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The crash in Somerset: 'It dropped out of the clouds'

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

This story is based on the reporting of staff writers Bob Batz, Tom Gibb, Monica L. Haynes, Ernie Hoffman, Ginny Kopas, Cindi Lash and James O'Toole.

The United Airlines Boeing 757 came in low, its engines screaming.

A handful of people working near or driving through a rural area of Somerset County watched as the plane flipped over and disappeared with a smoky boom at 10:06 a.m. yesterday, between the tiny communities of Lambertsville and Shanksville.

The plane, with 45 passengers and crew, had taken off from Newark Airport bound for San Francisco a little less than two hours earlier, just before the blitzkrieg of terror in New York City and Washington, D.C., that would make Sept. 11 a date that would be taught as long as U.S. history is studied.

A few miles north of Lambertsville, yard man Terry Butler, 40, was toiling away at Stoystown Auto Wreckers.

He thought it was odd that a plane was in the area. He'd heard that all air traffic nationwide had been halted after the World Trade Center disaster about an hour earlier.

"It dropped out of the clouds," too low for a commercial flight, Butler said. The plane rose slightly, trying to gain altitude, then "it just went flip to the right and then straight down."

He radioed back to his office, telling coworkers Homer Barron, 49, and Jeff Phillips, 30, what he had seen.

"I told them a plane crashed. At first they didn't believe it, because you know, we do joke around."

Then Barron saw smoke and called 911.

The plane came down on farmland reclaimed from a coal-mining operation. Barron and Phillips drove to the crash scene and found a smoky hole in the ground. A few firefighters had already begun pouring water onto the debris.

"It didn't look like a plane crash because there was nothing that looked like a plane," Barron said.

"There was one part of a seat burning up there," Phillips said. "That was something you could recognize."

"I never seen anything like it," Barron said. "Just like a big pile of charcoal."

The sound of the jet's engines also stuck in the minds of other eyewitnesses.

Lee Purbaugh, 32, working just his second day at Rollock Inc., a scrap yard next to the reclaimed strip-mine land, looked up from operating a burning torch to see the jetliner just 40 feet above him.

"I couldn't believe this," Purbaugh said.

"I heard it for 10 or 15 seconds and it sounded like it was going full bore," said Tim Lensbouer, 35, Purbaugh's coworker.

The ground shook and the air thundered as the jetliner slammed into the ground about 300 yards away, Purbaugh said.

A mushroom of flame rose 200 feet and disappeared. Then there was a curtain of black smoke and finally a trail of fire as pieces of the fuselage shot hundreds of yards into the woods.

"My instinct was to run toward it, to try to help" said Nina Lensbouer, Tim's Lensbouer's wife and a former volunteer firefighter. "But I got there and there was nothing, nothing there but charcoal. Instantly, it was charcoal."

Three-quarters of a mile away, at Shanksville-Stonycreek High School, ninth-grader Rose Goodwin, 14, and her classmates had been watching coverage of the World Trade Center catastrophe on a classroom television.

"When the plane hit, it sounded like something just fell on the roof. Everybody sort of panicked," she said. "I went to the window and saw all this smoke coming up and I just pointed and screamed."

Charles Sturtz, 53, who lives just over the hillside from the crash site, said a fireball 200 feet high shot up over the hill. He got to the crash scene even before the firefighters.

"The biggest pieces you could find were probably four feet [long]. Most of the pieces you could put into a shopping bag, and there were clothes hanging from the trees."

Ten miles away, at a warehouse near Berlin, employee Don Miller and co-workers felt their building shake.

They had been watching coverage of the World Trade Center disaster, knew about the explosion at the Pentagon, "and the guys said, 'Now they're coming to get us,' " Miller said.

"The guys at work were serious. They were scared," he said.

In Somerset, about eight miles from the crash scene, Nancy Goodwin, 39, encountered her son Doug, 21, outside a classroom at the Allegany College of Maryland campus, where they both go to school.

"I said, 'Doug, terrorists hit the World Trade Center,"' she recounted yesterday afternoon. "And he said, 'Well thank goodness we live here."'

Here is Lambertsville, a collection of about 20 houses about a mile and a half from the crash site.

For neighbors out on their front porches, gathered under the shade of trees, watching the endless parade of emergency vehicles yesterday, it was a piece of horror they couldn't believe was playing in Somerset County.

"Even at work, when we heard about the things at the World Trade Center, we were saying, 'Thank God we live in a rural area,"' said Richard Sturtz, an employee of Bedford Somerset Mental Health/Mental Retardation.

Later in the afternoon, state police allowed reporters to enter the crash area. It was incongruously serene. Under a bright sun, the site where all 45 aboard the plane were killed was most remarkable for how unremarkable it appeared.

The apparent point of impact was a dark gash, not more than 30 feet wide, at the base of a gentle slope just before a line of trees.

There were few recognizable remnants of the plane or the passengers and crew. The trees beyond were still faintly smoldering but largely intact.

"If you would go down there, it would look like a trash heap," said state police Capt. Frank Monaco. "There's nothing but tiny pieces of debris. It's just littered with small pieces."

Gov. Tom Ridge arrived later in the afternoon. Steely but emotional, Ridge said, "It's difficult to describe the range of emotion...Rage and anger, to sorrow and horror, and I guess a sense of nausea."

Ridge said he was asking Pennsylvanians to devote "their prayers, their blood and their talent" in the aftermath of the crash. He said the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency was setting up a registry for health professionals and other personnel to volunteer to help not only at the Somerset crash site but to relieve overburdened personnel in Washington and New York.

Ridge said that among the many questions that were difficult to answer about the day's events were, "How do you explain to kids? How do you explain to my two children? How do you explain to America's children?"

"There is no rational answer."

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