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Saturday, March 27, 2004
Sept. 11 crash
remains shrouded in mystery, Pennsylvania coroner
VANCOUVER (CP) - The fate of
United Airlines Flight 93, the last of the four
hijacked planes to crash on Sept. 11, 2001 remains
shrouded in mystery and controversy. The famous
cell phone calls from brave passengers on the plane
that crashed in a Pennsylvania field painted a
heroic story of people storming the cockpit to
sacrifice themselves for others.
The chief coroner who investigated the crash scene
recorded a less appealing, different image.
SUSPECT that we have in
Wallace Miller one very
He knows it is
unlawful to enter a wrong verdict on the
cause of death, and perhaps he is just not
prepared, on the basis of the evidence so
far released to him, to swallow the story
of terrorists fighting American heroes
("Let's Roll!") in the cockpit of United
Airlines 93 as it made its final plunge
into the ground of rural Pennsylvania.
If, for example, he suspected that the
plane had been mortally injured by a
missile from an F-16 fighter plane, he
would be entering a wrongful cause of
death, and this private suspicion may well
be the cause of his discomfiture.
Just one detail, only
hinted at here: one of the plane's engines
was found over a mile away. . .
Parts of bodies lodged in treetops over a
2.5 square km area? I am prepared to be
corrected -- because the plane did hit the
ground with colossal dynamic force -- but
I would have expected a significantly
smaller radius unless the plane broke up
for some reason in mid-air.
"There was, in my conclusion, no way we could
ever know who they were that charged that cockpit,"
Wallace Miller told students at the B.C.
Institute of Technology.
The American coroner was spoke
[sic] at the
B.C. Institute of Technology in Burnaby, Saturday.
He detailed the grisly task he had recovering the
remains of crash victims for their families.
The lecture was part of a crime and science
seminar on dealing with disaster.
Miller, the director of a family-run funeral
home and elected county coroner for Somerset, Pa.,
said only eight per cent of the wreckage was
recovered. Everything else was vaporised, he
"We found remains 50 feet deep," he said of the
massive crater the plane left on impact.
The debris field spanned
about 2.5 square kilometres of wooded
Victim recovery efforts were hampered because
most of the salvageable human remains were in the
"It was very important to me to identify every
piece but in the end it wasn't realistic."
He said the greatest challenge as coroner was
fielding families' questions about where pieces of
their relatives were, so memorial services could be
That aspect of the case
continues to create controversy. Questions
are asked about what to do with a five-pound box of
unidentified remains. Some family members are upset
because the remains may be mixed with the
terrorists who hijacked the planes, Miller
But, said Miller, he made it his personal
mission to befriend each and every family member,
even ones who lived as far away as Japan and
"You just realize that when you get someone
ripped away from you, there's a hole that can't be
filled. But what is reasonable is that there is a
way to deal with loss and that's what I tried to
help them with."
Miller also credits his spirituality for helping
him through such emotionally overwhelming
The fenced off crash-site, with a memorial
wood-chip pile erected out of the sifted debris,
remains under Miller's coroner jurisdiction.
He said he had to blanket the area with eight
inches of soil to deter the many relentless
souvenir scavengers with their metal detectors.
"I don't know how it is with Canadians, but
Americans have a tendency to flock to disasters and
memorialize it immediately," he said.
BCIT's Forensic Science Technology program
hosted the sixth annual conference aimed at
understanding the growing role in society of
forensic investigation.Copyright © 2004
dossier on the mysterious end of United Airlines