Moments Away, Citizen Heroes Saved Day for Democracy

By Jamie Stiehm

September 9, 2020 5 min read

Above Pennsylvania, civilians saved our citadel on the cruel morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Strangers to one another, they boarded a plane bound for San Francisco — so their tickets said.

High in a turquoise sky, the aircraft turned around and thundered east, zeroing in on Washington. Their memorial is as stark as the lonely landscape where they crashed in a dive, all aboard smashed to smithereens.

Nothing remained except an extraordinary act of heroism, a shipwreck's parting gift to a rocky 21st century. A farm field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, shall be forever America.

President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden will visit the site Friday to honor the 40 souls. This quiet place has no praise for famous men. Yet there's a whisper if you listen to the wind.

The dead were failed by their president, government, military.

Utterly alone up there, as if tossed on a stormy sea or lost in a wilderness. The brash new Texan president ignored intelligence warnings on the plot, briefed on his ranch in late August. No fighter pilot came close.

The civilians gave a profound lesson in citizens defeating a threat to American democracy. This has obvious meaning for us now, as an election more existential than ever in our lives looms large.

When the president is a threat to American democracy, civilians must mobilize for a free and fair election — already under attack. We are the last resort. It's up to us, as one plane passenger said. Recordings reveal the people collectively decided to revolt and storm the hijackers when their shared plight was clear.

Let's review the tragic sequence.

Aboard United 93 that Tuesday were 33 passengers and seven crew members on a doomed flight. The fourth hijacked plane soon became "the only plane in the sky," as author Garrett Graf wrote. Over Ohio, Ziad Jarrah and three "muscle hijackers," wielding box cutters, wrested controls from the captain for Jarrah to fly the plane.

Forty civilians were armed only with time to face their fate. The other three hijacked planes hit their targets right after takeoff. Another small mercy: The people aboard had just four hijackers, not the five on the other planes.

The travelers had half an hour of time — and life — to talk to loved ones and hear of the terrorist attacks on the United States by 19 Arab men, mostly Saudi nationals. The gleaming, teeming towers in New York were falling; the brick fortress of the Pentagon took a titanic hit and only had four sides. In the flames, dust and shards of steel, thousands were gone in a flash.

Many who died that day were in midlife — vital and healthy. This was true of the five flight attendants, captain, co-pilot and 33 passengers on United 93. They did not know the plan, where they were meant to turn into ashes.

But the target was the heart of democracy: the U.S. Capitol, according to the Sept.11 Commission Report. Congress was in session, full of life on both sides, House and Senate. The date was cunningly chosen.

The creamy marble dome on a clear day can be seen from the air for country miles. Precious murals and statues are under that dome, our history in glorious art.

Congress is the voices of the people. The lively noise of democracy would have been stilled.

Civilians organized quickly with no training, no uniforms, no authorities. That is the true story of the day: civilians in distress helping one another down the towers and out of the Pentagon.

Firefighters in New York performed bravely in the line of duty. But civilians are the unsung heroes of Sept. 11. That's often lost in telling the tale.

The band of civilian heroes rushed the cockpit with a food cart. In a death struggle, Jarrah was forced to pitch the airship down.

In 1620, a band of pilgrims landed after a hard ocean journey. The 41 men aboard ship signed the Mayflower Compact, dated Nov. 11, the starting point of American self-government. Four hundred autumns ago, a timely arc to us.

Modern pilgrims saved the house of democracy. Then they perished in an earsplitting fall to earth.

Jamie Stiehm can be reached at To read her weekly column and find out more about Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit

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