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Investigators in Somerset County begin combing the crash site for black boxes

Thursday, September 13, 2001

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

STONYCREEK, Pa. -- Sheathed in white and yellow protective coveralls, federal and state investigators inched shoulder to shoulder across a brushy hilltop in search of vital voice and data recordings that could help reconstruct the last, frantic moments aboard United Airlines Flight 93.

Hazardous materials crews, evidence technicians and other investigators from the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, state police and coroners' offices from around Pennsylvania yesterday began the painstaking process of sifting through and marking wreckage from the downed Boeing 757.

More than 200 workers moved into the crash site after an FBI hazardous materials response team examined it and determined levels of toxic and flammable materials there were low enough for workers to proceed safely in protective gear.

Workers were assigned to map the crash site and divide it into small grids, each of which were to be searched by individual crews of investigators. As investigators worked, they used yellow and red flags to stake spots around the site to mark where they had located parts from the aircraft, human remains or personal items belonging to the plane's 38 passengers and seven crew members.

The immediate purpose of their search, however, was to locate the plane's so-called "black boxes," the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder that could explain what happened Tuesday after hijackers took control of the plane and sent it on a course that ended when it slammed into a reclaimed strip mine here.

The boxes do not emit a signal that would enable searchers to home in on them, so evidence crews must cover the overgrown hilltop and surrounding woods on foot, inches at a time.

"The search will be painstaking," said FBI special agent Roland Corvington, who said investigators expect they will need up to five weeks to complete the work at the site. "I can't overstate how methodical it will be. I can't overstate the importance of finding the boxes."

That blaze was so intense that, despite the efforts of firefighters Tuesday, it rekindled overnight in what investigators believe were parts of the plane's tires.

The plane -- one of four jetliners to crash Tuesday in a horrifying, terrorist operation -- went down at 10:06 a.m., a little less than two hours after it took off from Newark airport bound for San Francisco.

Investigators here yesterday wouldn't comment on a number of cell phone calls that were placed by passengers aboard Flight 93 or how they believed hijackers took over the plane.

U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, said he had been told personally by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that Flight 93 was not shot down by a military aircraft and said he believed it crashed during a struggle for control between hijackers and "some heroic individual."

Investigators yesterday appeared to be initially searching in the immediate area of the plane's impact -- a soot-singed crater and a V-shaped gash in the adjacent trees. They have recovered some human remains, pieces of plane seats and seat belts and a few personal items, including check books, clothing and a singed Bible, but said they haven't found anything larger than an ordinary briefcase or telephone book.

As crews locate evidence on the ground, they will photograph it where it lies, then will mark it and move it to be processed in a repository nearby, investigators said. Human remains will be sent to a temporary morgue.

Locations for both of those sites are expected to be set up in a state national guard armory in nearby Somerset. There, the focus will shift to identifying victims.

Somerset County coroner Wallace Miller said coroners from around the state have offered to assist with that task. They include Allegheny County Coroner Cyril H. Wecht and Beaver County Coroner Wayne Tatalovich, both of whom gained experience with identifying crash victims after the 1994 crash of USAir Flight 427 in Hopewell.

As evidence crews worked on the ground, officials from the National Transportation Safety Board flew overhead to assess the scene while nearly 100 uniformed state troopers ringed it to prevent gawkers from trespassing. Other FBI agents fanned out onto surrounding roads interviewing residents about what they saw or heard.

No relatives of victims came to the crash site yesterday. But investigators said they had been told by United Airlines that at least eight relatives of one victim and possibly relatives of another victim were en route last night from Newark.

United Airlines, which set up a local headquarters last night at the nearby Seven Springs Resort and Conference Center, wouldn't say how many relatives they expected or when they would arrive. American Red Cross workers also arrived at Seven Springs last night and said they would be available to counsel or accompany victims' families to the site.

The airline's "no comment" stance was typical of agencies that were dealing with the crash aftermath yesterday, triggering confusion and frustration among community residents and nearly 200 reporters who converged from around the country, Canada, Ireland and other countries.

FBI officials here referred questions -- including queries about the the black boxes, the origin of Flight 93's hijackers, their possible ties to hijackers responsible for the other crashes Tuesday, their intended destination and their flight path -- to FBI officials in Washington, D.C., or the NTSB.

NTSB officials didn't attend news briefings here and later responded to inquiries about the crash with a recorded message that referred callers to the FBI.

Murtha, however, was plain-spoken when he flew over and visited the site of the crash, calling it "the most coordinated terrorist attack in the history of the United States," and one he predicted was almost certain to be repeated.

By Murtha's reckoning, a recovered voice recorder might replay a struggle between pilots and hijackers that could lead to identification of the air pirates. It also could have preserved what he suggested was a heroic act by pilot or passenger to intentionally crash the airliner before it came within range of a strategic target.

Murtha also said federal officials are considering a follow-up attack that might not be long in coming.

Anticipating the change in the policy debate inevitable after the multiple tragedies, Murtha said the House Armed Services Committee, on which he is the ranking Democrat, had been poised yesterday to reduce spending for President Bush's missile defense initiative in order to increase anti-terrorism funding.

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