They were strangers on a plane, three men who, as they departed Newark, N.J., on United Airlines Flight 93, probably were thinking of the business meetings that awaited them in California. It was a fluke that Jeremy Glick, 31, Tom Burnett Jr., 38, and Mark Bingham, 31, were all on the Boeing 757; Glick was supposed to have left a day earlier, but a fire at Newark International Airport delayed his departure. But it was also grim serendipity that they were clustered near one another in the first few rows of the cabin. In the terrifying minutes before their craft plunged nose-first into a field 65 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, killing all 45 people aboard, these men found the courage to band together. It appears that their concerted action thwarted at least four hijackers from crashing the craft into a Washington target, perhaps the Capitol building or the White House. Thanks to their efforts, hundreds, if not thousands, of lives were saved.

"Clearly, we know the plane that crashed outside Pittsburgh was headed for Washington," Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC's Meet the Press. "Mr. Glick and others—Mr. Burnett—were very courageous when they made that decision, knowing that they were doomed." Unless voice recorders recovered from the wreckage detail what happened—and that's iffy at best—the public may never know precisely what the three men did. Yet it is clear from the cell and in-flight phone calls they made to loved ones that once they learned their lives were in jeopardy, they resolved to act against their captors. "If we're going to die, there's three of us and we're going to do something about it," Burnett told his wife, Deena. For their valor under extraordinary circumstances, there was talk last week on Capitol Hill of awarding the men the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

As the investigation proceeds, others may also be recognized. Flight attendant CeeCee Lyles, 33, for instance, was a former police officer in Fort Pierce, Fla., who changed careers last year. In two phone calls home, the second of them 25 minutes before the plane plummeted to earth, she told her husband, "Babe, my plane's been hijacked." Lorne Lyles, 31, a police officer in Fort Myers, Fla., says his wife "was a person who controlled her own destiny," and believes she helped wrest control of the plane from the hijackers. Lisa Beamer, 32, of Cranbury, N.J., also believes her husband, Todd, 32, an employee of Oracle, was involved. She says he spoke to a GTE Airfone operator, reciting the Lord's Prayer and saying the passengers were going to do something. "I know I'm not going to get out of this," she says he told the woman.

Whatever happened, it is almost certain that it was the action of a handful of brave people that diverted the plane. Their determination to go down fighting appears to have evolved during a series of calls home that were both cries for help and poignant goodbyes. When Tom Burnett's wife, Deena, 37, answered the phone at her home in San Ramon, Calif., she had just heard about the disaster at the World Trade Center in New York City. "How are you?" she anxiously asked her husband of 10 years and father of their three daughters. "Bad," he responded. "Our plane is being hijacked. This is my flight number. Call the authorities." When he called back soon after, Deena gave him the horrifying news about the towers.

Quickly, he supplied critical information to be relayed to authorities. "He said, 'They've knifed a guy. They say there's a bomb,' " recalls his sister Mary Burnett, 32, who was en route to work when the events unfolded. "He wanted to know the probability of there really being a bomb on the plane." Tom, who was senior vice president and chief operating officer of Thoratec Corp., a medical research company in Pleasanton, Calif., also wanted to know what authorities were doing about the attacks. "My brother's a very quick thinker, very strategic," says Mary.

Soon after, in upstate New York, Lyzbeth Glick, 31, was watching the Trade Center story at her parents' home on a large-screen TV when the phone rang. It was her husband, Jeremy, a sales manager for the Web site firm Vividence, headquartered in San Mateo, Calif., and there was a note of urgency in his voice as he explained he was captive on Flight 93. "We said 'I love you' a thousand times. It helped us pull it together," she says. "Then he said, 'I need to know, are they crashing planes into the World Trade Center?' "—an indication he had already conferred with others on the flight. He spoke of three Arab-looking men with red headbands, one armed with a knife and one in possession of a box with red markings that the hijackers said contained a bomb.

When Mark Bingham, owner of a public relations firm, reached his family in Saratoga, Calif., he, too, was hushed in revealing over the air phone that hijackers had a bomb on the plane. "He said, 'I want to tell you I love you,' " says his mother, Alice Hoglan, 52, a flight attendant of 16 years with United Airlines. Soon the phone line went dead.

That the three men were able to fashion a plan and act in the face of such terrifying circumstances strikes their relatives as not only believable but likely given their take-charge personalities. With Glick, a 6'1", 220-lb. former judo and wrestling champion who thrived on high-risk sports like helicopter skiing and scuba diving, "everything was a competition," says Jared, 28, one of his five siblings. The 6'2", 210-lb. Burnett, who hails from a long line of war veterans, had a personal motto: "Everybody else first, me second," says his father, Tom Sr., a retired English teacher. And Jerry Bingham, 58, of Wildwood, Fla., says of his athletic, 6'5", 200-plus-lb. son Mark, "He wasn't the type of guy who sat on the sidelines. He was a go-getter."

Lyz Glick is convinced that Jeremy was propelled by a single impulse: "He wanted to get home to his family." As had been his ritual before every trip west, he repeatedly stated his preference to remain home—there being a particular attraction since the birth of their daughter Emerson three months ago. "A dozen times over the week, he said, 'I don't want to go,' " says Lyz. "He said, 'Tell me not to go and I won't go. I don't want to leave you and Emmy.' " Ironically, the couple had engaged in their first discussion about death just a week earlier, on Sept. 3, Jeremy's 31st birthday, as they drove home from a funeral for Lyz's grandmother. "He told me he did not want [his funeral] to be anything big," says Lyz. "And he did not want people to cry." In upstate New York, 1,300 people turned out on Sept. 16 for Jeremy's memorial service beneath a white tent on Windham Mountain, where the couple had taught skiing.

Theirs had been a long courtship that began when they were lab partners in a 9th-grade biology class at Saddle River Day School in northern New Jersey. "He always said that the first time he saw me, he knew he was going to marry me," says Lyz, who teaches college-level social sciences courses online. "I wouldn't give him the time of day. He had this huge Afro." Lyz became his sweetheart—and he soon got rid of it, albeit reluctantly. "He thought it gave him power," says his brother Jared. The idea perhaps stemmed from Jeremy's reverence for superheroes: As a child he liked to pretend that he was Superman. Jeremy went on to captain the school's wrestling and soccer teams and served as prom king when Lyz was crowned queen. Later, at the University of Rochester, where he majored in literature, he played rugby. "He hated losing," says Jared. "If he was interviewing someone to hire for a job, he would always ask, 'Do you like to win or do you hate to lose?' " There was only one correct answer.

While it was his persistence that kept him in hot pursuit of Lyz after they parted ways to attend different colleges, it may have been his softer side that persuaded her to marry him in 1996. Jared, a diabetic, recalls how, when the two brothers were at judo camp, Jeremy, then 10, used to give him his daily insulin shots. Lyz loved how Jeremy would get up in the middle of the night to feed their only child, Emmy, a preemie, by taping a feeding tube to his finger. In December 1999, the couple bought a lake-front house with a swimming pool in northern New Jersey. On winter weekends, they travelled to the Catskills to ski—a sport Jeremy took up before they wed because it was one of Lyz's passions. "We had a perfect life," she says.

Tom Burnett Jr. also led a charmed life with Deena and their girls, twins Halley and Madison, 5, and Anna, 3. "She is the most amazing mom," his sister Mary says of Deena. On the day of the tragedy, Mary says, "She had such a level head, she sent the girls off to school." Now, she says, Deena has to answer questions from the children such as, "Can you call Dad in heaven?" to which Deena responds lovingly but honestly with "No."

Mary describes Tom as "a very private person" who put family first. An only son sandwiched between two sisters, Tom grew up close to his parents—his mother, Beverly, a former real estate broker, and his father, Tom Sr., with whom he loved to fish and hunt near their home in Bloomington, Minn. The weekend before the crash Tom flew east so that he and his dad could complete a deer stand on land Tom owns in Wisconsin. On the way back to Bloomington the two men, both practicing Catholics, stopped to attend mass. "That's one thing I'm happy about," says Tom Sr.

Because his father and four uncles served in the military, it was not an easy decision when Tom opted in 1981 to drop out of the Air Force Academy after boot camp. "He decided it wasn't for him," says Mary. "Tom wasn't afraid of doing what he thought was right." Still, last year, he fulfilled his father's dream of visiting Normandy; together they walked along Omaha Beach on the anniversary of D-Day. "He comes from a line of warriors," says Tom Sr. "Tom always respected that."

Had it not been for the crash, Mark Bingham would have been an usher at the Sept. 15 wedding of a friend of Egyptian and Islamic ancestry. "Mark was a very loving man and had friends who were Islamic, Christian and Jewish," says mom Alice. In 1991, Mark told her that he was gay, a fact that she says was "important to him and therefore it's important to me." A national championship rugby player while an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, Mark more recently played for the San Francisco Fog, a gay rugby team that Alice says "he was especially proud of." In an e-mail to a friend, Mark explained, "I finally felt accepted as a gay man and a rugby player. My two irreconcilable worlds came together."

Two years ago, after doing public relations work for two large firms, Mark started his own PR firm, The Bingham Group, with offices in New York City and San Francisco. The bicoastal lifestyle enabled him to maintain strong ties with each of his parents, who split up in the mid-'70s. Since Mark's death, Alice has heard several stories about her son's courage. In San Francisco, when he and friends were confronted by two robbers, says his fellow high school rugby player Todd Sarner, "He jumped in front of his friends, got the gun away and beat the guys up." In Vancouver with friends, he came to the defense of a waiter who was attacked by a group of men who refused to pay their bill. "I am so honored to have been his mother," Alice says.

For those left behind, there is solace in their loved ones' brave last moments—and those final goodbyes. "I take a lot of comfort in knowing they may have saved the lives of hundreds of people," says Alice. Mary Burnett, grateful for the enormous support her family has received, says, "I'm glad to know my brother could be a symbol of hope." Lyz Glick finds particular strength in having had the opportunity to say goodbye. "Jeremy said, 'I want you to be happy in your life. I will be happy for you. You need to live your life,' " she says. "That gives me comfort. I won't feel guilt in any choices I make." As for the sad irony that Jeremy did not belong on Flight 93, she says, "Maybe God or whatever put them on there because He knew that they could stop some of the evil that was going on in the world." Quietly, she adds, "That's what I'd like to believe and tell our daughter."