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What was the danger to city? Doomed United Flight 93 passed just south of Pittsburgh

Thursday, September 13, 2001

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

No one can yet say exactly how close the hijacked jetliner that crashed Tuesday in Somerset County came to Pittsburgh, but a map of the flight path shows the plane passing just south of the city.

The Federal Aviation Administration said yesterday it turned over to the FBI a radar record of United Airlines Flight 93's route.

The data traced the Boeing 757-200 from its takeoff from Newark, N.J., to its violent end at 10:06 a.m., just outside Shanksville, about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

FBI agents refused to comment about the flight path.

"People are asking, 'Was there danger to Pittsburgh?' It's really too early, in my view, to comment on that," said Jeff Killeen, a spokesman for the FBI's bureau in Pittsburgh. "We want to speak with one voice, and only when we're perfectly ready to. Information control is critical to this investigation, and we're not commenting on the flight path at this time, and we're not commenting on a number of issues, like what may have been said in the cabin."

Local emergency management and airport officials spoke freely about what they were told of the plane's location.

But the details relayed to them during a tense morning that had already seen three terrorist-driven plane crashes in New York and Washington, D.C., were sparse, giving them little idea of where the fuel-laden jetliner was coming from or where it was going.

During the two hours Flight 93 was aloft, it traveled westward to Cleveland, then made a sharp turn to the south, according to a map provided by Flight Explorer, a Virginia company that sells real-time flight data it receives from the FAA.

Flight Explorer's map shows that after the jetliner turned south, it banked back eastward, cutting through West Virginia's Northern Panhandle before re-entering Pennsylvania.

A series of air traffic controllers would have handed off the plane several times, moving from Newark to New York to the FAA's Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center as the plane headed across the country.

Shortly after the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m., Allegheny County Emergency Services Chief Robert Full called Bradley Penrod, deputy director of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, about the situation.

They chatted, exchanged phone numbers and hung up.

About 10 minutes later, Full's phone rang. It was Kurt Sopp, the airport authority's security manager.

Full said Sopp told him that he had been informed by Pittsburgh International Airport's air traffic control tower "that there was a plane within 10 miles in the Pittsburgh airspace that they had no contact with whatsoever, and they had reason to believe it was possibly a hijacked aircraft, and they were taking appropriate action by moving personnel out of the control tower."

Airspace is generally considered to be a 20- to 30-mile radius from an airport.

That was all Full learned of the plane. He had no idea of its altitude, heading, speed or apparent destination.

"It meant to me that it was pretty damn close to the airport, especially when they told me the control tower was beginning to move personnel out of the tower," Full said. "I didn't ask for any of those particulars. I didn't even look at the clock for a time."

Full got off the phone with Sopp and alerted Pittsburgh officials. Full alerted City Communications Chief John Rowntree. But even as Rowntree was learning about the mysterious plane, it continued on its southeast path, away from Allegheny County.

As the plane neared Somerset County, air traffic controllers in Cleveland alerted their counterparts at John P. Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport that a plane was about 12 miles away, "heading directly at the airport at about 6,000 feet," said Joe McKelvey, the airport's executive director.

"The Johnstown tower chief told me that under the circumstances, he was going to evacuate the tower," McKelvey said. "Before either one of us could get off the phone, the aircraft had already passed us by."

Moments later, it crashed 14 miles to the southeast, killing all 45 people aboard.

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