In the final minutes of doomed United Air Lines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers try to shake off passengers trying to take control of the plane as it flies over Pennsylvania. Amid groans and sounds of a struggle, a voice says, “I am injured.” A hijacker asks, “Shall we finish it off?”
Moments later, the plane hurtles out of control to the ground, according to a cockpit voice recording played for a jury on Wednesday by federal prosecutors seeking the execution of Zacarias Moussaoui. The prosecutors figuratively placed the jury aboard the flight for its last heart-wrenching moments.
In the last five minutes of Flight 93, a passenger could be heard urging others to storm the cockpit and take on the hijackers because “if we don’t we die.”
It was the first time the 30-minute cockpit recording was played in public and the jury was transfixed by the words of both the hijackers who were believed to be aiming for the U.S. Capitol and the passengers who tried to stop them.
At one point, a voice is heard from the cockpit, possibly that of a flight crew member, saying, “Please don’t hurt me. Oh God!” A few seconds later, somebody says, three times, “I don’t want to die.”
The flight, one of four hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, crashed in a Pennsylvania field as passengers tried to retake it. The cockpit voice recording had not been played publicly before. It was played to culminate the prosecution’s case before the jury that will weigh whether to recommend the death sentence for Moussaoui, an admitted terrorist conspirator.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema decided the recording would only be played in court and not publicly released, though a transcript was made available.
Moussaoui showed little emotion in the courtroom, and sat back in his chair and stared at a screen where the transcript of the tape was shown.
Hijacker: ‘Bomb on board’
The recording began at 9:31 a.m. with the hijackers’ voice clearly stating “ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain ... we have a bomb on board, so sit.” For the next few minutes, passengers are repeatedly told, in English, “Don’t move,” “Shut up” “Sit,” and “down down down.”
The hijackers alternated between Arabic and English.
As the tape proceeded, it was clear that passengers were gaining the upper hand. During the flight some of the passengers learned via cell phone calls that three other planes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. Believing they were part of a fourth such plot, some of them stormed the cockpit to fight the hijackers.
A voice of a hijacker, presumably inside the cockpit, says, “They want to get in.” The voice continues, “Hold from within.” At 10 a.m., there is a voice that says, “I am injured.”
The recorded struggle began when the passengers apparently rolled food carts down the aisle to try to force open the door.
Attempt to get into cockpit
‘In Arabic someone says, “Is there something? A fight?” Another hijacker responds, “Yeah.”
“Roll it,” someone outside the cockpit yelled, apparently referring to the cart. “In the cockpit. If we don’t we die,” another voice said.
The pilot began rocking the plane from side to side and one of the hijackers yelled orders to cut off the oxygen. “Allah is the greatest” someone yelled right before the plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field.
As the jury heard the recording, prosecutors played a video presentation that simultaneously showed the flight path, speed and heading in a mockup similar to a flight simulator.
At 10:02 a.m., a hijacker says, “Give it to me. Give it to me.” At 10:03 a.m. the plane dives amid crashing sounds and the tape stops.
The plane had been headed for the U.S. Capitol, according to Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
The Boeing 757 had taken off from Newark, N.J., bound for San Francisco with 33 passsengers, seven crew members and four hijackers aboard.
Moussaoui: 'God curse you all'
The government rested its case just before 11:30 a.m. ET after the judge rejected prosecutors’ request to display a running presentation of the names and photos of all of the nearly 3,000 victims of Sept. 11. Prosecutors were instead allowed to show one large poster with the pictures of all but 92 of the victims.
There were three victim-impact witnesses who gave testimony following the broadcast of the Flight 93 tape in the courtroom.
The judge sent the jury home for the day and the defense will begin its case on Thursday. Just after that, Moussaoui shouted, “God curse you all!”
Moussaoui is the only person charged in this country in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. The jury deciding his 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.
Death or life in prison?
Now they must decide whether Moussaoui deserves execution or life in prison.
Defense lawyers say the jury should spare Moussaoui’s life because of his limited role in the attacks, evidence that he is mentally ill and because his execution would only play into his dream of martyrdom.
After several days of testimony related to the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the focus shifted Tuesday to the Pentagon, where the jury saw some of the most gruesome evidence in the trial.
Several photos showed badly burned bodies, facial features still discernible. Defense lawyers objected unsuccessfully to their display.
Lt. Col. John Thurman testified that when the Pentagon was hit, he thought a bomb had exploded, then later described a sensation similar to an earthquake as the plane moved under his second floor office.
Thurman crawled through the office, unable to lift his head above the carpet because the smoke was too intense. He said he felt an overwhelming need to take a nap and “that’s when it hit me: I’m going to die. And I got very angry. Angry that terrorists would take my life on the same day my parents were getting their first grandchild” (from his sister).
“I realized I had to get out. I pushed file cabinets with all of my strength and found an opening,” Thurman said.
Thurman left the Pentagon coughing up black soot and was taken to a hospital. He fully recovered from his injuries after a weeklong hospital stay that included a medically induced coma.
“I feel incredibly lucky,” he said. “But there’s guilt about getting the lucky break.”
Also on Tuesday, the judge issued an order requiring an unidentified individual to be produced for testimony. The order apparently applied to would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid — defense lawyers issued a subpoena last week seeking his testimony. Prosecutors had opposed the subpoena.
Moussaoui testified previously that he and Reid were going to hijack a fifth plane on Sept. 11 and fly it into the White House. The defense lawyers, who have tried to discredit their client’s credibility, have said Moussaoui is exaggerating his role in Sept. 11 to inflate his role in history.