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U.S. News
'It hurt to listen'

A wife describes pain of hearing 911 call from Flight 93

Sunday, April 21, 2002

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

PRINCETON, N.J -- Like the other relatives of those who died on United Airlines Flight 93, the Felt family had come to hear the Sept. 11 tape of the cockpit voice recorder.

But they also had come for another reason -- a purpose that no other family shared.

Sandy Felt, the shorter woman at center, is escorted away after listening to the tapes from Flight 93 in Princeton, N.J., on Thursday. Her husband, Edward Felt, died aboard the airliner. At left rear is Gordon Felt, her brother-in-law, who was one of the relatives who lobbied to hear the tapes. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

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Edward Felt, a computer engineer who had been on his way to a business meeting in San Francisco, may have been the last person to place a phone call from the doomed plane before it crashed on Sept. 11 near Shanksville, Somerset County.

Eight minutes before the crash, he had called 911 from an airplane lavatory and reached a dispatcher in Westmoreland County.

And so, before they joined the other relatives to hear the cockpit voice recorder tape, Edward's widow, Sandy, his brother, Gordon, and his mother, Shirley, were led to a small conference room at the Princeton Marriott Forestall Village Hotel, where they were joined by two FBI agents and a victim-assistance counselor.

Sitting around a polished wood table, the agents handed each of the Felts a typed transcript of the 911 call, and then played it.

Ed's call was made at 9:58 a.m. In a conversation with dispatchers lasting about one minute, he spoke in a quivering voice saying, "We are being hijacked. We are being hijacked."

He went on to describe an "explosion" that he heard, and then white smoke on the plane from an undetermined location.

Then the line went dead.

For Sandy, already suffering from one of the migraine headaches that have plagued her since Sept. 11, hearing her husband's desperate voice after seven months was wrenching.

"I'd say I was distressed, absolutely," she said. "It hurt to listen. It just brought it all back so fresh. It was like opening an old wound that hurt."

It took about 10 minutes to hear the tape and ask questions. The Felts declined to say what questions they asked or disclose any other details.

They then joined about 70 other family members milling outside the large ballroom at the hotel, exchanging hellos and small talk with several before filtering inside.

There, people sat in cushioned straight-back chairs or at round tables covered in red-and-white tablecloths. Against the wall to their right were tables filled with brownies, cookies and refreshments. Other tables along the wall were left empty for personal belongings. Once people had put their purses, satchels and other items there, FBI agents covered them with a black tarp as a security precaution.

As they had entered the hotel that afternoon, each family member had been handed two packets of information.

One was the day's schedule, and a release form that had to be signed before they could listen to the cockpit tape.

The second was a large blue folder labeled "Office for Victims of Crime, U.S. Department of Justice." It contained the federal government's indictment of Zacarias Moussaoui and a listing of the government's reasons for seeking the death penalty against the French national, who is alleged to have been involved in the planning -- if not the actual execution -- of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

About 70 family members of Flight 93 victims went to Princeton to hear what they could of what happened before the aircraft crashed. Among them was Deena Burnett, who lost her husband, Thomas E. Burnett Jr., in the crash. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

Some have speculated that Moussaoui was supposed to be the fifth hijacker on Flight 93 that day.

Agents also asked the relatives to surrender all cell phones, palm pilots and pagers to prevent the recording of any of the day's proceedings.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Novak, who is expected to be the lead prosecutor in the Moussaoui case scheduled this fall in U.S. District Court in Virginia, welcomed family members, and spoke about the importance of the cockpit voice recorder tape in the upcoming trial.

"They were very clear," Gordon Felt said, recalling the comments of Novak and others. "What they said to us was, 'We can't tell you not to talk.' We were never threatened, [but] they said the information on the tapes could be possibly used in the prosecution of Moussaoui, and anything that we say could affect the case in a negative way.

"As much as we want the world to know" the contents of the tape, "we want this person convicted and to take responsibility. We don't want to jeopardize that."

Mementos and photos

After Novak's introduction, families were given the chance to spend about 45 minutes alone with FBI agents in separate conference rooms, talking about their relatives on Flight 93. They had been encouraged to bring photos.

Yachiyo Kuge, of Osaka, whose 20-year-old son, Toshiya, died in the crash, brought photos of her son playing soccer and posing in an American football uniform. Her photos also included some of her son's personal effects recovered from the crash site: a battered alarm clock and Walkman, partly melted identification and credit cards, his burned passport.

Kevin Marisay brought a memorial placard of photos of his sister Georgine Rose Corrigan. Derrill Bodley brought a high school graduation picture of his 20-year-old daughter, Deora. Chris and John Beaven had a small photo of their father, Alan.

The Felts said they were encouraged to talk about Ed, to describe his life and talk about his dreams. As they spoke, the agents took notes.

By then it was 3 p.m. Sandy was upset because she had no way to call and check on her two daughters, who would soon be home from school. An FBI agent let her use his cell phone.

At about 3:30, everyone returned to the large ballroom, where the release waiver was reviewed.

In part, it warned the signers that they might find the cockpit voice recorder tape "disturbing" and that it contained "material of a graphic and violent nature and that such material could have emotional and physical consequences."

The release also said that if they were able to discern words or other sounds which their relative or others may have uttered that were either inaccurate on the transcript or not included, they were to notify a nearby Department of Justice or FBI agent.

Although the release stipulated that relatives were not to take any notes, they were allowed to anyway. Federal agents lifted the black tarp covering the personal belongings to let people find paper and pens, Sandy Felt said.

Wireless leather-padded headphones were handed out to prevent any electronic signal from being pirated from inside or outside the hotel.

For the same reason, a low-tech overhead projector was used to show the printed transcript on the 144-square-foot screen at the front of the room.

As the lights darkened in the room and the tape began, Sandy said, the room was completely silent.

People were transfixed, she said, lost in thought and yet riveted by the cacophony of the tape's sounds and voices, and the mental images they projected of desperate, disparate passengers bound by the common goal of retaking the plane and thwarting the hijackers.

Afterward, people described the tape as "grueling," "exhausting" and "powerful," even though the voices were muddled and the ambient noise of the wind rushing by the speeding plane often made it impossible to distinguish individuals, even when they were yelling.

Relatives asked questions after the tape, and then those who wanted to hear it a second time -- about 15 -- were allowed a short break. Others left the hotel under the escort of New Jersey state troopers and federal agents, who walked them to their cars and shielded them from reporters.

The Felts listened to the cockpit voice recorder tape a second time -- Sandy felt the acoustics were better because there were fewer people -- and then asked to hear the 911 tape again.

"The reason we did that was so we could synchronize what we were hearing on Ed's tape to what was going on on the plane," she said.

By the time the Felts gathered their belongings and left the hotel, it was nearly 7 p.m. It was the first time they'd been outside in six hours. Agents surrounded Sandy and her mother-in-law on their walk through the asphalt parking lot, while Gordon veered off to his own car.

Sandy made it to her home in Matawan, N.J., in about an hour, her migraine pounding the entire way.

"It was a very emotional drive," she said. "I had the migraine, it was dusk, there were deer in the road. I was in a hurry to get home.

"And then I told myself, 'I'm the only parent my girls have now.' So I slowed down."

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