The grandfather of the youngest victim of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, testifying at Zacarias Moussaoui’s sentencing trial Monday, described watching on television as the plane carrying his son and granddaughter hit the World Trade Center.
The wrenching first-person account of the day’s horrors came on the same day that the judge in the death-penalty trial warned prosecutors against relying too heavily on such emotional testimony to influence Moussaoui’s jury.
NBC News’ Pete Williams reported that because of objections from family members of those who died onboard Flight 93, the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema had ruled that the audiotape of the cockpit voice recorder will not be released after it is played in court for the jury.
Instead, the written transcript will be released to the public. The cockpit tape will be played in court on Tuesday or Wednesday, Williams reported.
The grandfather who testified, C. Lee Hanson, said his son, Peter, was calling from the plane. “As we were talking he said, very softly, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!’” The 73-year-old Hanson was describing the moment before he watched the plane become the second to hit the twin towers on that fateful day.
A trip to Disneyland
A few minutes before, Hanson said, Peter had told him he thought the hijackers were going to crash the plane into a building, and his son told him, “Don’t worry, Dad. If it happens, it will be quick.”
Sue and Peter Hanson were on their way from Boston to Los Angeles to visit the grandparents and take their then-2½-year-old girl, Christine, to Disneyland.
The grandfather said that medical examiners asked him in the days after the attacks to retrieve DNA samples from the family home to identify remains.
The grandfather said it was “probably one of the worst things I ever did in my life. I was picking hair out of hair brushes, putting toothbrushes into bags.”
He said the only remains that were ever found was a bone of his son, a few inches long.
‘All I see is smoke’
Prosecutors played a 911 emergency call made by a woman trapped on the 83rd floor of the World Trade Center's south tower on Sept. 11.
"It's very, very, very hot," Melissa Doi frantically told the 911 operator. "All I see is smoke. I'm going to die, aren't I? I'm going to die, I know I'm going to die."
The operator tried to calm her, saying rescue workers were on the way. Doi could be heard yelling "Help! Help!" at the end of the tape.
Another 911 tape was played with a video of the south tower before and as it collapsed. Kevin Cosgrove was trapped there and could be heard angrily asking the 911 operator when and how he would be rescued.
"I can barely breathe now. ... I can't see. ... I need oxygen," he said. He yelled "Oh, God" as the tower started to collapse and the call cut off.
Different impacts, different lives
Many witnesses broke into tears as they were asked to describe victims' wedding photos or pictures with children.
Ronald Clifford described helping a severely burned woman after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. He sat and prayed with her as the second airplane crashed into the building.
He only realized later that his sister and niece were on that second aircraft.
Harry Waizer, who ran Cantor Fitzgerald's tax department on Sept. 11, spoke of beating out flames in an elevator and getting hit by a "fire ball" that left him severely burned. He spent five months in the hospital and remains injured.
Brinkema’s caution to prosecutors came after complaints from the defense lawyers that a stream of victim-impact testimony last week would be overly prejudicial to the jury that must decide if Moussaoui is to be executed.
On Monday, prosecutors told the judge they would display fewer family photos and would try to keep testimony from each witness under 30 minutes.
Caution on emotionalism
Brinkema acknowledged that there is no way to avoid emotional testimony in this case, but reminded prosecutors that overly prejudicial testimony can be grounds for overturning a death sentence on appeal.
“You may pay a price for that down the road,” she told prosecutors.
The first witness on Monday, a Massachusetts assistant principal named John Creamer, described the effect of his wife Tara’s death on the couple’s two children.
Creamer said he sought advice from a child psychologist on informing his then-4-year-old son about his mother’s death.
“How do you tell your child their mom is dead and she isn’t coming back?” Creamer said, fighting back tears.
Prosecutors have said that about 45 such witnesses will testify — compared, they noted, with the nearly 3,000 people who died that day.
Painful memories recounted
The jury already had heard about a half-dozen painful accounts of the human toll exacted in the airborne attacks. They included a New York City firefighter whose friend and mentor was killed when he was struck by the body of a person who jumped from one of the towers to avoid being burned alive, and the suicide note of a woman who lost her husband when his plane crashed into the towers.
Moussaoui is the only person charged in this country in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. The jury deciding his sentencing fate has already declared him eligible for the death penalty by determining that his actions caused at least one death on 9/11.
Even though he was in jail in Minnesota at the time of the attacks, the jury ruled that lies told by Moussaoui to federal agents a month before the attacks kept them from identifying and stopping some of the hijackers.
Now they must decide whether Moussaoui deserves execution or life in prison.
Defense lawyers hope the jury will spare Moussaoui’s life because of his limited role in the attacks, evidence of mental illness and because they say his execution would only fuel his dream of martyrdom.