The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Flight 93 hero husband began fight against terror: Canadian wife of pilot
MARLTON, N.J. - Melodie Homer has always taken solace in privately knowing how her husband's final minutes unfolded while in the cockpit of the doomed United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001.
Now she's ready to talk about them.
The Hamilton native is the widow of LeRoy Homer Jr., co-pilot of hijacked Flight 93 that slammed into a Pennsylvania field on 9-11, killing all 33 passengers and seven crew.
Her story is her search to understand the last seconds of her husband's life, to cope with his mindless death and to put his murder at the hands of Osama bin Laden's air pirates in what she believes is the proper context.
"Essentially the battle — the fight against terrorism — started in the cockpit. It started with Jason and LeRoy," Homer told The Canadian Press in an interview.
"It was a combination between passengers and crew, but it started in the cockpit."
The story of Flight 93 became one of the few straws for Americans to grasp while in a sea of raw shock. A passenger revolt forced the airliner down before it could reach the terrorists' intended target of Washington, D.C.
Homer wants everyone to know what she believes: her husband LeRoy and Capt. Jason Dahl launched the resistance against al-Qaida's suicide squads even if they were cut down before the final confrontation.
Months after her husband's death, the FBI gave her a secret briefing about the final hour of his life and the last moments of Flight 93.
What she learned from the FBI during that grim meeting in April 2002 sheds new light on Flight 93. But she honoured a confidentiality agreement to keep from compromising the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker. Moussaoui was eventually convicted and given a life sentence in 2006.
Over the years, others connected to 9-11 victims broke that agreement, providing fodder for films and books about the Flight 93. Homer will release her own book this fall, "From Where I Stand," as her attempt to set the record straight.
Canada officially recognizes American-born LeRoy Homer as one of its 9-11 victims, along with the 24 Canadians who perished in the attacks, because of his marriage to Melodie, a Canadian.
Homer continues to live in Marlton, N.J., where she and LeRoy were happily raising their then 10-month-old daughter, until the day a decade ago that 19 hijackers simultaneously boarded four commercial airliners.
LeRoy Homer's voice cut through the New Jersey hotel room in April 2002, where Melodie Homer and Sandy Dahl, the widow of Flight 93 captain, Jason, were listening to the tapes of Air Traffic Control and the cockpit voice recorder along with FBI agents.
It was the first time Homer heard her husband's voice since 9-11, a warning he uttered at 9:28 a.m. that day. Five minutes earlier, the airline had radioed Flight 93 to beware of cockpit intrusion because two aircraft had hit the World Trade Centre.
The official 9-11 commission report says the captain or first officer could be heard issuing that first mayday, "amid the sounds of physical struggle in the cockpit."
Homer instantly told the FBI the voice was LeRoy's.
"I knew that was his mayday call. That was clearly his voice."
LeRoy was co-pilot on the San Francisco bound flight out of Newark, N.J. on Sept. 11. That meant he handled radio duties while Dahl took the controls. On the return flight, the two pilots would have switched jobs.
The four hijackers struck 46 minutes into the flight. As the terrorists breached the cockpit, the tapes make clear, there was a struggle. Homer believes her husband was eventually knocked unconscious and dragged from the cockpit — not immediately killed as originally thought.
"That's based on DNA findings, as well. Initially, when the FBI identified his remains in October of 2001 ... they did say that he was not found in the cockpit," says Homer.
Telephone calls by distraught passengers on the plane painted an incomplete portrait of what was taking place, she says.
"Callers reported that a passenger had been stabbed and that two people were lying on the floor of the cabin, injured or dead possibly the captain and first officer," said the 9-11 commission report.
Homer believes one of those injured was LeRoy. That's because Jason Dahl's voice is the only crew member heard on the final 30 minutes of the cockpit voice recording — something she says she and Sandy Dahl confirmed for the FBI.
Dahl continued to struggle in the cockpit, refusing to allow a hijacker to deactivate the autopilot so he could fly the plane manually.
Eighteen minutes before the plane crashed, a hijacker's voice is heard saying: "Inform them, and tell him to talk to the pilot; bring back the pilot."
The hijackers apparently wanted to bring LeRoy back to the cockpit to deactivate the autopilot, says Homer.
That didn't happen. Six minutes before the crash, the passenger revolt erupted outside the cockpit. The cockpit recorder picks up muffled sounds of the assault on the cabin door.
Homer says both she and Dahl took comfort in what they learned from the tapes that day — their husbands fought from the first moment and lived as long as their passengers.
"I guess it depends what you think suffering is, or what you think pain is ... to know that that didn't happen, and he died with everyone else, in an unconscious state, without pain was a huge relief to me."
LeRoy and Melodie Homer had spent just six years together, three of them married, less than one as parents.
They grew up a day's drive away from each other on opposite sides of the Canada-U.S. border.
LeRoy Homer Jr. dreamed of flying. His bedroom in Long Island, N.Y., was filled with model airplanes and scrapbooks of clippings on aviation.
Melodie Thorpe spent her youth in Hamilton never wanting to be anything but a nurse, like her mother. She graduated from Mohawk College and worked two years at St. Joseph's hospital.
In 1989, she drove herself to Loma Linda, Calif., to pursue graduate studies in nursing while working the night shift on a children's cancer ward.
She planned to move back to Canada after completing her master's in nursing in 1995, but mutual friends had introduced her and LeRoy. The two talked by telephone for months. Eventually LeRoy flew out to Los Angeles to meet her.
LeRoy was a decorated pilot fresh out of the military, and remained a member of the air force reserves until his death. He was no stranger to peril after flying missions into war-ravaged Somalia and during the first Gulf War against Iraq.
They were married in 1998 at the Hamilton Mountain Seventh-day Adventist Church and settled in Marlton, N.J.
Three years later, Melodie was back at the same church, 10 days after Flight 93, for the first memorial to her husband. This time, hundreds more joined a city honour guard and local MP Sheila Copps, who read a letter of condolence from then prime minister Jean Chretien.
Homer was deeply thankful for Chretien's behind-the-scenes gesture. After all, she had been living abroad for more than a decade.
"I couldn't have imagined that the country would have taken such notice and made such a point of making a presence at LeRoy's memorial."
Over the last decade, Homer has grown increasingly disillusioned with the political situation in her adopted country.
She opposed the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq but believed the Afghanistan war made more sense because "we were going after al-Qaida; we were going after the terrorists." She was proud of Chretien's decision to keep Canada out of Iraq.
"I just felt like there were so many people who signed up after Sept. 11 to join the military, to fight those deaths of Sept. 11," she says.
"When the United States chose to go into Iraq and then we ultimately found out that's not where we should have been, all of those lives that were lost felt to me like an extension of the lives that were lost on Sept. 11."
As the 2008 presidential election neared, she planned to return to Canada, looking at schools in the Hamilton area.
"I just didn't feel like this was a society that I wanted to raise my children in."
She changed her mind after hearing Barack Obama during the bitter fight for the Democratic presidential nomination. Obama said that despite the tough race with his fellow senator, Hillary Clinton, he knew they would remain friends when all was said and done.
That note of conciliation resonated with Homer. She was, and remains, a Canadian citizen, and was unable to vote. So she did the next best thing and volunteered for Obama's campaign, cold calling computer-generated phone numbers to get out the vote.
Then one day this past May, the White House called her.
Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden had just been killed in Pakistan by U.S. commandos.
Obama was inviting her to a special ceremony in New York City along with about 60 other family members of 9-11 victims.
Homer had seen the president's dramatic announcement. She was surprised just like everyone else, but bin Laden's death didn't change the fact LeRoy wasn't there.
Four days after bin Laden's killing, Obama met with 9-11 family members during a meeting that was more sober than celebratory. He did not utter bin Laden's name, saying he realized "the events of the week" would not bring back their loved ones.
Homer was one of the first people Obama approached. She extended her hand to the president. He embraced her instead.
"It was very difficult for me to regain my composure after that ... but I wanted to take my time with the president and tell him what was on my mind."
Homer told Obama about LeRoy and her family.
Obama told her he knew who LeRoy was "and what he had done, and that the country thanked him for that."
In that moment, Homer says she was moved by the president's visceral understanding of her loss. "I could tell he really understood my pain. I could just look in his eyes and I could tell he had the empathy."
People sometimes told Melodie Homer that maybe it was a good thing that her daughter was only 10 months old on 9-11. But young Laurel could tell that something was wrong.
"When she was a baby, right after, she had night terrors. Then when she was around three, I started to notice that she was having some difficulties," her mother recalls.
"One of the things was she had had a fear of men. ... That was because when she was asking about her dad and I had said there were bad men on the airplane, she had sort of taken that to mean all men were bad."
Over the years, mother and daughter worked through that and other issues. Homer underwent therapy for post traumatic stress. She did it to keep herself strong for her children. In 2004, she adopted a son — the playmate for Laurel that she and LeRoy had always planned to have.
She launched a thriving foundation in her husband's name that has given away about $150,000 to cover the flight training of 13 young aviation hopefuls.
Homer doesn't like 9-11 anniversaries and the coming 10th is no different. Usually, she keeps the television off, takes her children to school and tries not to make too much of a fuss. After all, she thinks of LeRoy every day.
But this year, for the first time, she will bring her children to a 9-11 memorial in Shanksville, Pa., where LeRoy's plane crashed. But she will do everything she can to shield them from the raw emotion of that day.
"I'm thinking about it all the time. It's almost counterproductive to have all that attention on the 11th because I feel as bad on the 12th or the 13th. I know people mean well but I get so much people calling on the 11th, emailing me, thinking about me on that day. I almost wish we could spread it out throughout the year," she says.
"Think about me on another day."
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