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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com
Boston Globe Online / Nation | World
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PENNSYLVANIA

Frantic 911 call preceded crash outside Pittsburgh

By Anne Michaud, Globe Correspondent, 9/12/2001

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. - Moments before United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a grassy southwestern Pennsylvania field, a passenger on the plane apparently called 911 to report a hijacking.

The FBI confirmed yesterday that it had confiscated and was analyzing the emergency phone call, which was recorded by the Westmoreland County 911 center, several miles west of where the plane exploded into the ground, killing all 45 people aboard.

''We are being hijacked! We are being hijacked!'' the man said, according to a transcript. The call was received at 9:58 a.m., and the caller said he was locked in a lavatory on Flight 93.

''We believe he was a passenger on board the United Airlines flight. He stated that the plane was being hijacked,'' said Dan Stevens, spokesman for the Westmoreland Emergency Operations Center outside Pittsburgh.

Though the crash occurred shortly after other planes had slammed into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there were many unanswered questions, such as the target of the alleged hijacker.

The flight departed Newark Airport at 8:01 a.m. yesterday, heading for San Francisco. But witness accounts, together with the location where the 911 call was received, make it likely that the plane had turned around and was heading back toward the East Coast. The presidential retreat of Camp David in western Maryland was a rumored target.

An FBI spokesman at the crash scene would not comment on the possible target of the hijacked plane, which went down between 10 and 10:10 a.m.

Witness Joe Wilt, 63, said he heard a whistling like a missile, then a loud boom as he stood in the doorway of his Shanksville home across the road from the site. His view was blocked by a group of trees, but he said he saw a fireball rise 800 feet into the air, then give way to black smoke.

''It exploded and you could see flames and debris everywhere, right over that tree over there,'' Wilt said, pointing. He heard from a relative who worked at a small business less than one mile to the west that the plane had passed low overhead, heading southeast before crashing.

The Boeing 757 passenger plane hit the ground in a large open field, creating a crater nearly 20 feet wide and 15 feet deep before slamming into the forest line. It left a charred image burnt into the tall grass, but nothing recognizable as an airplane. Captain Frank Monaco, commanding officer of the Pennsylvania State Police, said nothing larger than a telephone book remained. There were no survivors.

Gay Wilt, 63, said the impact shattered a basement window and sent things flying around her living room. She and her husband had been watching television coverage of the crashes in New York and near Washington.

''I was doing my hair in the bathroom, and I ran up and started screaming,'' she said of her reaction upon catching sight of the plume of black smoke.

Another neighbor, Lu Ray Rhoads, 23, said, ''It was right behind our house.'' She had also been watching the news. ''Obviously, being here I didn't expect it had to do with anything else that was going on,'' in New York or Washington.

Shanksville, population 300, is in the middle of former coal mining fields in the Appalachian Mountains plateau. Corn and hay fields now cover the formerly strip-mined hills. Hundreds of emergency personnel, including the Pennsylvania State Police, the FBI, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, guarded the crash site in this remote region of Pennsylvania.

They ordered a human perimeter to be formed around the disaster site, stationing someone every 25 yards to block off a 3- to 5-mile-square area.

''This crash site is being looked at as a crime scene. Everything down there must be documented and photographed,'' said Major Lyle Szupinka of the Pennsylvania Sate Police.''I'll do whatever I have to do to keep people out of there.''

Material from the Reuters news service was included in this report.

This story ran on page A10 of the Boston Globe on 9/12/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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