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U.S. News
Wallace Miller: Somerset County Coroner

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

He's been interviewed by everyone from CNN to Russian television.

Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller has acted as a caretaker for the site where United Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, 2001. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

And even a full year after United Flight 93 crashed into his territory, Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller figures he still spends 60 percent of his day dealing with the aftermath of Sept. 11, much of that fielding media calls from across the planet.

But Miller, 45 -- local funeral director and second-term coroner in this rural county of 80,000 -- has collected little of his involvement with Flight 93 in clippings or videotape. He doesn't plan for his role in the crash to be his only legacy here, he said.

On one recent afternoon, he wasn't thinking about the horror or implausibility of 9/11.

"I'm trying to make the cutdowns on my fantasy football team," said Miller, characteristically unassuming. "It's something I'm in with a bunch of local guys."

Miller said he doesn't have much of a taste for the celebrity thrust on him after the crash, when he sat shoulder-to-shoulder before television cameras with other investigators. "You won't see a book coming from me," he said.

Instead, the lanky, 6-foot-4 hometown boy is trying to go about his everyday jobs -- the funeral duties, the coroner's calls -- in what he figures will be a fading glare from the crash of Flight 93.

It hasn't faded yet, though. When Christmas came, media calls resumed. When victims' families gathered to hear the cockpit tape recording, more inquiries came. As the nation edged toward the first anniversary, the phone kept ringing.

"It never really ended for me ... so I can't really look at it retrospectively yet," he said. "My wife and I, I think early on we realized that we'd have to devote a year of our lives to it."

He is shepherd to many of the families of the 40 victims on Flight 93, still guiding a few almost every weekend to the field where the airliner crashed.

They have spoken of Miller as a comforter; he talks of them as friends.

"We made friends with everybody," he said.

He also has worked with a private company to coordinate the return to relatives of personal effects found at the site. While the impact was so violent that almost everything disintegrated, a few items were found intact, including wedding rings, credit cards and personal papers.

And he remains official guardian of the fenced-off crash site, going out occasionally with small groups to clear specks of debris fallen from trees since his last sweep.

It hasn't overwhelmed him, Miller said.

"I felt that I had the capacity to manage it, and so far, I have," he said. "My entire career has been devoted to deceased people and grieving families."

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