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Somerset crash scene searched; 'hero' may have aborted terror mission

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Cindi Lash and James O'Toole, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. -- Shortly before United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Somerset County, a passenger told his wife the plane had been hijacked -- and that he was going to do something about it.

The crash scene yesterday. (Dave Escherch, Daily American)

In his phone call, passenger Thomas Burnett told his wife, Deena, "I know we're all going to die -- there's three of us who are going to do something about it." Then, Burnett told his wife, "I love you, honey" and the call ended, the family's priest, the Rev. Frank Colacicco, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

There has been no information released by authorities about what occurred in the cockpit of Flight 93 in the last minutes before it crashed shortly after 10 a.m. yesterday. The Boeing 757 went down in a grassy field about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh with 45 people aboard. It was one of four airplanes hijacked by terrorists yesterday.

U.S. Rep. John Murtha, who visited the crash scene this morning just before investigators began combing the site, said it was obvious someone had taken action to halt the flight.

"Somebody here was a hero, a passenger . . . or the pilot who would not fly on. There must have been a struggle. Some heroic individual brought this plane down," said Murtha, a Johnstown Democrat.

Several people aboard used cell phones to call family members or, in one case, the Westmoreland County 911 center.

Murtha also discounted suggestions that a military aircraft brought down the airplane before it could reach a strategic target.

"The secretary of defense has assured me of that," Murtha said.

He also said he understands no military aircraft were in the air until after the United Airlines jetliner had gone down.

In terms of potential targets, Murtha said he could only guess but discounted suggestions hijackers planned to hit the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md.

"You have to surmise," he said, ". . . the target may have been the Capitol, maybe another part of the Pentagon . . . or the White House." Murtha also said that a critical piece in finding out what happened is the cockpit voice recorder. But he said after they visited the scene today, the investigators held out little hope of finding the cockpit voice recorder or the black box that holds the electronic flight data.

"It's just that the debris is destroyed so significantly. The fuel burned at what was such a hot temperature."

As investigators searched the grassy field and adjoining woods of the reclaimed coal mine turned crime scene, Murtha offered this grim prediction: "It's going to happen again -- there's no question about it."

He predicted that the next such terrorist act might not involve hijackings, but a strike involving chemical or biological weapons.

Anticipating a change in the policy debate, inevitable after Monday's multiple tragedies, Murtha recounted that the House Appropriations Committee's Armed Services Subcommittee, on which he is the ranking Democrat, had been poised Monday to reduce spending for President Bush's Missile Defense Initiative in order to increase anti-terrorism funding.

Investigators have gridded, or mapped out, the crash area overnight and were commencing their search through the morning.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, FBI and state police continued to arrive and spread out on foot and horseback as they searched for plane wreckage. State police guarded the area through the night to make sure no evidence was disturbed. An officer reported that it had been a quiet night with no incidents.

Officials said they were preparing for the possibility that family members of some of the crash victims may begin arriving at the crash scene today. Local churches in the nearby town of Shanksville were also beginning to make plans for prayer and memorial services.

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