The Mark Bingham Story

Excerpts from “Defining Moments,” The Baltimore Sun, December 11, 2001, by Michael Ollove © 2001 – The Baltimore Sun

When her son Kerry was 9, and she was walking him to yet another first day at yet another new school, Alice Hoglan had an inspiration.

The boy had always hated his name. Kerry sounds like a girl, he’d complain. So it hit her as they neared the school. “I said to him, `If you want to change your name, this is the time to do it.’ ” Since no one yet knew him at this school, it was the perfect opportunity to assume a new identity. “He considered it a moment,” Alice recalled, “and decided to call himself Mark.” For the rest of his abbreviated life, Mark Bingham — christened Gerald Kendall Bingham — would never allow others to define him. He relished the fact that he defied labeling, that he was always a surprise to those with preconceptions. In an America quick to stuff everyone into a category, no single box was big enough for Mark Bingham’s 6-foot-5-inch self.

Even in death, he resists the pigeonhole. To much of the media, he has been “the gay hero,” one of those presumed to have battled with the hijackers on United Flight 93. Instead of obliterating its intended target in Washington, the plane crashed in an isolated area in southwestern Pennsylvania, probably saving the nation from an even worse catastrophe on Sept. 11.

But gay doesn’t adequately depict Mark any more than other shorthand descriptions – jock or frat boy or Republican or businessman or world traveler or adventurer. He was those things, all of them. But as Mark Bingham could have told you, that doesn’t tell you much.

As an athlete, he had many gifts — strength, agility, power and, for such a big man, speed. He might have excelled at a high level in any number of sports. His choice was typically unconventional. He played rugby.

It made perfect sense to those who knew Mark at Los Gatos High School. “Rugby is the ultimate outsider sport,” said Todd Sarner, a therapist and close friend since adolescence. And Mark was accustomed to the outsider role.

He was the only child of a single mother with a free spirit, one who might pick a new place to live by sticking a pin in a map (and who, in her 50s, twice became a surrogate mother for her brother and sister-in-law, the second time delivering triplets).

“In 1980, Mark and I hailed into Monterey,” said Alice, a constitutionally cheerful woman who exudes enormous warmth. “We camped at Leguna Seca Campground. I guess we were penniless. While I went out looking for a job, he went down to Fisherman’s Wharf and caught us fish for dinner. I guess we were a couple of vagabonds.”

Three years later, they moved farther north to a cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where they reconnected with Alice’s estranged family and finally put down roots. Alice settled into a job as a flight attendant with United and for the first time, Mark remained somewhere long enough to make lasting friends and enjoy the affections of a family beyond his mother.

In high school in Los Gatos, a prosperous town nestled between the mountains and the ocean south of San Francisco, Mark was well-liked if not popular. No one knew he was gay. But like him, his best friends tended not to fit in elsewhere. “We weren’t all jocks, we weren’t all nerds, we weren’t all brains,” said Sarner. “Mark didn’t fit into any one box and didn’t want to.”

In his sophomore year, he showed up at the field where the school’s rugby team practiced. “When I first saw him,” said Dan Smith, a Los Gatos lawyer and the rugby team’s coach then, “he appeared awkward. But as soon as he started moving, I saw he had a real graceful, athletic motion, and was excited about his potential because he was so big.”

Mark took to the game immediately and fervently. Rugby is a contact sport played without protective gear, which is why most athletes are happy to leave it to those they consider either lunatics or masochists. By comparison, American football, with its helmets and padding, is a game for the faint-hearted. Rugby was considered so dangerous that for insurance reasons the Los Gatos team had to play off school grounds.

But Mark, captain of the team in his last two years of high school, reveled in the aggression of the game and played with unbounded intensity. “He was fast and he was fearless, absolutely fearless,” says Smith.

Rugby changed everything for Mark. Thanks to his prowess at the game, he was recruited by the University of California at Berkeley, the dominant power in collegiate rugby for two decades. The Golden Bears won the national championship Mark’s last three years.

Sarner can still visualize his friend’s utter abandon on the field, like a wild mustang heedlessly racing across an arroyo. “He’d put his head down, and rip through a whole line of people and then tackle the guy with the ball.”

Everyone who plays rugby gets hurt from time to time, but Mark was a unique case. “He suffered more injuries than anyone I know,” said Smith, “and I played for 20 years and coached for 15.”

It wasn’t only the adrenaline rush that drew Mark to the game. Rugby, perhaps more than any other sport, fosters an intense camaraderie. “When I hear former soldiers talk about the guys they serve with in battle, that’s how I feel about my teammates,” said Bryce Eberhart, a teammate on the San Francisco Fog, the club Mark played for at the time of his death. “You absolutely depend on your teammates so you don’t get hurt.”

Paradoxically, given the violent nature of play, the comradeship extends to opponents as well. Games typically end with both sides repairing to a bar and a bout of drinking and songs known to rugby players around the world. Mark, with baseball cap turned backward and torn shirt, was usually in the center of these social occasions, the facilitator of new friendships.

Mark’s friends marveled at his social gifts. It was as if he refocused all the aggression on the field into a socially acceptable form away from it. With hand outstretched and a grin on his face, he waded into any crowd of strangers – athletic opponents, revelers on the streets of New Orleans, or potential clients – to introduce himself.

Paul Holm, with whom Mark had a six-year relationship, remembered Mark lumbering over to him at a party at the home of mutual friends. “He looked me right in the eye and said, `Hi, I’m Mark Bingham, who are you?’ ” By the next day, they were a couple.

He had the knack for making anyone with him feel fascinating. It was no act. “He was like a human Labrador retriever,” said Holm. “He had this remarkable ability to connect with anyone whether they met once or 100 times. It’s a gift any politician would kill for but few have.”

It was a gift he encouraged others to share. Only a couple weeks before his death, Mark spontaneously decided to join his new boyfriend, Matt Hall, at the Southern Decadence Festival in New Orleans. Hall found himself following as Mark plunged into the swarm of people to introduce himself to one person after another.

Hall, who had never seen such behavior, asked Mark what he was doing. “He said, `You don’t realize how much you can touch another person’s life by extending your hand and simply saying hello.’ ” He urged Hall to overcome his own embarrassment and anxieties and do the same.

Alice believes rugby helped transform her awkward, shy son into the commanding extrovert who would open his own public relations firm in his late 20s. “It helped his confidence to be able to pummel people on that field and that helped him become the outrageously gregarious guy he became off the field.”

Rugby also exposed Mark to foreign travel at a young age. Even before college, he attended rugby tournaments in Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Everywhere he made friends, including, Smith recalled, with a mountainous Polynesian in a rough biker bar near Auckland. “The guy had a black fist tattooed on his cheek, and Mark walked up to him and reached out to touch it. Some people thought he’d be murdered, but in fact they became fast friends.”

At Berkeley, Mark was no more retiring. He loved everything connected with the school, and won notoriety one year for tackling the Stanford Tree, the mascot of Cal’s hated rival, during the annual football game. He was also elected president of his fraternity, Chi Psi.

If he agonized about his sexuality, even those closest to him didn’t see it. They believe he was at peace with his homosexuality but worried how others might react. “He wanted to be known and liked and loved for who he was, not for any kind of label,” said Sarner. “If there was any tentativeness, I think it’s because he didn’t like the idea of anyone labeling him.”

Mark finally told Sarner one night over beers while they were in college. “My reaction, which he laughed about for years, was, `Oh, when did this happen?’ ” But as soon as the words were out of his mouth, Sarner saw the past through new and wiser eyes. “The stars aligned, the clouds parted, and suddenly I got it.”

As Mark told others he was gay, Sarner studied their reactions. “I know there were some people who wanted an excuse to dislike Mark, but they couldn’t. It was Mark.”

Mark gave one glimpse into the inner conflict he felt. Shortly before his death, he wrote an e-mail to his teammates on the San Francisco Fog. The team had formed only a year earlier to attract players who were gay or people of color. When it was accepted into the Northern California Rugby Union, Mark was thrilled. In athletics, he said in his e-mail, he had always kept his sexuality a secret for fear of being rejected by his teammates. That’s why the Fog was so liberating for him. “I finally felt accepted as a gay man and a rugby player. My two irreconcilable worlds came together.”

One can only imagine Mark’s nervousness when he told Alice he was gay. Mark adored his mother. He kept a sign on his office wall in San Francisco that said, “Alice Hoglan is a goddess.” He made a point of protecting her from any information that might make her worry about his well-being.

As the two of them drove toward the coast in the late afternoon 10 years ago, Alice complained about the man she was dating. He interrupted her. “Mom, there’s something I promised to tell you before the sun goes down.”

As close as they were, Alice didn’t see it coming, and she confessed to having to wrestle with her biases. “It’s not news any mother would welcome,” she said. “It was some weeks before I could get my arms around it.”

She succeeded because Mark made it hard to see him only in terms of his sexuality. After college, he remained as adventurous as always. He was the one to go cliff-diving when a group of friends vacationed in Maui. He took up skiing and snowboarding. Only a month before his death, he traveled to Spain to run with the bulls in Pamplona. He’d be disappointed if he wasn’t bloodied. He left Spain happy on that count.

“More than anyone I’ve ever known,” Sarner said, “Mark lived in the moment.”

He urged others to do the same. Only recently, he asked Matt Hall, “What’s your passion? What makes you tick? What makes you go?” When Hall couldn’t answer, Mark said with the utmost seriousness, “We’ve got to figure that out.”

Holm said that Mark, so thirsty for life and experiences, had an enormous capacity for personal growth. The two traveled widely, and Mark became a Francophile as well as a gourmand. Having watched Holm start his own marketing firm, Mark decided three years ago to follow suit, and opened a public relations firm, the Bingham Group. His niche market was high-tech firms, and the company proved successful enough to enable Mark to open a second office and rent an apartment in New York.

At the time of his death at 31, he had also begun showing an interest in politics. He helped sponsor a fund-raiser in San Francisco for Sen. John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. At a memorial service for Mark in San Francisco, McCain tearfully said that Mark may well have saved his life by helping divert Flight 93 from Washington.

That Mark Bingham was among those who fought with the hijackers on Flight 93 is speculation, but only among those who didn’t know him.

He barely made the flight that morning after oversleeping in Matt Hall’s townhouse in Denville, N.J. He wanted to get back to San Francisco for an afternoon conference call. Later that week, he was to be in the wedding of a fraternity brother, a Muslim.

Hall raced the traffic to get Mark to Newark International Airport for the 8 a.m. flight. To the east, they could see the steel gray twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Hall pulled to the curb in front of Terminal A, and Mark grabbed his rugby bag and bounded off. He was the last to board. From his seat, he dialed up Hall who was by then back on the highway.

“Thanks for driving so crazy to get me here,” Mark told him. “I made the plane. I’m in first class, and I’m drinking a glass of orange juice.”

It is believed that the hijackers made their move about 90 minutes later. Mark was among those who placed cell phone calls. He dialed his mother at her brother and sister-in-law’s in Saratoga, Calif., where she was helping to take care of the children.

“Hello, Mom, this is Mark Bingham,” he said, using his last name, which immediately alerted Alice that something was wrong. He told her three men were on board, and they had a bomb (it is still uncertain if there was a fourth accomplice). He told Alice he loved her, and she told him the same. “There was a long pause; someone seemed to be talking to him and he seemed distracted. He asked me if I believed him. I said, `Yes, I believe you.’ ” Then the phone went dead.

Mark was sitting in first class, not far from the cockpit, in seat 4D. He was directly across from Tom Burnett, an executive with a California medical research company. In phone calls to his wife Deena, Burnett learned about the planes hitting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He knew that the hijackers likely were planning to use this plane, too, as a weapon. In his last call to Deena, Burnett told her, “We’re going to do something.”

Other passengers on the flight also told people by phone that some were planning to take action.

That is all the information Mark’s friends and family need. “There is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind that he was involved and everyone who knew him feels the same way,” said Holm.

Holm had seen Mark leap into action before. A few years ago, when they were leaving a San Francisco bar, two large men knocked them down from behind. “Mark started fighting one of the guys who had a gun. The guy kept hitting Mark on the head with the gun, and Mark was bleeding, but he wouldn’t stop fighting. He kicked the gun, and it went skittering under a car and they ran off.

“I was furious. He should have just given them our wallets, but that wasn’t in Mark’s nature.”

Others had also seen Mark intervene to protect others, a slightly built friend from a bigger man, a waitress from rowdy patrons. “I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the one plane that didn’t hit its target was the one that Mark was on board,” said Eberhart.

In the days after the catastrophe, an enormous, impromptu memorial to Mark flowered in San Francisco’s Castro District, the area known as America’s “gay mecca.” There are plans to erect a permanent memorial to Mark in the city. Holm hopes the athletic fields where Mark played football and softball will be named in his honor.

San Francisco and the gay community aren’t the only ones laying claim to Mark. T-shirts have sprung up in the bay area proclaiming, “Terrorists Beware, Rugby Player Present.”

Those who knew him best say it would have brought a sly grin to Mark’s face to know that he once again defied presumption. He wasn’t just a frat brother or a rugby player or a businessman. And he wasn’t just a gay man.

“Here was this big, burly, action-oriented, successful businessman who just happened to be gay,” said Sarner. “It’s him doing on a grand scale what he had done in smaller groups before, proving that you can’t really peg people.”

In death, he might have been embarrassed by the final label attached to him, but to those he left behind, it is the one that fits.

Hero.