SHANKSVILLE, Pa. – Terry Butler was prying a radiator from a minivan in a scrapyard on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when United Airlines Flight 93 flew low – “too low” – over his head.
With its powerful engines roaring, the wobbling plane crossed over Stoystown Auto Wreckers, climbed hundreds of feet into the sky and then plunged toward the treeline.
“It just flipped to the right and went straight down behind the trees,” Butler said, “and it was gone.”
Twenty years later, the sturdy, silver-haired man’s eyes still filled with tears when he recalled the smoldering “mushroom cloud” rising from the spot where Flight 93 crashed down – and the earth trembling beneath his feet.
“I relive it every day,” he said.
But for many Americans who didn’t see or feel that moment on 9/11, it was like Flight 93 disappeared – something that fueled conspiracy theories for years. Instead, the plane’s remnants were battered and buried deep in a reclaimed strip mine’s backfill.
That would be the first of two times Flight 93 would be entombed beneath that field, part of a little-known 17-year journey for the plane that only began on September 11, 2001, The Tribune-Democrat has learned.
When firefighters and ambulance crews started arriving at the site that morning, there was no one to save – and at first glance, little to see. Photographers captured images of scorched earth and debris piles.
Some responders described the plane as “obliterated,” like charcoal. But it was a different story beneath their feet, according to National Park Service Ranger Adam Shaffer, Flight 93 National Memorial’s chief of interpretation, education and visitor services.
When the Boeing 757 slammed into the former strip mine’s loose soil, fragments were buried as deep as 35 feet below the surface, he said. That’s the equivalent of a full-sized school bus from end to end.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigation determined the plane was traveling upside down at more than 560 miles per hour – full flight speed – when its nose and right wing struck the ground. More than 5,500 gallons of fuel exploded with the impact.
“It was like dropping a large flat rock into a small pond,” Todd McCall, a now-retired FBI special agent who supervised the investigation, told National Park Service attendees during a 2012 program.
Anything heavy, including the plane’s cockpit, was drilled “full-throttle” into layers of soil, silt and coal, while lighter materials, including aluminum sheet metal, were expelled up to 150 feet into the air, according to McCall, an FBI section chief who helped supervise the Oklahoma City bombing investigation six years before 9/11.
Some pieces of the craft ended up entangled in trees. Lightweight materials such as paper were picked up by the wind and scattered as far away as the community of New Baltimore, about eight miles away.
The crash left investigators with a debris scene that covered more than 40 acres.
But for National Transportation Safety Board and FBI officials, Flight 93 provided the cache of evidence they needed.
‘Wingtip to wingtip’
Now-retired Pennsylvania State Police Corporal Louis Veitz spent much of his career investigating and piecing together how accidents and violent crashes occurred in the Somerset County region of Pennsylvania.
Veitz said he assisted the federal investigation during the 13-day recovery effort that followed the crash and, along with McCall, was among dozens of investigators who provided an oral history to the National Park Service about their involvement and experiences at the scene, records show.
Lead investigators viewed the Flight 93 crash as their best chance to find crucial clues needed to confirm who was responsible for the 9/11 hijackings.
Flights 11 and 175 were each involved in violent crashes that morning in New York City, slamming into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which then collapsed. Any plane debris there was mixed with hundreds of floors of concrete and steel, office furnishings and materials, and bodies – all of which complicated the case, investigators have said.
Flight 93 wasn’t lost to the crash. It was just buried, McCall said. And while the crash compressed the massive plane into the crater it created, everything inside was either Flight 93 or its contents, Veitz told The Tribune-Democrat.
The crater was a pocket full of evidence.
Even before the first bucket of dirt was removed, Veitz said, he could tell the entire aircraft was underneath the surface. From a small hill overlooking the crash site, he could see the shapes of wings, body and tail in the soil.
“The site was basically barren,” he said. “But I realized right away this was a complete aircraft that crashed, because you could see that outline from wingtip to wingtip.”
Still, that didn’t mean recovering the plane would be a simple task.
Massive recovery effort
For Veitz, the stench of jet fuel and the sights of that deadly crash remained vivid in his memory 20 years later. He arrived that morning as brush fires were still burning near the impact crater.
Veitz was among the first waves of hundreds approved to work at the scene over the 13-day investigation.
In addition to 50 FBI field officers, state police and National Transportation Safety Board investigators, crews of private contractors were brought in to excavate layers of earth. Recovery teams were assigned to sift through it all to search for weapons used, documents that might identify hijackers and, above all, the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder.
Teams of designated “watchers” lined the top of the crater to spot the steel-encased bright red-orange “black boxes” and minimize the risk of them being damaged during the excavation.
Photographs released to The Tribune-Democrat through records requests showed investigators dressed in protective gear hand-raking the impact site for evidence.
Several images captured by then-FBI Special Agent Roy Cavan show crews working in pairs with wooden sifters to reveal small pieces of evidence. And further away, more than 300 state police troopers guarded the 40-acre debris field’s perimeter. A few photos depicted some of them camping overnight, using small bonfires to stay warm, while they stood watch.
“It was a 24-7 effort,” Veitz said. “They were out there day and night.”
Veitz’s team was tasked with mapping more than 30 acres of terrain, an area the size of 22 football fields, including the crater, debris field and fire-damaged hemlocks.
When investigators uncovered potential evidence, such as a box cutter, the exact location was flagged and tagged with information about the item so Veitz and his colleagues could document the findings for mapping.
Using electronic surveying equipment mounted on tripods, setups called “Total Stations,” investigators also documented the precise locations of important physical features, such as the hemlock tree line and a nearby pond that was drained to collect debris. A grid system enabled teams to create a dozen layered, superimposable maps, Veitz said.
He recalled crews recovering a mangled engine and a passenger’s suitcase that had survived the crash – still filled with brightly colored clothing.
Then, on Sept. 13, the call arrived that federal investigators had located the flight data recorder, which measured the plane’s speed, altitude and heading during its final moments.
Within a day, the voice recorder, which captured conversations and radio transmissions within the cockpit, was also found and secured by the FBI as evidence.
“Those boxes were the key to determining what happened,” Veitz said, recalling a collective moment of relief.
95% of plane recovered
Shaffer estimated that 95% of the plane was recovered over that 13-day span – more than 50 tons of metal and other fragmented materials. All of it was released to United Airlines in October 2001, according to Steve Clark, the National Park Service’s Western District of Pennsylvania superintendent.
The shipping containers remained with United inside a massive Connecticut warehouse for 17 years.
Gordon Felt, whose brother, Edward, was among the passengers who died in the crash, said it was well over a decade after 9/11 before he realized the wreckage was in storage.
Through meetings, National Park Service employees and Flight 93 family members started taking steps to give the contents a final resting place. But first they agreed to search through the debris one last time, Felt said.
The possibility that some of their loved ones’ remains or personal belongings might still be discovered made the search a worthy but emotional quest, he said.
“We always looked at the contents of these containers as containing the 40 – they were, in essence, remains and their personal effects,” Clark said. “It was one last opportunity to look for items the FBI wasn’t looking for back in 2001 – things that might help us tell the Flight 93 story for centuries to come.”
United Airlines helped fund the effort, he said. Using heavy machinery, the containers were tipped and emptied inside the warehouse in March 2018, Clark said.
Felt and fellow Flight 93 family members stood alongside park service curators while FBI investigators sorted through the debris, he said. At times, people were on their hands and knees, combing through piles of steel bolts, wiring and unrecognizable scrap.
“What we were looking for, we didn’t know,” Clark said. “But we knew it when we saw it.”
By the time the job was done, they had uncovered a Sears charge card, both mangled Pratt & Whitney plane engines and at least 600 other objects tied to crew members or passengers of Flight 93.
All of the items are preserved as potential artifacts for display, Clark said. One engine was on loan to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York.
‘Where it belongs’
Nearly 17 years after then-Shanksville fire Chief Terry Shaffer arrived at the crash scene to find devastation “my mind won’t let me forget,” his department mobilized to meet United Airlines Flight 93 once again – on June 21, 2018.
This time, it was to pay respect, rather than respond, Terry Shaffer, Adam’s father, recalled.
The plane’s wreckage was carried back to the site a day earlier by four semi-trucks guided by two park service officers. A Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department tanker met the trucks at the national memorial gate and escorted the fleet down Ring Road to the impact site.
Ladders from two trucks were hoisted over one section of the park, carrying a United States flag that flew above of the motorcade as it passed, photos show.
National Park Service and military personnel joined Shanksville-area first responders and volunteers in lining the corridor as the plane’s remains were carried back into the Flight 93 site.
At daybreak, an industrial crane lifted the four 40-foot-long containers one by one into an excavated crater that was lined with a metal basket to stabilize the hole, Clark said. This time, there was silence as crews worked alongside the crater.
“It was a very powerful moment,” Clark said.
It was also a private moment. No cameras. No reporters.
“We wanted to let the world know this happened, but we wanted to do it in a way that maintained the dignity of the site, the 40 and their families,” Clark said, noting the burial was neither announced nor publicized until after it was complete.
“There was no question for me – or for our families – that our loved ones’ remains and that wreckage belonged back in that sacred ground,” Felt said.
Five bones had also been found inside the containers in Connecticut and were later confirmed as human remains. They were given a separate, private burial inside a marble box at the Flight 93 site in May 2019, Clark said.
Felt described the burials as a crucial part of the healing process, but not a time for closure. Instead, each moment was a step forward for a Flight 93 story “that we can never forget.”
To Terry Shaffer, who retired in 2012, the solemn, private ceremony was fitting. The 40 and Flight 93 are forever linked, he said, and they deserved to be back inside the memorial grounds that honor them.
And back in the Shanksville area.
“A few more seconds and that plane could have caused so much damage in our community in 2001,” the veteran firefighter said, crediting the actions of the flight’s passengers and crew that day for avoiding an even greater calamity.
In his words, “it’s a miracle that it crashed where it did.”
He said: “And that’s where it belongs.”