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The stream of calls to say 'I love you'

Final Moments

Michael McCarthy
Thursday 13 September 2001 00:00 BST

They were the most terrible goodbyes imaginable.

They were the most terrible goodbyes imaginable.

As the four hijacked planes at the centre of America's terrorist nightmare sped towards their doom on Tuesday morning, several passengers managed to make anguished, frantic or unbearably poignant calls to their loved ones on their mobile phones.

Most realised they would shortly be dead, but even in their final terrified minutes aboard aircraft, with their pilots disabled, managed to shout from the sky the short but essential message, the core of all human relationships: I love you.

Try as one can, it remains hard to imagine the effect of receiving such a call from spouse or from child. The familiar ringing tone. The familiar voice at the end of the line. Then the horrific realisation of what the message is, and the terrible impotence to do anything about it.

In San Francisco, Mrs Alice Hoglan picked up her phone at home about 9.45am to hear the voice of her son, Mark Bingham, 31, calling from the air on the other side of America.

Mr Bingham was one of 38 passengers and seven crew on United Airlines flight 93, the Boeing 757 from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, which was now hijacked and en route, it is believed, to crash onto the presidential retreat at Camp David.

"He said, 'I want you to know I love you very much, in case I don't see you again,'" Mrs Hoglan said yesterday, holding her head in her hands. "He said, 'I'm in the air. I'm calling on the air phone of the airplane. We've been taken over. There are three men that say they've got a bomb.'

"He repeated that he loved me. I told him we all love him. Then he became distracted, as if someone was speaking to him. He said something to the effect that it was true. Then the phone went dead."

Mrs Hoglan said her only consolation was that her son, a well-built public relations executive, might have played a role in preventing the plane from hitting its target. "This was the only flight of the four that did not reach its target, which they believed to be Camp David, and that gives us reason to believe that perhaps Mark was able to help save the lives of people on the ground," she said. "We hope that Mark was able to take an active stand against these folks."

Her belief is reinforced by another mobile call made from flight 93, from a businessman, Thomas E. Burnett Jnr, 38-year-old senior vice-president and chief operating officer of Thoratec Corp – one that was just as poignant, but also determined.

Mr Burnett managed to reach his wife Deena in her San Francisco home and according to the Revd Frank Colacicco, his family priest, told her: "I love you, honey. I know we're all going to die – but there's three of us who are going to do something about it."

It is possible that a brave onboard struggle to overpower the hijackers caused the final crash of Flight 93, south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylania.

But a third call from the same doomed plane was only terror and heartbreak. One of the five flight attendants, CeeCee Lyles, in tears, managed to reach her husband at home in Fort Myers, Florida. Her aunt, Mareya Schneider said yesterday: "She called him and let him know how much she loved him and the boys. People were screaming in the background and she said, 'we've been hijacked' and then the phone went dead."

More such anguished messages were tumbling out of the sky from the other aircraft hijacked on Tuesday morning. On American Airlines flight 77, the Boeing 757 en route from Dulles Airport near Washington to Los Angeles with 58 passengers and six crew, Barbara Olson, a 45-year-old right-wing lawyer turned TV commentator, sized up the hijack situation, locked herself in the plane's lavatory, and twice called her husband – one of the American Government's senior legal officials, the U.S. Solicitor-General Theodore Olson.

She managed to reach him in his office at the Justice Department and told him that the plane had been taken over by men wielding "box cutters and knives." She was cut off. She called back. She asked her husband, bravely: "What do I tell the pilot to do?" Those were her last words. Seconds later, having made the short trip from Dulles to Washington itself, the plane plunged into side of the Pentagon and killed everyone on board.

Mrs Olson was a former congressional investigator, federal prosecutor and aide to Senate Minority Whip Don Nickles, who later became a television commentator and wrote a book critical of Hillary Clinton. She had originally been scheduled to leave Washington on Monday but decided to stay behind for an extra day so she could have breakfast with her husband on his birthday on Tuesday.

Mr Olson said simply yesterday: "She called from the plane while it was being hijacked. I wish it wasn't so. But it is."

At least one passenger on one of the planes which hit the towers of the World Trade Centre managed to make a call on his mobile before the end. Massachusetts-based Peter Hanson was travelling with his wife Susan and two-year-old daughter Christine on United Airlines flight 175, the Boeing 767 bound from Boston to Los Angeles with 56 passengers and nine crew on board, which hurtled into the second of the giant towers.

Mr Hanson called his parents in Easton, Conneticut and managed to tell them that a stewardess had been stabbed before being cut off. They were reluctant to speak further of the call. "All I want to say is they went down together," said Hanson's mother, Eunice. "They stayed together in death. That's the only consolation I have."

Altogether 266 passengers and crew died on the four jets. Apart from the hijackers themselves, who probably totalled between 10 and 20 men, they were a cross-section of the middle to top end of contemporary American society, taking early-morning transcontinental business flights from the East to the West Coast of the US.

They ranged from the creator of Frasier and the widow of Anthony Perkins, to an electronics industry boss, the youthful founder of an internet company, from a Georgetown University professor to two senior officials of the Los Angeles Kings ice hockey team.

David Angell, 54, was a writer on the American television comedy series Cheers about life in a Boston bar, who realised that one of the characters merited a series of his own. He moved Frasier Crane, the psychiatrist, to Seattle and gave him a radio show, and the character, played by Kelsey Grammer, became one of the best-loved figures in America.

Mr Angell, who lived in Pasadena, California and was executive producer on the show, died with his wife Lynn when American Airlines flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles became the first plane to hit the Word Trade Centre.

His colleagues, Peter Casey and David Lee, who worked with him on the comedy Wings, paid tribute to him in a joint statement. "He was a kind and gentle man with a quiet exterior that masked one of the sharpest comedy minds ever to write for television," they said. "His fingerprints are all over some of the funniest moments in Cheers, Wings and Frasier." Paramount, which produced Frasier, said the company was "devastated", adding that Mr Angell would be missed for his "grace, humour and talent". Production of the series has been suspended.

Others who died aboard the four planes included the actress and photographer Berry Berenson, 53, the widow of actor Anthony Perkins and sister of actress Marisa Berenson, and Daniel C. Lewin, 31, co-founder of Akamai Technologies, a high profile and successful young company company that offers technology to speed the delivery of internet information.

The full passenger lists were emerging last night. And names are all that remains.

For such was the violence of the explosions when the four aircraft went down that it is seems likely there is actually nothing left of the men, women and children who boarded their last flights in Boston, Washington and Newark, all thinking they were bound for California on a beautiful autumn morning.

They have been vaporised.

Yet amidst the horror of it, the memory will endure of Mark Bingham, and Thomas E Burnett, Jnr, and CeeCee Lyles, and the others who managed to call those close to them in their final terrifying minutes and give them that life-affirming message in the very face of death.

As they fell out of the sky over America they proved incontestably true Philip Larkin's simple but unforgettable line: What will survive of us is Love.

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