First seen on gaytimes.co.uk in 2016, 15 years on.
Mark Bingham was a talented rugby player from America’s south. On 9/11 he wrestled terrorists aboard Flight 93 – stopping it from hitting the White House, but sacrificing himself in the process. The bravery made Mark an American hero. Then America learned he was gay.
It was the morning of 11 September 2001 that terrorists captured United Airlines Flight 93. Their aim was to blow up either the White House or the Capitol Building in a planned attack. Mark Bingham and other desperate, determined passengers found themselves in the fight of their lives – attempting to wrestle control from a team of barbarians bidding to kill them all.
Exactly what happened in the minutes aboard that flight is unclear. Recordings from the cockpit recall how Mark and others were just moments from regaining control as a violent tussle took place.
At 9:44am Mark took the airplane phone to ring his family. Now 15 years on, his mum, Alice, reveals the recording of that final call.
“Mom, this is Mark Bingham. I just want to tell you I love you, I’m on a flight from Newark to San Francisco and there are three guys who’ve taken over the plane and say they have a bomb,” Alice recalls, her voice breaking as she retells each detail.
“Then there was a silence and a muffling and I could hear other people speaking. I said ‘who are these people Mark?’ Then we were disconnected.
“That was the last time I heard his voice.”
Mark had been sat in row 25 of the morning flight. 28 minutes on from the call the plane nose-dived into a field, fragmenting violently on impact and killing every person on board. Mark was 31-years-old.
Left in the ground was a gaping hole from the sheer impact of the high speed crash. The plane was never recovered – it had been split into too many pieces. As had the bodies of those onboard; their coffins containing suspected parts of each person.
“‘I want to be totally used up when I die,’” Alice recalls of a favourite philosopher, “and that was totally true with Mark. I didn’t ask what they found of him. I never opened the casket because it’s more about having a way to remember him than what’s really there. And he’s always remembered.”
Almost exactly 10 years earlier, on 27 August 1991, Mark had taken his mum for dinner at his university campus.
“I remember it vividly. He sat me down and was telling me all these things about his new life. Then in among a whole load of words was ‘I’m gay’. I was quite shocked. We parted minutes later and Mark thought I’d need time to take it in, and I did, he was right.
“I had to go on my own journey. I didn’t accept the news particularly well. I’ve had to do a lot of growing myself to realise it was very touching that he felt he could share that information with me and trusted me with it.
“And now I’ve ended up a proponent of these issues and campaigning for the rights of people like Mark. I’m so delighted to see how the world has evolved and been on the same journey I have. For too long America reviled gay people and now, finally, we’re somewhere where people treat others equally and everyone has the right to marry. I just wish Mark could be here with me to enjoy it.”
Mark hadn’t been in love when he died, but was, as his mother puts it, “a serial bachelor”. He’d been driven to the airport on 9/11 by the lover of his final weeks after a long weekend’s partying with friends. They’d had to race to make the flight; waking up late the consequence of a prolonged hangover.
Many of Mark’s friends shared his passion for rugby. Friends who went on to establish the Bingham Cup, an annual tournament for gay and bisexual rugby players around the world named in his honour. The Gotham Knights club, in San Francisco, permanently bears the colours Mark wore for his university team in memory.
Rugby star Ben Cohen backed the Bingham Cup in 2012 as the tournament came to Manchester, and it’s seen the numbers of gay men’s rugby clubs escalate. It now tours the world biannually, taking Mark’s spirit with it.
His mum never misses a tournament. She dedicates her energy to the Bingham Cup and to championing LGBT rights in her son’s memory. Alice Bingham is a hero in her own right. The sort of decent, everyday hero who might otherwise have never been noticed, were it not for an atrocity like 9/11 bringing it to the fore; some proof good comes from evil.
“America was spared the sight of the capital in flames that day, and countless lives saved,” she speaks. “Just because of my Mark and others’ bravery on Flight 93, and I’m so proud of them. I am. I really, really am.”
Now, former Vice President Joe Biden, one who could have lost his life, said: “I didn’t know Mark Bingham, but I wish I had.” As his mum gushes with pride at telling his story and of his decency, it’s obvious Joe Biden speaks for us all.
Words: Benjamin Butterworth