Inside a Hero Fighter Pilot's Decision to Give His Life in Kamikaze Mission on 9/11: 'We Were Going to Do the Unthinkable'
The Flight 93 passengers who took down their plane are "the real heroes," Marc Sasseville tells PEOPLE
Watch our special
Children of 9/11, 15 Years Later on the new People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN), launching September 13. Go to people.com/PEN or download the free app on your Smart TV, mobile and Web devices.
When U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Marc Sasseville first heard a plane hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, he, like millions of others, thought it was an accident.
But when he heard a second plane had hit the towers, he and his colleagues in the 121st Fighter Squadron at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland immediately sprang into action.
By that time a third plane had hit the Pentagon and they got word Flight 93 was headed toward Washington, D.C.
“They didn’t know where Flight 93 was going to,” Sasseville, 53, tells PEOPLE. “That’s why they asked us to get airborne.
“We just knew that airliners were running into places they shouldn’t be running into,” he says. “To think that they would run one into the White House or Congress or the Capitol or the National Monument would have been catastrophic. Again, you can accept maybe the Pentagon as a military target but anything else is unthinkable.”
He and his wingman, Heather “Lucky” Penny, headed toward their F-16s.
“The only problem was we didn’t have weapons loaded on the airplanes yet because we normally don’t fly with weapons,” says Sasseville, now a major general who works out of the Pentagon.
The only “weapons” they had were the planes themselves, which meant he and Penny were on a Kamikaze mission.
“As we’re going out to the jets, Lucky and I had a quick conversation about what it is that we were going to do and how we were basically going to do the unthinkable if we had to,” he says.
With no training on how to shoot down airliners, they had to come up with a plan themselves.
“We had to figure out how to take down an airliner down quickly,” he says. “I thought we’d be flying together at that time and I could hit one part of the airplane and she could go for the other.”
“I’m going to go for the cockpit,” he told her.
“I’ll take the tail,” she replied.
“When I said ‘take,’ what I meant was basically run into it because, again, we didn’t have weapons.”
After he got into the air and began his patrols looking for Flight 93, he flew over the Pentagon and saw first responders trying to rescue people stuck in the still-flame-engulfed building.
It was an “unbelievably chaotic scene,” he says
“There was all this smoke in my cockpit,” he continues. “It made me nauseous to be honest with you. Not from an ‘Ugh, this stinks.’ It was more from an, ‘Oh my God, we’ve been hit on our own soil and we’ve been hit big.’
“I just couldn’t believe they had gotten through and they managed to pull off this attack,” he says.
As he and Lucky flew around the D.C. area, he rethought his strategy of crashing into the tail and the cockpit for taking down Flight 93.
“Neither of those would really stop the plane from flying,” he says. “So my thought was I really need to hit the wing to make the airplane not fly anymore and so the plan was to get close to the wing, break it and eject somewhere in there if I could, knowing that it would all happen kinda fast.
“But that’s the only real way to foil the aerodynamic qualities of an airplane – to hit the wing,” he says. “The only problem is you have no idea where it’s going to go.”
“The danger is an airplane gets dropped…when I say dropped I mean it falls to the ground…and it lands on a school or something. Thankfully, we didn’t have to take on that responsibility,” he says.
Also weighing on his mind was knowing not only would he likely lose his life, but hundreds of other innocent passengers on Flight 93 would as well should he succeed.
“It’s one of those greater good philosophies we learned at the academy,” he says. “To give one life to save hundreds of others, especially innocents, and to potentially enable the country to avoid a catastrophe and have it run into the Capitol.”
It was the same “moral calculation” he thought about with regard to the Flight 93 passengers and whomever the plane might hit as it crashed to the ground if he succeeded.
“Hopefully the airplane wasn’t fully loaded, but either way, if they were going to hit the ground there would probably be more casualites on the ground,” he says. But “the perceived repurcussions of a national monument other than the Pentagon being struck were just unthinkable. That would really set us on a different course throughout the 21st century.”
Instead, he later learned, the Flight 93 passengers made that same calculation themselves and brought down the plane over Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
“It was unbelievable,” he says. “Those are the real heroes. They were able to communicate, get the right pieces of information and decide what to do and actually took action. It brought tears to my eyes then and it still does today just to think about that.”
“They had to make the same calculation that I was trying to make on my end but they were the ones who were burdened with that ethical dilemma,” he says.
“My feeling on the back of that – and still is to a certain extent today – we were attacked,” he says. “It makes me angry. And frankly, the attack is not over.
“There’s one way you can look at this, which is this one battle in a long, long war that we’re still fighting,” he says.
Children of 9/11: 6 Teens on Growing Up Without Dads 15 Years After Attacks
Sasseville currently works at the Pentagon, so memories of 9/11 are hard to avoid.
“I see the site every day on the way to my parking spot, so it comes back quite clearly – all the people that perished; all the families that were affected and the people who were in the building that didn’t perish.
“There’s a lot of problems still today that people experience because of the attacks – PTSD; low flying airplanes. I’m sure it’s the same in New York City.”
Today, unlike 15 years ago, we’re “”better prepared” should something like this happen again.
“We have airplanes on alert 24/7 that are fully loaded, so the response would be very different today,” he says.
And on the 15th anniversary itself Sunday, his plans are simple, he says.
“I’ll say my prayers and I’ll toast the fallen.”