September was the horror month and for a chosen few April will be, as Eliot wrote, “the cruelest month.” On the 18th, in a secluded room in Princeton, New Jersey, the families of the forty passengers and crew members killed in the terrorist crash of United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania will hear the onboard voice recording of the last 30 minutes of the flight.
The FBI had resisted the first request of the survivors to hear the tape, but finally relented and agreed to the private playing. Those who have heard it or read the transcript say it reveals little of the drama aboard except for the last few minutes. One of the hijackers is heard to shout, “They’re coming.” Presumably a warning that four passengers and two flight attendants were coming down the aisle to try and wrest control of the cockpit from the four who had overcome the pilots. As we know, cell phone conversations from loved ones on the ground had told some passengers the grim reality: that other commandeered planes had struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
On the voice tape there is the sound of scuffling, a woman begs for her life, several cries of “Allah is great!” and what may be dishes smashing, a throat-like gurgling, and the warning tones generated when an aircraft exceeds safe speed for its altitude. Sounds picked up from the pilots’ headsets and a cockpit roof microphone. All subject to interpretation. And now all to be listened to by loved ones straining to detect a voice somewhere in the jumble of noise that might have been — well, could have been, might have been. And mental pictures of where he or she was sitting when the sound was heard, a straining, hopeless reconstruction of unspeakable moments.
The true story of flight 93 is not on this tape. It is in the conversations, many of them, on cell phones between passengers and loved ones. Last words of devotion, the Lord’s Prayer, and decision. Passenger Todd Beamer’s immortalized words heard on the phone he had just put down: “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.”
The decision to travel to Princeton and to be transported back into the September skies of Pennsylvania is a personal one and not subject to interpretation by any outsider.
Outsiders can do but one thing on April 18: pray that it helps.
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