Sept. 11 Flight Recordings Tell a Heroic Human Story

Hamilton Peterson, president of the Board of Families of Flight 93, talks with Steve Inskeep about the cockpit voice-recordings from United Flight 93, the Sept. 11 flight that crashed in Shanksville, Penn. Peterson has heard the tapes and says he thinks they should be made available to the public.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As the final phase of Moussaoui's trial began yesterday, we sat down with a man who's been watching especially closely. He's a federal employee and is president of a group called Families of Flight 93.

Mr. HAMILTON PETERSON (Chairman, Families of Flight 93): My name is Hamilton Peterson. My father, Donald A. Peterson, and stepmother, Jean Hoadley Peterson, were both passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on 9/11 of 2001.

INSKEEP: The phase of the trial that we're now in is expected to include the playing of cockpit audiotapes from Flight 93. You are among a group of people who've already heard them.

Mr. PETERSON: That's correct.

INSKEEP: Would you describe how you and other family members heard them?

Mr. PETERSON: The United States Attorney's Office for the eastern district of Virginia had invited us to come listen to hear what would eventually be forthcoming. They had us enter a hotel, after being--walking through magnetometers. They advised us up front that they would not permit any recording devices. They had a very elaborate electronic setup that disallowed any covert or surreptitious recording.

We wore headsets. They generated ambient music to mitigate anybody surreptitiously hearing what was being played in this large hotel room. They also produced for us on a, what amounted to I would call, a PowerPoint presentation type board, a very well done transcript, which was married up to the audio, as we proceeded through the audio, hearing the various transmissions, be they radio communications with the air traffic controllers or the actual conversations of the pilots, terrorists, and also the passengers and crew.

INSKEEP: To the extent that you're comfortable describing it, what did you hear?

PETERSON: the only caveat being that, at that time, when this was shared with us, there was an understanding to ensure the success of a fair trial, that we not prematurely reveal the specifics.

I can say that what it told me, personally, was that some very ordinary citizens, in a matter of minutes, had risen to the challenge and foiled and thwarted an elaborate criminal conspiracy. And it told me that, but for their actions, it is likely that the U.S. Capitol, or the White House, and I believe it's the Capitol, would have been in flames.

INSKEEP: How many family members were in that room?

PETERSON: I'd say at least 40, maybe as many as 60. You had people visibly disturbed. I remember at least one or two people getting up and walking out in the middle of it. You hear on this tape the loss of human life. And you hear, what's been referred to by others, as voices from the dead. And you can draw reasonable inferences as to what has occurred or is occurring.

INSKEEP: It's known that this tape will be played in court. It's not certain yet whether it will be released to the public. Do you want the public to hear this tape?

PETERSON: I will be extremely disappointed if the tape doesn't make it to the public once it is reported out what's on that tape; to not hear the actual tone and tenor of those individuals will mitigate the impact of the truth of 9/11.

I will also say, though, that the government was kind enough to share with us the personal phone calls that have not yet been released from family and crew on the other three planes, and I will tell you that the courage of some of the men and women calling--family members is astounding. Average people, tying out personal effects, or, you know, final issues. What I would call housekeeping. It's the little things, you know, when you hear those communications that just really hit you.

INSKEEP: Have you made up your mind what you want to happen to Zacarias Moussaoui?

PETERSON: I would like to see him receive what I believe he has received today, a full, fair trial before the world. I trust that the jury will do the right thing.

From a commonsense perspective, I cannot see him not getting the death penalty, but...

INSKEEP: Do you want him to get the death penalty?

PETERSON: I think now that he is self admitted again, by his own testimony, again as recently as last week, that he was personally prepared to use a knife to cut the throats of passenger and crew, that it would be certainly appropriate.

INSKEEP: Well, Hamilton Peterson, thanks very much for speaking with us today.

Mr. PETERSON: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Hamilton Peterson's father and stepfather were killed on September 11th.

Relatives of the Flight 93 victims have until next Tuesday to object, if they wish, to the public release of the cockpit recorder tape.

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