Somerset County Coroner, Wallace Miller, believes the site where the United Flight 93 went down outside of Shanksville will be of “national historical significance” because those who died on the Boeing 757 were “American heroes.”
Miller took time out of a very hectic schedule Wednesday to talk to The Daily American. This local coroner has been thrust into the national spotlight with recent events but he remains with his modesty in tact. He is responsible for all human remains being excavated from the crash site where United Flight 93 went down on that ill-fated day everyone remembers, 9-11-01. He has set up his headquarters for a task of this immensity at the National Guard Armory in Friedens, which is also serving as the temporary morgue.
“There is no doubt that this will be one of the most visited sites nationwide,” predicts Miller. “It won’t only be all important to the family members but it’s a sacred spot in the nation’s hearts because these people saved one of our national landmarks.”
Miller says last Tuesday came as a surprise to him just as it had for the rest of Somerset Countians who learned that their area was brought into the national arena.
He remembers being in his office, getting some bills ready and planning to go uptown to the post office, when his assistant told him that the World Trade Center had been struck by a hijacked plane. Then, someone called to ask him if he needed any assistance at the crash site near Shanksville, and he thought it was a hoax.
“I told the person who called ‘you really shouldn’t be joking at a time like this’ when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been attacked by a plane, and then I hung up and tried to call 911 to find out any information. I couldn’t get through and that’s when it struck me. Luckily, I had a county band radio and called in and found out it was true. I was out there immediately,” he remembers.
It was learned later that day that the Boeing 757 that crashed in Shanksville was one of four planes on suicide missions, but was the only one not to hit a high-profile landmark. Two hit the World Trade Center in New York City and one hit the Pentagon.
“It was something I’ll never forget in my life,” remembers Miller. “We (in Somerset County) found out the hard way that we are not far from trouble. We live in peaceful surroundings, a country atmosphere, but the wolf is never far from the door.”
Miller says when he got to the crash site that day there was nothing there that would have implicated a plane crash had just happened, except for the smell of jet fuel.
“I never dreamed a 757 crashed there because as I walked up through, there wasn’t anything recognizable, just some gears and clumps of metal,” he says. “It was incomprehensible that a terrorist plane crashed in Somerset County.”
Miller explained that his first step in this investigation was to request information from families, mainly because the major impact of the plane into the earth caused extreme fragmentation of human remains. That information came in the form of dental records or any DNA samples, which could have been blood samples from the family members themselves or personal belongings, such as saliva from a toothbrush or hair from a comb.
“DNA will be one of the main ways to identify the remains,” says Miller. He said the DNA identification process may take months. It will be done at a government lab in Washington D.C.
Out at the crash site, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is sifting through dirt and looking for three basic elements: Aircraft, personal belongings and human remains. When found, the human remains are turned over to coroner Miller to be bagged and taken back to the morgue.
Because it is a federal crime scene and with family members living on both coasts, his part in the investigation has been lengthened somewhat. So far, he has issued the presumptive death certificates and hopes this is a way the family members will begin to get “closure” to this horrific event.
In addition, Miller makes it a point to meet with every family member personally. On Monday, when several family members arrived at Seven Springs Resort and then went to the crash site for a memorial, he visited with the family members later that day.
“We treat these remains with the ultimate dignity and respect. These people are not only American heroes but also they are human beings who had families and we are very aware of that,” he stresses. “We strive to protect the privacy of the deceased and their families. I’ve always stress family members first.”
Miller predicts that by sometime next week, the FBI will release the site to his jurisdiction and when that happens, Miller wants to make sure every effort possible has been exhausted to completely clean that site of human remains. He is overseeing a staff of morticians and forensic scientists, both locally and from as far away as Texas, including the Department of Mortuary Operational Response Team (D-MORT).
He emphatically explained on Wednesday that the emergency personnel, Keystone Chapter of the American Red Cross, local fire departments, ambulance crew and local state police units have been “integral parts of the whole process.”
“Somerset County should be proud of how they responded and how they are handling this tragedy,” he says. “It’s an honor to be representing these folks.”