Every year as the date of September the 11th rolls around, I think of my own strange ‘other worldly’ experience as I reluctantly found myself in a re-enactment documentary being filmed just nine months after the terrible tragedy of the Twin Towers in New York.
My agent Jacque rang up to send me for an audition to which I was not anxious to go. I was to be considered for the part of the senior Flight attendant who went down on United Airlines Flight 93 in Philadelphia on its way to San Francisco on September 11th 2001. Apparently I looked just like the girl involved. This special documentary was to go out on ITV prior to the anniversary.
I was not enthusiastic. I intensely dislike documentaries with bits reenacted. I phoned my agent back to tell her that I didn’t I want to go for the interview. I felt that this film was being made too soon after the tragedy while emotions were still running high and I was concerned about the stress it might bring to the relatives. This was not a job for me.
However, Jacque told me that I had got it wrong, that in fact the relatives of the passengers on Flight 93 wanted the story to be told and that they had already filmed the interviews with them in the States.
So, against my better judgment, and to keep my agent happy, I agreed to go to the audition secretly hoping that there would be someone else more suitable to play the part than me.
As I walked through the door to the audition, the assistant to the director handed me the script to read over in the waiting room before going in to meet the director. The script was a transcript of a conversation made to a loved one in the last half an hour before the flight came down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The air hostess was called Sandy Bradshaw and she was asking her husband for ideas on how to stop the hijackers. She then began telling him how much she loved him and thanked him for being a great Father.
Two minutes later the director’s assistant came back into the room and asked if I was ready to meet the director. I said yes, and took a deep breath, and nervously followed behind. As I entered the room, I stopped dead in my tracks.
“Chris, what are you doing here?”
“I’m the director, what are you doing here?”
“I’m the actress ---the one you asked about-- Megg Nicol”
“Amazing, you look so different---of course I had forgotten you were an actress ”,
Chris looked embarrassed. The assistant looked totally confused.
“I guess you know each other--”
“Oh, yes we do, Chris lives in my street .....he’s just never seen me looking smart before. Well I guess I can go now, you wouldn’t want to be working with your neighbour, I totally understand. I got up to leave.
“No, don’t go--” said Chris “You might as well read the script, at least---since you‘ve come for an interview”
I hesitated. “OK, but you don’t need to give me this job, I wouldn’t be here if you’d known who I was, if you see what I mean”
I picked up the script and began to read it out loud. But it was weird, it didn’t feel like reading a normal script, it felt strange, as if “I” had temporarily stepped aside and the words were “speaking “ themselves. I was feeling every word ...as if I was living it.
When it came to the last few lines I could hardly get them out I was sobbing. The emotion beneath the words burned in my heart for the ones she was leaving behind. I stopped reading. We were all visibly moved.
“I’m so sorry”, I stammered searching for a tissue.
“No, that was just right---thanks for coming in to see me”, said Chris kindly.
I was glad the interview was over. Three days later my agent rang up to tell me I’d got the job. I still felt very uneasy about the whole thing but since I knew and trusted Chris, I agreed to do it
For those of you who might not be familiar with the story of United Airline Flight 93-- Newark to San Francisco. It was the fourth flight to be hijacked on September 11th, 2001. What made this flight different from the other three was a decision reached by the passengers about forty minutes into the air to bring the flight down after they had learned on their cell phones that they were likely to be flown into a building as the fourth plane in a series of suicide missions.
The filming was being done at a small airport near Bournemouth. I met the cast early Sunday morning, as we boarded a coach in London that would take us to the location. I was slightly relieved to find that we all felt similarly apprehensive, the most nervous of all being the four guys who would play the “hijackers” who thought we might not speak to them! As we exchanged chit chat about the people on the flight I was stunned by the strange coincidences involved. I met “Sandy Bradshaw” the flight attendant whose cell phone conversation they had used as an audition piece for the job. She looked perfect for the part. I was cast as Deborah Welsh the senior flight attendant in charge and my colleague in First Class was Wanda Green (her real name being Wendy Brown). Everyone was extremely friendly.
Reality struck as the coach pulled into the airport hangar and we saw the plane that would be our base for the next few days. After lunch, we tried on our air hostess outfits and went into the make up caravan for the make-up artists to see what work they needed to do to affect similarities to the “real” people. They had photos of all the people on Flight 93 in the caravan. Amazingly, as we walked through the door
they were able to tell who we were playing by just looking at us.
In my own case as I looked at the photos on the wall. I saw one of myself in a “T” shirt that I couldn’t remember having taken. Then on a closer look I realised the photo wasn’t of me at all but Deborah Welsh; the person I would represent. If I needed confirmation that I should be there, this was it, I was ready.
A properly trained air stewardess demonstrated what would be expected of us aboard a normal flight. The sort of things as a passenger you would take for granted, like greeting people and checking their names off the list, showing them to their seats, safety checks, announcements, serving breakfast; the full routine. The difference being that I was “standing in” for Deborah, a poor substitute for the real thing taking boarding cards from passengers aboard Flight 93.
It was a beautiful day and I was working in First Class with Wanda Green. There were ten passengers in First class and I know where each one of them sat. One passenger Mark Bingham was late, he had apparently overslept and his friend Matthew had driven him crazily through Manhattan to Newark to make the Flight. I helped re-open the door for him and let him on the plane. He sat in aisle seat 4D, just across the aisle from Tom Burnett, husband of Deena and father to three girls. Wanda Green served him a welcome drink of orange juice. He could have had champagne.
The hijackers boarded separately. Ziad Jarrah sat in 1B to the right, in the very front seat near my station. Ahmed Al Haznawi a twenty-year-old student from Saudi Arabia sat in 6B to the right and Al Nami and Al Ghamdi sat together on the left in 3C and 3D. They were all in their twenties. There was nothing unusual about their behaviour at that point.
Just after Wanda and I had served breakfast, which everyone had happily tucked into, Flight 93 was near cruising altitude. It was then that a message came
through from United Control Tower warning pilots in the air of potential “cockpit intrusion”, translated as; some passenger might try to seize the plane.
It was a few minutes after 9:a.m. as our flight left the East Coast and hundreds of miles behind us that the World Trade Centre was in flames. At this point Flight 93 had now reached 31,000 feet and was flying at 515 mph.
Suddenly, 40 minutes into the flight, three of the hijackers stood up, put on red bandannas and killed passenger Mike Rothenburg in 5B directly behind Mr.Burnett. It all happened so quickly and now they were heading my way. I was standing between them and the cockpit of the plane. There was no escape. They were screaming for the key to the cockpit, which I had secured in my pocket some 35 minutes before. I struggled as one of them grabbed my hair and waved his knife threateningly.
Although I was terrified, I wouldn’t give in, not for the safety of my passengers, my husband, the plane, my life. I screamed till it hurt, then fell to the floor.
Three young actors with red bandannas were standing over me, one helped me up and the other apologised for hurting me. I walked out onto the boarding ramp for some air, it was all over. I was alive but Deborah Welsh was not.
Over the next few days I witnessed actors delivering their lines from the transcripts of conversations held on mobile phones during the final 40 minutes of that tragic flight. Most passengers were aware that it could be the last time they had a chance to share a moment with their loved ones.
These people were united in a terrifying ordeal. Yet determined that the plane should not become a missile in the hands of fanatics, they hatched a plan. Not fueled by hatred, or revenge, but through concern that if they didn’t try to bring the plane down themselves many more innocent people might die.
Sandy Bradshaw who had been trained never to spill coffee over anyone was now standing in the galley kitchen in Economy pouring boiling water into large jugs. They waited till the plane was flying over open fields near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, then Todd Beamer gave the now familiar signal, “Let’s Roll” and some of the passengers stormed the cockpit armed with boiling water.
At 10:06 the radar screen at Air Traffic Control in Cleveland went blank. United Airlines Flight 93 had disappeared from the screen. Thirty-seven people united for short period of time defiant in the face of death, an ordinary cross-section of travelers sharing a common fate. They have been hailed as heroes and certainly they acted with amazing courage. However none of those thirty-seven passengers would have described themselves in that way.
In the forty minutes between the hijacking and the plane crashing there were some extraordinary transformations, many moments of enlightenment. Thanks to modern cell phone technology, these moments have been preserved for us to consider. Although the contents of the conversations were unique in themselves each one was carrying the same message.
There was only one thing that was important. That “something” was more important than life itself. Something that no person could take away, but something when given away, more of it would flood into your life. When there was nothing left, when all the outer layers of the personality had been tossed aside. When the ego had become silent and still, there was only one thing remaining, transmitting across the airwaves and radiating like a precious beacon above the skies in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. And that was “Love”. Love sharp enough to cut through the fear and transcend all evil.
When I was asked to play the part of Deborah Welsh I had been frightened about what I might find out aboard that flight. Worried that the horror would be too much and that I might blur the boundaries between being ‘just myself’and an actress and access energy I’d rather not experience.
However, I did “feel” the energy and to my astonishment the experience was quite overwhelmingly positive and not at all what I was expecting. Love was by far the strongest emotion on that flight and with it came an extraordinary peace as the passengers accepted their final destiny.
When the documentary was broadcast, thanks to the sensitivity of the director Chris Oxeley the message of “love” came across loud and clear. In a small and humble way, I do believe I was meant to do that job simply perhaps to act as a “voice” for those who could no longer speak for themselves, so people might understand a little of the spiritual aspect to their story.
I leave you with the words that Patrick Welsh spoke at Deborah’s eulogy, which to me say it all.
“As we think about Debbie and our loved ones lost, the transformation from their tragedy is not found in the smoldering rubble and scarred skyline of our great city. It’s not found in the broken walls of our proud Pentagon. It’s not found in the charred crater of courage and those gentle fields of Pennsylvania. Our transformation is not found in the murderous malevolence of madmen. Tragedy transforms us through Divine rescue of boundless love and unlimited compassion. It’s in our ability to care for one another that separates us from the monsters that wound us. Our care for one another has forever transformed us. That is Debbie’s legacy, the world’s legacy”