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Recording Captures Final Moments of Flight 93

Cathy Stefani lays a teddy bear by a flag angel bearing the name of her daughter, Nicole Miller, on the one-year anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Miller was on United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed in Shanksville, Penn.
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Cathy Stefani lays a teddy bear by a flag angel bearing the name of her daughter, Nicole Miller, on the one-year anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Miller was on United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed in Shanksville, Penn.

Jurors in the sentencing trial of Zacarias Moussaoui on Wednesday listened to the final, chaotic minutes aboard Flight 93, the United Airlines plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001.

The sounds of panic and violence were captured by the plane's cockpit recorder, which was recovered from the wreckage. As they listened to the audio, jurors also watched a computerized simulation of the plane's flight path -- based on a recovered flight data recorder -- as the events on the tape were unfolding.

Prosecutors say the recordings demonstrate the suffering caused by the hijacking, underscoring their contention that Moussaoui should get the death penalty. He has pleaded guilty to crimes including conspiracy to commit air piracy. Moussaoui is the only person charged in this country in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks.

The recording captures the last 30 minutes of the flight. It begins just after 9:30 a.m., after the cockpit has been seized. A hijacker, probably pilot Ziad Jarrah, tells passengers, "Ladies and gentlemen. Hear the captain. Please sit down, keep remaining seating. We have a bomb on board, so sit. "

Much of the recording is more difficult to interpret. The hijackers' initial announcement is followed by sounds of a struggle, and it is difficult to decipher what is occurring. The hijackers appear to be wrestling with and perhaps beating the pilot and co-pilot, saying "go ahead, lie down."

A voice is heard from the cockpit, possibly that of a flight crew member, saying, "Please, please don't hurt me... Oh God!" A crew member appears to be groaning, and says, "I don't want to die." After that, there are sounds that seem like cries of pain.

Sounds of a struggle continue in the cockpit for a few minutes. At 9:37 a.m., a hijacker says in Arabic, "Everything is fine. I finished."

At 9:39 a.m., the hijacker continues in English, saying," Here is the captain. I would like to tell you all to remain seated. We have a bomb aboard, and we are going back to the airport, and we have our demands. So, please remain quiet."

That warning is followed by sounds of air traffic on the cockpit recording. The simulation constructed from the plane's data recorder shows the 757 making a U-turn over Ohio, as Jarrah heads the plane southeast, toward Washington, D.C.

With the hijackers reciting, "In the name of Allah. I bear witness that there is no other God but Allah," and other religious incantations, the plane continued its descent, according to the computer simulation.

At 9:58 a.m., there are signs that passengers are trying to enter the cockpit and fight back. Soon, there's a loud and violent struggle as passengers try to break the door down.

Jurors could hear the sounds of crockery breaking; passengers may have used a service cart as a battering ram. Amid the loud banging noises, one of the hijackers says in Arabic, "Is there something? A fight? Yeah?" And later, "They want to get in there. Hold from the inside." At 10 a.m., a hijacker says, "I am injured."

The battle continues, and the hijackers rock the plane violently from side to side, perhaps to throw the passengers off balance.

Just after 10 a.m., a hijacker asks in Arabic,"Shall we finish it off?" Another responds in Arabic, "No. Not yet. When they all come, we finish it off."

Finally, the hijackers give up the fight, and repeatedly say, "Down. Down. Pull it down. Pull it down," as they push the controls to the right and down. The last words heard are repeated incantations in Arabic of "Allah is the greatest" as the jet plummets earthward, rolls onto its back, and smashes into the ground.

With reporting by Larry Abramson.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
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