Twenty years ago, a Cardinal O’Hara High School graduate helped save hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of lives by giving up her own.
Deborah Jacobs Welsh was an attendant on United Airlines Flight 93, one of four planes hijacked by 19 Al-Qaeda operatives on Sept. 11, 2001. As the purser, Debbie managed the flight’s passenger service, overseeing her fellow attendants and making the on-board announcements.
Attending to the needs of others came naturally to the Darby native, whose mother taught at Cardinal O’Hara. Her family even nicknamed her “The Little Apostle of the Airlines,” since she often left Newark’s Liberty International Airport with leftover airline meals for the hungry she met on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, the gritty Manhattan neighborhood where she and her husband Patrick, an actor, lived.
While walking their dog, Debbie (sometimes wearing a coat that matched the Dalmatian’s spotted fur) was known to run back home and bring a pair of Patrick’s pants or gloves for a shivering stranger she’d encountered.
Despite her ready and radiant smile, Debbie was quick to defend the weak, and after an elderly neighbor was struck by a bicyclist on the sidewalk, she didn’t hesitate to chastise riders who refused to stay in the street.
Both Debbie and Patrick shared their God-given gifts with their parish, St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan: a talented musician, she sang in the choir; he used his stage skills to proclaim God’s word as a lector.
Perhaps the melody of a hymn or a beloved Scripture verse from one of those parish Masses echoed in Debbie’s heart on her final flight, to which she’d been assigned after trading shifts with a colleague. Except for a 25-minute traffic jam that delayed takeoff until 8:42 a.m., the nonstop from Newark to San Francisco seemed routine — until some 46 minutes into the journey. At 9:28 a.m., four terrorists burst into the cockpit and rerouted the plane to Washington, D.C., with the intended target very likely the U.S. Capitol.
By then, Flights 11 and 175 had already collided with the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center; at 9:37 a.m., Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon. The Federal Aviation Administration’s 9:45 a.m. order to immediately ground all aircraft to the nearest airport was eight minutes too late for Flight 93, whose 33 passengers and seven crew members now faced certain death.
As they began making calls to airline officials and loved ones over Airfones (an air-to-ground telephone service that relied on radio waves), those on board learned of the three downed planes. And although unimaginable shock and sheer terror must have gripped them, the captives made the extraordinary decision to sacrifice their lives to prevent the terrorists from reaching D.C. — a move that saved countless souls on the ground.
In less than 30 minutes, the group devised a plan to retake control of the plane, using everything from the minibar cart to their bare hands. In a last phone call, Debbie’s fellow flight attendant, Sandy Waugh Bradshaw, told her husband (a U.S. Airways pilot who said he would guide the group in flying the resecured craft) that she and others were boiling water to throw on the hijackers. During their final moments, maybe Sandy and Debbie shared a defiant wink as the carafes were filled.
Before she hung up, Sandy advised her husband the group was running towards the first class section, adjacent to the cockpit. According to an Airfone operator, passenger Todd Beamer rallied the resistors by saying, “Let’s roll.”
The hijackers responded by pitching the plane from side to side, up and down. Ultimately, the aircraft was inverted, and at 10:03 a.m., Flight 93 seared into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania at some 563 to 580 miles per hour, carving out a crater 15 feet deep and twice as wide. The plane’s 5,500 gallons of unspent fuel exploded upon impact, sending a fireball heavenward.
Rising among those tragic and terrifying flames was the soul of Debbie, a woman who — from a Catholic school classroom to the Big Apple to the highways among the clouds — knew the true meaning of the cross, that unfathomable intersection of death and new life: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13).
And as we mark the 20th anniversary of the worst terror attacks on our nation’s soil, may we never forget her example, which she learned from her true captain: Jesus Christ.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.