Response and Recovery
The men and women of the FBI’s Pittsburgh Field Office felt the same fervent call to duty as their colleagues around the nation as the September 11 attack unfolded in New York and at the Pentagon. Pittsburgh’s Evidence Response Team started preparing to deploy, likely bound for New York. Agents and professional staff gathered around TVs and radios as reports of other alleged attacks—all of them later found to be inaccurate—filled the airwaves. But Pittsburgh soon learned that a fourth hijacked plane was coursing through its territory on track for Washington, D.C.
As the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed in New York, passengers of United Flight 93 fought to gain control of the plane from its four hijackers over Pennsylvania.
In defeat, the terrorists drove the plane into the ground near Shanksville, killing all 40 passengers and crew. Shortly after 10:03 a.m., Pittsburgh had a mission much closer to home: recover the remains of the victims and collect any evidence that would help link all 19 hijackers responsible for nearly 3,000 deaths that summer morning.
Buried in the Ground
Special agents rushing to the crash scene of United Flight 93 expected to find a commercial jetliner in pieces. Instead they saw a smoldering hole in a field, a large pile of dirt, burning trees, and what looked like trash everywhere.
The largest pieces of airplane debris they saw were parts of the landing gear, an engine, and a piece of the fuselage about the size of a car hood. The plane was utterly destroyed because the hijackers drove it into an abandoned strip mine at more than 580 miles an hour at a sharp angle. Much of the plane and its contents were found beneath the soft dirt. The impact shot debris into the bordering woods and into a nearby pond.
Everyone who responded to the scene knew immediately that no one could have possibly survived.
FBI Pittsburgh Responds
The first problem for the FBI’s Pittsburgh Field Office was getting to the crash site and bringing all the resources needed to process an enormous crime scene. About 80 miles from Pittsburgh, the site was accessible only by a narrow dirt road. In Pittsburgh, officials set up a command post and sent agents to interview witnesses and start the recovery work. Seven other field offices sent teams to help Pittsburgh’s Evidence Response Team work the site.
Agents scouted locations for a temporary morgue and a place to safeguard victims’ belongings. At the crash site, technicians wired a command post with secure communications directly to FBI Headquarters. Dozens of federal, state, and local agencies and organizations sent resources and personnel to work with the more than 150 people from the FBI. In total, about 1,400 people worked at the site. About 600 Pennsylvania State Troopers provided a cordon of security.
Recovery Efforts in Shanksville
Agents and staff from the FBI’s Pittsburgh Field Office first concentrated on finding the data and voice recorders from Flight 93. They focused on the impact crater. Excavators removed dirt and debris for thorough sifting, initially by hand. Evidence technicians found the flight data recorder about 12 feet below the surface and the cockpit voice recorder about 25 feet deep.
Throughout, the FBI focused on finding victims’ remains and their personal belongings among the evidence. Agents took remains to a temporary morgue and personal belongings to an airport hangar. Eventually the excavated crater measured 100 feet across and 35 feet deep.
The FBI also scoured an adjacent field, a wooded area, and a retention pond. All victims were identified. The site also yielded several key pieces of evidence, including two passports and a credit card from the hijackers, and a copy of the same martyr letter found in the belongings of hijackers of the other planes.