On a recent afternoon, Alice Hoagland takes a seat in a high-backed navy-blue booth with a slight view of the U.S. Capitol in the distance. It stands intact today quite possibly because of the heroic efforts of her son, Mark Bingham, and a small group of fellow mavericks on United Airlines Flight 93 a decade ago.
Each year, the September 11 anniversary is reliably a blitz of media appearances for the 61-year-old retired United flight attendant who lives in Northern California. On this day, Hoagland appeared in Washington, D.C. at a congressional press conference, met with family members of firefighters killed at the World Trade Center, was a guest via satellite on the U.K.’s Sky News, and is juggling print and radio requests for the remainder of the day. Wearing a trim black blazer and a bronze silk shirt with a snap collar, she orders a glass of fizzy water and smiles broadly.
Hoagland has unforgettable verve. And why not? This is, after all, another opportunity where she gets to talk about memories of her handsome gay rugby-playing son, her enduring pride and joy who, as she told Jon Barrett, The Advocate’s then-news editor, in 2001, “lived the life that [she] always dreamed of.”
The horror of what Bingham and fellow passengers went through on Flight 93 has been transcribed, published, transformed into Hollywood screenplays. Brief audio clips of the cockpit struggle were released Thursday by the Rutgers Law Review. Hoagland has heard the entire recording (the final 30 minutes remain classified) and has recognized her son’s voice. Still smiling, she assures a reporter that her resolve is not impenetrable.
“In some ways I have not progressed through the grief process at all,” Hoagland says. “Sometimes the news of Mark’s death and the whole horror of 9/11 comes back and hits me like fresh bad news — when I’m in my private moments, when I’m by myself. In public I try to be strong the way Mark was strong. But you’re all over the map when you’re a mom who’s lost the most important person to her. I’ve devoted my life to emulating Mark. He taught me how to live.”
This weekend, Hoagland and her sister, Candy, will join other family members of passengers and crew at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush will speak at a Saturday opening and dedication ceremony for the 400-acre memorial. President Obama will arrive Sunday for the 10th anniversary commemoration to lay a wreath at the site and greet victims’ families, according to White House officials.
Hoagland says she doesn’t know whether she will get the opportunity to meet Obama. But she knows what she would say. “Mr. President, I’m very grateful to you for your steady support of the LGBT community. I hope you will see to the certain and steady demise of ‘don’t ask don’t tell,’” she says of the military policy set to expire on September 20. “I hope you will encourage the promulgation of marriage equality across the country. I’m grateful you’ve made September 11 a national day of service.”
Then Hoagland adds, with a little pep, “And I’m very grateful to you for seeing through the project of waylaying Osama bin Laden in his nasty little mansion.”
Whether it’s gay rights or other issues, Hoagland is not afraid to speak her mind. As 9/11 becomes more of a distant memory, that becomes even clearer.
Over the past decade, Hoagland has emerged as an advocate for multiple causes “that have risen out of the wreckage of my life,” as she puts it. LGBT equality, air travel safety, and youth sports are among them. She has also increasingly spoken out against what she sees as the dangers of radical Islam in this country, a gradual shift in her activism that may resonate with some and alienate others.
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to line up politically,” she says. “It seems perfectly logical for me that I would be a mom who’s all for rugby, all for the LGBT community, and very strongly against terrorism. And for reconciliation, but against radical Islam in the United States and elsewhere. To me, I seem perfectly consistent.”
On Sunday, Hoagland hopes that political division will be set aside at the memorial commemoration, however. (“Mark did teach me how important it is to reach across the table, to seek out the good things that we all have in common,” she says). Some critics have previously objected to the design of the memorial by Los Angeles–based architect Paul Murdoch. Originally titled Crescent of Embrace, the perceived religious symbolism was too much for at least one family. Tom Burnett Sr., whose son Tom died on the flight and is believed to have aided Bingham and others in thwarting the terrorists’ original intent, told TheNew York Times in 2008, “It's really revolting to me, this whole thing. It's an insult to my son and all the others." (The title and design of the site were later modified.)
Hoagland says she regrets that the Shanksville memorial ever became the subject of such controversy. “I’m going to reserve judgment about the motivations of Paul Murdoch. I know that much can be made out of very little. It seems like a lovely place to me, the design seems fine, it rests lightly on the land, and I look forward to going back. The National Park Service did a wonderful job. I only wish that Tom Burnett and his wife, Beverly, were going to be there.”
How does one honor Bingham, his fellow passengers, and the thousands of victims who lost their lives nearly 10 years ago? Hoagland has a quick answer for that too: Pledge to do a good deed through 911day.org, a project by the nonprofit MyGoodDeed, which Hoagland has supported as part of the September 11 National Day of Service. “Figure out something important to you. Work in a soup kitchen, send out letters to those who have lost loved ones — anything that has great significance to you, in remembrance.”