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Day of Terror: Outside tiny Shanksville, a fourth deadly stroke
Wednesday, September 12, 2001
This story was written by staff writer Jonathan D. Silver, based on his reporting and that of staff writers Bob Batz Jr., Mark Belko, Mike Bucsko, Tom Gibb, Monica L. Haynes, Ernie Hoffman, Ginny Kopas, Cindi Lash, Timothy McNulty and James O'Toole.
Yesterday's rapid-fire blitz of terror began in the world's most glamorous city, continued in the nation's capital, and ended atop a rural hill in Somerset County.
It was there, just outside the tiny town of Shanksville, that a United Airlines jetliner crashed, killing all 45 people aboard in what appeared to be the fourth and final stroke of a choreographed wave of terrorism that was equated to the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757-200 en route from New Jersey to San Francisco, fell from the sky near Shanksville at 10:06 a.m., about two hours after it took off, leaving a trail of debris five miles long.
The Washington Post reported that leaders of Congress -- including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. -- were told at a briefing by the Capitol Police that the hijacked plane might have been bound for the Capitol or Camp David, the presidential retreat in Thurmont, Md., 85 miles southeast of the crash site, according to participants in the meeting.
The participants discussed a possible shoot down of the aircraft, said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.
The question I heard asked was: 'Who has the authority to order a commercial jetliner shot down by the military?' " Pence said. However, the congressional leaders soon learned that the plane had already crashed.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) issued a statement denying that United Flight 93 had been shot down by U.S. military aircraft.
Some witnesses reported that the plane was flying upside down for a time before the crash; others said they heard up to three loud booms before the jetliner went down.
"All of a sudden, terrorism is here in my back yard," said retired coal miner Charles Rhoades, 80, of Shanksville, who was watching TV when he heard the large boom as the plane went down less than a quarter-mile from his home. "You live in the country to escape this kind of stuff."
Authorities weren't ready yesterday to pronounce the crash a result of terrorism. But a telling detail came minutes before the plane went down when dispatchers at the Westmoreland County Emergency Operations Center intercepted a frantic cell phone call made to 911 by a passenger aboard the doomed flight.
"We are being hijacked, we are being hijacked!" the man told dispatchers in a quivering voice during a conversation that lasted about one minute.
"We got the call about 9:58 this morning from a male passenger stating that he was locked in the bathroom of United Flight 93 traveling from Newark to San Francisco, and they were being hijacked," said Glenn Cramer, a 911 supervisor.
"We confirmed that with him several times and we asked him to repeat what he said. He was very distraught. He said he believeD the plane was going down. He did hear some sort of an explosion and saw white smoke coming from the plane, but he didn't know where.
"And then we lost contact with him."
Investigators who swarmed to the scene were sparing no effort to uncover the truth.
Law enforcement agencies from Western Pennsylvania and across the state have made the crash their "primary investigation, if not their only one," said FBI Special Agent Bill Crowley, spokesman for the Pittsburgh FBI office.
The FBI is coordinating the investigation and relying on the services and expertise of dozens of other local, state and federal agencies, he said. One special evidence response team from Pittsburgh went to the crash scene yesterday, and three more teams are on their way to the site from other parts of the country.
Investigators will be in Somerset County around the clock collecting evidence and performing the gruesome task of body identification, Crowley said.
"We'll do whatever is needed to get the job done," he said. "It's going to require the skills of many different agencies."
Agents seized the 911 dispatch tape from Westmoreland County as part of their investigation.
Information from federal agencies was scant about Flight 93's flight path or final destination after departing from Newark at 8:01 a.m. with 38 passengers, two pilots and five flight attendants aboard.
Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, said last night he could only guess that the plane's likely target was "a second shot at the Pentagon or the Capitol or the White House itself."
"The destination sure wasn't an open field," he said. "It's fortunate it didn't come down sooner, on Johnstown."
Murtha also said the Pentagon denied reports that the 757 was being shadowed by U.S. military aircraft. But he suggested that terrorists would have picked the 757 because it would have worked as a fuel-packed bomb. A 757-200 can carry up to 11,276 gallons of fuel.
"Since they couldn't have explosives on the plane, the next best thing is aviation fuel," he said.
Flight 93 may have gotten as far west as Ohio before turning around. The Cleveland mayor's office told The Associated Press that an airplane in distress had passed through Cleveland-area airspace before being handed off to Toledo, although it was not clear that the plane was Flight 93.
As the plane neared Pittsburgh, Mayor Tom Murphy stayed in contact with the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration.
"We were in communication with the FBI and the FAA about the jet as to where it was," Murphy said. "They had the jet coming out of Cleveland and losing it when it came into Pittsburgh airspace, and there was no communication with it, and we were concerned."
At the John P. Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport near Johnstown, a call from air traffic controllers in Cleveland set off 10 minutes of high tension before the plane crashed 14 miles southeast of the airport.
Dennis Fritz, the air traffic manager, got a call from controllers in Cleveland warning the Johnstown airport -- which has no radar of its own -- that a large aircraft was 20 miles south and had suddenly turned on a heading for Johnstown.
"It was an aircraft doing some unusual maneuvers at a low level, which is unusual for an aircraft that size," Fritz said last night. "It happened so quickly."
He said workers in his own tower scanned south, toward the horizon, with binoculars, but couldn't see any aircraft, leading Fritz to believe that the plane was flying somewhere in the 2,800 foot high ridges in that part of the Allegheny front.
Then, somewhere within the air zone, about 15 miles south of Johnstown, the plane turned again toward the south.
Shortly before it went down, another call was made to the Westmoreland County 911 center from a Mount Pleasant Township resident who said he could see a large plane flying low and banking from side to side.
The impact "sounded like dynamite," said Lucy Menear, 83, who lives less than a half-mile from the crash site. "It seems as though everything was falling apart."
Eric Peterson, 28, was working in his shop in the Somerset County village of Lambertsville yesterday morning when he heard a plane, looked up and saw one fly over unusually low.
The plane continued on beyond a nearby hill, then dropped out of sight behind a tree line. As it did so, Peterson said it seemed to be turning end-over-end.
Then Peterson said he saw a fireball, heard an explosion and saw a mushroom cloud of smoke rise into the sky.
Peterson rushed to the scene on an all-terrain vehicle and when he arrived he saw bits and pieces of an airliner spread over a large area of an abandoned strip-mine in Stonycreek Township.
"There was a crater in the ground that was really burning," Peterson said. Strewn about were pieces of clothing hanging from trees and parts of the Boeing 757, but nothing bigger than a couple of feet long, he said. Many of the items were burning.
Peterson said he saw no bodies, but there also was no sign of life.
Throughout the day, as a plume of smoke hung in the sky, a steady stream of firefighters, police cars, emergency management crews, national guard members and local volunteers swarmed over the crash site. Dotted with strip mines, woods and cornfields, the site is atop a gradual, 500-yard-long slope about one or two miles south of Route 30 near Stoystown.
Jeff Killeen, an FBI spokesman from Pittsburgh, said the main thrust of the agency's investigation will begin today when authorities divide the crash scene into grids and comb the area for evidence.
Yesterday, the priority of the FBI and state troopers was to protect the scene.
"The FBI will follow every lead to bring this case to a successful conclusion," Killeen said during a news conference held at the foot of the hill below the crash site under a hastily erected white tent.
Investigators did not locate the plane's flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder, the so-called black boxes that would give information about the plane's behavior as well as conversations in the cockpit.
There were 20 FBI agents on hand yesterday, and another 30 were expected last night. The contingent of 100 state troopers was expected to swell to 150. They planned to spend last night spaced out along the crash perimeter within each other's eyesight to ward off curiosity seekers and prevent anyone from tampering with evidence.
Two curiosity seekers were arrested for trying to get through the perimeter, one of them aboard an all-terrain vehicle.
Also on hand were officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration and United Airlines. A team from the National Transportation Safety Board was en route.
Gov. Tom Ridge arrived about 6:15 p.m., flying over the crash scene in a National Guard helicopter before being briefed on the ground by state police.
The FBI issued a plea for anyone who saw Flight 93 before it crashed to call 412-471-2000.
Killeen said agents were looking for facilities in the area to use as repositories for evidence and human remains, noting that no morgue had been established.
Joseph McKelvey, executive director of the Johnstown-area airport, said he didn't know whether it would be an operations headquarters or serve as a morgue.
But as he spoke, one of the few planes in the skies over America, a United Airlines 727 arrived carrying what McKelvey said was equipment for the recovery, and a half dozen rental trucks pulled into the airport to carry the equipment to the crash scene.
"This is the one airport [in the region] that can handle about any aircraft in the world," McKelvey said. Normally, the Johnstown airport handles five commercial passenger flights a day.
Last night police and National Guard sealed off the airport to regular traffic, at one point shutting down state Route 219 a four-lane highway that is only 500 yards from airport property. It was later reopened, but access roads to the airport remained sealed.
Throughout the day, beginning at 9:44 a.m., United Airlines updated its Web site with information about the crash of Flight 93 and Flight 175, a Boeing 767 that was crashed into the World Trade Center.
The airline stated it would send families of the victims aboard the two flights an initial sum of $25,000 each to help meet immediate needs.