Preparing to visit a barren crash site
Family members of the victims of Flight 93
will say goodbye at an abandoned mine
Friday, September 14, 2001
SHANKSVILLE, PA -- They had expected to pick up their relatives at the local airport.
Instead, families of the 45 people aboard United Airlines Flight 93 drove across windswept highways in the hills of southern Pennsylvania yesterday to the barren field where their loved ones had smashed to earth.
Eight members of one New Jersey family had intended to inspect the crash site yesterday, where the Boeing 757 dived into an abandoned, overgrown strip mine about 128 kilometres southeast of Pittsburgh.
But officials told a news conference yesterday the family could not bear to make the trip. Other families were expected to begin arriving late yesterday or today.
"We'll do whatever we can to make them as comfortable as possible," FBI agent Bill Crowley said. He would not comment on whether the families would be allowed to look into the dusty crater the passenger jet gouged into the scrubby grass Tuesday morning.
No matter how closely they inspect the wreckage, however, the families are unlikely to find identifiable remains of their relatives. Authorities say the largest piece of debris is about the size of a suitcase.
"The debris are very, very small," said Somerset state police Major Lyle Szupinka. What looks like a smashed engine is one of the major pieces identified so far, he said.
"If you've ever been to a commercial landfill, you have papers blowing around and bits and pieces of shredded metal," Maj. Szupinka said. "That's probably about the best way to describe that scene."
Residents of the area reported finding charred papers and fragments of netting about 13 kilometres from the impact site. The discovery of debris outside investigators' initial perimeter of about five kilometres around the point of impact prompted questions yesterday about whether the plane was shot down by the U.S. military.
At the beginning of the day, Mr. Crowley said he could not rule out that possibility. Early that evening, however, he announced that an investigation had revealed the debris to be lightweight paper, nylon stockings and other detritus that probably came from the impact.
"These were things in the air that would easily blow," Mr. Crowley said. "There was no military involvement in what happened here. There was no evidence of a second plane being involved."
He said the stiff breezes impeding investigators' work of sifting through the fragments explained the scattering of debris. "You've still got issues with winds here."
Until the suggestion of a military interception yesterday, theories about why Flight 93 hit an empty field focused on cellphone calls from passengers who told their relatives they were planning to fight the terrorists.
Mr. Crowley said he cannot comment about the plane's final moments. The flight data recorder was discovered in the crater late yesterday afternoon and will be shipped to Washington for analysis. The cockpit voice recorder had not been found at that time.
He confirmed the aircraft had turned off its original path from New Jersey to San Francisco and was headed east -- toward America's busiest cities -- before it crashed.
Officials from the coroner's office have been taking body parts to a makeshift morgue nearby. Forensic experts from across the United States will examine the partial remains using DNA sampling, X-ray analysis, and, if possible, dental records.
"We give the site the dignity and respect that it commands," Somerset county coroner Wallace Miller said.
Officials said they had received help from the residents of rural Somerset county, who donated cellphones, gasoline and food.
Patty Dinsmore, 34, owner of a general store in a nearby town, drove to the scene with more than 100 meat-and-cheese sandwiches for the investigators.
"I had to do something," Ms. Dinsmore said. "When we first heard the news, everybody was saying 'Oh, that's absolutely horrible, those poor people in New York.' And then we felt that other plane hit here. It's pretty close to home."