9/11 families get federal briefing, praise their relatives lost on hijacked airliners
SOUTH BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) -- Family members of passengers aboard the four airplanes hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, said a meeting Friday with federal officials reinforced their belief that everyone aboard the doomed flights was a hero.
"I was overwhelmed by the unbelievable courage of the passengers and crews of all four of the flights," said Debra Burlingame, whose brother, Capt. Charles Burlingame, was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.
"I sat there wistfully wishing that this country could be as united and as determined and as brave in fighting the terrorists that they were in the first few minutes of Sept. 11," said Burlingame, of Pelham Manor, N.Y.
Family members who lost relatives gathered at a hotel here for the 3 1/2-hour, closed-door briefing. Participants estimated that about 130 people attended.
Justice Department letters sent to family members said they would hear tapes of cell phone calls between the passengers and family members or co-workers on the ground. The tapes were said to include calls made by American Airlines Flight 11 flight attendants Betty Ong and Amy Sweeney before their plane hit the World Trade Center.
The families, who were asked to sign nondisclosure forms, revealed little of what they heard yesterday, citing a belief their comments could jeopardize the prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States as part of the Sept. 11 conspiracy.
Relatives did indicate they received new information about the last moments of family members.
Passengers on United Air Lines Flight 93 "died on their feet and doing the very best they could," said Alice Hoglan, of Redwood Estates, Calif., whose son was aboard. That flight crashed in a western Pennsylvania field after passengers were believed to have fought with the hijackers.
Family members said the mood in the meeting room was somber.
"There were many tears -- it was gut-wrenching at times in terms of the loss of life and the tender comments of family members," said D. Hamilton Peterson, whose father and stepmother were killed on Flight 93.
Family members had asked for access to phone calls and other evidence after some of it was revealed during hearings of the independent commission investigating the attacks.
Ong's tape was played in public in January at the hearing of the Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
"The cockpit is not answering their phone," Ong told the American Airlines operations center. "There's somebody stabbed in business class, and we can't breathe in business. Um, I think there is some Mace or something. We can't breathe."
Some family members arriving for the briefing spoke about a congressional report disclosed Thursday, which said a man had told the FBI's Newark office in April 2000 that he had been trained as a hijacker for Osama bin Laden. After the man's claims were investigated, he was turned over to British authorities and eventually freed.
Peterson said he had heard rumors of such an incident. If true, he said, the families would be disappointed in federal authorities, he said.
"It's evident that there were some issues that may have not been ideally processed," said Peterson, of Bethesda, Md.
About 3,000 people were killed when the hijacked aircraft crashed into the two World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. Not counting the 19 hijackers, 246 passengers and crew members were killed.
A second invitation-only briefing for family members has been scheduled for July 14 in Boston. That session will be broadcast via closed-circuit hookup to sites for family members in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.