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Flight 93 work is a major stressor for Somerset coroner

Saturday, November 03, 2001

SOMERSET, Pa. -- The denouement to United Airlines Flight 93 now turns on the evidence of what is not there. Wallace Miller will know his job is finished when he has 40 DNA matches and four sets of remains whose unrecognizability marks them as the villains who tried to seize the plane and died when their hostages declined to play the role.

So far, 34 sets of remains have matched the DNA samples family members provided. Without addressing the fine points of horror, Miller told families he could call them when they have identified everything or call as fragments are linked to a loved one.

"We wanted everybody to understand that we might be calling them back multiple times," Miller explains. "A lot of people have elected not to do that."

A chain-link fence rings the spot where the plane hit an old strip mine, scattering the front section and the passengers who had tried to rush the hijackers. The cabin bounced into a line of trees, shattering everything, everyone and any illusions that the hills of Pennsylvania are a haven from the world. Restoration workers have filled in the crater and sheared down and mulched the charred trees from which so many of the victims were reclaimed.

Family members, friends, the curious and those curious about why they feel a sense of loss over strangers, take the journey to the unfortunately named Skyline Drive outside the town of Shanksville and pull into a makeshift parking lot that overlooks the spot. Stonehenge could not be spookier than this place, marked by a wide, indistinct expanse surrounded by a silver fence.

"They just want to be there. I can understand that," says Miller, a 6-foot-4-inch study in rural sobriety now finishing his first term as coroner, or his father's seventh, depending on whether you believe in dynasties in such lines of work.

Miller is 44, a local boy who played basketball for Somerset High School, went away to college, then came home to work the family's funeral home, never imagining he would one day be overtaken by the enormity of hatreds deeper than the 30-foot crater Flight 93 left in his neighborhood.

"To me this is a cemetery. The site is a cemetery and for whatever reason, I wound up being the custodian of it," he says.

Miller has spent 20 years in the business of attending to the dead and those they leave behind.

"Those deaths are just as final and horrifying and difficult to deal with as anything we've had here," Miller says. But until now, he always believed that horror was reserved for the surviving families. This time, the coroner is hurting, too.

It is in the days since the dead were recovered, the crater filled, the trees emptied of their secrets and taken down for disposal, that the passengers of Flight 93 have at last become known to Miller. Day after day he speaks with the families. He can finally read newspaper accounts about the people whose remains rest, for the moment, in a freezer near this town. He won't say where.

"I don't want it to become another site for a shrine," he explains.

Now, after consigning them to a storage site and awaiting results from the lab in Rockville, Md., Miller is confronted, at every telephone call, with the stories those remains signify.

"I'm starting to get to know these people," he says. "That makes it a little rough sometimes."

On this day, the crash site has attracted a film crew from Norway and Brad Boyer and his family. Boyer had been on nearby Indian Lake, fishing for bass, when Flight 93 hit the ground across the ridge.

"Just a huge bang," Boyer says.

Then the sky rained garbage.

"Paper, tinfoil -- little pieces of it," Boyer says. "And leaves. A lot of leaves. Strange."

On a late summer day, even the leaves were murdered.


Dennis Roddy's e-mail address is droddy@post-gazette.com.

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