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Volunteers scour Somerset County crash site, woods to remove debris

Sunday, September 30, 2001

By Joe Smydo, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It was rough going, on hands and knees in some cases, looking for anything that didn't belong in the woods.

More than 300 volunteers gathered yesterday at the site in Somerset County where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Members of Southwestern Pennsylvania Emergency Response Group scoured a wooded area near the crash scene for airplane fragments and human remains. They found some of both.

State Trooper Joseph Grove said the searchers, from 13 counties, worked shoulder to shoulder as far as a mile from where the plane slammed into the ground near Shanksville.

Two of the planes hijacked by Muslim extremists nearly three weeks ago crashed into the World Trade Center towers. A third crashed into the Pentagon. Passengers aboard Flight 93 have been hailed as heroes for overpowering the hijackers, preventing the plane from reaching the terrorists' next target.

All 44 people on the plane died. Remains of 12 have been identified.

Mark Tsantes, a supervisor with Salvation Army Disaster Services, said the volunteers parted underbrush with their hands and hauled debris from the woods in 5-gallon pails.

"I know some of the guys came out of the woods dirty from being down on their knees," he said.

The search, which lasted more than eight hours, resumes today.

"I'd want somebody to do it for me," said Paul Kondrla, a paramedic crew chief with Mon Valley Emergency Medical Services who drove from his home in Uniontown, Fayette County, to take part in the search.

He said he'd be back today, when terrain scoured yesterday is to be examined yet again.

Other volunteers planned to stay in Somerset last night, in hotel rooms that might otherwise have been used for a firefighters convention that had been scheduled for this weekend. It was canceled after the terrorist attacks.

The volunteers parked their cars, pickup trucks and emergency vehicles in a field -- like visitors at a county fair -- and took shuttle buses to the crash site.

They worked in jump suits and hard hats, out of view of the steady stream of people who showed up at the makeshift parking lot to view a memorial to the crash victims. Some brought cameras to the memorial. Others brought their kids.

"I don't know what you'd tell a small child. I really don't," said Lt. Frank Bittner of the Berlin, Somerset County, Fire Police.

Joseph Johnson Jr., of Southampton, N.Y., traveled to Connellsville, Fayette County, for his wife Irene's high school reunion and made a side trip to see the memorial.

"It's history. I can say I was there," said Johnson, accompanied by his wife's brother-in-law, Wilbert Bailey of Connellsville.

County Coroner Wallace Miller said he's well aware of the historic importance. That's why he's making painstaking searches of the crash site and the area around it.

Yesterday's search focused on an area where debris may have fallen from trees because of recent rain and wind. Major pieces of the wreckage already have been removed by federal investigators. Miller said searchers now are recovering pieces of airplane too small to identify.

Miller said he wants to return the site to as "natural a state as possible" so the victims' family members, on future visits, don't run across airplane parts or other signs of the disaster. As part of the cleanup, he said, scorched trees will be uprooted and hauled from the site.

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