For those who lived through Sept. 11, 2001, the drama of Todd Beamer and the heroes of Flight 93 has become an essential part of many anniversary rites.
Everyone remembers the final act, with Beamer aboard the hijacked plane, patched through to a telephone operator for a clandestine 13-minute call. After learning about the World Trade Center attacks, Beamer and other passengers decided to try to seize control of the plane.
Finally, Beamer said: “Let’s roll.” That was the end of the call, moments before the plane – now believed to have been headed to the U.S. Capitol – crashed into a rural field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
That wasn’t the whole story, of course. The young software salesman had also asked operator Lisa Jefferson if he could be connected to his wife, Lisa Beamer – and if not, he shared a final message to her and their two sons.
“I was trying to get as much information from him as I could, and he told me to say the Lord’s Prayer with him,” said Jefferson, according to a transcript of her talk with Beamer’s wife days later.
“He wanted you to say the Lord’s Prayer with him? ... And you guys completed it?” asked Lisa Beamer.
“Top to bottom,” said Jefferson. “He just said, ‘Oh God, help me. Jesus, could you please help me.’ ... He wasn’t upset at all. He was very peaceful.”
The details of the Flight 93 passenger revolt were soon made public – a story of courage and sacrifice welcomed by a stunned nation.
“Todd became a hero within 72 hours of his death,” said Lisa Beamer, during a Wheaton College chapel service marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11. “I can only describe what happened next as divinely orchestrated chaos, and I do believe that.
“Everyone from the White House to CNN to Oprah Winfrey wanted to talk to me, wanted to know more about Todd, wanted to put me on TV, wanted to take pictures of my family, wanted to know how I was coping. The phone rang nonstop for days and weeks, and when there was a knock at the door, it may have been anyone from a neighbor delivering dinner to a full news crew with cameras rolling.”
Beamer said she answered questions about her husband in the “only way that rang true to me, because Todd loved his life, but he knew that his life was much more than his 32 years on this Earth. His soul was secure even when his body wasn’t – because Jesus was his savior.”
There was more to the story. Journalists also wanted to know what gave her comfort and hope, as the mother of two young boys who was also four months from the birth of a daughter.
“To the extent that I could bear it,” she said, she tried to talk about the family’s faith and trust in God. At the same time, she was wrestling with memories of her own father’s death when she was a teenager, “leaving my mom to raise four children by herself. I knew how hard this was. ... I knew the grief of what it felt like to live with a missing piece.”
After the press blitz, Beamer tried to withdraw from the spotlight. It was especially painful, she said, that critics called her a hypocrite who was seeking fame, while some believers put her “on a pedestal as God’s chosen woman for such a time as this.”
Nevertheless, “Todd was gone,” she said. “I was called a ‘widow’ and a ‘single parent,’ titles that literally made me sick to my stomach. My sweet husband had become a mythic figure to the public, an idealized version of manhood who died valiantly defending his country.”
In the end, Beamer said it was crucial to strengthen her “core identity,” focusing on her faith and trust in “God’s goodness and his greatness.” She was convinced that, facing the crisis aboard Flight 93, her husband had managed to do that.
That’s the final lesson, she told the students in the chapel: “If God is bigger than we can imagine, we are wasting our time to chase after something or someone lesser. ... We must place our ultimate identity not in who we are, but in who we know God to be. That’s it.”