Hero of Flight 93: The Mark Bingham Story

Publish Date: 11/09/2012


Hero of Flight 93: The Mark Bingham Story

“I cry every time I see an interview with her. I empathize with her loss but I am also part of Mark’s legacy. I have gotten so much out of rugby, it’s literally changed my life. It’s a tremendous legacy to leave; not just his heroism on 911, but everything...and the way she has carried on since. It’s a testament to their strength of character and mother-son bond” John Lee, Nashville Grizzlies.

John is talking about the inspirational Alice Hoagland, mother of avid rugby player and 9/11 hero Mark Bingham. Mark was also a gay man but as Alice says he never defined himself by his sexuality.

“Mark ‘came out’ at 21 and if I’m honest I didn’t take it well. It was hard. I wasn’t ready for it. It took me time to accept it. Looking back I was sad that I was not fully receptive.Now I tell people proudly my son was a gay man”

“He took his sexuality in his stride, he didn’t billboard it but he didn’t hide it. He was open. He didn’t let it define him. It was part of his personality not all of it”.

She talks happily about how Mark surrounded himself with friends; “He was full of life and a catalyst for fun. He was always anxious that others were having a good time and he lived for his friends. He was wonderful and loving. He used to light up the room”.

She remembers he was shy growing up but “grew from this skinny kid into a robust and commanding 6’2 guy”. Part of that change was due to his well documented love of rugby.

“Mark discovered rugby at 15. I remember him coming home from school one day, bruised, battered and muddy with this huge grin on his face. He said ‘I’ve discovered a new sport!’. He captained his High School team. I used to attend all his practises and games. He used to say ‘Mom - rugby is my life’”.

Mark continued to play rugby and his high school experiences paved the way for him to join the rugby union team at the University of California, Berkley where he helped them win a string of national championships. After graduating Mark was a member of gay rugby team the San Francisco Fog and helped to form New York’s Gotham Knights.

It was his love of rugby and his impressive physique that helped him when it came to the fateful day of 11th September 2001 – 9/11, where Mark, then aged 31, was aboard The United Airlines Flight 93. Alice recalls how she took a call from him minutes after the hijackers had taken the plane “He said ‘Mom, it’s Mark Bingham’. He must have been scared to use his surname. He said ‘We’ve been hijacked. They are saying they have a bomb. I just wanted to say I love you if I don’t see you again’”.

Earlier that morning terrorists had hijacked four passenger jets. Two were flown into the World Trade Centre towers in New York and one into the Pentagon in Virginia. The fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, was headed for a target in Washington D.C. Nearly 3,000 died in the attacks.

Alice later listened to the ‘black box’ tapes and learnt how Mark and a small group of fellow passengers including old high school friend Todd Beamer, Judo champion Jeremy Glick and quarterback Thomas Burnett had decided to take the plane. They stormed the cockpit and in the ensuring chaos it crashed, killing all the 44 people onboard including the 4 terrorists.

Alice tells ONW “I can imagine this group of big sporty guys deciding ‘rights let’s take the plane’. They must have looked so intimidating. On the tapes you can hear them fighting, it took a lot of effort. I’m proud that they died on their feet. Competitive sports and athletic ability really made a difference for America on that day.”

“Mark and his friends made a difference. Because of them Washingtondid not perish in flames that day. They saved countless lives. Together they have become symbols of goodness, unity and togetherness.”

“9/11 taught us we’re all one in spirit despite colour, race, sexuality, age and beliefs. What matters most is we are bound by common humanity.”

Now 62, Alice is a retired United flight attendant and is a proponent of aviation safety. She no longer flies and has been very vocal about airline security.

After 9/11 Mark became a hero. Not only an American hero, a symbol of hope, but a gay hero, an icon of sorts, who ‘smashed the gay stereotype’ and inspired gay communities worldwide. Alice puts it simply “he was always a hero to us”.

Since his death Mark has been honoured in many ways. He features in the 2006 United 93 film and is remembered at the memorial in Pennsylvania and at the National 9/11 Memorial. The bi-annual get together of gay rugby clubs was named after him in 2002, becoming ‘The Bingham Cup’. This year’s tournament will see 1,000 players compete.

Alice is proud of Mark’s legacy; “I am so proud that these great guys, these energetic, powerful and idealistic rugby players are carrying on Mark’s tradition. That’s the wonderful thing about rugby. The players go at each other so fierce and are so competitive and fight so hard on the field, but after the game everybody goes to get a pint.”

At the June tournament, to be held in Manchester, the feature-length documentary film ‘With You’ will be screened, depicting Mark and Alice’s story of love, loss and heroism. After the showing Alice and ex-Sale Sharks rugby star Ben Cohen will talk about how to combat homophobia in sport.

Alice has attended every single tournament. She says “I’m so touched that they want me to come. It’s a lot of fun!” She will be coming to Manchester in June and says “I’m really excited as England is the home of rugby. I’ve been to London when the cup was hosted there in 2004, but I’ve always wanted to come to a Northern city.”

She goes onto say the support of Manchester’s Village Spartans, the North West’s inclusive rugby team, has been great “I met them back in 2010 when they came to Minnesota. They have been so welcoming and have offered to show me around”.

The public response to Mark and Alice’s story has been huge. “I had no idea what the reaction would be. Mark had so many friends and inspired so many people. The support from everyone has been amazing, especially the LGBT community. Sometimes there’s the occasional hate mail but what’s important is what I stand for and the people who I stand with stand for”.

How would the once shy Mark feel about being a hero? Alice laughs “one of his friends was asked this and said Mark’s reaction would be ‘they are talking about me?!’ He would be crowing! He liked the attention. He himself rued the fact there were not enough gay heroes to look up to”.

Alice tells ONW her hopes for the future; “I want the day to come where people are accepted for who they are and sexuality is not an issue. It’s well past the time where the gay community can love who they love, marry who they want and be who they want to be without fear of persecution”.

I hope Mark would be proud of what I was doing"