Investigation of United Flight 93
After planes crashed in New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001, employees at the FBI’s Pittsburgh office weren’t sure where to respond. Then news came of a fourth plane—United Flight 93—heading their way.
I had an assignment to report to the Pittsburgh office that morning. I happened to be listening to the radio. They had a report of a plane hitting the World Trade Center.
I thought, "Wow, I wonder. A mishap of a plane going to onw of the airports?" Didn't strike me as terror at that time, I just didn't know what was going on.
‘Course everybody remembers it, that first tower seen with the smoke. We're kind of in and out, and then of course the second plane hits
Just about everybody in the office, I think, had crowded into the break room at that time, and everyone was obviously concerned as to what was going on. Then there was a report about the Pentagon
Initially, we were thinking because I was on the Evidence Response Team that we would probably be going to New York to help there. Then when the plane hit the Pentagon, we weren't sure which location we'd end up at
We then got a call about another plane potentially coming our way that was in distress. They believed it was coming from Cleveland and it may need to crash land at our airport here in Johnstown. now it was that this may be deliberate, that it may be acts of terrorism, it would potentially be a crime scene in our jurisdiction. Before we got to the airport though, we were told no, to divert from there, that a plane had crashed in Shanksville.
And I just remember thinking, "That's our territory. That's our squad." I got back to my car, and started out of the city as quickly as I could.
I think we finally arrived out at the scene between two and three o'clock that afternoon. The plane crashed shortly after 10 AM. We had an RA out near that site, and they responded initially.
We would have been the first because it's 20 minutes as we drove that day. I expected to see fuselage, remnants of a plane, which I didn't see anything but pretty much smoke and some fires.
I saw absolutely no signs that an airplane was present, no matter what direction I looked.
You didn't know that a plane had crashed there. You had a crater and the initial crater was probably 15 feet deep but we didn't have big plane parts laying everywhere.
It looked like the plane had hit but there's not a lot of evidence of the airplane. And I've described it a lot of times as, basically, a knife through hot butter.
What I saw when I got out there was kind of, I'd describe it as a crater. There was a mound of dirt above it and when you stood above the mound, you could actually see the wings, the outline of the wings and the main fuselage, the center of the plane, how it went down into the ground.
There was a misty smoke in the air from the jet fuel that had set the woods on fire.
It was very barren, It had been a strip mine. So it was a a very barren area with some trees behind and that's what burnt.
As far as the odor, it wasn't as bad as you might think. There were, obviously, certain spots that you would hit and you had the smell of death.
My immediate reaction was, "There are no survivors here. This is not a rescue effort. This is a crime scene, a recovery effort."
But it looked... like an organized form of chaos, if that makes any sense. Because you had o many people coming in, but all anybody wanted to do was to help.
Once the perimeter was established and the next day as command posts were established, the evidence response team from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, I think Chicago, teams were called in.
We had teams come in, and I thought to myself, "How are you going to have this many ERT teams from so many offices in the country come into this area and work as one unit?" It's not a natural sort of thing because you work with the same people day in and day out, and you know what to expect from them, but now you've got Knoxville, Cincinnati, Detroit, Louisville, Cleveland, working with Pittsburgh people, and West Virginia people.
Anyone east of Pittsburgh went to either the Pentagon or the World Trade Center. All the teams that we brought in were west of Pittsburgh and within driving distance because all the flights had been grounded by that point.
I think we had about a hundred ERT personnel come in, and that doesn't include all the support personnel that they brought in to support the mission.
we had our safety officers there to check the air quality for us. Initially, they determined that we should be wearing regular tie back boots, and if we were working in the crater then we needed respiratory protection.
You really can't go much beyond a 12-hour shift.
People are on their hands and knees, crawling through this site, looking for debris, personal effects, and human remains.
It's very physically and emotionally taxing.
There were some real significant finds that they were getting very early on. I was shocked at the number of items that they were able to recover
We found great evidence at Flight 93. We found the passports of the highjacks. We found the notes they had written for themselves. We found a knife that we believe was used by one of the highjacks. The other crash sites had a lot more things to deal with. They have buildings collapsing on the sites. They had a lot of recovery efforts. They had a lot of people who survived in the collapse of those buildings that they had to rescue. We didn't have a building collapse. The only people injured at this site were the forty people who were killed on that plane.
Once we did start processing, there was a big push to find the black boxes so that we could out maybe what had happened on board the plane. We were pretty sure that the flight data recorder and cock pit voice recorder were going to be in the crater. They were concerned that there was a possibility that they could have landed in the pond, so we brought in divers from the Navy, because at the time only the Navy had the equipment to hear the cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders ping when they were underwater.
We actually found the first recorder in the crater five minutes before they arrived on the scene. I can't remember if it was that night or the next night, we ended up finding the other recorder in the crater as well.
I was there when we discovered the black box. There was a lot of pressure from all of the sites, not just New York and the Pentagon, to locate the data recorder and the black box. It was a big deal when we did find it and I believe it was slightly over 25 feet into the crater.
In the case of the flight data and voice recorders, they were taken out to Seattle because they were damaged to the point where they had to go back to the manufacturer. Agents were hand carrying those, and flying them out across country.
I'm the chain-of-custody for the cockpit voice recorder. So we had had a gentleman from ERF who was an audio specialist and myself, we accompanied the evidence out to the state of Washington - Honeywell. Honeywell worked through the first day, and then midday Sunday they started up again, and they worked into the evening and they got it.
There's a certain high pitch frequency which is just, you might call it white noise, but on the airplane it's this high pitch tone. During a certain struggle with, which I'll presume to be the pilot because you do hear some screaming and some 'No.'
Then a winded individual gives a command.
Maybe five minutes later, that same sort of speech is given.
That is the only English that I hear that I presume to be coming from the person who's now in control of the airplane.
There's breaking glass.
I don't know if I can say there's a fight going on but clearly there's some - aggressive action.
Over the copier machine - color printer - is coming out the flight data recorder output. And the pilot explained what the various printouts were. There were a number of pages that came off, and essentially it shows from on the ground, takeoff, to the crash.
The pilot attempted to knock people off balance by to knock people off balance with the movement of the control stick but because you're in the center line, it's not going to do nearly as much. The FBI pilot noted that if an experienced pilot were in control of that plane, he would have dipped the plane up and down to knock people off their feet that way. Which, of course, is not what occurred.
And even though it may have slowed people down the first time, in the second iteration where that person controlling the plane does this, physics ended up taking over, and towards, right before the end of the that flight, the plane actually inverts.
I want to say that the final speed was near or just nexus of 600 miles an hour.
if you look at the response at Shanksville, you look at the investigation that was done, you look at the recordings and the phone calls that were made, you can piece together what the passengers on that plane did.
At no part of our investigation showed that anything happened other than what has been told to the public over the last 15 years - The passengers on Flight 93, in a heroic action, charged the cockpit of that airplane, and cause dthose hijackers to abort their mission, and take that plane into the ground.
I think they pretty much are heroes naturally but true Americans. They did something that no one hopes to be called to do and pretty much you know your fate and to be able to do that, the belief is that plane was going to D.C,. to Washington DC. Where it went down, unfortunately the only victims were them and they saved countless numbers of lives, destruction, devastation, in a day that already had so many tragedies
The site, I think it's just a great tribute to the people on the plane that they've kept it so simple.
I try to get back. I try to get my family back up there to show them the history of what occurred, and to me that is solemn ground. To me it's a national cemetery.
They were the first people to fight back against the forces of evil that took those planes down.
You hope you're never called to do that but what they did was... They are, true heroes. True American heroes.
I think the legacy of what happened at Shanksville is that we still live with the effects of 9/11 today. Nobody that was alive at that time is unaffected by it, whether you were in the bureau or not.
We live in a different world now. It changed the FBI, it changed the world as to the way we look at things and we do things.
It's really hard to believe that there are so many people that have come into the FBI since September 11th and really didn't live through our experiences in the FBI in that role. For so many of us that work those sites, that's what we really remember most about our career.
We did a very good job and I think we hold our head high. But know that you can't let your guard down. You've got to be ready for the next time.
We all just need to be vigilant and, you know, be the next hero, hopefully, if you see something.
- 01.12.2022 — Inside the FBI Podcast: Fighting Violent Crime
- 12.21.2021 — FBI Seattle Warns About Ransomware
- 12.20.2021 — Stay Cybersecure This Holiday Season
- 12.07.2021 — FBI Salt Lake City Shares Tips to Avoid Holiday Scams
- 12.06.2021 — Consumer Shares Their Holiday Shopping Scam Experience
- 12.02.2021 — Victim of Romance Scam Who Became Money Mule Tells Story
- 11.23.2021 — Citizens Academy Alumni Association President Reflects on Organization's Role
- 11.22.2021 — Karen Corrigan Describes Role of FBI Citizens Academy Alumni Association
- 11.19.2021 — FBI Salt Lake City Warns About Holiday Scams
- 11.18.2021 — Iranian Nationals Charged with Interfering in 2020 U.S. Presidential Election
- 11.16.2021 — Sister of Missing Woman Katelin Akens Marks Six Years Since Disappearance
- 11.16.2021 — Mother of Katelin Akens Marks Six Years Since Daughter's Disappearance
- 11.15.2021 — Inside the FBI: Health Care Fraud
- 11.15.2021 — Friend of Missing Person John Tran Seeks Clues in Disappearance
- 11.15.2021 — Missing Person: John Bui Tran
- 11.05.2021 — FBI and Dominion Energy Describe Cybersecurity Partnership
- 11.05.2021 — FBI and Dominion Energy Describe Cybersecurity Partnership (Extended)
- 10.29.2021 — Inside the FBI Podcast: UFOs
- 10.29.2021 — FBI New Haven: Help Stop Hate Crimes
- 10.26.2021 — FBI and Partners Target Online Drug Markets