The theory described by FBI Director Robert Mueller, based on the government's analysis of cockpit recordings, discounts the popular perception of insurgent passengers grappling with terrorists inside the cockpit, trying to seize the plane's controls, immediately before the crash.
The government's findings - laid out deep within the July 24 congressional report on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - aim to resolve one of the enduring mysteries of the deadliest terror attacks in U.S. history: What happened in the final minutes aboard Flight 93? The newly published excerpts from Mueller's testimony appear at odds with what families of some passengers have come to believe happened.
The FBI strenuously maintains that its analysis does not diminish the heroism of passengers who, with the words "Let's roll," apparently rushed down the airliner's narrow aisle to try to overwhelm the hijackers. In phone calls from the plane, four passengers said they and others decided to fight the hijackers after learning of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York that morning.
"In the cockpit! In the cockpit!" the passengers are heard yelling, according to Alice Hoglan of Los Gatos, Calif., who was among family members permitted to listen to the cockpit recording. Her son, Mark Bingham, died in the crash. She said the recording and a transcript the FBI provided to her and other families "doesn't leave very much doubt at all that passengers were able to get that cockpit door open."
President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have regularly praised the courage of those aboard Flight 93.
"While no one will ever know exactly what transpired in the final minutes of Flight 93, every shred of evidence indicates this plane crashed because of the heroic actions of the passengers," FBI spokeswoman Susan Whitson said Thursday.
Thirty-three passengers, seven crew members and the four hijackers died when Flight 93 crashed, one of four hijackings that killed more than 3,000 people on Sept. 11.
Citing transcripts of the still-secret cockpit recordings, Mueller told congressional investigators in a closed briefing last year that, minutes before Flight 93 hit the ground, one of the hijackers "advised Jarrah to crash the plane and end the passengers' attempt to retake the airplane."
Hoglan said the FBI's transcript quotes one hijacker after fighting breaks out in the cabin asking another hijacker in the cockpit in Arabic, "Finish her/it now?", and she believed they were discussing whether to crash the plane. The response from the second hijacker, she remembered, was either "wait" or "not now."
Jarrah is thought to have been the terrorist-pilot because he was the only one of the four hijackers aboard known to have a pilot's license. The congressional report also describes the hijackers wearing bandanas and carrying knives, and passengers reported seeing the captain and co-pilot lying on the floor of the first-class section, presumably dead.
Mueller's depiction of the events was disclosed in a brief passage far into the 858-page report to Congress. Previous statements by FBI and other government officials have been ambiguous about what occurred in the cockpit.
The same cockpit recording was played privately in April 2002 for family members of victims aboard Flight 93, and the FBI also provided them with its best effort at producing an understandable transcript. Some family members believe passengers used a food cart as a shield and successfully broke into the cockpit.
"It is totally obvious listening to that flight recorder that they made it into the cockpit," said Deena Burnett, who lost her husband, Thomas E. Burnett Jr., on Flight 93. "You cannot listen to the tape and understand it any other way."
She declined to discuss specifics of the tape because federal prosecutors have asked families not to describe the recording. She remembered hearing a hijacker telling Jarrah in Arabic to crash the plane deliberately, as Mueller described, and Jarrah refusing.
Burnett also said U.S. authorities, including Assistant U.S. Attorney David Novak, told families in April 2002 that the recording indicates passengers made their way into the cockpit.
Hoglan said the hijackers inside the cockpit are heard yelling "No!" at the sound of breaking glass - presumably from the food cart - and that the final spoken words on the recorder seemed to be an inexplicably calm voice in English instructing, "Pull it up."
She said the English voice toward the end of the recording was so distinct that she believes it's evident the speaker was inside the cockpit.
The FBI has been loath to publicly put forward a contradictory theory out of sensitivity to the families and because of uncertainty about what happened.
People who have heard the recording describe it as nearly indecipherable, containing static noises, cockpit alarms and wind interspersed with cries in English and Arabic. Near the end of the tape, sounds can be heard of breaking glass and crashing dishes, lending credence to the theory that passengers used the food cart to rush the cockpit.
Separately, the data recorder showed the plane's wings rocking violently as the jet flew too low and too fast for safe flight.
Intelligence officials believe the likely target for Flight 93 was the White House, based on information from Abu Zubaydah, a senior al-Qaida terrorist leader in U.S. custody who is believed to have played a key role in organizing the Sept. 11 attacks.
Prosecutors have sought a judge's permission to play recordings from Flight 93 during the terrorism trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only defendant in a U.S. case prosecutors have directly tied to the attacks. Moussaoui is accused of conspiring with the hijackers. Novak, the prosecutor quoted by Burnett and other family members, is one of the lead attorneys in the Moussaoui case.
The government has said it can link Moussaoui to Jarrah, using a telephone number found on a business card recovered at the Shanksville, Pa., crash site.
Moussaoui has acknowledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida but says he was not involved in the attacks.