- Rick Reilly, Columnist, ESPN.com
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The first battle in the renewed war against terrorism wasn't waged in Fallujah or Kandahar or Tikrit. It was held 32,000 feet above Pittsburgh, on Sept. 11, 2001.
And it wasn't soldiers who led the battle.
It was four athletes, pushing a food cart.
United Flight 93 was supposed to go from Newark to San Francisco that Tuesday morning, but 31-year-old Jeremy Glick wasn't supposed to be on it.
He was supposed to go the day before, but a fire at Newark Airport forced him to re-book for the next day, one of the bloodiest in American history.
About 45 minutes into the flight, four radical Islamic terrorists stormed the cockpit, sliced the throats of the pilots and took charge. They told the 33 passengers and seven crew members they were hijacking the plane and returning to Newark.
Glick, a muscular 1993 national collegiate judo champion, scampered back to the second-to-last row and called his wife, Lyz. It wasn't long before he and the others -- talking to their families -- realized that nobody was going back to Newark. They were on board a 150,000-pound missile, bound for some unthinkable end. The World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon had already been hit. What was 93 aimed for?
"We're going to rush the hijackers," Glick told Lyz.
Horrified, she pictured the hijackers having machine guns.
"No," Jeremy said. "Box cutters."
And Lyz says, "I was thinking, 'OK, Jeremy can handle a man with a knife, no problem. With him being so strong, and with his experience in martial arts and judo, he's going to unleash some terrible force. That's no match for him.'"
Mark Bingham, 31, was back there with Glick. He'd won two national club rugby titles with Cal-Berkeley. He was huge, fierce, funny and, incidentally, gay. He once wrestled a gun from a mugger. A knife wasn't going to scare him.
"I remember Mark and his buddies got thrown off an entire island once," says his dad, Jerry. "He told me, 'Dad, we lost the match, but we won the fight.' I know how he was. He'd have been definitely been kickin' ass and takin' names."
The third was Oracle salesman Todd Beamer, 32, a former shortstop at Wheaton (Ill.) College, a basketball star, and a soccer player.
"I knew, when I saw what happened," says his dad, David, "that Todd would be part of that. Todd was not going to be sitting in his seat while somebody was trying to crash the plane."
The fourth was 38-year-old Tom Burnett, a former high school football star from Bloomington, Minn. These men became convinced that they had to stop the plane, even if they had to stop it with their lives.
"I know we're going to die," Burnett told his wife, Dina. "Some of us are going to do something about it."
There certainly were more passengers among the 33 on board who planned the insurrection and stormed the cockpit, but we know about these four. All of them jocks. All of them with the physical and mental training to rise up when all seems lost. This is the best guess of what they did:
"We're going to attack," Glick told Lyz. "I'm going to put the phone down. I love you. I'll be right back."
Lyz couldn't hold the line. What she was hearing was sending her body into convulsions. She handed the phone to her dad and walked into a different room.
Beamer revealed the same plan to the operator, Lisa Jefferson, who was sitting in a call center in Oakbrook, Ill. When it was time, he let the phone dangle so he could keep the line open in case he made it back alive. She heard Beamer say to the others, "Let's roll." It's a phrase that would later be stenciled on jet fighters, NASCAR rides and above locker room doors.
Using a food-service cart as a battering ram, the attackers raced up the aisle and smashed through the cockpit door. It was almost 10 a.m.
"My dad said first he heard a series of screams," Lyz recalls. "Then he heard another set of screams. Then it all sounded like a roller coaster, up and down. And then it just ... (pause) ... ended."
Officials believe that the terrorists, being buckled in, rocked the plane up and down violently, trying to fling the passengers against the ceiling. Excerpts of the cockpit voice recorder tape are chilling. (Words in parenthesis are translated from the Arabic.)
09:58:52 -- Stay back.
09:58:55 -- In the cockpit.
09:58:57 -- In the cockpit.
09:58:57 -- (They want to get in here. Hold, hold from the inside. Hold from the inside. Hold.)
09:59:04 -- Hold the door.
09:59:09 -- Stop him.
09:59:11 -- Sit down.
09:59:15 -- Sit down.
09:59:16 -- Unintelligible.
09:59:17 -- (What?)
09:59:18 -- (There are some guys. All those guys.)
09:59:20 -- Let's get them.
09:59:25 -- Sit down.
09:59:29 -- (What?)
09:59:36 -- Unintelligible.
09:59:42 -- (Trust in Allah, and in him.)
09:59:45 -- Sit down.
09:59:47 -- Unintelligible.
09:59:53 -- Ahh.
10:00:06 -- (There is nothing.)
10:00:07 -- (Is that it? Shall we finish it off?)
10:00:08 -- (No. Not yet.)
10:00:09 -- (When they all come, we finish it off.)
10:00:11 -- (There is nothing.)
10:00:13 -- Unintelligible.
10:00:14 -- Ahh.
10:00:15 -- I'm injured.
10:00:16 -- Unintelligible.
10:00:21 -- Ahh.
10:00:22 -- (Oh Allah. Oh Allah. Oh gracious.)
10:00:25 -- In the cockpit. If we don't, we'll die.
10:00:29 -- (Up, down. Up, down, in the) cockpit.
10:00:33 -- (The) cockpit.
10:00:37 -- (Up, down. Saeed, up, down.)
10:00:42 -- Roll it.
10:00:55 -- Unintelligible.
10:00:59 -- (Allah is the greatest. Allah is the greatest.)
10:01:01 -- Unintelligible.
10:01:08 -- (Is that it? I mean, shall we pull it down?)
10:01:09 -- (Yes, put it in it, and pull it down.)
10:01:11 -- (Saeed.)
10:01:12 -- ... engine ...
10:01:16 -- (Cut off the oxygen.)
10:01:18 -- (Cut off the oxygen. Cut off the oxygen. Cut off the oxygen.)
10:01:37 -- Unintelligible.
10:01:41 -- (Up, down. Up, down.)
10:01:41 -- (What?)
10:01:42 -- (Up, down.)
10:01:42 -- Ahh.
10:01:59 -- Shut them off.
10:02:03 -- Shut them off.
10:02:14 -- Go.
10:02:16 -- Move.
10:02:17 -- Turn it up.
10:02:18 -- (Down, down.)
10:02:23 -- (Pull it down. Pull it down.)
10:02:25 -- Down. Push, push, push, push, push.
10:02:33 -- (Hey. Hey. Give it to me. Give it to me.)
10:02:35 -- (Give it to me. Give it to me. Give it to me.)
10:02:40 -- Unintelligible.
United Flight 93 dove into a remote field in southwestern Pennsylvania, near Shanksville, killing all aboard. People 10 miles away said they felt the ground shake. It's believed the plane was headed for the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
"This was the first victory of the war," says David Beamer. "The Capitol dome still stands."
The hole left by the Boeing 757 was 24 feet wide and 18 feet deep. But the hole it put in those left behind sometimes feels even bigger.
This may be why Todd Beamer's wife, Lisa, does not talk about 9/11 or Shanksville or "Let's roll." She is raising her three kids -- 13, 11 and 9 -- alone. She didn't remarry.
In Church Hill, Tenn., Mark Bingham's dad doesn't need an anniversary to remember his son. He thinks about him every day.
"I haven't been right since," Jerry Bingham says, crying softly. "We work on it every day. You think you're gettin' through it, but you don't. You just don't. Not a day goes by that it's not on your mind, ever."
But not all his memories are painful. President Bush invited the Flight 93 families to the White House the week after 9/11. Afterward, the families were being escorted out the back way of the east wing. They were surprised to turn a corner and see that 150 to 200 White House workers had lined up on either side of them. They were applauding.
"The dishwashers, the cooks, the maids, the busboys," says Bingham. "They were clapping for us. They were thanking us. It just tore me up. And we were all crying and hugging each other. I'll never forget it."
Lyz Glick refuses to forget, too. She's turned Jeremy's heroics into Jeremy's Heroes, a non-profit organization that has helped thousands of young public school athletes who otherwise couldn't afford to train. "That's helped us to heal the most," she says.
What's also helped is something Jeremy said in her 27 minutes with him on that phone call. "Whatever decisions you make in your life," he said, "I need you to be happy and I will respect any decisions that you make.'"
Lyz was married to her grief for so long. She would continually call Jeremy's cell phone, just to hear his voice, over and over. Fold his clothes. Re-live the call and hope it was enough.
Finally, years later, she married Jeremy's best friend and best man, Jim Best. She has three kids -- one by Jeremy, age 10, and two with Jim, 4 and 2.
Many of the families of the Flight 93 victims have stayed close. So close, in fact, 24 of them will run in the New York City Marathon in November as a team, led by the sister, Kiki, of one of the slain pilots, Leroy Homer, a former high school track star.
You might recognize them. They'll probably be wearing T-shirts that read: They didn't quit. Neither will we.
Over 50,000 mementos, gifts and testimonials have been left at the battle site in Shanksville. Kids leave their favorite stuffed animals. People write long, emotional thanks on everything from granite stones to paper plates. One Vietnam vet left his purple heart.
Many of the families will be there Saturday, Sept. 10, for one final burial ceremony.
And yet 10 years later, the memorial that was promised these 40 people hasn't been delivered. The Flight 93 National Memorial is still $10 million short of completion. There is still no visitor's center to teach, no Tower of Voices to listen, and no 40 groves of trees to honor.
"I'm 69 years old," says David Beamer. "I'd like to see the thing get done in my lifetime. If you and everybody you know can make one little sacrifice -- one hour of your income -- we could get this done tomorrow."
I sent an hour's pay not just to honor the passengers of Flight 93 but also to thank them. My niece was working in the Capitol that day. This spring, she had her second baby.
To send your hour's pay, go to www.honorflight93.org.
The passengers aboard Flight 93 saved hundreds of lives -- if not thousands -- in 35 minutes. We've had 10 years.
It's a hole we need to fill.
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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "SportsCenter" and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.
Feel like taking a detour from sane sports? Try Rick's latest book, "Sports from Hell."