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Because of Flight 93, Pa. coroners try to restrict release of records

Monday, November 25, 2002

Associated Press

Requests for photographs and records from the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 have spurred coroners statewide to lobby for an exemption to state law that would allow Pennsylvania authorities to keep records confidential until investigations are complete.

A flood of requests for records concerning the flight that crashed during last year's terrorist attacks has prompted the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association to ask legislators to clarify state law and, they say, protect their and other investigators' work.

The association says the state's current law, which requires coroners to file all records from the previous year by February for public viewing, is too broad and does not account for lengthy investigations such as the federal probe into Flight 93.

"The current law needs to be clarified. Our position is ... when the investigation is complete, any and all records can be released," said Zachary Lysek, the coroner in Northhampton County and head of the state coroners association.

"It is absolutely necessary to preserve the integrity of an investigation," Lysek said.

Wallace Miller, Somerset County's coroner, who has gone from a small-town funeral director to caretaker of a national memorial site and crime scene, said he's been approached by several "wannabe authors" and "ersatz writers" for official records regarding Flight 93 -- the only one of four flights hijacked Sept. 11, 2001, that did not take a life on the ground.

Miller said people have threatened to file lawsuits for the records but he has been told by the Justice Department not to release them because of the pending case against Zacharias Moussaoui, known as the "20th hijacker."

Moussaoui, who was arrested at a Minneapolis area flight school in August 2001, is accused of conspiring with 19 members of suicide teams to commit terrorism, hijack aircraft and kill more than 3,000 people in four jetliners, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Federal prosecutors have said a telephone number that Moussaoui called during the conspiracy was scrawled on a business card belonging to Ziah Jarrah, one of the Flight 93 hijackers.

Investigators believe the flight, which was headed from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, was intended for a target in Washington when people on board confronted the hijackers and brought the plane down.

The 40 passengers and crew have been hailed as heroes in what some have called the first battle in America's war against terrorism.

The coroners' concerns prompted state Rep. Bob Bastian, a Republican from Somerset County, to introduce legislation that would exempt investigators from releasing information "which tends to or will compromise an ongoing investigation."

But Bastian said the legislation would likely not come up for a vote in the state House before the session ends on Wednesday.

But some, including the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, oppose the legislation, saying it was too broad and would give coroners too much power to block access to records.

"We believe the proposed amendments would undermine the public's ability to access information concerning the safety of their communities and the competence and effectiveness of law enforcement," said Teri Henning, media law counsel for the state newspaper association.

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