Finding Solace in Flight 93: Courage in the Thick of Chaos

Among the Heroes: United Flight 93 & the Passengers & Crew Who Fought Back , by Jere Longman. HarperCollins, 288 pages, $24.95.

We all find our own ways into tragedy. In the weeks after 9/11, I heard a lot of “Have you been down there yet?” I hadn’t. But every morning on my way to work, I braced myself as the No. 1 train made its way toward the Cortlandt Street subway stop. This was my private ritual. As the train slowed and entered the station, I would crane my neck to take it all in. The darkened token booth. The piles of rubble beyond the turnstiles, spilling down the stairs. Bright orange tape making giant X’s between the columns on the edge of the platform. The train moved through the station at a funeral pace.

Over the weeks, I noted changes. A sign went up saying “Do Not Open Doors,” positioned where the conductor’s car would have stopped, and the rubble gradually disappeared. In truth, there wasn’t much to see in the Cortlandt Street station, but I suppose that was the point. I absorbed all there was, and then we were back in the blackness of the tunnel, where I felt a weird relief, embraced again by a void New Yorkers find routine.

A year later, I still haven’t been to Ground Zero. When I imagine going there, I experience a kind of panic, a fear of my own confusion. I worry I won’t know what it is I want to see, or how to decide what to rest my eyes on.

When the books about 9/11 started arriving at my office-over 100 have been published so far-I found myself avoiding the ones about what happened in New York. Instead, I picked up the book about the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, Jere Longman’s Among the Heroes: United Flight 93 & the Passengers & Crew Who Fought Back .

Flight 93 has become my new Cortlandt Street station. The event has a clear narrative shape, and it’s of manageable size. Mr. Longman pieces together what happened on the plane that morning in a measured voice that seems at first oddly flat, but gathers resonance. It steadies us as we confront a chaotic, horrific episode.

Among the Heroes has the combined appeal of a suspense novel, a sermon and an issue of People magazine. I’d even say it achieves a kind of quasi-literary power: There’s a certain amount we can learn about what happened aboard that plane, and what we learn sheds light on such abstractions as courage, community and the human spirit. But even as Mr. Longman patiently combs through the details, the definitive story remains just out of our reach. It invites us to wonder what exactly went on in those last moments, what kind of struggle the passengers put up, what the details of their plan were and which of them played what role, and how close they came to achieving their extraordinary coup over the hijackers.

Mr. Longman, a reporter for The New York Times , was able to interview the families of all but one of the 40 passengers and crew members, and he weaves capsule biographies together with the memories of family members telling how the passengers ended up on that flight-at least 15 of them were booked on it at the last minute-or how they got to the airport that morning. Some of the family members describe how they found out, minute by minute, what was happening, or how they reacted to the news that someone they loved was on board. Several family members recounted, word for word, their final phone conversations. Mr. Longman also presents a necessarily sketchy narrative of the final moments of the plane, gleaned from phone calls the passengers and crew made and from the cockpit audiotapes that the F.B.I. eventually let the families listen to. As the crash nears, he shows us the view from the ground, first through the eyes of stunned witnesses and then through the figure of the Shanksville, Penn., county coroner, whose work at the crash site continued until just before Christmas.

The 40 people hijacked on Flight 93 were a random group of ordinary Americans, and yet it’s hard not to see them as almost bizarrely well-suited to the life-or-death situation they faced. It’s not too much of a strain to imagine them succeeding in taking back the plane from the terrorists. There was a former national collegiate judo champion and several others who had practiced martial arts. There was a rugby player, a former cop and a federal agent trained in close-quarter fighting. There was even an air-traffic controller and a licensed pilot who could have landed the plane. As a group, they were also an almost perfectly diverse slice of America, a guaranteed pull at the patriotic heartstrings: They were men and women, young and old, white, black, Latino and Asian; they were gay and straight, married and single; there was even an advocate for the disabled.

It would’ve been easy to present a soft-focus portrait of these brave, doomed people, but Mr. Longman wisely interjects some jarring elements. He describes, for example, the animosity that developed between some of the families in the aftermath of 9/11, notably one group who felt that Lisa Beamer, the wife of Todd Beamer, was grabbing too much of the spotlight for herself, making her husband look like the only hero. But then Mr. Longman turns our attention back to the ways in which the families found solace. Here’s what some of them did, and what I did, too, as I read Among the Heroes : form a mental image of the final moments of Flight 93-and along with the terror, picture dignity, humanity and, perhaps improbably, hope.

Maria Russo is a senior editor at The Observer .