The XX Factor

The Woman Who Vowed To Take Down Flight 93

Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

On 9/11, my husband and I were jolted awake at 6:30 a.m. on the West Coast by a phone call from family. Turn on the TV, we were told. We did.  Horror, fear, anger, confusion … many different emotions hit me all at once, but I didn’t cry right away. I spent the day gawking at the TV, in shock, as if watching a bad movie unfold. Only that evening, when members of Congress took to the steps of the Capitol to sing “God Bless America” did the tears come. (Why that moment? I don’t know, other than that it seemed human and unscripted and unexpected.)

Yet 10 years later, I can start weeping at the mere mention of a victim’s name. Yesterday, it was Rick Reilly’s column on the heroes of Flight 93 that had me wiping my eyes. Familiar as the tale is, with the same stories of the phone calls to loved ones and phone operators and Todd Beamer’s famous “Let’s roll,” … still, waterworks.  

The 9/11 anniversary is a time for us to remember these stories, but one thing that amazes me is that there are still stories of quiet bravery being told for the first time. Had it not been for the men who stormed that cockpit, we might be reliving the heroics of Lt. Heather Penney and Col. Marc Sasseville. They piloted the F-16s that scrambled when it became apparent that Flight 93 had been hijacked and was heading for D.C. Although one of the first 9/11 conspiracy theories was that the government has shot down Flight 93, the Washington Post reports that those fighter jets had no ammunition.  Penney and Sasseville were on a suicide mission. From the article:

They were gearing up in the pre-flight life-support area when Sasseville, struggling into his flight suit, met her eye.

“I’m going to go for the cockpit,” Sasseville said.

She replied without hesitating.

“I’ll take the tail.”

It was a plan. And a pact.

In the years since 9/11, as we have fought battles in Afghanistan and Iraq that have changed the way wars are fought,  we’ve become more accustomed to seeing women in combat situations, dying in war, even as they are technically banned from serving in combat units. But looking back to that day, most of the heroes—and victims—were men (the ratio of men to women killed was 3 to 1). We remember the firefighters and police who rushed to the towers, and the men on Flight 93, but most often when we think about the female faces of 9/11, it’s the widows.

It’s understandable that Penney has avoided the limelight in the years since. Had it been necessary for her to carry out her mission, her legacy would have no doubt been controversial: The U.S. military taking out a commercial flight with citizens aboard would have made an unthinkably dark day in our history even worse. But I’m also glad that she’s talking about it now.