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By ED RUNYAN
One of the most traumatic days in American history included an episode that began 35,000 feet above Howland as terrorists seized the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 93.
The day, the loss, the ramifications changed America – changes we still experience today.
But unreported until today was the exact Flight 93 path over the Mahoning Valley. These are details that, 15 years later, bring new shock and awe to a generation-defining event.
“When you saw this Shanksville flight – this is the route it took, and you think how close overhead this is all going on – and there’s basically nothing you can do,” said William Rausch of Howland Springs Road. Near his property, the ill-fated flight crossed.
Traveling from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, Flight 93 had just crossed over state Route 11 near state Route 82 in Howland when the aircraft made an unexpected drop in altitude.
It was 9:28 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001, and the Boeing 757 with 37 passengers and seven crew aboard dropped from 34,997 feet to 34,947 feet.
Robert Franz, a park ranger at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., says such a drop may seem insignificant, but it wasn’t.
“You don’t lose 50 feet in altitude” like that without permission, Franz said. In the next five seconds, as the aircraft passed over Howland Springs Elementary School on Howland Springs Road, it dropped another 190 feet.
Six seconds after that, as the plane traveled above Warren, one of the pilots gave the first obvious indication that Flight 93 had become the fourth of four hijacked flights that day.
Some of these details were pulled from Flight 93 GPS coordinates Franz released to The Vindicator for this story.
He also provided analysis of the actions likely taking place based on the plane’s movement. A time line on the Flight 93 website tells more of the story and adds to Franz’s analysis.
It’s over the Warren area that the sound of scuffling could be heard inside the cockpit, and one of the pilots declared “mayday.”
Thirty-five seconds later, as the plane was likely heading through western Trumbull County, one of the pilots was heard shouting, “Hey get out of here – get out of here – get out of here!”
By this point, the plane had dropped close to 700 feet in altitude.
Air traffic controllers in Cleveland, hearing the struggle, the mayday and other calls, attempted to communicate with the pilots but were unsuccessful.
A couple minutes later, at
9:32 a.m., after the plane’s autopilot had started to resume the intended altitude of 35,000 feet, one of the terrorists, apparently out of breath, could be heard giving instructions to the passengers.
“Ladies and Gentlemen: Here the captain, please sit down keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board. So sit.” The terrorist, believed to be Ziad Jarrah, 26, of Lebanon, the only Flight 93 terrorist trained to fly the aircraft, then programmed it to turn around. It headed east toward Washington, D.C., according to the time line.
By this time, two other hijacked aircraft had already crashed into the World Trade Center buildings in New York, and President George W. Bush had just begun a national address from Florida, saying, “Today we’ve had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.”
The flight line over Columbiana County was diagonal – entering the airspace in the northwest corner of the county and exiting in the southeast corner. During this time, it was making a rapid descent – dropping almost 20,000 feet in those few minutes. Franz believes it was an errant attempt by the terrorists to evade radar.
It would be only 36 minutes from the Howland event until Flight 93 crashed into a field in Shanksville, killing all aboard.
The story of how the passengers made phone calls to relatives and learned of the other hijackings is well-known. The passengers, realizing that Flight 93 was probably headed to another target, stormed the cockpit just east of Pittsburgh, and the terrorists aimed the aircraft down into the field.
“Put it in, and pull it down,” one of the hijackers could be heard saying just before impact.
Franz, who was an instructor pilot in the Army, said the takeover apparently began close to Route 11, with the first drop in altitude being recorded at GPS coordinates associated with an address on Stillwagon Road. The flight path took it over the woods behind Howland Springs Elementary School.
The second GPS location, reflecting a 190-foot drop in elevation five seconds later, occurred just south of Howland Springs Road between Forest Springs Drive and Springwood Trace.
William and Catherine Rausch of Howland Springs Road, who live near that flight line, said they have vivid memories of Sept. 11, 2001, and experienced the fears most Americans did that morning.
Catherine watched television and gave news updates to her husband, who was at work at Delphi Packard Electric.
Among Catherine’s concerns was whether her neighborhood might be in danger because of its proximity to the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport. The couple’s son was working at a hospital in Cleveland, and news reports were indicating a hijacked plane could be headed his way, she said.
“That was terrifying. You’re always raised to feel so safe. And it almost didn’t seem real until the second plane hit, and everything blew,” she said of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
William observed on the news the flight path of Flight 93 seemed to be over this part of Ohio.
But he never knew how close until now for this Vindicator story.
One thing that came to William’s mind was the brave decision among passengers to act against the terrorists about 30 minutes after the plane passed through Howland.
“It makes you feel so sorry for those people because they had to ride for so long with that. And what they did was amazing. You know you’re going against armed hijackers,” he said.
The Vietnam veteran who was an aircraft electrician said the Sept. 11 attacks were unsettling.
“The thought of how vulnerable the country was. But that’s a part of our independence, our freedoms, in not being strip-searched all the time. And you wonder, ‘How do you stop it? How do you stop a terrorist from walking into the Eastwood Mall?’ It changes your whole outlook of the country.”
Stacey Pappada, whose property on Stillwagon was identified through GPS as roughly the spot where the plane was hijacked, said she was in classes at Youngstown State University that morning. She remembers students were told to “stay put” and later told to “go straight home” in case the university
would become a terrorist target.
She had no way of knowing the home she went to was 6.6 miles below the frightening events in the cockpit of Flight 93.
“It’s scary,” she said. “You don’t know what’s flying overhead.”
On Sept. 11, the skies were perfectly clear, Franz said. Flight 93, for anyone who may have been looking skyward, would have been visible.
Franz, who gives programs to visitors to the Flight 93 National Memorial, said the unexpected drops in altitude as the plane crossed Trumbull County indicate a struggle was taking place between the pilots and the terrorists.
“My assumption would be that something is maybe being pushed on the control, the yoke, and maybe is pushing the nose forward slightly. And if you push the nose forward slightly ... then the plane is going to begin a dive,” he said.
Franz has acquired data in the several years he has been a park ranger. The GPS coordinates and altitude data he acquired came from the Federal Aviation Administration, which would have probably gotten it from the plane’s transponder. That data enable controllers to track planes and keep them separated from each other in the sky.
Franz said one lessons Eastern Ohio residents can take from the Flight 93 data is that no one can assume we are safe from devastating events, even if we are far from large population centers.
For example, if the hijacking over Trumbull County would have unfolded differently, the plane could have come down here instead of in Pennsylvania.
Only one terrorist was trained to fly the plane, and the two United Airlines pilots were described as being incapacitated after the takeover, Franz said.
“Any place really isn’t safe. But at the same sense, you can’t live your life in fear, because if you do, [the terrorists] have succeeded.”