Let's Roll!

Those were Todd Beamer's last known words before meeting his Lord on Sept. 11, 2001. His last known action was helping lead a passenger revolt against a terrorist plot on a Washington, D.C., landmark, most likely the Capitol. Now almost a year after her husband's death and post-mortem fame, Lisa Beamer tells her story. Here are exclusive excerpts ...

World cover story, August 17, 2002

"I have a lot on my plate for the next couple of days": Todd was ready to go to work after a company-sponsored vacation to Europe. He and Lisa returned home just one day before Todd was to board United Flight 93 for a business trip on Sept. 11. 

During my spare time while in Rome, I was reading about the book of Esther in the Bible. I was scheduled to teach on the subject when we returned home.

As I read over my study guide on Esther's story, I came to a suggested Bible "memory" verse for the first week. To my surprise, it was Romans 11:33-36, the exact passage of Scripture that had come to mean so much to me after my dad's death. This is great, I thought as I read over the passage. I don't even have to memorize this passage. I already know it:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out!
"Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been His counselor?"
"Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?"
For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.
To Him be the glory forever! Amen.

These were the words I was to focus on as I prepared to teach the lesson when we returned home, on Sept. 10. It wasn't until later that I realized why God had brought those words to the forefront of my mind.

"Get out of here!" The calm before the storm. The plane was scheduled to take off at 8:00 a.m., and in fact the Boeing 757 did push back from Gate A-17 at 8:01. But, as is often the case at Newark International, runway traffic delayed the takeoff. For the next 40 minutes the plane remained on the ground.

The traffic jam in which Flight 93 sat that morning may have been a key factor in saving thousands of lives-and perhaps even our nation's Capitol.

United Flight 93 took off from Newark International Airport, across the river from New York City, at 8:42 a.m. The plane was still climbing over the New York/New Jersey coastline when, just six minutes later, American Airlines Flight 11 blasted into the north tower of the World Trade Center. The skies were clear on the morning of Sept. 11, an absolutely gorgeous day in New York, and one of the men in the cockpit of Todd's plane noticed the smoke rising from below. "Is everything OK on the ground?" he asked air-traffic control.

"Everything is fine," he was told.

Ironically, activities in the cabin were quite normal, as flight attendants served breakfast and passengers relaxed or worked. Around 9:25, one of the pilots checked in with Cleveland's air-traffic control center, which normally takes over guidance of flights as they move across the Midwest. "Good morning!" one of the pilots said sprightly from the Flight 93 cockpit. By now the pilots had learned that something was awry in New York, and they calmly asked Cleveland for more information.

About that time Cleveland controllers were receiving bomb threats on the ground, as were controllers in Boston-possibly in an attempt to create further fear and chaos and to distract controllers from tracking the hijacked planes. A minute later, at 9:28, the Cleveland controllers clearly heard screams over the open mike aboard Flight 93.

The controllers radioed the plane, but there was no answer. After about 40 seconds, the Cleveland controllers heard more muffled cries. "Get out of here!" an English-speaking voice implored. "Get out of here!"

"In my heart I knew": It would still be a couple of hours before the airline officially notified her of her husband's death, but the news from television had been almost all the confirmation she needed.

I made my way to my bedroom and sat down on the edge of the bed, staring out the window in a near-catatonic state. I didn't move; I didn't speak. It was as though time had come to an abrupt halt, and I no longer existed. In a desperate, futile attempt to make sense of it all, my heart and mind had temporarily shut down. I was numb. I could see and hear, yet I simply continued to stare straight ahead.

For days I would struggle to deal with the shock. And yet, in that dark moment of my soul, I first cried out to God. I knew without a doubt that my hope wasn't based on Todd or any other human being. Nor was it based even on life itself, when I got right down to it. My faith wasn't rooted in governments, religion, tall buildings, or frail people. Instead, my faith and my security were in God.

A thought struck me. Who are you to question God and say that you have a better plan than He does? You don't have the same wisdom and knowledge that He has, or the understanding of the big picture.

"Then it went silent": Four days after the crash, Lisa spoke by telephone with GTE Airfone supervisor Lisa Jefferson, the operator who received Todd's call from the cabin of Flight 93. She recounted her conversation with Todd, in which he had just asked that she relay a message of love to his family in the event he didn't survive the hijacking:

"After that the plane took another dive down and began flying erratically. There was another outburst, and I could tell in Todd's voice that he was feeling nervous but still calm. When the plane jolted, Todd shouted, 'Oh, God!'

"Then he said, 'Lisa!' I had not given him my name, as I had introduced myself as Mrs. Jefferson.

"And I said, 'Yes?'

"He said, 'Oh, that's my wife's name.'

"And I said, 'That's my name too, Todd.'

"When the plane was flying in an erratic fashion, he thought he had lost conversation with me. He was hollering, 'Lisa! Lisa!'

"I said, 'I am still here; I am not going anywhere. I will be here as long as you will.'

"He seemed concerned about losing the connection and just wanted me to stay on the phone. I told him, 'I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to be right here with you.'

"'We're going to do something.... I don't think we're going to get out of this thing,' Todd said. 'I'm going to have to go out on faith.' He told me they were talking about jumping the guy with the bomb."

"Are you sure that's what you want to do, Todd?" Lisa asked.

"It's what we have to do," Todd told her.

After reciting the Lord's Prayer, Todd recited the 23rd Psalm. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil ..." Other men apparently joined in with him, or recited the psalm themselves. Interestingly, Psalm 23 wasn't a mantra Todd recited often, but it was resident in his spirit because he had learned it as a child. When the crisis came, Todd was able to tap into a deep reservoir of faith that he'd been storing up for years.

Lisa recalls, "After that, he had a sigh in his voice, and he took a deep breath. He was still holding the phone, but I could tell he had turned away from the phone and was talking to someone else. He said, 'Are you ready? OK. Let's roll!' "

When I allow myself, I can picture it....

From the rear galley of a 757 to the front cockpit area is a distance of more than 100 feet.... Big men move quickly up a narrow aisle, accompanied perhaps by a flight attendant or two carrying coffeepots, spilling boiling water on themselves as they run.

Just what they were doing or how they were doing it may never be completely known. The cockpit voice recorder contains sounds of dishes shattering and other objects being hurled. The hijackers are heard screaming at each other to hold the cockpit door.

Meanwhile Lisa Jefferson remained on the line, waiting for Todd to come back. Hearing all the commotion on board the plane, she recalls, "Then it went silent. I didn't hear anything else from him. I kept the phone line open for about 15 minutes, hoping he would come back to the phone. I called his name, but he never came back to the phone. About 10 minutes later we heard that a plane had crashed near Pittsburgh, and I knew that was his plane. It was United Flight 93.

"Grieving with hope: On Lisa's trip with other heartbroken relatives to the crash site, she saw the chasm between Todd's uplifting, Christ-centered memorial service a day earlier, and the well-intentioned, look-on-the-bright-side service in Shanksville, Pa., with "God ... factored out."

When we arrived at the site, I was surprised at how ordinary it appeared.

I didn't see a single piece of airplane anywhere.

It was a sunny September day, close to 70 degrees, and I happened to look up. When I did, I saw a hawk soaring high in the sky above the field where the plane had crashed. Suddenly a sense of peace flowed over me. I couldn't explain it, but I was reminded of Isaiah 40:30-31.

Never before in my life had the difference between those who believe in the Lord and those who do not believe been so obvious to me. Following Sept. 11, I saw firsthand many dear people who were trying their best to cope with loss, hurt, anger, fear, and a host of other feelings. Some had lost a husband, father, daughter, mother, or friend. They wanted to soar like eagles; they deeply desired to get on with life. They wanted to look on the bright side and do the things the cliches recommend, but they didn't have the strength. Worse yet, they had no hope. My family and I mourned the loss of Todd deeply that day ... and we still do. But because we hope in the Lord, we know beyond a doubt that one day we will see Todd again. I hurt for the people who don't have that same hope, and I pray they will see something in our family that will encourage them to trust in the Lord.

I couldn't help but compare this service to the one in Cranbury the day before. Todd's memorial service had been so uplifting, so inspiring, because the emphasis had been on hope in the midst of crisis. On Monday, as I listened to the well-intentioned speakers, who were doing their best to comfort but with little if any direct reference to the power of God to sustain us, I felt I was sliding helplessly down a high mountain into a deep crevasse. As much as I appreciated the kindness of the wonderful people who tried to encourage us, that afternoon was actually one of the lowest points in my grieving.

It wasn't the people, or even the place. Instead, it struck me how hopeless the world is when God is factored out of the equation.

"A word that will see us through": In a search for evidence, the FBI impounded all the cars belonging to passengers aboard Flight 93. Lisa had friends, after officials released the car, remove all Todd's belongings and store them for her to look through later. "One item they found," Lisa says, "was intriguing."

In the armrest tray between the front bucket seats, Todd had some Scripture memorization cards that he used while driving. The top card on the stack, the one that he would have read on Sept. 11, was Romans 11:33-36:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out!
"Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been His counselor?"
Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?
For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.
To Him be the glory forever! Amen.

It was the exact passage of Scripture that had helped me through my questions following my dad's death; the same passage I'd been reminded of at Wheaton College; and the very passage that had been my memory verses for the Bible study I was preparing in Rome, the week before Todd died.

Ordinary guy, ordinary faith, great God: Final thoughts.

It's true that Todd and the other heroes aboard Flight 93 gave their lives that others might be saved. But if somehow they had known what was awaiting them, and they had been given a choice early that September morning, I doubt that any of them would have boarded that flight. Even in the midst of the hijacking, right down to the moment when Todd uttered his now-famous phrase, "Let's roll!" the true desire of his heart and that of Jeremy Glick, Tom Burnett, Mark Bingham, and all the others aboard Flight 93 was to somehow get home to their loved ones. They didn't want to die.

Yet there was One who came to earth, knowing ahead of time that His most important purpose in living would be accomplished only through His dying. He knew throughout His life and at the height of His career that no matter how well He performed, no matter how many people He helped, He was destined to die-to give His life so many others might find true life, abundant life here on earth, and eternal life in heaven to come.

But He really didn't want to die either. In fact, as He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, just outside Jerusalem's city walls, He begged God, "Father, if there is any other way ... let this cup pass from Me." He prayed so intensely that sweat ran like large drops of blood from His forehead. Think about that: Even knowing all the good that was going to come as a result of His death, He prayed three times to avoid it, "if there is any other way...."

Finally He said, "Not My will but Yours be done." That was God's plan.

I don't think Todd chose to die, but he did choose for God's will to be done in his life. Knowing that, he stepped into the aisle of that plane, trusting by faith that regardless of what happened, God would be true to His Word. Before he took that first step, Todd knew where he was going, even if he should die. He had built his life on a firm foundation.

Todd was not a Hollywood hunk or a comic-book superhero. He was an ordinary guy with ordinary faith in a great God.

Copyright (c) 2002 World magazine . All rights reserved. Used by permission.