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Flight data recorder may hold clues to suicide flight

Friday, September 14, 2001

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

STONYCREEK, Pa. -- After hours of sifting through the grave of United Flight 93, investigators unearthed a flight data recorder that could answer key questions about the deaths of 45 people here while pointing to the solution of the larger, still more horrific mystery of the four coordinated hijackings that struck the nation Tuesday.

The Aftermath:

Will black box reveal Flight 93's last moments?

Flight 93 crash shook his house like a tornado

NORAD denies military shot down Flight 93


The electronic device represents half of the most coveted goal of this crash site search -- the so-called black box that archived the final moments of the Boeing 757. Emergency workers were still combing a reclaimed coal mine and the surrounding countryside for the cockpit voice recorder that forms the other part of the black box.

Although they are called black boxes, the devices actually are housed in separate orange boxes.

The voice recorder could offer dramatic insight into the possibility that Flight 93 met its end after a desperate struggle between passengers convinced that they were doomed and terrorists who had taken over the jetliner.

"We're trying to find out exactly what happened ... the development that happened 15 minutes ago will help a lot," FBI Special Agent Bill Crowley said as he interrupted a routine afternoon briefing to convey the news.

The flight data recorder, if intact, would allow investigators to determine crucial information including the course, speed, and maneuvers the plane made in the final moments before it plunged into a hillside. Crowley said he did not know if the flight data recorder was intact or if information could be extracted from it.

Almost immediately after its discovery at 4:20 p.m., it was on its way to Washington to be examined by experts at the National Transportation Safety Board.

The data recorder was discovered buried within the wedge-shaped crater that marks the impact of the plane. While discovering that crucial artifact at the exact center of the crime scene, investigators were at the same time casting their net over a broader area in response to discoveries of more debris -- including what appeared to some residents to be human remains -- miles from the site of the explosive crash.

Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller said that the first human remains were removed from the site yesterday in a prelude to the somber challenge of identifying the 45 victims. While the investigation at the site began to settle into a grim routine, investigators were also preparing for possible visits to the site by families of the victims.

"We're prepared to do whatever we can to help them with the grieving process," said Crowley of the FBI's Pittsburgh office.

The investigation's chief priority now is the search for the cockpit voice recorder.

If found, it will be scrutinized for signs of what may have been a terrifying struggle that kept the fuel-laden Boeing 757 from hitting a potential target in a populated area. Cell phone calls from passengers have fueled speculation about such a scenario along with the fact that this was the only one of the four planes that crashed Tuesday that did not hit a populated, high-profile target.

Crowley, speaking hours before the data recorder surfaced, emphasized that the recordings might disclose "what everyone desperately wants to know: what was happening on that plane."

Also yesterday, state police Maj. Lyle Szupinka confirmed that bits of debris from the plane had turned up in relatively far-flung spots, including the residential area around Indian Lake, approximately two miles from the crash site, and in New Baltimore, more than six miles away. Investigators appealed to any residents who had come across debris in the surrounding countryside or even in their yards to contact them, emphasizing that even the smallest remnants could prove to be important clues.

Residents and workers at businesses outside Shanksville said they found clothing, books, papers and what appeared to be human remains. Some said they collected bags of items to be turned over to investigators.

Others reported what appeared to be crash debris floating in Indian Lake.

Workers at Indian Lake Marina said that they saw a cloud of confetti-like debris descend on the lake and nearby farms minutes after hearing the explosion that signaled the crash.

Those discoveries, which ranged from a five-inch bone fragment to an endorsed paycheck as much as eight miles downwind of the crash site, sent investigators on a hunt across a countryside that is mostly farms and woodlands. Bits of debris probably blew even farther, Szupinka said.

Carol Delasko, who works at the marina, said she saw a light cloud that stretched several hundred feet across rising about 200 feet into the air moments after the crash.

"It was white," said Theresa Weyant, borough secretary for the nearby resort community of Indian Lake, "so you looked up and it and you saw shiny stuff floating in the sky ... sparkly, shiny stuff, like confetti."

When it got to Terry Lowery's 65-acre farm, about three-quarters of a mile away, "it just looked like it was raining down," Lowery said.

"Paper, insulation and mail -- I picked a bunch up," he said.

Yesterday, a state police helicopter circled overhead as much as five miles downwind of the crash site. Its mission: to find debris -- mostly paper, postage stamp-size pieces of rubberized material and strands of charred insulation.

On Wednesday morning, marina Service Manager John Fleegle found what he figured was a bone, washed up on one of the marina's concrete boat launches.

"It was maybe five inches long. It put me in mind of maybe a rib bone," Fleegle said. "I called the state police. They contacted the FBI, and they picked it up."

Six miles to the southeast, at New Baltimore, a town of 630 people, Andy Stoe was in his yard Wednesday night when he found two scraps of paper -- one an endorsed check for $698, made out to a San Jose, Calif. man who was not on the passenger list. The other paper was a financial statement, singed around the edges.

In Indian Lake, another crumpled financial statement lay amid thumbnail-size pieces of fabric and charred plastic, scattered across backyards.

On the Lowery farm, it rained financial statements -- enough that Lowery and wife Gerry had a handful in the three one-gallon plastic bags of debris they turned over to investigators.

"They said they found unopened mail," Gerry Lowery said of the mix of state police and FBI searchers who walked almost shoulder-to-shoulder through their fields all day Wednesday and yesterday. "They found a picture, a snapshot of a baby. That just caused goose bumps for me."

Szupinka said that lighter, smaller debris probably shot into the air on the heat of a fireball that witnesses said shot several hundred feet into the air after the jetliner crashed. Then, it probably rode a wind that was blowing southeast at about 9 mph, Crowley said.

"According to the NTSB, not only is that possible ... it is probable that this stuff is debris from this crash," he said. He and Szupinka said additional debris may be submerged in the lake, as well as in a drainage pond near the crash crater, and may have to be retrieved later by divers.

Responding to questions about recurring rumors that Flight 93 might have been shot down by a military aircraft in order to prevent it from reaching a strategic or more-populated target, Crowley said that no possibility was being ruled out at this early stage of the investigation. Yesterday afternoon however, he took pains to do just that -- trying to stamp out any notion that military planes were in any way involved with the end of Flight 93.

"There was no military involvement in what happened here," Crowley said. "I hope that ends that line of questioning and we can move forward with other issues."

Crowley also said that NTSB data showed that two other aircraft were within 25 miles of the crash. He said that he did not know if either was a military aircraft but he repeated that neither played a role in the crash.

Investigators also began to move human remains discovered from the crash site to a temporary morgue that opened yesterday in a nearby Pennsylvania National Guard Armory. There, Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller, other coroners from around the state and forensic experts will use equipment shipped in yesterday on a specially outfitted truck to analyze fragments of skin, bone, hair and teeth and compare them to victims' medical records. .

That effort will be aided by Dr. Dennis Dirkmaat, a professor of forensic anthropology from Mercyhurst College in Erie, who yesterday arrived to assist with the recovery and identification of remains from the site. That task will be very difficult, Dirkmaat said, because of the relatively large size of the crime scene and the "extreme fragmentation" nature of the remains, but he said he and other forensic investigators were committed to identify as many victims as possible.

"It is very troubling to try to put a human face on this. ... We really feel very badly about what happened," he said. "On the other hand, we have a job to do for the families."

Investigators warned the media and the simply curious to stay off the crash site, saying that efforts to analyze evidence found there could be compromised if people have touched, walked on or disturbed it.

"Not only is this a crime scene, this is a temple burial yard for these victims," Szupinka said.

Indeed, the reclaimed coal mine where the plane crashed had taken on the guise of a memorial as several U.S. flags were duct-taped at half-staff to light standards and cellular telephone towers and on new flag poles that were hastily erected at the entrance to the site.

More flags, patriotic signs and expressions of sympathy to victim's families also sprouted in windows and yards in neighboring towns. Hand-made construction paper flags and the declaration "I Love America" filled every inch of the windows in the elementary school in nearby Friedens.

State police yesterday arrested two men who they identified as free-lance photographers on assignment for the New York Times Sunday Magazine after the men walked into and began taking photographs in an area of the crash site that has been off-limits to residents and reporters. The men, identified as William Wendt and Dan Mahoney, both of Great Barrington, Mass., were arraigned and released after pleading guilty to a charge of defiant trespass.

Troopers said they also arrested two sightseers Wednesday night after the pair attempted to penetrate the cordoned-off crash area in an attempt to take photographs. Police did not identify those people but said they were charged with disorderly conduct and possession of marijuana.

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