Investigators tell of emotions associated with United 93 crash
Scorched pages from Qurans and partially burned passports recovered during the meticulous, weeks-long search after the hijacking and crash of United Flight 93 in Somerset County helped federal investigators identify the terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attack, three federal investigators said on Sunday.
“This not only was hallowed ground … this was a crime scene,” said Jack Shea, special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh division of the FBI on 9/11.
Shea, who has since retired; A. Todd McCall, a member of the FBI’s evidence response team at the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va.; and John Larsen, another retired FBI agent from Chicago, comprised a panel who spoke to about 100 visitors at the Flight 93 Memorial on Sunday about evidence collection in the days, weeks and months at the crash site near Shanksville.
The agents noted that the attacks involving four jetliners at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and in Stonycreek Township prompted the largest investigation in FBI history.
Shea, who was at FBI headquarters in Washington on the morning of the attacks, recalled arriving at the crash site early Sept. 12 and being awed at finding more than 1,000 “badged” emergency responders from federal, state and local agencies ready to assist. He said there were 300 Pennsylvania state troopers assigned to help at the site and hundreds of FBI agents and specialists.
“When I walked over this same hillside that overlooked the crash site, I was struck by the enormity of the task ahead,” Shea said.
Larsen recalled a similar feeling struck him as his team headed toward Somerset in a vehicle caravan from Chicago. The investigators had to drive because there was no air service available.
“Everyone felt that same dread of what had happened, and at the same time, everyone wanted to do something about it,” said Larsen, senior leader of a Chicago-based evidence response team.
He recalled his team’s being met at state borders in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania by state troopers in those states who escorted the evidence collection teams through to Shanksville.
“We all wanted to strike back any way we could,” Larsen said.
The FBI and state and local authorities at Stonycreek did their part, the panelists said, by teaming up after the attacks to collect criminal evidence that will be used against the terrorists.
Investigators noted that a lot of evidence collected at the crash site will be used at upcoming trials in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for five accused al-Qaida plotters charged with 2,976 counts of murder in the 2001 attacks.
Larsen described how evidence collectors combed the area “on their hands and knees,” digging through the soil, fields and adjoining forests surrounding the scene for any crash remnants. For more than two weeks, evidence collectors wore special contamination suits, boots, gloves and breathing apparatus to complete their work.
He noted that arborists from area universities assisted by collecting evidence from trees near the crash site.
In addition to the images of scorched identification papers of the hijackers, Larsen showed another to the audience of a small piece of a metal shank recovered about 300 yards away from the point of impact. Larsen said the hijackers used the weapon to take over the jetliner.
“(The terrorists) thought their identification would be destroyed during the attacks. They were wrong,” McCall said.
Federal investigators were particularly eager to retrieve the flight data and cockpit recorders, McCall said, because they feared the data recorders aboard jetliners in the other attacks in New York and Washington were too damaged to retrieve any information.
“We found one about 15 to 18 feet deep in the site of impact after a couple of days, and there was a lot of elation. Then we found the other one buried about 25 feet deep,” McCall said.
Investigators said the remains of the four terrorists were found in the “front portion of the aircraft” that was recovered in the pit at the point of impact.
The evidence collected at the scene, including the position of the terrorists in the wreckage, proves that passengers and crew members of Flight 93 lost their lives while disrupting a planned attack on the capital, the investigators maintained.
Shea recalled his concern at the outset of the investigation about “conspiracists’ theories” that the airplane was shot down so the hijackers could not complete their mission, instead of having crashed during a struggle.
He recalled summoning aviation experts at the scene who told him that the evidence dispelling the conspiracy theories “was right along the flight path.”
“If it was shot down, there would have been a huge debris field. Here we had the impact area and a debris area directly around that,” Shea said.
In response to a question about what is being done to prevent terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, McCall urged the audience to remain vigilant.
“Don’t ever forget what happened here. We were sucker-punched,” McCall said.
“Pay attention to what goes on around you and report anything suspicious. And please teach your kids the story of what happened right here,” McCall said.
The lecture was part of numerous activities at the national park leading to the 11th anniversary observance on Tuesday.
Vice President Joe Biden will be the featured speaker at the service that is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the memorial. Park officials suggest visitors arrive two hours early to park and pass through security details.
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or [email protected].