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Support of strangers in Somerset County a boost to survivors of Flight 93 victims

Mourners go home a 'family'

Wednesday, September 19, 2001

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

They will go home to what could be years of grief. But yesterday, at least, the first big wave of relatives to flow into Somerset County and mourn the victims of Flight 93 flowed back out again -- buoyed, almost stunned by support they found here.

A rose, a flag and photographs of deceased loved ones are some of the items left at a makeshift memorial. (Gabor Degre/Post-Gazette)

Twenty-two miles across the county, recovery workers and investigators were coping with the aftermath of the tragedy in a very different way, reporting encouraging progress in the days since crews found the plane's data and cockpit voice recorder.

As for the mourners, some embraced and even shared laughter yesterday as they departed Seven Springs Mountain Resort, where they spent the past few days seeing the countryside where the plane went down and communing in a shared pain.

A few talked of a reunion here next year. They marveled at the tight embrace from this stretch of lightly populated mountains where the victims on Flight 93 are being revered as heroes who tried to overpower hijackers bent on crashing the jetliner somewhere -- Washington, D.C., by the prevailing speculation -- where it would do maximum damage.

"All the people -- it's like we all were family here," said Yanira Viera of Puerto Rico, cousin to Waleska Martinez, 37, a New York-area Census Bureau automation specialist. Martinez was flying with a supervisor to a conference in San Francisco when the Boeing 757 went down and all 44 people aboard died. "All the people here, it makes you feel so much comfort."

Earlier reports put the number of people aboard the plane at 45, but United officials said one passenger apparently had purchased two tickets and had been counted twice.

Yesterday, a week after the Boeing 757 crashed into a reclaimed Somerset County strip mine -- the only one of four jetliners that crashed that nightmarish morning without killing anyone on the ground -- county commissioners arrived at the crash site with a bronze plaque saluting "the brave men and women who gave their lives to save so many others."

"The people of this place, these towns, were incredible," said another of Martinez's cousins, a Jersey City, N.J., woman who would identify herself only as Millie. "You try to say, 'Thank you,' but you can't because they're saying, 'thank you,' thanking us for what happened on the plane."

Yesterday's departure of an estimated 245 family and friends of the victims is being followed by the arrival of a smaller group -- as many as 130, by American Red Cross estimates.

Tomorrow, they will be chaperoned to a knoll near the crash site, a replay of events Monday.

From there, if all goes as planned, the mourners will be taken to a tent on the ninth fairway of Northwinds Country Club at Indian Lake, 1 1/2 miles from the crash scene -- just as the previous group was -- for a memorial service using the hills around the crash site as backdrop.

Gov. Tom Ridge, who joined first lady Laura Bush Monday at a service which ended with both of them chatting with the mourners, is considering attending, Ridge spokesman Kevin Shivers said yesterday.

If all goes as it did then, this will be a crowd that remains largely stoic but seems awed by the support -- salutes from police officers; flags and hand-fashioned signs of condolence planted in front yards along the route.

Said one mourner who asked not to be identified, "they all cared, Mrs. Bush, the governor of Pennsylvania, and all those people."

"They look out the window and see a line of state troopers saluting them, and they were very moved," said William Stevens, one of the bus drivers in a caravan that carried mourners Monday. "They see flags and everything along the roads, and they're riding along saying, 'Look at this over here! Look over there!'

"Only when we got to the checkpoint where we went up to the crash scene, I heard some crying on the bus -- but not much."

"That was the toughest part, going up to see where the crash happened," Millie said. "I thought, 'I'm not sure if I can go up there.' There are a lot of feelings. ... There isn't a word in the dictionary that can describe it."

The area surrounding the impact was barely recognizable as a crash site in the first day or two after the attack. Yesterday, the impact crater was flanked by mounds of excavated dirt and heavy equipment. As clouds gathered, workers draped the new hills of dirt in blue and yellow tarps as protection against the threat of rain.

FBI spokesman William Crowley said that rain would not halt operations but could complicate tasks such as sifting the material removed from the crater.

The excavated area within the wedge-shaped crater is now some 30 feet deep, and Crowley said investigators did not plan to go much deeper. He said that about 80 percent of the immediate crash site had been searched but emphasized that that was not suggesting that the work here was 80 percent complete.

Recovery experts believe that the remaining 20 percent may yield an increasing concentration of evidence, human remains and effects.

As investigators have delved deeper below the impact point the material unearthed has become increasingly larger and more recognizable than the extremely fragmented debris found nearer the surface.

Crowley would not be more specific about the size or nature of any newly found items , but said, "As they go deeper, they're finding material that's more significant, I'll leave it at that."

"It's a laborious process," the FBI agent said. "People are literally crawling on their hands and knees."

In the investigation of a normal plane crash, the National Transportation Safety Board will often attempt to reconstruct a fallen aircraft from the recovered parts. As this is a criminal investigation, however, the NTSB will not attempt to piece together the Boeing 757 unless the FBI, the lead inves tigative agency, asks them to. Crowley said his agency had not asked for a reconstruction effort up to this point.

"If it becomes of investigative interest, we will," he said

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