Before the Twin Towers were hit, before the third plane smashed into the Pentagon, before the passengers forced their own plane to crash into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, there was one passenger on American Airlines Flight No. 11, leaving from Boston for Los Angeles, who took on the terrorists before anyone else, and was killed while trying to prevent them from assaulting the cockpit.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Danny Lewin boarded American Airlines Flight No. 11 in Boston, expecting to reach Los Angeles. Instead, the flight was hijacked and commandeered by Arab terrorists, crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. On that fateful flight, Danny Lewin became the very first victim of the largest terrorist attack in history in which almost 3,000 Americans died. An internal memorandum of the Federal Aviation Administration says “that in the course of a struggle that took place between Lewin, a graduate of Israel’s elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, and the four hijackers who were assaulting that cockpit, Lewin was murdered by Satam Al Suqami, a 25-year-old Saudi.
From the reports of at least two stewardesses, who managed to phone out while the hijacking was just starting, we know that the passenger in seat 9B – Danny Lewin – had taken on the four hijackers, trying to prevent them from entering the cockpit. He had his training as a member of Israel’s most elite combat unit, the Sayeret Matkal. But he was unarmed, facing four terrorists armed with knives and boxcutters, who together overpowered him, and then slit his throat.
Sometime after the attack, the Lewin family in Jerusalem received a telephone call from the FBI offices in New York. On the line was the agent responsible for the investigation of the attack on Flight 11. He told Danny’s parents that there is a high degree of certainty that Danny tried to prevent the hijacking. The FBI relied, among other things, on the testimony of the stewardess Amy Sweeney.
Sweeney succeeded in clandestinely getting a call out during the flight to a flight services supervisor in Boston, from the rear of the plane: “A hijacker slit the throat of a passenger in business class and the passenger appears to me to be dead.” To this day the American investigators are not convinced that Danny Lewin was murdered on the spot. An additional stewardess, Betty Ong, who succeeded in calling from a telephone by one of the passenger seats, said that the passenger who was attacked from business class seat 10B was seriously wounded. It turned out that 10B was the seat of Danny Lewin. [Correction: Lewin sat in Seat 9B. In Seat 10B, right behind him, was Satam al-Suqami.]
The Lewin family, Danny’s parents and brothers, have no doubt that Danny battled the hijackers. And it is for them a tremendous consolation. “I wasn’t surprised to hear from the FBI that Danny fought. I was sure that this is what he would do,” Yonatan, his younger brother, said. “Danny didn’t sit quietly. From what we heard from the Americans, the hijackers attacked one of the stewardesses and Danny rose to protect her and prevent them from entering the cockpit. It is a consolation to us that Danny fought. We see it as an act of heroism that a person sacrifices his life in order to save others.
The first victim of the 9/11 terrorists was a young Israeli mathematician and computer scientist. He was also that day’s first hero. He did what he could to prevent the four terrorists from entering the cockpit, but all his training In Sayeret Matkal was to no avail against four determined fanatics with boxcutters and knives.
Danny Lewin was also a wunderkind in the world of high tech. He received his B.S. from the Technion, working long hours as a teaching assistant there and as a researcher for IBM in Haifa.
In 1996, Danny accepted a scholarship to study computer science and mathematics at MIT. Two years later, while working on his Ph.D., he co-founded Akamai Technologies with his thesis advisor, Prof. Frank Leighton. His research offered a new and revolutionary way to deliver content over the Internet. By 2001, when he was only 31, Danny was widely recognized as one of the most influential technologists of his generation. One well-known trade publication ranked him as the seventh most important technologist in the world. When he died he was the Chief Technology Officer at Akamai, which today has annual revenues of more than $3 billion. Who knows what other contributions he might have made to technology’s advance, had his life not been cut so short that day?
When you think of 9/11, and all that happened that day, give a thought to the first hero, who became the first victim, of that day’s terrorism. Danny Lewin had a short life, but it was a life well-lived. He should have died hereafter.