Originally published on Advocate.com December 24 2001 12:00 AM ET
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.”
Mark traveled overseas with his high school rugby club—breaking several of his bones along the way—and was recruited to play for the University of California, Berkeley, where he helped the school win two national championships. But when 19-year-old Mark met 38-year-old Mark Wilhelm, his athletic accomplishments must have paled next to the seemingly insurmountable task of keeping his sexual orientation a secret.
Wilhelm had placed a personal ad in a San Jose, Calif., newspaper, and Mark was one of the men who responded. His letter reflected a tug-of-war between the gregarious, confident young man everybody knew—the guy who could roll over any foe on the field while winning the friendship of any face in the crowd—and a private life he was only beginning to accept himself. “I’ve got no idea what I want to do with my life, but I know I’ll be a success at something,” he wrote Wilhelm. “I’m naïve but smart, funny but shy. I’ve lots of friends, but I’m lonely for a buddy that can share my secret.”
Mark, who Wilhelm said was in the physical shape “few of us ever see past 19,” shared more about himself after the two of them met in person. He told Wilhelm that he had known he was gay since he was 12. He also said, while probably adding a dramatic bent to what was undoubtedly a very real fear, “If my family or friends ever found out, I’d have to kill myself.” Wilhelm adds, “Mark was very closeted, but it was almost as if he was leaning against the door.”
In fact, it was less than two years afterward that Mark came out to Sarner, who laughs now when he remembers his initial reaction: “When did that happen?” And only months after that, Mark came out to his mother when they were driving around California’s Sonoma County.
“I was just loving being with my son that day,” Hoglan says, pulling her long hair back with one hand. “Then he said, ‘Mom, I have something to tell you, and I’ve promised myself that I was going to tell you before the sun went down.’ And when he said that, the sun was streaming into our faces—it was setting.
“I was really astounded [when he told me]. I hadn’t any idea that my son was gay, and up until that time I had been vaguely antigay,” Hoagland says. “So with those words, I began a journey.”
Mark was on a journey as well. His best friend and mother knew he was gay, but to most people Mark was still the outstanding rugby player, the Chi Psi fraternity president, and the guy who would get so blasted on vodka and orange juice at Cal football games that he sometimes dashed onto the field in often-successful attempts to tackle the opposing team’s mascot. His softer side was no less remarkable. Friends say he had a Clintonian ability to bring people out of their shells, to make them feel like no one else was more important. He made a concerted effort to be both the life and the lifeblood of all his social circles.
He was also a mama’s boy who, along with some college friends, parked in front of his mom’s house a car that was painted from front fender to back bumper with the words ALICE HOGLAN IS A GODDESS. “I don’t know where he got that,” Hoagland says, still blushing, with a mixture of embarrassment and pride. “I never told him that I was a goddess!”
Mark was fresh out of college and in classic form when in December 1993 he met Paul Holm at a Christmas party. “I noticed him standing at this table, where he proceeded to eat a whole bowl of shrimp,” Holm says. Mark noticed Holm too and walked over, stuck out his hand, and with a big grin said, “Hi, I’m Mark Bingham. Who are you? ” The two of them spent the rest of the party talking about a number of things, not the least among them Cal Berkeley, where Holm had also gone to school.
At 7 o’clock the next morning a telephone call and Mark’s voice on the answering machine woke Holm up. “I don’t know if you remember me,” the voice said. “It’s Mark from last night, and I wanted to see if you wanted to get together today.” The two of them were together for the next six years.
“We had a very intense and wonderful relationship,” says Holm, who shared with Mark his home in San Francisco’s Castro district for five of the years they were together. “We did everything from sitting in front of the TV watching football to traveling to France once or twice a year.”
The couple also had a fondness for feasting on fine food and wine while chewing on each other’s hopes for the future. It was during one such meal that Mark first mapped out an ambition to start his own public relations firm. “We spent hours and hours talking about everything, including business,” says Holm, who started his own firm, the Holm Group, when he and Mark were together. “When I was going through some memorabilia, I found an old menu where, on the back, we had written the potential names for our companies. And there was THE BINGHAM GROUP in big letters among all the others.”
Upon graduating from Cal in 1993 with a degree in social sciences, with an emphasis in international relations, Mark went to work for high-tech PR powerhouse Alexander Communications (now Alexander Ogilvy) and later took a job with 3Com. High-tech PR, like rugby before it, was a perfect fit for Mark, who as a teenager knew his Commodore 64 inside and out. And there was no better place to ride the rising high-tech wave of success than San Francisco in the mid ’90s.
Soon the going got so good that Mark decided to realize the dream he first outlined on the back of a restaurant menu. The Bingham Group officially opened for business in 1999 in a loft space Mark shared with a friend’s Web-design firm. By focusing on what he knew best—high-tech PR—Mark was able to secure a number of clients, hire several employees, and, in May 2000, open his own office on San Francisco’s Lafayette Street.
“At the office-warming party there were probably 200 people, and it took me 20 minutes to get in the door and another 15 minutes to get a spot inside,” Hoglan says. “But by that time in my life I had become much more accustomed to having Mark be a larger-than-life figure. He wasn’t famous, exactly, but he was extremely popular, and I kind of basked in his reflection.”
Derrick Mickle was playing in a flag football game at San Francisco’s Dolores Park when he first ran head-on into Mark. “Here was this huge guy who was just tearing people up,” he says. “And it was kind of frustrating because I had played a lot of pickup football growing up and there was always an unspoken rule that you didn’t showboat.”
Mickle soon learned that Mark wasn’t showing off but that he just “never dumbed down his game to placate anyone.” It wasn’t long before Mickle, who played rugby at Vassar College, tossed the idea of a gay rugby team Mark’s way. When the idea was no more than a “what if,” Mark was enthusiastic, he says. But when Mickle got serious, Mark became “dead against” the prospect. “He said, ‘You’ll never get accepted by the [rugby] union’; ‘The guys out there will tear you up’; and ‘You won’t ever find enough players.’ ”
Mickle went ahead without Mark’s blessing, and just two months after he first fielded a “rag-trap of rugby players” for the San Francisco Fog’s first practice in October 2000, Mark had a change of heart. “He came out for a practice and proceeded to act the same way as when I met him. He just plowed through the field, leaving a sea of bodies,” Mickle says, adding that after the team’s initial response of “What the hell is this guy doing?” Mark’s intensity eventually helped raise the level of everyone’s game.
And after practice, “Mark’s great, nurturing spirit came through,” says Bryce Eberhart, who was among those Mark ran over on the field that first practice. “He went up to everyone and patted them on the back and told them they were doing a great job.”
Once again Mark had fallen in step with a program that was just right for that point in his life. And in the summer of 2001, when the Fog was accepted as a permanent member of the Northern California Rugby Football Union, he didn’t hesitate to share his enthusiasm in an E-mail to his teammates:
“When I started playing rugby at the age of 16, I always thought that my interest in other guys would be anathema,” he wrote. “I loved the game but knew I would need to keep my sexuality a secret forever. As we worked and sweated and ran and talked together this year, I finally felt accepted as a gay man and a rugby player. My two irreconcilable worlds came together.
“We have the chance to be role models for other gay folks who wanted to play sports but never felt good enough or strong enough,” he continued. “More importantly, we have the chance to show the other teams in the league that we are as good as they are. Good rugby players. Good partyers. Good sports. Good men.”
Despite the tone of his E-mail, Mark never considered himself a gay activist. In fact, he thought of himself more as a man of action than a man of example. He supported John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid, for instance, despite the Arizona senator’s stand on gay issues—he opposes hate-crimes legislation and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. McCain, who spoke at Mark’s September 22 memorial service and calls him “an American hero,” tells The Advocate he won Mark’s support in the campaign because “I was straightforward and not your typical politician.”
Says Holm: “Mark was very proud of being a gay man, [but] it wasn’t the first thing he would define himself as.”
But whether Mark intended it to be or not, 2001 was turning out to be a transitional year for him in many ways, including the way in which he integrated his sexual orientation with the rest of his life.
“The two things in his life that he thought would never come together, did,” Mickle says, referring to Mark’s E-mail to the team. “When they fused, it was like a lightbulb going off in his head.”
After his six-year relationship with Holm ended in 1999, Mark was for the first time socializing as a single and openly gay man. And, along with Eberhart and other new friends from the Fog, he liked to mix it up while going out on the town—maybe stopping by a straight club before hitting a gay bar, such as the Lone Star Saloon, which uses the slogan “Bears, Bikers, and Mayhem!”
“If we were going to do some sort of nasty shot in a bar and no one wanted to do it, Mark was always the first one to give it a try,” Eberhart says. “He would be the one to eat the worm.”
Mickle says Mark was not “straight-acting,” as some people have suggested since September 11. “He was just acting like Mark. Sure, your gaydar would hit 0 every time [you saw him], but you would be so wrong.”
Things were changing at work as well. Business was so good when Mark opened his firm that he was basically able to pick and choose what clients he wanted to work with, says Peer-Olaf Richter, an account executive who started working for Mark in January 2001. But by that summer the bottom had fallen out of the technology market, and the Bingham Group’s roster had fallen from six full-time clients to two. That was incredibly hard for Mark.
“I learned very early on that he was really good at making immediate contact, chitchat, and building bridges between people,” Richter says. “Then, when the industry turned sour and it got to be much more about hard facts, I don’t think he really enjoyed the profession. Essentially, everything he had built up in that short amount of time had basically crumbled and fallen to pieces.”
Mark, a man who friends say hated to lose at anything, started to spend less time at his San Francisco office. He also was considering relocating full-time to New York City, where he already was living part-time and had opened a satellite office in the Chelsea apartment he shared with Amanda Mark.
And, Richter says, while he and his colleagues were in the office worrying about the loss of clients and the shrinking budgets, Mark was checking in from Hawaii, Las Vegas, Monaco, or Pamplona, Spain—where he took his now-infamous run with the bulls. “At the time, we were sitting in the office saying to ourselves, ‘What is that man doing?’ ” Richter says.
Hoglan acknowledges that her son was a “wild and unpredictable boss” at times. She also concedes that there were times that as a mother she wanted to urge him to settle down. “He spent a lot of money, goofed off with his friends, worked like a dog, and lived the life that I have always dreamed of,” she says. “And now I’m just really glad that he did.”
Mark spent Monday night, September 10, at Matt Hall’s home in Denville, N.J., where the two men ate ice cream, watched Monday Night Football, and then chatted while Mark trimmed his goatee in front of the bathroom mirror.
The two met on America Online in June, and after several dates they spent a week together in early September at the Southern Decadence festival in New Orleans. A shy guy who says he “never made the first move,” Hall was amazed with the confidence Mark exuded. “He took me by the hand in front of the Phoenix bar and said, ‘Let’s go meet people,’ ” Hall says. “Then he started going up to people and saying, ‘Hi, I’m Mark Bingham from California. This is Matt from New Jersey.’ ”
Their time together had been romantic, but Hall says they had an understanding that they were to be “just friends.” Nevertheless, that Monday night in Denville, Mark turned to Hall and asked, “When do we talk about making this relationship more exclusive?”
“I just looked at him and said, ‘You need to be on this coast full-time,’ ” Hall says, admitting that even though Mark’s question took him by surprise, he was excited about the possibility of a more serious relationship with him.
The tension from Mark’s question hung over the men well into the next morning, and by 7 a.m., when they were racing toward Newark airport, it was heightened by the stressful possibility that Mark was going to miss his flight home to San Francisco. He ended up being the last to board the plane, getting to his seat so late that he had only enough time to make a quick mobile phone call to Hall before turning off “all electronic devices,” as the flight attendants were instructing.
“He called me at 7:49 a.m. and said, ‘Hi, thanks for driving so crazy to get me here. I’ve made the plane, I’m sitting in first class, and I’m drinking a glass of orange juice,’ ” Hall says. “I said, ‘OK, have a good trip. Give me a call when you get there.’ I never told him how much I loved him,” Hall adds. “With Mark, you were always going to see him again. You were always going to talk with him again.”
Nobody knows for sure what Mark did those two hours after he hung up with Matt Hall. One can imagine that he ate a first-class breakfast, rummaged through the newspaper for the latest on the Dolphins, who were scheduled to play the Buffalo Bills that weekend, and reached across the aisle to introduce himself to his fellow passengers.
We do know that at 9:44 a.m. Eastern time, he called his mom. “Hi, Mom, this is Mark Bingham,” he said when she picked up the phone. “I just wanted to say that I love you. I am on a flight from Newark to San Francisco, and there are three guys on board who’ve taken over the plane, and they say they have a bomb.” It’s the minutes after that call to his mother, those between when the hijackers took control of the plane and when it crashed in Pennsylvania, that have everyone really guessing.
Todd Sarner says that one of the most frustrating things he’s experienced since September 11 has been knowing “more than anything I’ve known in my life” that Mark was involved in taking the plane down—but then not knowing how to adequately explain how he knows.
“I keep having this image from watching Mark play rugby a couple of years ago,” he adds. “His team had just kicked the ball, and there were probably 15 people between Mark and the guy who caught it. And I just remember watching Mark do something I’ve seen him do a thousand times—duck down his head and go through the crowd fearlessly, like he wasn’t even there, and then tackle that guy.”
Did Mark Bingham help tackle the terrorists on September 11? Investigators will be combing through the wreckage of Flight 93 and listening to the cockpit voice recorder for months and maybe years to find out. But the people who knew Mark and watched him live his life say they have all the proof they need.