By Ken Bastida & Molly McCrea
SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Twenty years ago, terrorists hijacked four planes heading to California. Two planes crashed into the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in New York. Another plane plowed into the Pentagon. The fourth plane – United Flight 93 – was the only aircraft not to hit its intended target.READ MORE: Teen Driver Injured in Solo Crash Near San Gregorio
On that flight was a Bay Area executive and a star rugby athlete named Mark Bingham who left a legacy both on and off the field.
Bingham was a rugby star at Los Gatos High School, where he was captain of the team. At Cal, he played championship rugby. He was known as being very aggressive and an excellent star flanker. He stood well over six feet and weighed well over 200 lbs.
When he graduated, Bingham came out as gay to his family and friends. He began a successful public relations firm known as The Bingham Group and joined a rugby club known as The San Francisco Fog. Founded in 2000, it was the first all-gay, inclusive rugby club on the West Coast.
“It’s been a shining light for people around the world,” recounted the Fog’s coach Dany Samreth.
Bingham made an impression.
“He had the gusto of life and I think that he was able to channel that gusto into the game,” recollected Fog player Stewart Bennett.
The sport suited his personality. Bingham was a vicious competitor, but off the field he was a teddy bear, friends say.
“You know, the thing about rugby is you kick the snot out of each other on the pitch, and then you’ll go have a beer together afterwards. You just all get along,” said Todd Sarner.
Sarner was one of Bingham’s best friends. They grew up together and played on the same high school rugby team. Bingham was Sarner’s best man at his wedding.
In late August 2001, Sarner dropped Bingham off at San Francisco International Airport to catch a flight to New York where Bingham had opened an office. On September 10, Bingham called to tell Todd he was coming back to San Francisco. The next morning, he overslept and was late for his flight. Bingham ended up as the last person to board Flight 93 in Newark, New Jersey.
Soon the attacks would begin with hijackers who took over cockpits and threatened passengers with boxcutters and claims of bombs on board. There were no bombs. The hijackers turned the planes all full of fuel into weapons of mass destruction.
Fear spread coast-to-coast and Bingham’s friends in San Francisco all started to worry. Bennett told KPIX 5 that an email started going around asking about Bingham’s whereabouts. Everyone knew he was taking an early flight back to San Francisco.READ MORE: Homeless Man Found Dead with Gunshot Wounds Near Creek Trail
On Flight 93, some of the passengers called loved ones to tell they had been hijacked, and their family and friends told them about the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon. Bingham’s mother Alice Hoagland called him and left a message telling him about the hijacking and to do whatever he could to overpower the hijackers.
The passengers and crew then took a vote and formed a plan to wrest control of the plane from the hijackers. It was a team effort. Bingham was front and center along with three other businessmen who were athletes: Tom Burnett, Todd Beamer and Jeremy Glick. Some of the flight attendants boiled water to use as weapons.
Bingham’s friends had a premonition.
“Everybody who knew Mark came to the same conclusion before there were any stories about what the passengers did,” said Sarner. “And that was beyond any shadow of a doubt. Mark did something because that’s just what he was to the bone.”
Flight recordings documented how the passengers rushed the cockpit door. The hijackers decided to abort the mission which was to plow into the U.S. Capitol building and instead crash the plane in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. All 44 people on board died including the four hijackers. The brave men and women on board saved countless other lives that day. Their story is told at the National Park’s Flight 93 Memorial.
Bingham left an enduring legacy.
“It was okay to talk about being gay and being a rugby player and being a hero all at once,” said Bennett.
“I’d get notes from parents saying we just watched a story about your friend on TV and my kid turned to me and said I want to be like him,” recounted Sarner.
Twenty years ago on 9/11, players with the Fog gathered at the Pilsner Inn in the city Castro District. They go there after most practices. Above the jukebox, there is a plaque in Bingham’s honor.
On Saturday, September 11, the club plays a tournament called the Bingham Stein Cup in his honor. They are playing against Mendocino at the Crocker Amazon Park beginning at 11 a.m. All are invited.
Also, an award-winning documentary called “The Rugby Player” will stream for the first time. The film explores Bingham’s life but also that of his mother. Alice Hoagland is the other hero of Flight 93.
After his death, Hoagland turned her profound loss into action for the LBGTQ community. She became an inspirational mother figure for many members of the club.MORE NEWS: Repairs Finish Early on Ramp Between I-80 and Highway 101
She died in late December 2020.