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Scene of utter destruction

| Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001

Two Somerset County men rushed to the scene of Tuesday's plane crash hoping to help with the rescue effort. They found a scene of devastation.

“You couldn't see nothing,” said Nick Tweardy, 20, of Stonycreek Township. “We couldn't tell what we were looking at. There's just a huge crater in the woods.”

Little remained of United Airlines Flight 93, which had departed from Newark, N.J., at 8:42 a.m. yesterday on its way to San Francisco with 45 people aboard. It crashed in what FBI agents are calling a “terrorist act,” likely linked to yesterday's attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

FBI Special Agent Jeff Killeen said air traffic controllers had no communication with the pilot of the Boeing 757 before the crash.

And he said the investigation will be slow because the impact of the plane left “scant” evidence that will require “painstaking collection.”

Agents are looking for connections between the crash and the incidents in New York City and Washington, D.C., Killeen said. “Of course, we're exploring that.”

“The tail was a short distance from the rest of the wreckage,” said would-be rescuer Brad Reiman, 19, who lives near Berlin in Somerset County. “It looked like the plane hit once and flopped down into the woods.”

The largest piece of wreckage he could identify looked like a section of the plane's tail, he said.

The crash site is a former strip mine owned by PBS Coal Co. and is known locally as the Diamond T. Mine. The impact left a blackened crater at least 45 feet in diameter, said Mark Stahl of Somerset, who arrived at the scene carrying a digital camera just minutes after the plane crashed.

Paula Pluta of Stonycreek Township was watching a television rerun of “Little House on the Prairie” when the plane went down about 1,500 yards from her home along Lambertsville Road at Little Prairie Lane.

“I looked out the window and saw the plane nose-dive right into the ground,” she said, barefoot and shaken just 45 minutes after the crash.

The explosion buckled her garage doors and blasted open a latched window on her home, she said.

“It was just a streak of silver. Then a fireball shot up as high as the clouds. There was no way anybody could have survived. I called 911 right away.

“There was no way anything was left,” Pluta added. “There was just charred pieces of metal and a big hole. The plane didn't slide into the crash. It went straight into the ground. Wings out. Nose down.”

Bits of metal were thrown against a tree line like shrapnel, said state police spokesman Trooper Thomas Spallone of Troop A in Greensburg.

“Once it hit, everything just disintegrated,” he said. “There are just shreds of metal. The longest piece I saw was 2 feet long.”

Hours after the crash, teams of crime scene analysts from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, plus state police, the Pennsylvania National Guard, and state agencies — Department of Emergency Management and the Department of Environmental Protection — cordoned off the area within a 4-mile radius of the crash and began the painstaking task of collecting evidence.

“We're finding more debris in various locations,” Spallone said.

“Over 100 state troopers secured the area. Our job is not to let anybody in here until the federal accident reconstruction teams from the FBI and (Federal Aviation Administration) can get in here and examine the shreds of evidence left,” said Capt. Frank Monaco, commander of Troop A.

“All that is left is small pieces of the airplane.”

Law enforcement authorities learned of the hijacking from a frightened passenger on the airplane who called Westmoreland County 911 from a cellular telephone. The man said he was hiding in the plane's restroom, 911 officials said.

According to a transcript of the tape, the passenger told a police communications officer in Greensburg that the plane had been hijacked.

There was noise, and then the line went dead.

FBI agent Wells Morrison said agents confiscated the tape recording of the call.

Morrison said the FBI first learned of the crash from 911. He did not know why the plane crashed or if the hijackers had planned to ram the plane into a local target.

“It's too early in the investigation to answer a lot of questions,” Morrison said.

FBI Agent Bill Crowley in Pittsburgh said the bureau has classified the crash as a terrorist act and “not so much as a hijacking.”

Not long before the crash, the plane approached the Johnstown/Cambria County Airport, descending from 6,000 feet, airport director Joe McKelvey said. Airport controllers had no verbal contact with the pilots, McKelvey said.

McKelvey said officials at the Cleveland En Route Air Traffic Control Center in Oberlin, Ohio, ordered Johnstown controllers to abandon the tower and close the airport.

“It was extremely alarming, especially at that low altitude,” McKelvey said.

Coroners from Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver and Cambria counties arrived at the scene yesterday afternoon to help Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller. Joanne Bytheway, a forensic pathologist from the University of Pittsburgh, was brought in to help identify the remains.

As the investigation began, police and federal agents began utilizing abandoned buildings at the strip mine. Verizon installed phone lines, and GPU Energy powered lights.

A local motorcycle dealer provided all-terrain vehicles to transport officials.

Somerset County officials scrambled to coordinate a makeshift morgue and establish a command center and counseling sites for relatives who may come to the crash scene.

The American Red Cross began assembling a team of volunteers from across the nation to help. Kristina Duklashaw, public relations director for the agency's Chestnut Ridge chapter in Latrobe, said the Red Cross was having trouble assembling volunteers because the nation's airports had been closed after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Initial reports received by Somerset County 911 indicated there may have been more than 400 passengers on board. “I don't know fact from fiction,” said county Commissioner Brad Cober.

“It's almost unbelievable,” said Commissioner Jim Marker. “Things you take for granted, it kinda knocks you off your feet.”

Richard Gazarik, Debra Erdley, Paul Peirce, Robb Frederick and Jason Togyer contributed to this story.

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