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Remembering 9/11 — The Unusual Courage of Todd Beamer

Why an ordinary man on United Flight 93 became an extraordinary hero to so many with two simple words and a courageous final act

2001 always seemed so far away.

When I was a little kid, I had a black shirt with tiny neon yellow children on it holding up the numbers 2–0–0–1. It represented the year I would graduate from high school. Then in the late ‘80s, it might has well have read 3001. It was impossibly far into the future, a real life space odyssey away.

It turns out 2001 was a pretty big year, for me and for a lot of us, and for a lot of reasons.

I lost my brother in 2001.

No, not on 9/11. I lost him eight months earlier in a car wreck. His name was Nathan. One minute, we were celebrating with him over Christmas dinner. He had finished his service in the Navy and just made the Dean’s List in his first semester at college, and he and his wife were expecting their first child.

The next minute, he was gone.

You don’t expect to lose a brother when you’re a senior in high school. I suppose you never really expect to lose a brother.

It wasn’t fair, and it turned my life upside down. All I wanted was another chance to say goodbye.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…

Life didn’t just stop that cold January day.

Yeah, it slowed down for awhile, and it’s still frozen in my mind forever, but the rest of the world kept on coming. And so did AP exams and senior photos and prom and graduation, and suddenly it was time to move halfway across the country to a place I’d only ever visited for a day: Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts school located in the suburbs of Chicago.

The pain was still fresh, and I was introverted and shy, and it was hard living 12 hours away from home and from my entire family and everyone I knew. I settled in, met the guys on my floor, and started going to classes and chapel.

At least I think I did.

I’m honestly not sure, because I really only remember one thing about my freshman year, and that was the thing that happened my third week on campus.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters…

If you’re in your upper 20s or older, you remember where you were That Day.

I was in my pajamas in my dorm room. It was a Tuesday morning and I didn’t have any classes until late that afternoon. And, like any good male college student in America, I was playing video games before heading to breakfast.

A silhouette appeared in my dimly lit doorway. Mike from down the hall, getting a drink at the fountain just outside my room.

“Did you hear?”

Hear what?

“A plane just hit the World Trade Center.”



… I went back to playing Madden. Truthfully, I don’t think I had ever really heard anything much about the World Trade Center before that. Eventually, presumably once my opponent relented, my brain had woken up enough to realize this airplane thing was pretty bizarre news and maybe I should see what was going on.

In 2001 there was no Twitter to jump on to get all the breaking news. There weren’t Facebook feeds or phone notifications yet, and the Internet still felt new and none of us had cable in our dorm rooms. So I wandered down the hall to Mike and Steve’s room where we watched grainy footage with the TV antennae. That was when news of the second plane hit.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake…

About a decade earlier, a young man named Todd rubbed his eyes groggily and awoke somewhere on campus in a dorm room similar to mine and headed off to his first Wheaton classes.

Todd had grown up in Wheaton but left the area to attend Fresno State where he hoped to spark a professional baseball career. Like my brother, his time at the university was cut short to a terrible automobile collision. It did not take his life, but it did take away his future in baseball.

Todd decided to return home to finish his college experience at Wheaton. There he met a young woman named Lisa. Todd and Lisa graduated in 1991 and were married three years later.

Todd and Lisa moved to New Jersey where Todd got a job with Oracle that saw him travel frequently. The Beamers had their first child David a few years into their marriage, and David got a little brother Andrew two years later.

In the summer of 2001 Todd and Lisa found out they were pregnant again, this time with a little girl. By many accounts, the Beamers were a pretty ordinary young family living an ordinary but good life.

On September 10, 2001, Todd and Lisa had just returned home from a trip to Italy and Todd decided to spend the night with his wife and boys, opting for a flight out early the next morning for his impending business trip.

That flight was United Flight 93.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…

I suppose the morning of September 11th was much like any other red-eye flight. An early alarm, a hurried shower, quiet goodbyes to the wife and kids, coffee and out the door. United 93 was delayed that morning due to traffic and would take off almost an hour behind schedule. I imagine the few passengers boarded the flight tired and a bit grumpy due to the delay.

The flight was just getting airborne when the first plane hit the World Trade Center towers.

About 45 minutes into United 93’s flight, terrorists stormed the cockpit and murdered the pilot and copilot. They told the passengers they had been hijacked and shuffled them to the back of the plane where they would not be able to interfere. Some passengers made calls to loved ones, where they heard the news about planes hitting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Todd made a call to Lisa — a telephone operator named Lisa, that is. By now phone lines around the country were flooded with calls by panicked Americans, many calls unable to be completed throughout that day. Todd’s call was forwarded to an airline supervisor named Lisa. He informed her that the plane had been hijacked and that the pilots were dead. He told her the terrorists had knives and a bomb. At one point when the plane made a sharp turn, he yelled “We’re going down!”

It’s impossible to imagine a situation like this, but you have to believe Todd and the other passengers were connecting the dots at this point. This flight was going down, and soon, and it was probably headed toward another important target. For awhile that day, the runaway plane was rumored to be headed toward Chicago. I remember naively being afraid to return to my dorm room that morning since I lived on Traber 7, the highest floor on campus. It turns out United 93’s intended target that day was Washington D.C., either the Capitol building or the White House.

To Todd and the other passengers that day, I suppose the target destination hardly mattered. United 93 was going nowhere good, and it was becoming clear this would likely be their final flight.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over…

The details of exactly what happened next aren’t totally clear, but this much is: it was a moment of extraordinary courage, one Todd had spent his entire life unknowingly preparing for.

Todd and a few around him decided to fight back. He and some other ordinary passengers and two ordinary flight attendants would plan to force their way into the cockpit at all costs and steer the plane into the ground. At a moment’s notice, these ordinary people made an extraordinary choice to sacrifice their lives in an attempt to save the lives of perhaps countless others.

You’ve heard the conundrum about the man standing near the tracks as a train bears down on a group of five people staring death in the face. The man sees a fat man in front of him and realizes a single push could stop the train and, while killing one innocent person, save the lives of five others. A moral and ethical dilemma — what to do?

Todd and the passengers on United 93 chose option C that day. They chose themselves.

Still on the phone with Lisa, Todd recited the Lord’s Prayer and then the words to Psalm 23. He asked Lisa to call his family and let them know that he loved them.

“Are you ready?” Lisa heard Todd ask.

“Let’s roll.”

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

2001 seems so far away again.

Gone are the feelings of togetherness and patriotism and the stories of courage and pride, replaced by a constant barrage of wall-building and deleted emails and kneeling during the national anthem.

Once a year on September 11th, we stop all the nonsense and remember. We remember the innocent lives that were taken that day, 2,996 in all. Look at that number again: 2,996. Just about every American knows someone who was involved that day, or who was supposed to be, or at least knows someone who knows someone.

Every year we stop and commemorate the bravery of so many — of Todd and the others on United 93, of firefighters and policemen and volunteers, of men and women on the street who instinctively helped in any way they could, of young mothers like Lisa Beamer who would have to courageously lead her three children forward as a single mother.

Courage is a powerful and unexpected thing. It is a thing that stores up for a moment, a big moment, the worst moment. That day and 5,478 days since have been filled with powerful acts of courage, a tsunami of courage that began one foggy September morning when ordinary people like Todd Beamer had the courage to act in an unusual and extraordinary way.

Back at Wheaton College on the night of September 11th, a friend and I volunteered for the 3–4am slot in the 24-hour prayer chapel that had begun in light of that day’s events. I remember somberly reading through the pages and pages of prayer requests for missing uncles and unaccounted-for siblings. One request in particular grabbed our attention. A young alumna was missing her husband, presumed dead on one of the flights that day. She and her husband had two small children and a third on the way. My friend and I prayed earnestly for this poor young mother, one Lisa Beamer.

Three years later, Wheaton College dedicated its beautiful new student building to Todd’s memory — the Todd M. Beamer Student Center. A mural of Todd and his two sons is right inside the doors where just about every student on campus walks at least once a week, most of them every day. It is a constant reminder of the audacious courage and ultimate sacrifice Todd made that fateful day, becoming one of many hundreds and thousands of heroes worth celebrating as we look back 15 years later.

This year’s college freshmen were just three years old when United 93 crashed at full speed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing all of its passengers but sparing the plane’s intended targets.

One of those freshmen at Wheaton College this fall is named David Beamer. Like his father 25 years earlier, David is a varsity athlete. He plays on the college football team, ranked no. 7 in the country, fresh off a dominating 60–6 victory Saturday on campus.

At every home game, Coach Mike Swider leads the Thunder out onto the field for the opening kickoff, but not before every player slaps his hand on a sign hanging above the locker room doorway. It contains two simple words:

Let’s roll.

Brandon is a proud Wheaton alumnus, Class of 2005. Follow Brandon at @wheatonbrando on Twitter, and find Brandon’s writing archives here.

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