It took a while for Alice Hoagland to muster the courage—not to mention the technological know-how—to check the messages on her son’s mobile phone. Mark Bingham had had the phone with him when he boarded United Airlines Flight 93 nearly two months earlier. So, of course, it was destroyed along with everything else on board when the plane crashed in a field in Somerset County, Pa. But like some sort of space-age time capsule that captured the terror and the confusion that has become known as September 11, Bingham’s voice messages sat on an AT&T Wireless computer waiting to be retrieved.
Hoagland knew there were at least two messages because she had left them herself. Mark woke her up at 6:44 a.m. Pacific time with an air phone call to tell her that his flight had been hijacked. However, it wasn’t until after the call was disconnected and Hoagland turned on the TV that she realized the hijackers’ probable plan for her son’s plane.
“Mark, this is your mom,” she said in her first message. “It’s 9:54 a.m. [Eastern time]. It’s a suicide mission, and the hijackers are planning to use your plane as a target.” Today, she corrects herself when she repeats the message: “Of course I meant to say ‘weapon.’”
Her messages were two of the 44 left on Mark’s phone in the wake of the hijacking. One was from Mark’s father, Jerry Bingham, in Florida. “I’m looking at this big wreck and I’m hoping you’re nowhere near it,” he said, according to Hoglan. Others were from rugby teammates, fraternity brothers, business associates, and boyfriends. And at least one was from his roommate in New York City, Amanda Mark. “Mark, call me!” she pleaded.
Mounting evidence suggests Mark had access to the information his mother was trying to get to him. Cockpit recordings support the theory that he and the others on board took amazing measures in attempting to overcome the hijackers. The victims of Flight 93 have been heralded as citizen soldiers who, when faced with then-unimaginable circumstances, gave their own lives to save thousands of others. Mark, meanwhile, has been singled out by the media as the “gay hero.”
It’s a distinction that makes many of those who were close to him uneasy. Not that they were uncomfortable with Mark’s sexual orientation. Most of them don’t hesitate to mention his nickname, “Bear Trap.” He liked his men big and hairy, they say. It’s just that the moniker “gay hero” says so little about a man who was as varied as the 44 unheard voice messages his mother found on his phone.
The word giant better represents Mark Bingham, his friends might say. But even then they wouldn’t be talking about his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame. They would be describing the life they watched him lead.
One of Alice Hoagland’s most vivid memories is from the summer of 1970, when she split from her husband and moved from Phoenix—the town in which Mark was born on May 22 of that year—to Miami. “I ran to the airport with him stuck like a football under my arm,” she says.
Mark—who at the time was called Jerry, after his father—knew that day only through the stories his mom told him. But it was nevertheless one of the most significant in his life in that it marked the start of his partnership with his mother.
“We were always a team, and I depended on him way too much,” Hoagland says. “It was too much emotional strain for a little boy to have a single mom thrashing about for support.”
After eight years in Miami, where Mark and his mother lived on a houseboat in the shadow of the Orange Bowl—hence Mark’s lifelong obsession with the Miami Dolphins—the pair moved to California.
Soon after her divorce, Hoglan decided to take the K from her son’s middle name, Kendall, and call him Kerry—a name she says he hated because “it sounded like a girl’s.” So when her son was 10 and about to start a new school in Redlands, Calif., she gave him an opportunity few people ever have. “I said, ‘Kerry, you’ve been complaining about your name, and now’s the time to change it, because people here don’t know you yet.’” After thinking about his mom’s proposition for just a minute, he responded, “OK, I’ll be Mark.”
“It was a brave and very definite thing. He just chose it,” Hoagland remembers. “And when we got to the classroom and the teacher said ‘This is Mark Bingham,’ I heard a kid say, in a whining voice, ‘Another Mark!’”
The two of them didn’t stay anywhere long those first few years in California. In addition to Redlands, they were in Riverside, before being inspired by one of Hoglan’s favorite authors—John Steinbeck—and moving to Monterey. There they lived in the back of a pickup for a few weeks while Hoglan looked for work and, more than a couple of times, depended on the fish Mark could catch at the wharf for supper. “I look back on it now and say, ‘Wow, that was a really cool, character-building experience,’ ” Hoglan says. “But it was pretty grim. There was never a lot of money, and that may have been the nadir of our existence.”
Mark was a sophomore at Los Gatos High School in Los Gatos, Calif.—where he and his mom had moved a few years earlier—when he met Todd Sarner. “I think what brought us together originally is that we didn’t fit into any of the cliques,” says Sarner, also a sophomore at Los Gatos at the time. “We weren’t really jocks, and we weren’t really the nerdy, brainy kids.”
Sixteen years later their relationship was so strong that Mark had been the best man at Sarner’s wedding, and Sarner was the one who dropped Mark off at the San Francisco airport in late August for what turned out to be his last flight out of the city. But Sarner is the first to tell you that their friendship didn’t start out that way.
“We kind of had a cantankerous relationship at the beginning,” he says. “Back then a lot of the fights were about what heavy metal band was the best. Mark was really into a band called Queensryche, and I was into a Japanese metal band called Loudness.”
Sometimes Mark, Sarner, and other friends would collaborate on music videos—complete with big hair, makeup, and air guitar—that they would videotape at Mark’s house, usually when Hoglan, who is a flight attendant for United Airlines, was away on a trip. “They would get made up in these outrageous Metallica and Iron Maiden getups, using my makeup,” Hoglan says.
Mark and Sarner also collaborated on the rugby field. And though the sport didn’t exactly suit Sarner, it was perfect for Mark. As physical a sport as rugby is, it no doubt helped cultivate the sense of fearlessness in Mark that Sarner later addressed in his eulogy on September 22 in Berkeley, Calif. “I tend to believe that the truth is that Mark did have fear,” he said, “but that he took action anyway.”