Greenberg: Remembering the heroes of Flight 93

Visitors to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Visitors to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., participate in a sunset memorial service. (Sept. 10, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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It was one of those morning flights. Routine. The ETD went up on the computer screens at Newark Airport along with all the others.

The passengers on United Flight 93, the regularly scheduled morning flight from Newark to San Francisco, drifted by or dropped out or rushed over at their own pace, each in their own state of composure or hurry.

Some called home, others the office. Many were already entering that altered state of consciousness that airline passengers will slip into once they've checked their baggage, and have nothing to do but wait, read, get a cup of coffee, turn on their laptop. ... Yes, routine.

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From here on in, they could leave the driving -- or rather flying -- to others. To the pilots, flight attendants, ground crew, air traffic controllers. ... They were in that strange country called In Transit, or call it life in pause.

All in all, it can be a nice break, air travel, once you're past the check-in hassle and have given yourself time to relax. If you're not the too-active type with something always to do.

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Unlike the flight attendants. They have check-lists to go over and a host of other details to tend to. One of them, CeeCee Lyles, still had time to call her husband, which she did several times a day. They were that kind of couple. A cop, he was just finishing a quiet overnight shift as a patrolman in Fort Myers, Fla., when CeeCee phoned him as she was getting aboard the flight attendants' shuttle to the airport, telling him which bills to be sure to pay, what was on his Honey-Do list that day, that kind of domestic detail.

When she got to the airport, she called again. There didn't seem to be too many passengers on the flight list for United 93, she told him. "I've got an easy day," she said.

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The crew was well-trained, their instructions in case of an emergency spelled out long ago: If they found themselves in the middle of a hijacking, they were to stay calm and phone the cockpit, using an innocuous word like "trip" to alert the pilots, as in "I need to talk to you about the trip." The crew's order of priorities in such a case was clear: Take care of yourself and the passengers. Get the plane down without further incident. Do whatever the hijackers wanted. Don't try to be a hero.

The flight attendant's manual was quite specific on that point: "Be persuasive to stay alive. Be released or escape. Delay. Engage in comfortable behavior. Be yourself. Maintain a professional role...." This manual was a step-by-step guide to passivity. Everything had been anticipated. Almost.

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When it happened, word got out phone call by phone call. Fred Fiumano, who ran Fred's Auto Repair in Queens, picked up the phone to find an old friend, Marion Britton, on the line. She was sobbing. Her flight had been hijacked, she told him, and two people aboard had already been killed. "They slit their throats." It's one of the details that stays in your mind, and gut, even a dozen years later.

It's something else to remember if and when the trials begin for some of our cosseted guests at Guantanamo, with their regular exercise periods, certified diets, prayer breaks ... all of them treated like prisoners of war even if they're not. Even if they're illegal combatants. The kind who don't wear the uniform of the enemy, if it has one, and who slit women's throats with box cutters. Oh, brave jihadi!

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The cowardice, the bloodthirstiness, the death worship of these fanatics ... all of those provide another reason to vow never to imitate them, but to do justice without a trace of vengeance, by the book, without passion or malice. Cold, correct, legal. For we are Americans, and have a civilization to defend, not dishonor.

There were 40 Americans aboard United 93 -- two pilots, five flight attendants, 33 passengers. All ordinary people, we would be told, who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances, and rose to the challenge. But looking over their concise biographies, a newspaper columnist who needs and wants to write about them, who must write about them, especially today of all days, realizes anew that there is no such thing as an ordinary American.

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Every time you hear some talking head or a certified pundit or distinguished politician talk about how ordinary Americans think or feel about this issue or that, you can be sure only that you're hearing from somebody too lazy to think this thing through -- a clod-in-mind.

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Todd Beamer, a crackerjack salesman, would lead the charge down the aisle with a cry that is now part of American history. "Let's Roll!"

No, he was not ordinary. Neither was Toshiya Kuge, a 20-year-old college exchange student from Japan who was returning home to complete his sophomore year as a science-and-engineering major at a university in Tokyo. "He longed to come to America," his mother Yachiyo would say later. "Perhaps he liked the freedom." She would add: "He had a very strong sense of what the right course in life was." He was already an American in spirit.

Nor was there anything ordinary about Jeremy Glick, who'd been a college wrestler. He would join the charge down the aisle with everything he had, which was considerable. A man's man, he was just a great big softie when he was with his infant daughter. Being a daddy will do that -- turn the roughest roughneck, the burliest tough guy, into a gentle giant.

There was nothing gentle about the fury these passengers unleashed when they realized what was going on, and what had already happened to other flights, those that had crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and what these cutthroats -- literally -- had in mind: an attack on another emblematic American landmark, maybe the Capitol, maybe the White House. Whatever their objective, they never reached it.

Instead, the 127-ton Boeing 757 with a fuel capacity of 11,500 gallons of high-octane aviation fuel went down in a fiery crash in a Pennsylvania field that is now hallowed ground.

Did the passengers ever breach the cockpit? All the voice recorder caught was the sounds of struggle and confusion. Did they wrestle with the hijackers for the controls? It doesn't matter. They fought back.

Ordinary? These first Americans to fight back in the war against terror? These 40 Americans who were told to be quiet and do as the enemy told them? Never.

Paul Greenberg is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.

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