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Echoing reports made immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, several eyewitnesses claim in a report by London’s Daily Mirror that they saw a “military-type” plane flying around United Airlines Flight 93 when the hijacked passenger jet crashed in rural Pennsylvania — prompting the unthinkable question of whether the U.S. military shot down the plane.
Although the evident onboard struggle between hijackers and passengers – immortalized by the courageous “Let’s roll” call to action by Todd Beamer – became one of the enduring memories of that disastrous day, the actual cause of Flight 93’s crash, of the four hijacked jumbo jets, remains the most unclear.
The Mirror report quotes multiple residents in and around Shanksville, Pa., describing the crash as they saw it, several claiming to have seen a second plane – an unmarked military-style jet. According to the report:
- Susan Mcelwain, 51, living just two miles from the crash site, says she saw a white plane directly overhead. “It came right over me, I reckon just 40 or 50 ft. above my mini-van. It was so low I ducked instinctively. It was traveling real fast, but hardly made any sound,” she said. “Then it disappeared behind some trees. A few seconds later I heard this great explosion and saw this fireball rise up over the trees, so I figured the jet had crashed. The ground really shook. So I dialed 911 and told them what happened.”
Mcelwain, who said that at the time she was unaware of the other three plane crashes, added, “It was only when I got home and saw the TV that I realized it wasn’t the white jet, but Flight 93.”
It was when she heard authorities deny the existence of the other plane that she became concerned, said Mcelwain, noting: “The plane I saw was heading right to the point where Flight 93 crashed and must have been there at the very moment it came down. There’s no way I imagined this plane – it was so low it was virtually on top of me. It was white with no markings but it was definitely military, it just had that look.
“It had two rear engines, a big fin on the back like a spoiler on the back of a car and with two upright fins at the side. I haven’t found one like it on the Internet. It definitely wasn’t one of those executive jets. The FBI came and talked to me and said there was no plane around.
“Then they changed their story and tried to say it was a plane taking pictures of the crash 3,000 ft. up.
“But I saw it and it was there before the crash and it was 40 ft. above my head. They did not want my story – nobody here did.”
- Lee Purbaugh, 32, who according to the Mirror was “the only person to see the last seconds of Flight 93” as it came down on former strip-mining land, also says he saw the white jet.
“I heard this real loud noise coming over my head,” he told the Mirror. “I looked up and it was Flight 93, barely 50 ft. above me. It was coming down in a 45 degree and rocking from side to side. Then the nose suddenly dipped and it just crashed into the ground. There was this big fireball and then a huge cloud of smoke.”
At the time, Purbaugh was working at the Rollock Inc. scrap yard on a ridge overlooking the crash site less than half a mile away.
Did he see another plane? asked the Mirror. “Yes, there was another plane. I didn’t get a good look,” said Lee, “but it was white and it circled the area about twice and then it flew off over the horizon.”
- Tom Spinelli, 28, working at Indian Lake Marina a mile and a half away, echoes the other witnesses: “I saw the white plane. It was flying around all over the place like it was looking for something. I saw it before and after the crash.”
The report cites other disturbing evidence at odds with the official scenario that passengers overpowered the four highjackers and forced the plane down, preventing it from crashing into a presumed high-profile intended target like the White House or the Capitol. For instance, the Mirror reports some witnesses’ claims that they could see smoke and flames coming out of Flight 93 as it fell, indicating a possible onboard explosion. Far more disturbing is the question of whether a U.S. fighter pilot shot down the jumbo jet to stop its being used as a giant missile, as the other three hijacked planes had been that morning.
Of course, well founded uncertainly as to just what happened to Flight 93 is nothing new. Just three days after the worst terrorist attack in American history, on Sept. 14, 2001, The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record newspaper reported that five eyewitnesses reported seeing a second plane at the Flight 93 crash site.
“In separate interviews,” reported the Record, “five residents who live and work less than four miles from the crash site said they saw a second plane flying erratically within minutes of the crash of the Boeing 757 that took off from Newark two hours earlier Tuesday morning.”
One of the witnesses early on was Susan Mcelwain. Two others were Dennis Decker and Rick Chaney, who were at work making wooden pallets when they heard an explosion and came running outside to watch a large mushroom cloud spreading over the ridge.
“As soon as we looked up, we saw a mid-sized jet flying low and fast,” Decker told the Record. “It appeared to make a loop or part of a circle, and then it turned fast and headed out. ” Describing the plane as a Lear-jet type, with engines mounted near the tail and painted white with no identifying markings, Decker said, “If you were here to see it, you’d have no doubt. It was a jet plane, and it had to be flying real close when that 757 went down.”
“If I was the FBI,” he added, “I’d find out who was driving that plane.”
That same day, reported the Record, FBI Special Agent William Crowley said investigators could not rule out that a second plane was nearby during the crash. He later said he had misspoken, dismissing rumors that a U.S. military jet had intercepted the plane before it could strike a target in Washington, D.C.
Although government officials insist there was never any pursuit of Flight 93, they were informed the flight was suspected of having been hijacked at 9:16 am, fully 50 minutes before the plane came down.
The Daily Mirror cites other factors bolstering the case for a possible shootdown of UA Flight 93:
- “The U.S. government insists the plane exploded on impact, yet a one-ton section of the engine was found over a mile away and other light debris was found scattered over eight miles away.
- “Passenger Edward Felt made an emergency call from the plane. He spoke of an explosion and seeing some white smoke. The supervisor who took the call has been gagged by the FBI.
- “UA93 was identified as a hijack at 9:16 am. At 9:35 am three F-16s were ordered to ‘protect the White House at all costs’ when it turned towards the capital. At 10:06 am it crashed at Shanksville, less than 10 minutes flying time from Washington.
- “Sources claim the last thing heard on the cockpit voice recorder is the sound of wind – suggesting the plane had been holed.
- “The FBI insists there was no military plane in the area, but at 9:22 am a sonic boom – caused by a supersonic jet – was picked up by an earthquake monitor in southern Pennsylvania, 60 miles away from Shanksville.”
‘A horrendous decision’
On the Sept. 16, 2001, edition of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Vice President Dick Cheney, while not addressing Flight 93 specifically, spoke clearly to the administration’s clear policy regarding shooting down hijacked jets.
Vice President Cheney: “Well, the — I suppose the toughest decision was this question of whether or not we would intercept incoming commercial aircraft.”
NBC’s Tim Russert: “And you decided?”
Cheney: “We decided to do it. We’d, in effect, put a flying combat air patrol up over the city; F-16s with an AWACS, which is an airborne radar system, and tanker support so they could stay up a long time…
“It doesn’t do any good to put up a combat air patrol if you don’t give them instructions to act, if, in fact, they feel it’s appropriate.”
Russert: “So if the United States government became aware that a hijacked commercial airline[r] was destined for the White House or the Capitol, we would take the plane down?”
Cheney: “Yes. The president made the decision … that if the plane would not divert … as a last resort, our pilots were authorized to take them out. Now, people say, you know, that’s a horrendous decision to make. Well, it is. You’ve got an airplane full of American citizens, civilians, captured by … terrorists, headed and are you going to, in fact, shoot it down, obviously, and kill all those Americans on board?
“… It’s a presidential-level decision, and the president made, I think, exactly the right call in this case, to say, I wished we’d had combat air patrol up over New York.'”