different sections of the plane, with Bingham and Burnett up front, while the others were in the back.

It may be there were separate plans to take the plane or that somehow, amid all the telephone calls, chaos and fear, the passengers were able to communicate with each other.

If they did, they may have known they had another pilot among them, Donald Greene, chief executive officer of Safe Flight Instrument in New York. Greene, according to his family, knew anything and everything about airplanes.

At about 9:54 a.m., the plane started flying erratically. In Oak Brook, Ill., Jefferson heard screams in the background.

Two minutes later, the plane's flight plan changed. The destination airport was changed from San Francisco International to Ronald Reagan National Airport. Estimated time of arrival: 10:28 a.m.

At nearly the same moment, from the plane's bathroom, someone called 911, repeating that Flight 93 had been hijacked, that this was not a hoax.

Then, Marion Britton called a longtime friend, Fred Fiumano, at his New York City auto shop.

Britton, crying, told him the plane was turning around. It was going to go down.

"Don't worry about it," Fiumano said, trying desperately to reassure her. "They're only taking you for a ride."

He heard yelling and screaming in the background, and then the phone went dead. He tried to call the cellular-phone number back, but no one answered.

A few of the passengers expected they would win the battle. Before Lyzbeth Glick turned over the phone to her father because she couldn't bear to listen anymore, her husband told her, "Hang on the line. I'll be back."

At 10:03 a.m., a black crater bloomed in the soft earth of a field 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

The wife in California, the father-in-law in New York, the operator in suburban Chicago still held onto their phones.

They held on, waiting and hoping in the silence.

Tribune reporters Douglas Holt, Naftali Bendavid and Dan Mihalopoulos contributed to this report.