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Latest Somerset crash site findings may yield added IDs

Wednesday, October 03, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

STONYCREEK, Pa. -- The Somerset County coroner said yesterday that he should know by this weekend if the last big sweep of the United Airlines Flight 93 crash scene yielded remains that he can link to any of the 44 people who were aboard the hijacked airliner.

But a week after the FBI closed its criminal investigation at the Somerset County site, county Coroner Wallace Miller indicated that his job has switched largely from search and recovery to a cleanup of what he deems sacred ground.

"I consider this site almost like a cemetery," Miller said yesterday. "When you walk through a cemetery and you see debris, you pick it up."

Over the weekend, about 300 volunteers combed a half-mile square around the crash site and found enough debris from the Boeing 757 to fill about one-third of a trash container.

Most of it was little more than thumbnail size -- "no bigger than a pop rivet holding two pieces of aluminum," Miller said yesterday -- that last week's rains washed from trees bordering the stretch of strip mine where the airliner crashed nose-first Sept. 11.

No significant evidence turned up, Miller said, and there probably won't be a repeat of anything the size of last weekend's search.

"We don't anticipate anything else on that scale," he said. "But I wouldn't rule out at least one additional sweep."

The FBI has mandated DNA testing to confirm the identities of remains, a process just beginning that Miller said could take four to six months. But using mostly dental records, Miller and staff have identified remains of 12 passengers -- a number that the coroner said might grow with last weekend's recovery of additional remains.

Remains, like the aircraft wreckage itself, were scattered when the jet hit the ground at as much as 575 mph, then exploded in a fireball of fuel.

With those of 12 people identified, Miller and his team have identified the remains of 27 percent of the people on the plane, more than the 20 percent match he said that experts predicted at the outset.

Now, attention has turned to restoring the site itself.

By today, Environmental Resources Management Inc. of Pine, a contractor hired by United, expects to return 5,000 to 6,000 cubic yards of soil to the 50-foot hole dug around the crater left by the crash.

The soil is being tested for jet fuel, and at least three test wells have been sunk to monitor groundwater, since three nearby homes are served by wells, Betsy Mallison, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman, said.

So far, no contamination has been discovered, she said.

For Miller, the focus seems to rest just as heavily on aesthetics -- from removing debris to felling charred trees that could be upsetting to relatives of Flight 93's passengers and crew.

"This site won't be released until we're comfortable that we've removed as much of this debris as is humanly possible," he said.

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