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Sacred Ground in Pennsylvania
By Mary Jo Dangel
When the fourth hijacked plane crashed in Somerset County, many local Catholics assisted in the recovery efforts and comforted mourners.

Q U I C K S C A N

Working With the F.B.I.
Inside the Secure Area
Compassionate Coroner
Nothing Negative
Special Assignment
Faith and Family
Impact Continues
Flight 93's Field of Honor

Photo Courtesy
National Park Service

THE SCARCITY of signs directing pilgrims to the temporary memorial where United Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, five years ago doesn’t dissuade visitors from meandering along Somerset County’s country roads until they reach the site. The September 11 crash killed everyone on board, including the four terrorists who hijacked the plane.

Over 100,000 people come each year to pay their respects to the 33 passengers and seven crew members who are credited with preventing the Boeing 757 from reaching its target in Washington, D.C.

Stan and Emily Jerich are among the volunteers who greet these visitors every day of the year inside a small unheated shelter on a windy knoll above the crash site. “We are scheduled for two hours once a week,” explains Emily, a eucharistic minister who lives 45 minutes away at The Villages at Seven Springs. The Jerichs were among the area Catholics who shared their experiences with St. Anthony Messenger on the first day of spring this year.

As people trickled inside on this brisk day, Stan, 67, and Emily, 65, gave informal presentations, offered brochures, answered questions and described plans for the Flight 93 National Memorial.

In front of the shelter, names of the 40 heroes of Flight 93 are prominently displayed on benches that face the field where the plane crashed upside down at 10:03 a.m. at an estimated speed of over 500 miles per hour. As tragic as it was, the damage could have been much more extensive. The Boeing 757 could have carried 182 passengers. If the plane had remained airborne for another few seconds, a nearby school in the path of the flight would have been hit, explains Emily.

“The F.B.I. and state police were here within 30 minutes” of the crash, Emily notes. “The F.B.I. led the investigation.”

When relatives of the victims stayed at Seven Springs Mountain Resort not long after the crash, the Jerichs met many of them. Emily recalls trying to console a parent of one of the crew members. She explains that she and Stan know what it’s like to lose a child because they had a daughter who died at age four from leukemia.

Emily remembers trying to assist a man at Seven Springs who fell asleep while holding an infant. She was afraid he would drop the baby so she offered to hold the child, but the man declined her offer. “He said his wife had been on the plane,” she explains. “I just kept watching him in case he relaxed so I could grab the baby.”

Of all the volunteer activities Stan and Emily are involved in, she says their role at this memorial is the experience she will never forget because of the many thank-you’s they receive from appreciative visitors.

Working With the F.B.I.

At the temporary memorial, Sally Svonavec, 64, greets her husband, Jim, and their son, Jamie, when the men drive up in their pickup truck. Members of St. Peter’s Parish in nearby Somerset, they explain how the family business, J & J Svonavec Excavating, became the only excavating company to work with the F.B.I. at the site.

Jim, 65, and Jamie, 34, have refused all previous requests for interviews: They wanted to tell their story to a Catholic publication. Men of few words, they admit it’s difficult returning to this site, where they dug through soil that contained pieces of the aircraft, personal items that belonged to those on board and human remains: No whole bodies were recovered.

Sally explains that she and Jim were in Hilton Head, South Carolina, on September 11, 2001, just beginning an overdue vacation. Jim had assured Jamie that he could handle business matters while they were gone.

Jim and Sally followed the shocking events of that morning on the news: They learned that two hijacked planes had hit the two towers of the World Trade Center, then a third plane crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth hijacked plane was being tracked over western Pennsylvania.

Later Jamie phoned them that the fourth plane had just crashed near Shanksville (about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh) on reclaimed strip-mined land where they had worked.

It didn’t take long for throngs of law-enforcement officers, who had been tracking the plane’s path, and other people, including Jamie, to reach the location where they could tell the aircraft had gone down. But it took a while to identify the exact location of impact because there was no plane visible. Sally remembers Jamie phoning them from the site and saying, “There is no plane there, believe me.”

The location was eventually determined because of some disturbed ground in front of a grove of charred evergreens, explains Jamie. The ground had swallowed up much of the wreckage.

Because of their familiarity with the property, the Svonavecs were asked to work with the F.B.I. on recovery efforts. “We hired some extra people and worked one long shift, seven days a week,” says Jim, a former federal mining inspector.

Using a Kobelco excavator, the process was slow and meticulous because “every bucket of material that was excavated went through screens,” explains Sally. Screening helped locate many body fragments and debris from the plane.

The plane “went in the ground so fast it didn’t have a chance to burn,” says Jim. Authorities were especially anxious to find Flight 93’s “black boxes” (cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder) in hopes of discovering what happened during the doomed flight.

The flight data recorder was located on September 13, some 15 feet underground. The following day, the cockpit voice recorder was unearthed at a depth of 25 feet. The cockpit recording was played in public for the first time this past April during the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 9/11 attacks.

In honor of Jim’s role in finding the black boxes, a United Airlines official presented him with a hat he treasures. It says, “I found the box.” The excavators also found “a jacket that belonged to one of the terrorists,” explains Jim. The jacket contained the hijacker’s schedule for September 11. “We found the knives [the terrorists] used, too.”

Although only fragments of bodies were recovered, everyone was identified, including the hijackers, explains Emily Jerich. Pointing to a fenced-in field about 500 yards below the shelter, she explains that the public isn’t allowed there “because that is their burial area.”

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Inside the Secure Area

Jim and Jamie receive clearance to drive me into the secured area, which is guarded by Somerset County deputies around the clock. We walk up to the fence and gaze at the now peaceful-looking field where Flight 93 crashed.

Jim points to a grove of hemlocks behind the field and explains that the impact “burned about an acre of those trees.” From this proximity, it’s obvious that the lower parts of the trees in front are charred.

They describe some of the memorable items they saw during the excavation, such as a coiled snake that appeared “petrified” as a result of the blast from the crash. Bibles that had been on the plane were found aboveground, unburned and opened to passages that seemed prophetic.

Even though Jim and Jamie didn’t know anyone on Flight 93, Jim says the situation became more emotional after they started working there and saw photos of the victims: “It really starts working on your mind.” With tears in his eyes and his voice breaking, he says, “I think about it all the time.”

Jamie says his experience has made him “appreciate life a little more.” Both of them say it was “a real privilege” to have been involved in the recovery efforts at this site.

Less than a year later, they responded to another major disaster: the rescue of nine coal miners who were trapped in the nearby Quecreek Mine in July 2002. “They were actively engaged in pumping water out of the mine,” explains Sally.

“We hoped we’d get them out,” Jim recalls, “but when the water got so high,” it looked doubtful. “We were there around the clock, from Wednesday evening until Sunday morning, when they brought the miners out alive. We knew all of the guys personally and that made it really tough.”

Compassionate Coroner

Unlike the Svonavecs, the coroner of Somerset County has been interviewed by reporters from around the world. “I found out what it is to be a public figure,” says Wallace Miller, who succeeded his father in running Miller Funeral Home and getting elected as coroner. The likable guy everyone calls “Wally” was reelected last November with over 82 percent of the votes.

Wally discusses his career, his marriage and his faith at the Somerset location of the family business, where he works with his wife, Arlene, and his father, Wilbur. The Millers manage a second funeral home in nearby Rockwood.

Wally says that his experience as mortician and coroner has exposed him to people of all religions, such as when a Hindu teenager was killed in a motorcycle accident on the nearby Pennsylvania Turnpike. So encountering people of various faiths during the investigation of the crash of Flight 93 wasn’t anything unusual. He humbly insists that it “wasn’t any different than any other case.”

But it’s unlikely that his other cases consumed as much of his time or led to numerous invitations to speak in public. The night before this interview, he addressed a group at a local church. Such presentations have “enabled me to meet more people in the county than probably any other elected official,” he admits.

Raised in the Church of the Brethren, Wally says he “explored many spiritualities” and prayed on a regular basis, but didn’t feel the need to go to church very often.

“I dated a lot of Catholic girls,” says the 49-year-old who didn’t get married until he was 40. “My wife is Catholic.” He repeatedly praises Arlene, whom he calls “Ar,” for her assistance during the investigation and for managing the family business. “She’s my partner.”

At the time of this interview during the third week of Lent, Wally was taking instructions at St. Peter’s in Somerset in preparation to become Catholic a few weeks later. Now, he’s a regular churchgoer and Bible reader who quotes from the homilies he hears at church.

Apparently, Wally’s celebrity status follows him when he goes to church: “I wish I could do it a little more anonymously,” he says, because “everybody comes up and shakes my hand, welcomes me and talks to me.”

Nothing Negative

Although he downplays his own role in the case of Flight 93, Wally’s involvement was well documented by the media.

“As coroner, responsible for returning human remains, Miller has been forced to share with the families information that is unimaginable,” reported The Washington Post. “[T]he 33 passengers, seven crew and four hijackers together weighed roughly 7,000 pounds. They were essentially cremated together upon impact. Hundreds of searchers who climbed the hemlocks and combed the woods for weeks were able to find about 1,500 mostly scorched samples of human tissue totaling less than 600 pounds, or about eight percent of the total.”

Identification was made by using dental and medical records, fingerprints and DNA.

A few weeks after the crash, Wally said, “I consider this site almost like a cemetery,” reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “When you walk through a cemetery and you see debris, you pick it up.”

He has led many searches for evidence. In July 2005, The Associated Press reported that Wally and over two dozen volunteers “made a final sweep of the property, looking for debris.” They found airplane fragments and a small amount of human remains. “I now feel it’s appropriate to close my involvement in the case,” said Wally at the time.

In addition to performing his official duties, Wally has returned to the crash site on many occasions with relatives of the victims. “At a certain point, I wasn’t doing it as coroner anymore,” he explains. “I go back occasionally if there’s a family member who hasn’t been there before.”

Surrounded by death his whole life, how does Wally want his own obituary to read? “It would be nice to be remembered as being a nice guy,” says Wally.

That’s more than likely to happen, considering his popularity with locals as well as out-of-towners. Paula Nacke-Jacobs, sister of Flight 93 passenger Louis Nacke, said, “Wally Miller and those volunteers all treated our family members like we were one of their own,” reported The Washington Post.

Special Assignment

John and Doreen Loiodici are among the Red Cross volunteers who worked at the crash site during recovery efforts. As members of St. Peter’s Parish, they know the Millers and Svonavecs.

The Loiodicis’ accent betrays the fact that they’re transplants to Rockwood from Long Island, where many of their relatives still live. Due to telephone problems during the period immediately following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, “We couldn’t get hold of them and they couldn’t get hold of us,” explains John, 45.

Working at the crash site, which became known as “The Pit,” Doreen, 44, says she and John encountered people “from every branch of government you could imagine,” such as “F.B.I., state police and ATF.”

Rather than seeing friction develop among so many people from different departments, John says he was impressed by how well “everybody worked together.”

Due to security at the crash site, workers were discouraged from leaving during their shift each day, so volunteers attended to their needs. “We served meals to everyone who worked in The Pit,” says Doreen.

In addition, they distributed supplies, such as sunscreen and lip balm. Doreen remembers one field worker who was desperately searching for a specific type of lip balm that she could clip on her belt. After Doreen located the item and gave it to the woman, she was thanked repeatedly. The next day, the grateful worker gave Doreen an F.B.I. keychain to show her appreciation.

John recalls a special assignment he was given because of his familiarity with the back roads. After being questioned by some Secret Service agents, John was asked to be on standby. When he asked why, they said, “We’ll let you know.” His undisclosed task turned out to be chauffeuring First Lady Laura Bush when she attended a nearby September 17 memorial service with hundreds of relatives of people who perished in the crash.

When busloads of these loved ones came to the crash site, John and Doreen were among the throngs who lined up and saluted the families. “That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do because I didn’t want to cry,” says Doreen. “I didn’t want them to see me cry.”

When they stepped off the buses, each family member was handed a white rose by Red Cross volunteers, says Lisa Taylor, assistant mental health officer at the site. Red Cross mental-health counselors offered grief counseling and support to the families, volunteers and workers. “Many of the workers have been deeply affected.”

Doreen confirms the effect on the workers and volunteers: “When I moved away from it, all I could do was cry because I couldn’t cry in front of those poor people,” she continues. “They were having enough trouble.”

Faith and Family

Doreen focuses on some positive aspects of their experience. “People bonded and we developed friendships. Who would have thought that we would become friends with F.B.I. agents and that it would influence our son’s direction in life?”

She refers to the fact that their middle child worked with them at the site, which led him to decide upon a career in law enforcement. Now he is a deputy sheriff at the temporary memorial.

John notes another result of their experience: “We focus a lot more on family.”

Doreen believes faith in a “higher power” got everyone through such a traumatic experience. “You’d see men cry; they’d just sit there and cry.”

She echoes an attitude expressed by others: “We thank God for the opportunity to be able to help them, to hold their hands for a couple of minutes.”

Impact Continues

The local people have become very protective of this site that some call a cemetery and others refer to as sacred or hallowed ground. They want to see a respectful memorial but are concerned about the escalating size and cost, and the tourism industry that is bound to follow.

One thing that’s certain: The crash of Flight 93 in Somerset County will continue to have a lasting impact on residents and visitors.

 

Flight 93's Field of Honor

A memorial has been established near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to honor the 33 passengers and seven crew members aboard United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, who courageously thwarted an attack on our nation’s capital.

The temporary memorial is a place for quiet reflection and expressions of respect. The collage of flowers, messages and other tributes left by visitors on a 40-foot-long fence are catalogued and stored.

A design by Paul Murdoch Architects of Los Angeles, California, has been approved for a permanent memorial. Plans are for the Flight 93 National Memorial to be open to the public for the 10th anniversary of the attacks, based on funding. The memorial is a unit of the National Park Service.

A Tower of Voices, with 40 wind chimes, will mark the entry and exit. Forty groves of maple trees will radiate from the center of the Bowl, the heart of the memorial. Wetlands, a healing landscape full of life, will be within the Bowl.

At Sacred Ground, the focus of the Bowl, visitors will be able to closely view the site of impact from a plaza. A white stone slab on axis with the flight path will provide entry, and a wall will be inscribed with the names of the 40 heroes of Flight 93. For more information, go to www.flight93memorialproject.org.

 

 

Mary Jo Dangel is assistant managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger.


Remembering 9/11: Find ways to remember the anniversary of the September 11 attacks in our special feature.

 


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