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History and Heritage

A Legacy of Valor:

USS Somerset Honors Heroes of 9-11's Flight 93

Shock. Horror. Grief. The nation watched in disbelief, Sept. 11, 2001, as planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Gordon Felt was one of them. Then, the national tragedy turned very personal. His sister-in-law called, telling him his brother Edward had been travelling from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, and his plane was missing.

That plane was United Airlines Flight 93, and Felt didn't know it yet, but four terrorists had boarded it that morning, two of whom sat in the row directly behind Edward, according to a Justice Department flight diagram. Less than an hour after takeoff, they broke into the cockpit, brandishing knives. One appeared to have a bomb strapped to his chest. Capt. Jason Dahl frantically sent a "Mayday!" transmission to Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center at 9:28 a.m. "Get out of here! Get out of here!" the message continued.

Thus began "a horror that I don't know that any of us civilians, at least, could really understand," said Felt.

There was a struggle. The plane plunged almost 700 feet. One of the passengers called his wife and told her a passenger had been knifed, possibly after trying to intervene. Dahl and Co-pilot Leroy Homer were injured. The cockpit voice recorder captured the terror, with a man saying, "please don't hurt me," and a woman, likely a flight attendant, pleading, "I don't want to die. I don't want to die." She screamed, then silence. A terrorist said, "I finished" in Arabic. Presumably, he killed her.

Still, the flight crew managed to resist, according to the Denver Post. Although he was recorded moaning in pain, Dahl disengaged the autopilot, making the 757 much, much harder to fly. He also switched the output of the pilots' microphones from the cabin's speakers to the radio transmitter.

Ziad Jarrah, the terrorist pilot, took over the controls. His target, many officials believe, was the U.S. Capitol.

Hijackers moved the passengers to the back of the plane. At 09:31:57, Jarrah, believing he was addressing the cabin but really transmitting to air traffic controllers thanks to Dahl's quick actions, announced: "Ladies and gentlemen: Here the captain. Please sit down. Keep remaining seating. We have a bomb on board. So sit." Then, about six minutes later, he added that they were "heading back to the airport, and we have our demands. So, please remain quiet."
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However, the 40 passengers and crew members on board already knew that wasn't going to happen. They had one advantage over the passengers on the other three flights that were hijacked that morning: Their flight had been delayed, so by the time terrorists seized control, two planes had already hit the World Trade Center. United officials sent a warning to pilots on cross-country flights at 9:23, warning them about the attack and to "beware cockpit intrusion."

After the hijacking, passengers called friends and family members from the plane to tell them what happened, to tell them they loved them, to tell them goodbye. Edward Felt called 911. According to many investigative and news reports, passengers learned about New York. They knew they weren't heading to an airstrip somewhere to wait out negotiations between their captors and authorities. They knew cooperating wouldn't save their lives. They knew their Boeing 757 was about to be turned into a weapon of mass destruction.

They knew they were going to die if they did nothing, but maybe, just maybe, if they did something they could change history. If they couldn't save their own lives, they could at least stop the terrorists before they killed thousands of others, before they destroyed another symbol of American freedom.

"We know that the crew members and the passengers discussed a plan and we know that they voted as to whether they should take action," said Felt. "We know that they created a strategy. ... They prayed together. And then they fought. ... They were committed. We want to believe that all our family members wanted to do was go home. They just wanted to see their families. They just wanted to live. Under the extraordinary pressure of what was going on that morning, they had the courage to basically stand up and say, 'No. We are not going to let you dictate the terms on which our lives are going to end. We're going to fight.'"

"Are you guys ready? OK. Let's roll," passenger Todd Beamer famously said, as reported by an operator with whom he was on the phone. It was 9:57 and the revolt was on. Passengers ran toward the cockpit and confronted a terrorist outside. No one knows exactly what happened next, but the flight recorder captured some of the desperate fight for control of the airplane.

"Is there something?" asked a hijacker. "A fight?"

Jarrah tossed the plane violently from side to side, but the passengers persisted. Crashes, bangs and the sound of breaking glass followed their assault.

"Shall we finish it off?" Jarrah asked as the plane pitched up and down, according to CNN.

"No. Not yet. When they all come, we shall finish it off," answered another hijacker.

Someone shouted, "I'm injured," while a passenger yelled, "In the cockpit. If we don't, we'll die."

Terrorists once again discussed finishing things off, and tried to turn off the oxygen. Then there was a series of "shut them off," "go," "move" and "push" in English. Hijackers shouted, "Allah is the greatest" over and over again as the 757 plummeted toward the ground.

Then the plane crashed in a lonely field next to a former coal strip mine near Shanksville, Somerset County, Pennsylvania, at 10:03 a.m., with a total loss of life.

"Without their actions, September 11 would have been even more horrific than it already was for our country," said Felt. "Imagine if a flight actually ... destroyed the Capitol. We're strong. Our country survived the day. And we would have survived the day if it had, but I can't imagine how much more devastating it would have been: further loss of life on the ground, further loss of the symbols of our democracy.

"To know that my brother and the 39 other passengers and crew members were able to avert and win that battle - they lost their lives, but they won that first battle that morning - it was a sense of pride, I think, to all of our families, to know that their actions helped change the course of history that day."

The passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93 not only saved lives, but their actions inspired America, provided a small glimpse of hope and pride in those dark days following 9-11, said Felt. That legacy of heroism and self-sacrifice, of patriotism is still alive today. In fact, the Navy named three new San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ships in honor of 9-11 victims and heroes.

USS New York (LPD 21) has 7.5 tons of steel from the World Trade Center in her bow. USS Arlington (LPD 24) displays steel from the Pentagon. USS Somerset (LPD 25), which was commissioned in March 2014, also has a very special reminder of that dark day: Her bow includes 22 tons of steel from a mining excavator present at the crash site. First responders later flew an American flag from that excavator. Somerset recently finished her maiden deployment, taking the fight back to America's enemies.

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"That symbolism is not coincidental; it is by design," said Capt. Darren Glaser, Somerset's commanding officer. "We represent not only 9-11, but how we came together as a nation after it. We are an all-volunteer force, highly trained to fight, and it is our job to deliver combat power wherever it is needed in the world."

Every second the crew was deployed, he continued, Sailors only had to look around to remember the reason they were serving, the reason many enlisted in the first place. Reminders of Flight 93 and 9-11 are all over the ship. She even boasts a small memorial.

"When you walk on the ship, the first thing you see is, 'Let's Roll,'" said Felt. "When you walk around the interior of the ship, you see references to Somerset County. You see the names of all 40 of our family members. You see a museum, kind of a tribute area where the crew can go and have some quiet contemplation and really consider why they're there and what the mission of the ship is and who it was dedicated to. It's overwhelmingly inspiring."

The crew takes that connection seriously, said Glasser, explaining that he has visited the Flight 93 National Memorial, and its impact "has become a part of how I view my service not only on Somerset, but also my 24 years in the U.S. Navy." He tries to meet with surviving family members when they visit the ship, to talk about what the ship is doing and get their feedback.

"It is important for us to maintain a connection with the 9-11 surviving family members, to let them know we will never forget," he said, noting that the crew received several emails of encouragement from the Flight 93 families while deployed. "The Flight 93 families also have a standing invitation to visit the ship. We welcome them aboard in a similar manner we'd announce any senior officer or dignitary's visit: We will strike the ship's bell and announce them as 'Family of Flight 93, arriving' over the ship-wide announcing system. When we are face to face, that kind of connection reminds us that 9-11 will never be over for those families. I hope they know we will also never forget - it's our duty to prevent it from happening again."

Somerset, he continued, holds a special memorial service to honor the heroes of United Airlines Flight 93 each Sept. 11 that includes a moment of silence at 10:03 a.m., the moment the plane crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside. Sailors also strike the ship's bell 40 times, once for each of those 40 brave men and women. This year, the ship's executive officer will also travel to the Flight 93 National Memorial to remind Americans and especially grieving family members that the sacrifice of the passengers and crew is not in vain, that the Somerset, her crew and so many others stand with them.

"There's a sense of comfort knowing that the Somerset is out there," said Felt, explaining that the ship stands as a tribute to his brother and all the heroes of Flight 93. "I have no doubt that the same level of courage and dedication is present on all of the ships that are out there and units that are fighting terrorism, helping to keep us safe. Knowing that there's such strength and power that is helping to keep our country safe and our citizens safe is important."

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For more information on Somerset's namesake, click here.