Just before 8 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 took off from Boston’s Logan Airport. Bound nonstop for Los Angeles, the flight was just one of more than 40,000 scheduled to crisscross the country that day. The plane was partially full—81 passengers, nine crewmembers, and two pilots. Many of its passengers were traveling for work on the daily scheduled flight, including 31-year-old Internet entrepreneur Danny Lewin.
The plane headed due west and held on course for 16 minutes until it passed Worcester, Mass.* Then, instead of taking a southerly turn, it swung to the north and failed to climb to its assigned cruising altitude. Around this time, a bloody hijacking began onboard. Five terrorists, all of them wielding box cutters and knives, commandeered the plane and steered it into New York airspace. At 8:46 a.m., the Boeing 767 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Flight 11 was the first of four planes to be hijacked the day of the attacks, killing everyone on board and hundreds more when it caused the collapse of the North Tower. But before any of the horror unfolded that day, a little-known act of heroism is likely to have taken place on Flight 11 when Lewin—an Israeli-American who served in one of the most elite counterterrorism units of the Israel Defense Force (IDF)—rose from his seat and engaged in a struggle with one of the terrorists to try to thwart the hijacking. During the struggle Lewin was killed, making him the very first victim of the 9/11 attacks.
Until now, Lewin’s story has remained untold—mainly out of respect for friends and family who closely guarded their memories of the brilliant commando-turned computer scientist. In addition, the official reports of what happened on Flight 11 were, for some time, conflicting and confusing. A memo mistakenly released by the Federal Aviation Administration stated that terrorist Satam al-Suqami shot and killed Lewin with a single bullet around 9:20 a.m. (obviously inaccurate, as the plane crashed at 8:46 a.m.). But almost as soon as the memo was leaked, FAA officials claimed it was written in error and that Lewin had been stabbed, not shot. The 9/11 Commission concurred in its final report, issued four years later, offering a more detailed summary: Based on dozens of interviews with those who spoke with two of the plane’s flight attendants during the hijacking, the commission determined that al-Suqami most likely killed Lewin by slashing his throat from behind as he attempted, single-handedly, to try to stop the hijacking. The time of his death was reported to be somewhere between 8:15 and 8:20 a.m.
“He was the first victim of the first war of the 21st century,” says Marco Greenberg, Lewin’s best friend.