After 14 years, pilot Morrie Wiener copes with memories of Flight 93
Words by Nathan Havenner and Matthew Merchant
Photos by Matthew Merchant
Photos of the 40 Americans who died on Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001 adorn a sign down the hill from the visitor center at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Stoystown, Pennsylvania.
In a common field, 40 granite panels stand together in an undulating line of peaceful turbulence. Like the men and women they represent, each smooth white surface etched with a name creates a line of hope, honor and heroism. At the end hangs a gate crafted from the hemlock trees in a once-burnt grove at the edge of the field.
This is a place of memories, once a secluded hillside in the midst of western Pennsylvania.
Long gone is the gravel path leading to chain-link fence memorials. A paved path now winds its way past brown brush, evergreens and wildflowers until it crests one final hill. Atop the summit stands an elegant, curved white structure. A black walkway marked with timestamped events leads visitors through time and pierces the structure, ending abruptly at an overhanging outlook.
It’s a slice of blue skies and angelic white clouds that stretches to the horizons above the Laurel Highlands and beyond.
It’s the last view passengers aboard Flight 93 would have seen before crashing into the hemlock grove near the edge of the hillside.
Morrie Wiener walks along the Wall of Names at the Flight 93 National Memorial with his son, Michael Wiener, telling him stories of the names he recognizes. He talks about how they met and what they were like.
“It has a very emotional impact,” Morrie says about the memorial. “To go through the site is more than inspiring. It is very emotional and very well done, and I have nothing but praise for everything that has been done there.”
Morrie visited the Flight 93 National Memorial to pay his respects, knowing it easily could have been him flying the plane 14 years ago. The 74-year-old retired pilot wore his old uniform, his gleaming gold captains wings proudly displayed above his heart. In 2001, he retired from United Airlines after 17 years of service, only 10 days before 9/11.
Though he no longer feels the anticipation of a 767s wheels lifting off the ground as the plane takes flight, Morrie remembers 9/11 in a unique way.
Currently living in New Jersey, Morrie retired from United Airlines after his 60th birthday, in August of 2001, because Federal Aviation Administration law at the time required him to do so.
Each month he received a packet from United Airlines with a detailed assignment list for the next month. Morrie enjoyed flightpath 93, which flew from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey to San Francisco. Though he wasn’t usually assigned this journey, he often picked up the flight for another pilot based in Connecticut who didn’t like the commute to New Jersey.
“He says, ‘I’ve got this trip on the 11th that I’m going to drop, and I know you always pick up those trips that go to San Fran out of Newark,’” Morrie says. “I said, ‘I’m retiring officially on the first,’ and we talked a bit and hung up.”
After that pilot successfully dropped the flight, another pilot, Captain Jason Dahl, picked it up.
Based out of Denver, Dahl traded for the Flight 93 trip so he could take his wife to London for their fifth anniversary the following weekend.
Dahl and First Officer LeRoy Homer, Jr. were in control of the aircraft when four members of the al-Qaida terrorist group took control of the plane and redirected it toward Washington, D.C. It is widely believed the U.S. Capitol building was the intended target that day. The plane never reached the Capitol, crashing in Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10:02 a.m.
Morrie fought back emotion as he spoke of the events of 9/11 and the friends he lost. He steadied his voice, pausing at times to collect his thoughts.
Morrie recalled working on photography that day, completely oblivious to the tragedy taking place as he worked. His work was interrupted when he received a phone call from his son who informed him a plane had crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Michael, a 1995 graduate of Kent State University, says after he saw the plane crash into the towers, he needed to be reassured his father hadn’t picked up the flight to San Francisco.
“He had just retired, and my father has a way of doing what he wants,” Michael says. “If he wanted to fly he would have found a way.”
Morrie seemed surprised by the phone call from his son, thinking where else would he be if he was answering the telephone in his house. It was then Michael told his dad about what happened in New York City.
Rushing to turn on the news, he recalls that shock took over as he watched the smoke billow from the skyscraper. He couldn’t take his eyes away from the TV, immersed in the nightmare-like events unfolding.
“At the time, no one was able to identify what those planes were, where they had come from, what airlines they were, and I immediately went to the fire department to report in,” Morrie remembers.
He called the FAA, where he was set to work as a flight crash inspector following retirement as a commercial pilot, to find out more information about the crash in New York. Questions ran through his head as he dialed the number.
“They told me not to come in, that they weren’t sure what was happening, and they would be in contact with me,” Morrie says.
Morrie then went to the Cherry Hill Fire Department, where he had worked as a part-time firefighter since 1984. The men began preparing for the trip to New York where they would help with the rescue mission at Ground Zero. The original plan had been to organize three teams of firefighters, with each team working in the city for three days before switching off.
“I was part of the third team,” Morrie says. “As it turned out the team that went up stayed for seven days and did not rotate out of there, so I didn’t go up with them.”
It was while he was at the fire station that he learned the identity of one of the planes that had struck the World Trade Center. United Airlines Flight 175, piloted by Captain Victor Saracini had struck the South Tower at exactly 9:03 a.m.
“Vic was a local guy from this area, he grew up in Atlantic City. Michael Horrocks was the co-pilot, and his aunt worked with my wife as a teacher in Stratford, New Jersey,” he says from his New Jersey home. “It was pretty tough when we started to realize all the people that had been lost.”
He heard rumors of an explosion at the Pentagon and a plane crash in western Pennsylvania. The crash in western Pennsylvania was different than those in New York and D.C., which made the initial connection difficult to comprehend.
“I don’t remember when I became aware that A, it was a United airplane and B, that it was that flight, and the flight that I would have been on,” Morrie says. “That didn’t hit me until much later.”
Considering flights 175 and 11 had both been flown into the World Trade Center, a crash in rural Pennsylvania didn’t seem to fit together at first. In the coming days, details about Flight 93 would emerge, including possible intended targets and the heroic actions of those on board attempting to regain control of the aircraft from the terrorists.
It would be several days before he would realize his connection to the plane that crashed in a field near Shanksville. Morrie says he does not remember the actual moment he learned just how closely he was connected to the flight. It’s the overwhelming feeling of anguish he remembers. The anguish he felt as he realized, had he not retired, it could have been him flying as captain.
“There was such turmoil, and rumors were coming from many different sources—some credible and some that were unbelievable and couldn’t be,” Morrie says.
When he learned Flight 93 crashed during an attempt to regain control of the airplane, he says he felt a sense of tragedy and pride in their attempt. Passengers aboard fought back against the terrorists.
“The motto that has been attached to 9/11 especially in the fire department and almost everywhere else is never forget, and that’s what I want people to remember,” he says.
Morrie knew Captain Dahl from the training center in Denver. But it wasn’t just the captain. He also knew First Officer Homer and every flight attendant that was aboard Flight 93.
“It really became pretty devastating,” Morrie says. “I don’t think anything differently than anyone else who thought about it in this country. The feeling of the tragedy there, and the pride that we were able to try and do something.”
It wasn’t just airline friends he lost, either. Morrie says he knew several people who worked in the New York fire department.
“I lost 26 really good friends up there in the fire department,” he says. “Guys I had worked with and trained with—especially a lot of the guys in two of the rescue unites, Rescue 2 and Rescue 4.”
With the loss of so many friends and colleagues, he began to feel a deep sense of guilt commonly referred to as survivor’s guilt. Morrie felt happy to be alive, but that feeling was clouded by sadness for those lost in the tragedy. For almost eight years he struggled before he sought professional counseling.
“It was a two-fold trauma,” Morrie says. “I’m still dealing with it. It took at least that long to get some control.”
Knowing so many people in both the airline industry and the fire department who died on 9/11 didn’t help with managing his guilt, either.
At no time did Morrie let those feelings show, Michael says, nor did his father tell him he was seeking help. He reacted like every other American did in the days following the terrorist attacks—with sadness and a sense of American pride.
“Everybody in the country felt something, but out here (in Ohio) it all went away,” Michael says. “Time doesn’t make it any less of a problem. It still affects me and my dad.”
Morrie, who now operates a freelance photo restoration studio called Images Limited, cannot stress enough the importance of preserving this piece of history and remembering the heroic actions of those involved during and after the tragedy.
“I think anybody could recognize that heroism,” he says. “Never forget about what has happened.”
For more photos, see Field of Honor.