Big Things Do Happen In Small Fire Departments

Steve Meyer describes the aftermath of the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11 outside a Pennsylvania community of 250 people.


Sept. 11, 2001, conjures up myriad gut-wrenching memories for Americans - and we in the fire service in particular. On that dreadful day, while the eyes of the world were focused on the two disasters that took place in our nation's largest city and the seat of our country's power, another...


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King and the firefighters with him did an initial search and within minutes determined this would not be a rescue, but instead a recovery operation. That meant turning back much of the mutual aid help that had been summoned to the incident.

When Shaffer arrived on scene, though King had established command and implemented an incident command system, everything appeared chaotic. Representatives from the many agencies that would be involved in the disaster, spectators, and other emergency personnel were already inundating the scene.

"The pungent smell of jet fuel laced with the unforgettable smell of burnt human flesh was something we will never forget," Shaffer recalled of his initial observation of the crash site. "We felt helpless, numb, there wasn't anything we could do to help anyone. I don't think anyone could ever have imagined the amount of destruction we saw."

Flight 93 was carrying 21 tons of fuel, enough for a coast-to-coast flight, making it a giant bomb. All 33 passengers and seven crewmembers, not counting the four terrorists aboard, were lost.

Officers at the FBI field office in Johnstown had been notified of the hijacking and the crash. In 45 minutes, they were on scene. Management of the disaster took on a whole different composure when the FBI declared it a crime scene and pushed everyone back. A meeting of all agencies involved in the incident was held at a building on site that ended up serving as the command post for the duration of operations. Everyone put their heads together and from that point the FBI assumed complete control. A special agent from the FBI was in charge.

Perimeters Established

"It took a while for it to sink in that the same people who crashed the planes into the twin towers and the Pentagon were the same people who had crashed our plane, but it couldn't have gone down in a better place," Shaffer said. "It hit in a large field that had formerly been a coal strip cut. There was minimal damage to homes in the area and no loss of life on the ground."

Two perimeters were set up by the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) to keep unauthorized people out. There was an inner perimeter right at the crash site and an outer perimeter that encompassed 10 square miles and was staffed by 250 PSP officers. The press was allowed to set up in a "media village" a half-mile from the scene. Shaffer noted that the response of major media to the incident was seemingly instantaneous.

Estimates are that an average of 1,500 people from 74 different agencies, including the FBI, PSP, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) and others, were working the crash site.

In the mix of operations was the Shanksville Fire Department. The department's involvement in operations at the incident would not terminate for 21/2 weeks. Its station, which was only two miles from the site, was staffed 24/7 during the investigation. By the time operations were officially terminated, the department's 27 members had logged 5,907 hours assisting with the investigation. Shaffer and King both said that employers were cooperative about giving the volunteers time off from work so they could help out as needed.

With investigators beside them, Shanksville firefighters used chainsaws to cut away brush so authorities could get at aircraft parts in the brush or hanging in trees and they used their extrication equipment to open parts up for authorities. Spot fires continued to erupt for several days from the jet fuel and smoldering brush, something else the Shanksville firefighters had to contend with. Shanksville firefighters also took part in body part recovery operations alongside the evidence recovery team, something Shaffer said became more traumatic for firefighters when victim photos began appearing in the news.

The Somerset Area Ambulance staffed ambulances 24/7 at several different locations at the scene for the duration of the investigation. Ambulance personnel did not participate as directly in the investigation as firefighters, but they did provide treatment for everything from bruises to a cardiac arrest.