We know it crashed, but not why
FBI is silent, fueling "shot down" rumors
By WILLIAM BUNCH
Thursday, November 15, 2001
|SHANKSVILLE, Pa. - Ernie Stuhl is the mayor of this tiny farming borough that was so brutally placed on
America's psychic map on the morning of Sept. 11, when United Airlines Flight 93 slammed nose-down into the
edge of a barren strip-mine moonscape a couple of miles outside of town.
A 77-year-old World War II veteran and retired Dodge dealer, he's certainly no conspiracy theorist.
And, when you ask Stuhl for his theory of what caused the jetliner to crash that morning, he will give you the prevailing theory - that a cockpit battle between the hijackers and burly, heroic passengers somehow caused the Boeing 757 to spiral out of control. "There's no doubt in my mind that they did put it down before it got to Washington and caused more damage," he said.
But press the mayor for details, and he will add something surprising.
"I know of two people - I will not mention names - that heard a missile," Stuhl said. "They both live very close, within a couple of hundred yards. . .This one fellow's served in Vietnam and he says he's heard them, and he heard one that day." The mayor adds that based on what he knows about that morning, military F-16 fighter jets were "very, very close."
If the mayor of Shanksville still seems conflicted about what caused the crash of Flight 93 two months ago, he is hardly alone. As the initial shock of Sept. 11 wears off, the crash some 80 miles east of Pittsburgh, and what caused it, is beginning to emerge as the greatest mystery from the worst terrorist attack in American history.
No one has fully explained why the plane went down, or what exactly happened during an eight-minute gap from the time all cell phone calls from the plane stopped and the time it crashed.
And the FBI, which assumed control of the probe from the National Transportation Safety Board, refuses to release data from either of the critical "black boxes," the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder.
Citing the ongoing war on terrorism, the FBI says it can't say when it will release the data - or indeed, if it ever will.
"It's evidence in an ongoing criminal investigation," an FBI spokesman in Pittsburgh, Jeff Killeen, said last week.
This week, the nation was rocked by another jetliner crash - American Airlines Flight 587 in New York - and the difference in the way the probes have been handled is remarkable. In the latest crash, federal officials released detailed information about the cockpit voice recorder in less than 36 hours.
In the case of Flight 93, both the FBI and the nation's air-defense agency - NORAD - have said the aircraft was not shot down.
Said Killeen: "The evidence points to activity on the plane itself - and not elsewhere."
While almost all of the attention given Flight 93 has focused on the bravery of the passengers, the question of why it ultimately went down is not academic. To win the war on terrorism, some say America and its government must continue to occupy the moral high ground - and the failure to release the data in the face of lingering rumors poses a credibility risk.
Predictably, the lack of official information has given rise to a flurry of debate on America's channel for unofficial news: the Internet.
Already, there is a Web site (http://web.archive.org/web/20011116093836/http://www.flight93crash.com/) that summarizes everything known about the crash. And while much of the mainstream media has lost interest in the story, articles suggesting that the government shot down Flight 93 and has lied about it have flourished on left-wing Internet sites and publications.
Of course, in 2001, Internet conspiracy theories are hardly shocking.
What is surprising is this: Go to Shanksville and the surrounding farm fields where people actually saw or heard the jetliner go down at roughly 10:06 that morning and there are a number of people - including witnesses - who also think that Flight 93 was shot down, or at least aren't ruling it out.
Laura Temyer, who lives several miles north of the crash site in Hooversville, was hanging some clothes outside that morning when she heard an airplane pass overhead. That struck her as unusual since she'd just heard on TV that all flights were grounded.
"I heard like a boom and the engine sounded funny," she told the Daily News. "I heard two more booms - and then I did not hear anything."
What does Temyer think she heard? "I think the plane was shot down," insists Temyer, who said she has twice told her story to the FBI. What's more, she insists that people she knows in state law enforcement have told her the same thing, that the plane was shot down and that decompression sucked objects from the aircraft, explaining why there was a wide debris field.
But an eyewitness, Linda Shepley, said she had an unobstructed view of Flight 93's final two minutes and has reached the opposite conclusion. She recalls seeing the plane wobbling right and left, at a low altitude of roughly 2,500 feet, when suddenly the right wing abruptly dipped straight down, and the Boeing 757 plunged into the earth.
"It's not true," said Shepley of the persistent rumors. "If it had been shot down, there would have been pieces flying, but it was intact - there was nothing wrong with it."
So what are the clues that have prompted the crash of Flight 93 to remain a lingering mystery?
* THE 911 CALL. At 9:58 a.m., roughly eight minutes before impact, a 911 emergency dispatcher in neighboring Westmoreland County took a call from a frantic passenger who said he was locked in the bathroom of Flight 93 and that the plane had been hijacked. The caller said there had been an explosion aboard the plane and there was white smoke. Authorities have never explained the report, and the 911 tape itself was immediately confiscated by the FBI.
* THE DEBRIS FIELD. The reclaimed mine where the plane crashed is composed of very soft soil, and searchers say much of the wreckage was found buried 20-25 feet below the large crater. But despite that, there was also widely scattered debris in the immediate vicinity and further afield. Considerable debris washed up more than two miles away at Indian Lake, and a canceled check and brokerage statement from the plane was found in a deep valley some eight miles away that week.
* THE MYSTERY PLANE. Many people in the Shanksville area, including some interviewed by the Daily News, saw a fast-moving, unmarked small jet fly overhead a very short time after Flight 93 crashed. Several days later, authorities said they believe the plane was a Falcon 20 private jet that was headed to nearby Johnstown but was asked to descend and survey the crash site. Yet officials have never identified the pilot nor explained why he was still airborne roughly 30 minutes after the government ordered all aircraft to land at the closest airport.
* THE ENGINE. While the FBI and other authorities have said the plane was mostly obliterated by the roughly 500 mph impact, they also said an engine - or at least a 1,000-pound piece of one - was found "a considerable distance" from the crater. Stuhl, the Shanksville mayor, said it was found in the woods just west of the crash. That information is intriguing to shoot-down theory proponents, since the heat-seeking, air-to-air Sidewinder missiles aboard an F-16 would likely target one of the Boeing 757's two large engines.
* LOCATION OF F-16S. From Day 1, the government has given conflicting accounts about the exact whereabouts of three North Dakota Air National Guard F-16s, assigned to national air defense, based at Langley Air Force base in Virginia and scrambled at the height of the attacks.
Just a few days after the crash, a federal flight controller told a Nashua, N.H., newspaper that an F-16 was "in hot pursuit" of the hijacked United jet, following so closely that it made 360-degree turns to stay in range. "He must have seen the whole thing," an unnamed aviation official said.
No one would argue that two months after Flight 93 tumbled into a Pennsylvania hillside killing all 44 aboard that there is more that we don't know about what happened in the flight's final minutes than we do know.
We don't even know for sure where the four hijackers were going.
Based on the plane's general course, the conventional wisdom is that Flight 93 was headed toward Washington and a strike on the White House or the Capitol. But last month, the widely respected Times of London, quoting U.S. intelligence sources and noting the plane's low altitude and erratic course, suggested the real target might have been one of the state's nuclear power plants. At 500 mph, the Three Mile Island plant, near Harrisburg, was about than 10 or 15 minutes away.
Whether it was hero passengers or an F-16 fighter pilot who wanted the hijacked jetliner to come down away from a populated area, they did an amazing job in picking Shanksville.
The nearest sizable town, Somerset, is 10 miles away on winding back-country roads - where a visitor encountered as many dead raccoons as vehicles. Nestled along a creekbed in the rolling Allegheny foothills, Shanksville is a small cluster of red-brick homes and flag-draped front porches.
The only commercial enterprise, a convenience store called Ida's, also rents videos and has the only ATM for miles around.
What happened here on Sept. 11 is already the stuff of American legend - especially the battle cry of passenger Todd Beamer, whose overheard command of "Let's Roll" is on bumper stickers and has even been adopted by President Bush.
Four Middle Eastern hijackers sought to carry out their plan even though the mostly empty plane, bound from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, had left the airport 42 minutes late because of mechanical problems. The delay meant that passengers - who phoned family members and operators on their cell phones - learned of the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and knew that their only option was to fight the hijackers for control of the plane.
The almost irrefutable evidence is that a group of burly and heroic male passengers - including Beamer, Mark Bingham, Jeremy Glick, Tom Burnett, and Lou Nacke - did just that. In the only piece of information from the cockpit voice recorder that has filtered into news reports, anonymous sources told USA Today last month that there is evidence of a struggle toward the end of the doomed flight.
But the cell phone calls from the passengers all stopped about 9:58 a.m. - roughly the same time that the caller to 911 in Westmoreland County stated there had been an explosion.
The plane didn't come down until 10:06 - leaving an 8-minute gap of unaccounted for air time, and thus a great mystery.
The commonly accepted view, that a chaotic cockpit struggle caused the downing, is certainly a plausible explanation for the crash - but it doesn't address the issue of how.
Who was at the controls for those final eight minutes? Would a hijacker deliberately crash the plane during such a battle? What rudders or other controls could have been set off, either in a scuffle or by accident, that could cause the highly automated jet to crash?
Many of the answers - if not all - should be contained on the black boxes recovered shortly after the crash. Without that data, however, a number of aviation experts contacted by the Daily News were reluctant to speculate.
"Those are the things that would answer those questions - without those I don't know how to answer," said Carl Vogt, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and now a Washington attorney.
When Flight 93 came down, the eyewitnesses seem to agree on a few basic facts - that the Boeing 757 was headed south or southeast very fast, that it was flying erratically or banking from side to side, that its right wing dipped steeply down and that the jetliner came down at close to a 90-degree angle. A number of people quoted right after the crash said there were strange noises, that the engine seemed to race but then went eerily silent as the plane plummeted.
The plane seemed to be fully, or largely, intact. "I didn't see no smoke, nothing," said Nevin Lambert, an elderly farmer who witnessed the crash from his side yard less than a half-mile away.
Lambert also said he also later found a couple of pieces of debris, one a piece of metal, less than 12 inches across, with some insulation attached. To those who are debating the causes of the crash, the debris is particularly significant because heavier farflung debris would suggest that something happened to cause the plane to break up before it hit the ground.
Authorities also sought to explain why a number of residents saw a small, unmarked jet circling over the crash site shortly after. Workers at a marina saw it, and so did Kathy Blades, who was in her small summer cottage about a quarter-mile from the impact site.
Blades and her son ran outside after the crash and saw the jet, with sleek back wings and an angled cockpit, race overhead. "My son said, 'I think we're under attack!' " She said she was so shocked by the crash she can't say exactly how long after the impact it was.
A few days later, the FBI offered a possible explanation for what the witnesses saw. Authorities said that a private Falcon 20 jet bound for nearby Johnstown was in the vicinity and was asked by authorities to descend and help survey the crash site. But the authorities didn't identify the owner of the jet, nor explain why it was airborne some 40 minutes after the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all planes to land at the nearest airport.
So where was the U.S. air defense at 10 a.m. - 72 minutes after the first plane struck the World Trade Center and about a half-hour after air controllers and United started to suspect that Flight 93 had been hijacked?
At 9:24 that morning, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) ordered three F-16s from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to scramble. They were airborne at 9:30. It's not clear how close any of the planes were to Flight 93, although Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said a few days later on TV that "we were already tracking that plane that crashed in Pennsylvania."
Vice President Dick Cheney said later that President Bush authorized the military to shoot down any civilian plane that did not respond to air-traffic control and appeared to be a threat. The order is said to have come before Bush left Florida, which was at 9:58 a.m.
The commander of the North Dakota Air National Guard, which was handling air defense out of Langley that morning, later told the New York Times that the unidentified pilots received a harrowing order.
"A person came on the radio," Major Gen. Mike Haugen said, "and identified themselves as being with the Secret Service and he said, 'I want you to protect the White House at all costs.' "
What happened in those final 8 minutes?
Most Americans are quite comfortable with the conclusion that the struggle between the passengers and the hijackers caused the crash of Flight 93. Roxanne Sullivan, who lives at the end of Skyline Drive in Shanksville and helped erect and maintain one of the memorials, says she has absolutely no doubt that's what happened. How does she know?
"Right here," she said, thumping her heart.
Not all her neighbors are so convinced.
"I think it was shot down," said Dennis Mock, who was not an eyewitness but lives closest to the crash site on the west side. "That's what people around here think."
Until the FBI decides to release the flight data, there will be little to convince him or his neighbors otherwise.
What Really Happened