Commentary: Flight 93 hero's mom looks back with pain, pride

The Sacramento BeeSeptember 9, 2011 

LOS GATOS — Alice Hoagland has her causes, five of them exactly, which she recites precisely and without prompting. Improving airline safety. Eradication of terrorism. Promoting world peace. Protecting the rights of gays and lesbians. Encouraging communities, schools and families to increase support for youth sports.

She likes to say she speaks with the full-throated roar of her late son, Mark Bingham, a gay man who loved rugby, an only child who adored his mother.

Ten years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks, almost everyone has heard about Mark Bingham. And Todd Beamer and Tom Burnett and Jeremy Glick. The four men are widely believed to have led the passenger insurrection that sent United Flight 93 plunging into a deserted field near Shanksville, Pa., killing all 44 aboard but thwarting the terrorists' plot to destroy the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Courage never becomes outdated. Bingham, Beamer, Burnett and Glick have been portrayed as heroes in films, stories, books and newspapers.

As the 10-year anniversary approaches, Hoagland says that the men were exceptionally brave, but suspects other passengers also conspired against the hijackers, and warns that apportioning credit and limiting praise only causes pain. For those intimately affected by the tragedy, the wounds are forever.

"You think about this every day," said Hoagland, a former United Airlines flight attendant who often worked the first-class cabins of similar 757 jets.

She can envision the scene on the doomed flight in unique, excruciating detail. Unlike some other surviving family members who can't bear to hear the cockpit recordings and cellphone conversations later made available by the FBI, she continues to crave information, and is both comforted and tormented by her insights.

On one recording, she recognizes her son's voice.

"Get 'em, get 'em, come on, come on," he shouts.

Hoagland has no doubt her son was among those storming the cockpit and attempting to regain control of the jet. Asleep at her brother's home in Saratoga when Mark called from the aircraft, alerting the family to the hijacking, she is haunted by her initial inability to grasp the gravity of the situation.

She neglected to tell Mark where the keys to cockpits are kept, for instance, never suggested using the ice trays, utensils or other instruments as weapons. "That was my workplace …" she said, briefly tearing up.

When she returned to her job several months after the attacks, Hoagland would sit in the jump seat and stare at the passenger in 4D, the seat her son occupied on 9/11. She would be overcome at odd moments and start sobbing, pummeled internally by bleak scenarios and eternal questions.

"I often wonder if Mark and Todd (Beamer) recognized one another on that doomed flight," said Hoagland, noting that both men played sports at Los Gatos High – Beamer played basketball – and graduated a year apart. Interestingly, she notes, Burnett (football) and Glick (judo) were also accomplished athletes.

"I have come to see how important, how crucial sports was in developing Mark's character, giving him the confidence on the rugby pitch," said Hoagland, "and for that matter … in the cabin of Flight 93. I have to think that sports was a powerful influence on their actions that morning."

As she spoke about her son, about that day, about her life during a recent interview in her bungalow in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Hoagland, a youthful 61-year-old, was open and unpretentious, even a little disarming.

A divorced single mother during most of Mark's life, she has renovated her son's bedroom to accommodate her 96-year-old father, who moved in recently. Plaques, photos and certificates dating back to Mark's days as a rugby player on Cal's 1991 championship team are carefully displayed on the dining room table. Cloaking one of the three chairs is a lightweight blue jacket with the lettering of the San Francisco Fog, a Bay Area gay rugby team that Mark played for for several years.

Hoagland becomes visibly angry only when discussing the FAA airline safety measures she deems woefully inadequate. That, and the terrorists. The names of the four hijackers on Flight 93 roll off her tongue quickly and with an aching familiarity. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 plots, is referred to simply as "KLM." With her hands gripping the side of the table, she reveals that she eagerly attended his trial in Guantánamo Bay.

But more often than not, Hoagland is smiling and upbeat, elaborating on the pranks and outsized personality that characterized her son, an athletic, imposing figure at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds.

The story about The Tree, for instance, is absolutely true. A reserve on Cal's perennial powerhouse rugby squad, Mark tackled the Stanford mascot during a football game and spent the ensuing hours in jail. He dived off high cliffs in Hawaii and rescued women from muggers. He was fearless, he was aggressive, he was unconventional, all of which made him a natural fit for his beloved rugby.

"One day in high school he came home and announced, 'Mom, I found a sport. Rugby.' I said, 'rugby?!' I was so surprised," said Hoagland.

"He is … he was … such a football fan. We lived in Miami before our family moved out to California en masse, so the Dolphins were his team. But he was good at rugby, and his high school coach called (Bears coach) Jack Clark, and so he was recruited by Cal. I was so glad because he wanted to go to Chico State – 'It's a party school, Mom!' – but I always wanted him to go to Cal."

At the time of his death, Mark Bingham was 31. He owned a Bay Area marketing and public relations firm and was establishing a second office in New York. Hoagland also mentions the passing last week of yet another anniversary:

"On Aug. 27, 1991, Mark mumbled a bunch of words, then told me he was gay. As a parent, of course, that's never easy to hear. But you love who you love, and I would support Mark no matter what, so that (gay rights) is one of my causes."

The Fog plans a memorial kegger on Sept. 11, coinciding with the USA-Ireland World Cup rugby opener televised by NBC. Cal officials are planning a moment of silence during that day's athletic events.

Hoagland, accompanied by her sister Candy, will attend services at the crash site in Shanksville. She hopes to meet President Barack Obama, and despite her issues with airline security (particularly in cargo holds), considers herself "a liberal Democrat," she says, "who has right-wing friends."

"It seems to me, we need to tone down the rhetoric and seek common ground with Muslims, Christians, Jews, hedonists, religious people and non-religious people," Hoagland said emphatically. "Find what binds us together and go forward!

"I had some fear that people would have forgotten about 9/11 about the time the 10th anniversary came around, so I welcome every anniversary, every opportunity to renew our commitment to unfinished business."

Quietly, with a slight smile, she adds, "When the anniversary is over, I think I'm just going to collapse, try to finally relax."

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