The connection of a lifetime

A final phone call to GTE operator helps one family cope with grief

Sept. 21 — When he addressed the nation, President Bush spoke of many heroes, and introduced the wife of one. Lisa Beamer’s husband Todd was one of the passengers on United Flight 93, who fought back against the terrorists who hijacked their plane. His courage and sacrifice honored by our nation’s leaders. Unfortunately, most of us never got to know Todd Beamer. But in the last minutes of his life, one person got to know him very well, over the phone. It was the connection of a lifetime. Stone Phillips reports.

Lisa Jefferson “When the plane was flying erratic, you could hear horror — screams, men — commotion. The men’s voices were getting loud. The ladies were screaming, and Todd was still talking to me.”
Stone Phillips: “Was there anything in your years of experience that prepared you for this?”
Jefferson “No.”
Phillips: “There’s no way to be prepared for this.”
Jefferson “No, never. This was not in our training manual.”
On Tuesday morning, September 11th, a phone call plunged Lisa Jefferson into the longest 15 minutes of her life. It also tied her to another woman named Lisa, whose husband was a casualty on the worst day of terrorism the world has ever seen.
Lisa Beamer “He was the best father I could ever imagine for my boys. When he opened the door at night it was like a rampage to see who could get to the door first.”
Phillips: “Daddy’s home?”
Beamer: “Yes.”

Lisa Beamer always knew how much her husband loved his family — Lisa Jefferson was about to find out. She was at work at a GTE customer care center in suburban Chicago, when news of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington was breaking. A supervisor, she came out of her office to get closer to a radio. It was about 8:45 a.m. Central time, when the air phone operator at station 15 got an urgent call.

Jefferson “And she told me that she had a real hijacking situation on her line. I asked her the airline and the flight number. She told me it was United Flight 93. She appeared to be traumatized. So I told her I would take over the call.”
As rare as hijackings may be, GTE-Verizon has guidelines for how to handle such calls — take them seriously, notify the FBI and keep listening.
Jefferson “When I took over the call there was a gentleman on the phone, very calm, soft spoken. I introduced myself to him as Mrs. Jefferson. ‘I understand this plane is being hijacked, could you please give me detailed information as to what’s going on?’”
Phillips: “Those were your first words?”
Jefferson “Yes. He told me that there were three people that had taken over the plane, two with knives and one with a bomb strapped around his waist with a red belt. The two with the knives had locked themselves in to the cockpit. They had ordered everyone to sit down because the flight attendants were standing, one just happened to sit next to him.”
Phillips: “So he was in a passenger seat?”
Jefferson “Yes, in the back of the plane, and the hijacker with the bomb pulled the curtain to first class so they couldn’t see what was going on. But he did see two people who were on the floor. He couldn’t tell if they were dead or alive. The flight attendant told him that she was pretty sure it was the pilot and co-pilot.”
Phillips: “Was he whispering? Was he keeping his voice down? Or was he speaking in a normal voice?”
Jefferson “At first I thought he was, because I asked him, at any point, if he thought that his life would be in jeopardy from being on the line with me, to just put the phone down, but try not to hang up, just leave the line open so I could at least hear what was going on. And he said he was fine.”
Phillips: “So he felt free to talk?”
Jefferson “He felt very free to talk and he was calm all the way through our conversation. He asked me did I know what they wanted. Did they want money or ransom or what? I told him I really didn’t know. I didn’t have a clue what they wanted.”
Phillips: “Did you tell him about the other hijackings of the other planes?”
Jefferson “No, no I didn’t.”
Phillips: “Do you think he was aware of that?”
Jefferson “Not at that time. He was not. That’s why he asked me what did they want was it money or ransom. He was confused, that’s why he asked me. I didn’t tell him because I didn’t want him to get upset, excited or lose control and I still felt that they had hope.”

The FBI was on another line offering guidance. Lisa Jefferson was under tremendous pressure, but she couldn’t afford to get rattled.
Jefferson “I asked his name. He told me, ‘Todd Beamer. He’s from Cranbury, New Jersey.’ And at that point his voice went up a little bit because he said, ‘We’re going down. We’re going down. No wait, we’re coming back up. We’re turning around we’re going north. We’re going north. At this point I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know, I really don’t know. Oh, Jesus please help us.”’
Phillips: “Those were all his words?”

Jefferson “Yes, and then he told me, he said, in case I don’t make it through this, would you please do me a favor and call my wife and my family and let them know how much I love them. He told me he has two boys, David and Andrew. Then he said his wife is also expecting. So we talked.”
Phillips: “Did he tell you her name?”
Jefferson “Well, what happened after that — the plane had taken another dive down. It was flying a little bit erratic and he made another outburst, you could tell in his voice that he was very nervous but he was calm. And he just made a holler, ‘Oh, God.’ Then he said, ‘Lisa.’ And I had not given him my name because I introduced myself as Mrs. Jefferson. And I responded by saying, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s my wife’s name.’ And I told him, ‘Oh, that’s my name too Todd.’ And he said, ‘Oh my God.’ So then he asked me, if he didn’t make it would I just keep that promise and phone his wife and let them know how much he loved his family very much.”

Phillips: “And you promised to do it.”
Jefferson “And I promised him I would do that. When the plane was flying erratic he thought he had lost conversation with me. And he was hollering in the phone, ‘Lisa, Lisa.’ And I said, ‘I’m still here Todd. I’m still here. I’m not going anywhere, I’ll be here as long as you will.’”
Phillips: “Was he concerned about losing the connection?”
Jefferson “Yes. He just wanted me to stay on the phone.”
Phillips: “Don’t put him on hold?”
Jefferson “Right.”
Phillips: “Don’t take any other calls?”
Jefferson “No. And I told him I was not going anywhere. I was going to be right there with him.”
GTE Verizon says 26 phone calls were completed from Flight 93 that morning. Lisa Beamer says the phone rang twice at her house. Had Todd been trying to call her before he dialed the GTE operator? She may never know because when she picked up the phone no one was there.
Stone: “Do you know whether he tried calling Lisa Beamer, his wife?”
Jefferson “No, I’m not aware of that. At first he mentioned that ‘Maybe I should try to call my wife’ and then he said, well you know, ‘I just want to talk to somebody and just let someone know that this is happening.’ He had hope that he would be able to land the plane safely. He did not want to really call her and give her any bad news if he didn’t have to.”

But other passengers talking on the phone had learned of the planes being flown into buildings. Todd and the others reached a critical decision and now he needed all the strength he could muster.
Jefferson “He wanted me to recite the Lord’s Prayer with him. And he did. He recited the Lord’s Prayer from start to finish.”
Phillips: “And you said it with him?”
Jefferson “Yes.”
Phillips: “What were you thinking as you recited the prayer with him?”
Jefferson “All I knew is if he didn’t make it, he was definitely going to the right place. From that point, he said, he’s going to have to go out on faith because they’re talking about jumping the guy with the bomb.”
Phillips: “Is that the word he used, ‘jumping?’”
Jefferson “Yes. After that he had a sigh in his voice, he took a deep breath. He was still holding the phone but he was not talking to me he was talking to someone else. And I can tell that he had turned away from the phone to talk to someone else. And he said, ‘You ready? OK. Let’s roll.’”
Moments later, screams, commotion.
Jefferson “Then it went silent. I didn’t hear anything else from him. I kept the phone line open for about 15 minutes, hoping he would come back to the phone. I was calling his name. He never came back to the phone. About 10 minutes later, we had heard that the plane had crashed in Pittsburgh and I knew that was his plane. It was United flight 93.”
Phillips: “What were you feeling when you — when you took off the headset?”
Jefferson “I felt that little time that we had together, that we bonded as good friends and I had just lost a friend.”

Four days after that phone call from Todd Beamer, Lisa, a wife and mother of two, got a phone call she had been waiting for.
Phillips: “Tell me about the call from Lisa Beamer.”
Jefferson “When I answered the phone and said hello, she was crying on the phone, but I could make out ‘Lisa Beamer.’ And I explained the whole conversation to her and I told her the message that he wanted me to give to her and her family is that he loved them very much. And I told her, I said ‘You have two boys, David and Andrew.’ She said ‘Yes I do.’ And I said, ‘You’re expecting a baby.’ And she said, ‘Yes, I am in January.’ I asked her how old were her sons. She told me 1 and 3.”
Phillips: “You knew everything about the family.”
Jefferson “Yes.”
Phillips: “There was no doubt that you had spoken to him, in her mind.”
Jefferson “Yes that’s true.”
Phillips: “Your heart went out to her.”
Jefferson “Definitely.”
“She seems like a caring and wise and strong human being,” Lisa Beamer says about Jefferson.

Lisa Beamer says getting the chance to hear what her husband said and did in the final moments of his life is a blessing. His message, one she will always treasure — his messenger, one she will never forget.
Lisa Beamer: “I just said thank you. I said thank you for what you did for Todd. I said thank you for the comfort you provided him. I also said thank you for the gift you’ve given us.”
Phillips: “Lisa Beamer says had she heard from Todd, had she been on the phone, it would have been devastating for her, for the rest of her life that conversation would have played over and over again in her mind.”
Jefferson “Yes.”
Phillips: “Will it play over and over again in your mind?”
Jefferson “Yes it is.”
Phillips: “Its been difficult for you?”
Jefferson “Yes. It has.”
Phillips: “In a very short time, you learned a lot about Todd Beamer.”
Jefferson “Yes I did.”
Phillips: “What did you learn about yourself?”
Jefferson “Well, I didn’t think I was as brave as I was. I felt like I was just doing my job, actually. Which I was. I was just doing my job.”

Despite 18 years of experience with GTE, Lisa Jefferson says nothing could have prepared her for the emotional phone call she took that day. As she said, that was not in the training manual. Now that she’s delivered Todd’s message she wants to meet Lisa Beamer. The two Lisas say they’ll get together soon.

 


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