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Cockpit tapes could yield key clues to Flight 93

Friday, September 21, 2001

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

STONYCREEK, Pa. -- The director of the FBI said that investigators "are transcribing and, in some cases, translating," voices heard on the cockpit voice recorder that was recovered from the crash of United Flight 93.

The information on the recorder, one of the two black boxes recovered from the wreckage of the Boeing 757, could offer crucial and unique insights into the precisely coordinated terrorism of Sept. 11. It is the only functioning audio recorder recovered so far from any of the four hijacked aircraft.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said that the recorder from the plane that rammed into the Pentagon was so badly damaged by fire that it would not yield any information. The flight data recorder from the Pentagon crash was recovered in usable condition as was the flight data recorder from the Somerset County crash. The black boxes from the twin assaults on New York's World Trade Center have yet to be discovered amid the thousands of tons of debris in lower Manhattan.

Mueller's disclosure that FBI and National Transportation Safety Board investigators are "translating" portions of the recording raises the obvious suggestion that the recorder picked up the voices of Arabic-speaking hijackers, but Mueller would not elaborate on its contents.

Mueller discussed the black box evidence at a news conference here yesterday after he inspected the crash site along with Attorney General John Ashcroft and Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher.

"We recovered the flight data recorder here as well as the voice recorder, and we and the NTSB are in the process of transcribing and, in certain cases, translating, the dialogue -- what little dialogue there is -- on that voice recorder," Mueller said.

"I can't go into the details any more but I will tell you that it will take some time because we are analyzing very carefully what is heard on that voice data recorder," he added.

Mueller similarly refused to comment on whether or how the voice data supported the suggestion that passengers on the doomed Boeing 757 struggled with the hijackers to bring the plane down here rather than on some other intended target.

But without citing specific evidence, Mueller said, "The attorney general and I, and the attorney general of Pennsylvania believe that those passengers on this jet were absolute heroes, and their actions during this flight were heroic."

In the brief news conference sandwiched between a visit to the crash site and a memorial service with victims' families at a nearby resort, Ashcroft also lauded the passengers' apparent actions.

"It is impossible to stand in a field in Pennsylvania, in a site of heroic devotion and activity without thinking of the words of Abraham Lincoln who spoke 140 years ago at Gettysburg," Ashcroft said. "He put it this way, he said, 'The world will little note nor long remember what we say here but it can never forget what they did here.'

"In the midst of this tragedy is a testimony of the American spirit," Ashcroft continued. "Of individuals who bravely and courageously were willing to endure additional risks and pay an ultimate price so that others would be more secure."

Ashcroft had also evoked Lincoln's words a few moments earlier as he and Mueller gazed down on the impact crater now surrounded with the heavy equipment used to unearth and recover the plane's wreckage.

"There is a special reason for feeling this is hallowed ground ," he said as he discussed the crash with Linda French, national disaster services chairman for the American Red Cross. "That is because people made heroic efforts to make sure they didn't imperil the lives of others."

"It is spiritual," French said later. "In the ecumenical sense, it is hallowed ground. ... I have every confidence that the people here are going to safeguard this site and give it the dignity it deserves."

A hard rain fell on the crash site through the night Wednesday and into yesterday morning, stopping work at the scene. But the timing of the rain -- after recovery continued for nine days with scant precipitation -- probably cost investigators little, if any, evidence, FBI spokesman Bill Crowley said yesterday.

By the time Ashcroft and the other law enforcement officials made their way to the rise that overlooks the crater, the sun was struggling to break through shifting clouds. Ashcroft and Mueller were briefed on the crash by French, and by Jack Shea, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Pittsburgh office.

Before turning to the crash scene itself, the Washington officials somberly studied the heartbreaking array of photographs, ball caps, teddy bears and flowers left at the site by the victims' family and friends.

That collection of memorabilia continued to grow yesterday afternoon as another contingent of mourners -- 132 people, the smaller of two groups that visited the field this week -- visited the place where their loved ones died.

Calling the choreographed attacks, "an act of war," Ashcroft said they had prompted the largest criminal investigation in history.

At this scene and across the country, he said, "We have been intently examining all the evidence to develop a complete understanding, not only of the responsible parties and organizations that they can appropriately be dealt with and punished, but also developing a better understanding of what we can do to disrupt, interrupt, stop, thwart, curtail the risk of further events like those Tuesday, Sept. 11 ... that is a firm commitment."

Ashcroft and other administration officials have warned in the past that the attacks could be a prelude to further acts of terrorism. He didn't elaborate on those concerns yesterday but said, "I think it's important for Americans to understand that this was a complex attack, coordinated, and that it's very possible that there are others that would seek to disrupt our liberties in the same way. ... we should go to work and we should live our lives, but we should do it with a heightened awareness of a vulnerability that we have."

From there, buses carried the mourners four miles to Indian Lake Resort -- along a route newly redecorated with yellow ribbons to replace ribbons washed away by overnight rainstorms -- for a memorial service and words of comfort from Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, and Fisher.

"This isn't a time for reason for most of us," the Rev. Thomas Sinclair, district superintendent for the United Methodist Church, told the room full of mourners. "This is a time for faith."

"One of the things that struck me was the composure of the families," Lynne Cheney said after talking with mourners when the hour-long service ended. " ... I kept finding myself, my voice cracking while theirs were steady."

She and Fisher hit on what has become a near-constant in tributes to Flight 93's crew and passengers, the portrayal of them as heroes who battled back against the hijackers.

"They made this country better, spurring us to think anew why we love this land," Cheney told the mourners, a group that remained silent and poised as they sat shoulder-to-shoulder in folding chairs at the Indian Lake lodge.

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., yesterday introduced legislation that would bestow Congress' highest civilian honor to those who died aboard United Flight 93.

Specter, speaking in Washington, said giving the passengers and crew members the Congressional Gold Medal would recognize the heroism of those whose actions prevented greater loss of life.

"They really saved the Capitol," he said.

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