6 foot 4 inch, 225 pound Mark Bingham was the last person to board United Flight 93, having arrived late, nearly missing the flight.
Bingham was openly and proudly gay. He was well known and much loved in San Francisco’s gay community. He was a public relations executive, a graduate of UC Berkeley, an athlete with a very considerate, chivalrous, caring and creative personality. He has become perhaps the first openly gay, great American patriotic figure and an icon for the gay community.
His friend Hani Durzy says Bingham once fought off a mugger who had a gun:
“Mark knew how to use his size and would get into situations without thinking about it – which used to amuse us and scare us. I think he knew himself that was not anyone’s idea of a typical gay man.”
Bingham’s friend and roommate Per Casey:
“He didn’t politicize his sexuality at all. It’s ironic that in death he is being celebrated for something he did not think was worth politicizing, and that’s lucky for all of us, and unlucky for people who are biased against us. What he did is both inconceivable and great.”
“My feeling is that if told he would become a Gay Icon he would laugh. Then he would sit back and think: ‘but if this is going to do some good for the gay community, then so be it… good’.”
Bingham had overslept on that morning and the friend with whom he had been staying, Matthew Hall, drove as fast as possible to get him from Manhattan to Newark, screeching to a halt outside the terminal at 7:40 am. Bingham jumped from the car, slinging his canvas duffel bag. He ran to the gate, down the ramp, boarded the Boeing 757, and sat down in seat 4D, first-class, just behind the cockpit. Then he called Hall: “Hey, it’s me. Thanks for driving to get me here. I’m in first-class, drinking a glass of orange juice”.
United Flight 93 was scheduled to take off at 8:01am. It pulled away from the gate, but was then delayed for 41 minutes, leaving the passengers to sit and wait onboard before taking off on what should have been a six hour flight across the USA to San Francisco.
Two men aboard had stayed at the Marriott at Newark’s Liberty International Airport, paying cash for their rooms and expensive meals: Ahmed al-Haznawi, a student from Saudi Arabia and Ziad Jarrah from Lebanon. They also sat in first-class, with a colleague, blending in, as they had been trained to do.
After 41 minutes of sitting, waiting and complaining by the passengers, United Flight 93 moved down the runway, light with passengers and heavy with fuel. The view of lower Manhattan was probably dazzling with the World Trade Center Towers glimmering in a blue September sky. Coffee and breakfast were served.
At 9.30 am, three men with red bandannas suddenly rushed towards the cockpit. Air traffic controllers in Cleveland picked up this message: “Hey, get out of here!” It had begun. Cleveland could hear an announcement, probably from one of the terrorists having flipped the wrong switch, with a message he thought he was delivering over the PA:
“There is a bomb on board, we are meeting their demands. We are heading back to the airport.”
The airplane began to gain altitude.
The tape recording from the cockpit is a 30 minute loop, beginning with screaming, and someone pleading not to be hurt or killed. Shortly afterwards, both pilots were seen lying motionless on the floor just outside the first-class curtain, with their throats cut, according to a passenger. United Flight 93 had changed course and was heading for Washington DC.
Final words of love and goodbyes were sent, with passengers passing their phones to strangers. Through these calls those aboard learned what had been happening that morning.
The first call answered was by Deena Burnett, wife of Tom Burnett, the passanger sitting next to Bingham. Deena Burnett:
“Are you okay?”
“No, we’ve been hijacked. They’ve knifed a guy; there’s a bomb on board; tell the authorities, Deena.”
Bingham’s call to his mother was oddly succinct:
“This is Mark Bingham. I love you.”
Bingham’s friend and former employer Holland Carney, has written that Bingham’s economy of language was the first indication of revolt aboard United Flight 93:
“He would not have said anything about what he intended to do. I remember him coming to work one day with a huge black eye. I asked what had happened. He said two guys had jumped him and he had fought them off. I said that was dangerous, better to give them the money, but he would have none of it. That would have been him on the plane. He was not someone afraid to act.”
Burnett made another call home, by which time his wife was watching the World Trade Center Towers collapse on television news. Burnett asked: “Are they commercial planes?”
Deena Burnett later related:
“Tom said he was going to have to go out on faith because they were talking about jumping the guy with the bomb. He was still holding the phone, but he was not talking to me, he was talking to someone else and I could tell he had turned away. He said: ‘You ready? Okay, let’s roll’.”
The terrorists had formidable opposition: one passenger was a 6 foot 1 inch Judo champion, Bingham was a rugby player. Burnett had been a college quarterback. Among the other passengers there was a weightlifter and a former Marine paratrooper.
No one will ever know how the plan to attack the terrorists was hatched, but experts listening to the tapes agree that the scuffle began not at the back of the plane but at the front, where Bingham and Burnett were seated.
“Tom, sit down. Don’t draw attention to yourself.”
“If they’re going to run this plane into a building, we’re going to do something.”
The cockpit recorder picks up the sounds of fighting, the crash of trolleys, and dishes being smashed. The terrorists scream at each other to hold the door against what is obviously a siege from the cabin. A passenger cries: “Let’s get them!” Then there is more screaming.
Across Somerset County, Pennsylvania, farmers and commuters watched a plane rock and sway in the sky and then crash down to earth.
Bingham, Burnett and the others saved many lives and probably our country’s Capitol Building. But the richness of Bingham’s part in the tale is that he so narrowly failed to save himself and the other passengers. Carney:
“I can so much more easily imagine Mark bouncing out of the wreckage of the plane punching a high five and saying: ‘we got the bastards’.”
My husband and I had stood on the very top of one of the World Trade Center Towers on our 20th anniversary, a gorgeous October evening in 1999, watching the skyscrapers of Manhattan turn pink in the sunset. I thought of that day as we watched the news from our Seattle bungalow on 9/11. We actually watched as that second jet flew into a tower.
We would leave Seattle after 20 years and move to our new home in Portland just a few weeks after the towers fell. It was an unsettling time with so much to be afraid of, a new world, a new city, a new home, a new start. I would read Portraits Of Grief, the daily special section of the NY Times with the photos and short biographical sketches of the victims. I cried every day for weeks. The day I read about Bingham, I was transformed. I had lost one of my own. The more I discovered about him, the more I felt that I had my own personal Gay Hero: a gay jock, a bear, a good guy, a brave man.
The first tree I planted in the garden of my new home was a small graceful Japanese maple. I dedicated the tree to Bingham. I prayed for the first time in years:
“God bless my big gay hero Mark Kendall Bingham.”
Years earlier, Bingham had written:
“We have the chance to be role models for other gay folks who wanted to play sports, but never felt good enough or strong enough. This is a great opportunity to change a lot of people’s minds, and to reach a group that might never have had to know or hear about gay people. Let’s go make some new friends and win a few games.”