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A National Guard Commander Recalls Suicide Mission To Intercept Flight 93 On 9/11

Visitors assist in unfolding a giant flag at a temporary memorial overlooking the crash site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The plane crashed Sept. 11, 2001, into a rural field from the presumed target of the nation's capital, killing 40 people. (Archie Carpenter/Getty Images)
Visitors assist in unfolding a giant flag at a temporary memorial overlooking the crash site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The plane crashed Sept. 11, 2001, into a rural field from the presumed target of the nation's capital, killing 40 people. (Archie Carpenter/Getty Images)

On Sept. 11, 2001, Marc Sasseville was a few months into his new role as director of operations and lieutenant colonel for the 121st Fighter Squadron, a unit of the District of Columbia Air National Guard.

And during those crucial moments after the attacks on the World Trade towers and the Pentagon, Sasseville and his colleagues learned of a fourth hijacked plane — Flight 93 — still in progress. That’s when they sprung into action.

Now the National Guard’s No. 2 in command, Lt. Gen. Sasseville is looking back on the Guard’s role in responding to the attacks and the role of the Guard today.

Sasseville didn’t end up intercepting Flight 93 because the passengers devised their own plan to take it down. The plane ultimately crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board. But those passengers averted a fourth attack.

“Those people on Flight 93 are the real heroes of the day, I believe,” Sasseville says. “And it’s really incredible when you piece together everything that they had to go through and absorb in the heat of the moment to realize that they were part of an attack.”

On what started as a normal day, Sasseville and his squadron were trying to understand the situation when the White House Joint Operation Center called to report another hijacked plane. There weren’t any pilots or planes ready to fly right then, he says, so the squadron moved quickly.

“After seeing what had happened, our thinking was if there are more airplanes, we have to stop them,” he says. “And we may be the only ones who can do that at this point.”

The planes didnt have missiles or bullets ready, so Sasseville got into an F-16 fighter jet with his wingman, Heather “Lucky” Penney, and set out on a suicide mission to take down Flight 93. After a quick conversation about how to complete the mission efficiently and who would take which part of the plane, the duo took off as soon as possible.

“Nobody ordered us to get into the air,” he says. “We knew what they were asking, though, and we weren’t going to just sit idly by and wait for the missiles.”

But Sasseville’s mission didn’t end on 9/11. In the weeks that followed, the National Guard had to fly combat air patrols 24/7 — a difficult feat, he says.

Today, the National Guard has airplanes ready at the site of his old squadron, the busiest in the nation, he says. That’s one of many things that have changed within the National Guard in the past two decades.

Before 9/11, Sasseville thought he would pursue a civilian career as a commercial airlines pilot. He finished active duty after 14 years, and then planned to work part time as an aviator at the 121st Fighter Squadron while he waited to complete 20 years of service and retire from the Guard.

Sept. 11 changed the trajectory of his career by giving his service a new meaning, he says.

“After 9/11, my outlook on life changed dramatically,” he says. “My sense of purpose, my sense of duty really kind of took on a new meaning at that point when I realized, as many did that day, that our homeland was no longer a sanctuary.”

The National Guard serves an expansive role in the country. Troops have set up field hospitals and mass vaccination sites during the pandemic and respond to natural disasters.

Starting as a militia in the colonies in 1636, the National Guard became what we know today over the past century, Sasseville says. The National Guard’s top job is to “answer the nation’s call” and it’s always there to heed requests for help, he says.

“The question is, what does the country want from its National Guard going forward?,” he says. “And I think that’s a national discussion to have.”

A painting hangs in Sasseville’s office that depicts his view from his plane of the burning Pentagon after Flight 77 crashed into the building.

The painting reminds him of the smell of smoke, he says. He started feeling nauseous when the fumes began leaking into his cockpit — but he realized the sickness came from the realization that the nation had been attacked.

Every day when he comes to work, the image also reminds him that the country can never let something like 9/11 happen again.

“This was a disaster from a military perspective,” he says. “We did not defend the country that day.”

Sasseville says he doesn’t believe the next attack on the U.S. will happen by air. But with small scale cyberattacks occurring every day, he’s sure one will come.

That’s why he and many others from his generation continue to serve in the National Guard, he says, to prevent the tragedies of Sept. 11 from happening again.

“I think that’s really the charge for the next generation: to make sure that we don’t forget our past and are condemned to repeat our future,” he says.

Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.