Sunday, April 8, 2012

Wally Miller, and His Mobile DNA Laboratory.

September 22, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Four Flight 93 victims identified, By Tom Gibb,
September 24, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Coroner identifies seven more victims of Flight 93 crash, by Brian Lyman,
September 25, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, FBI ends site work, says no bomb used, By Tom Gibb,
September 25, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Flight 93 victim identification long, arduous, By Cindi Lash,
September 29, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / Associated Press, Searchers to return to Flight 93 crash site,
September 30, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Volunteers scour Somerset County crash site, woods to remove debris, By Joe Smydo,
October 03, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Latest Somerset crash site findings may yield added IDs, By Tom Gibb,
October 10, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 4 more Flight 93 passengers identified, By Tom Gibb,
October 12, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Judge OKs certificates of death in Flight 93, By Tom Gibb,
October 15, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Newsmaker: Coroner's quiet unflappability helps him take charge of Somerset tragedy, By Tom Gibb,
October 27, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Another 14 victims of Flight 93 identified, By Don Hopey,

September 22, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Four Flight 93 victims identified, By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer,

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. -- Investigators have identified remains of four of the 44 people aboard Flight 93, the jetliner that crashed here 11 days ago, the Somerset County coroner said yesterday.

But the attempt to identify the rest -- a process that involves using DNA testing to confirm the conclusions -- could go on for a year, Coroner Wallace Miller said.

Just the search for remains, across fields and woodlands in a little-populated swath of mountains, could continue for months before Miller decides to call it off.

"It's not going to happen until I'm satisfied that we've done everything we possibly can," he said.

Miller reported the first identifications yesterday [Friday, 9/21] as investigators continued to dig through the crash site seven miles northeast of Somerset, shoveling out mounds of earth, then sifting through that soil for remains, personal belongings and bits of the Boeing 757.

"I can't guarantee identifying remains of all the passengers," Miller said, "but I'm hopeful."

Miller would not name the people identified beyond saying that all the people were passengers or crew, not hijackers. He said that the first identification came two days ago, when a tooth was matched to dental records.

"The identifications we have made for now have been mostly through dental records and fingerprints. We're also using radiology (records), and we can find surgical work such as hip replacements," he said.

For now, the remains are being taken to a temporary morgue set up by investigators at Friedens, five miles from the crash site. From there, they will be transferred to the Armed Forces Laboratory at Dover, Del., part of a process in which the FBI has mandated DNA matches as final confirmation.

Victims' families have been asked to provide items such as the victims' hairbrushes and toothbrushes, so that medical investigators can glean samples from which to draw final DNA matches. The DNA matches, in turn, probably will be the link that investigators use to identify most of the remains, Miller said.

But the FBI's demand for DNA links could serve another purpose, offering one clue for identifying the hijackers from the Sept. 11 morning of terror, since investigators have suggested that the air pirates' real identities lie buried under layers of fake IDs.

Miller said that the first identifications brought a measure of solace to the families involved.

When remains are accumulated, they will be turned over to families for interment, a process for which no timetable has been set.

If all goes according to a tentative schedule, the FBI -- overseeing recovery workers clad in white suits to protect them from jet fuel and possible biological hazards posed by human remains -- could turn the site over to Miller.

That would mean the pullout of the 100-member federal Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team, which has aided in handling remains.
But Miller's search for remains could continue for months -- albeit becoming problematic if winter arrives in these highlands like it did eight years ago, with a 30-inch snowfall on Oct. 25.

Already, it is a painstaking operation, since remains were small and scattered by the impact.

"I'm not naive enough to believe we'll get everything, but we'll try to get everything we possibly can," Miller said. " ...When you have a plane traveling at 500 mph, I think you understand what the scenario is."

Once searchers have found the last remains they plausibly can find, Miller said, he and his staff could have thousands of specimens.

Yesterday, investigators drained a two-acre pond about 1,000 feet from the crater where the jetliner slammed into the ground, just another step in hunting airliner parts, personal belongings and remains, Miller said.

Officially, the land is an FBI crime scene. When the FBI leaves, it becomes a coroner's crime scene.

But when he surrenders control of the ground, Miller -- who considers himself a guardian of both the victims' dignity and the place where they died -- said he wants the land preserved, possibly as a government-administered memorial.

"I am aware of the historical significance of this spot," he said.

September 24, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Coroner identifies seven more victims of Flight 93 crash, by Brian Lyman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer, Monday,

Seven victims of the Sept. 11 United Airlines Flight 93 crash in Somerset County were positively identified over the weekend, bringing the number of identified bodies to 11.
But Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller said that additional identifications could take months. There were 44 passengers and crew members on the flight.
"We're in the process of notifying families," said Miller near the crash scene yesterday. "We're continuing the identification process as we speak."
The coroner's office was able to identify victims with help from FBI fingerprint experts, but Miller said they did not release identifications until investigators were all "comfortable" with the identity of each victim.
Four bodies had been identified as of Friday.

Miller would not name the victims, or say whether they were crew or passengers, saying his "No. 1 priority" was protecting the privacy of families.
"The identifications up to now were not [based on] DNA," said Miller. "The method now will be [to use] DNA [testing]."
That testing might slow the process down because DNA samples from victims must be tested against family samples, and the coroner's office has not yet contacted all of the families of the victims. Miller said he was "working day and night" to get in touch with them.
In addition, the terrorist attacks have swamped DNA testing centers in the nation.
"It could take weeks; it could take months," said Miller. "We are receiving the same priority as the other sites."
Most evidence from the site has been taken away, he said.
"Everything's been collected from the site that's going to be," he said.
The coroner also said he was working as hard as he could to return remains to family members.
"A lot of legal work needs to be done," said Miller.
It is a difficult task, he said, in part because Somerset, a sixth-class county with only 78,000 people, has little support staff.
"We don't have staff doing it; I'm doing it," said Miller.
Miller called bringing closure to families "a critical part of any investigation," and added that he had been "touched by the emotional strength" of families he'd been in touch with.
That made the help of outside investigators, including pathologists from Honolulu and Washington, D.C., all the more valuable.
"I've accumulated a wealth of information," said Miller.
Visitors trickled around a makeshift memorial throughout the day yesterday, leaving flowers and flags at the scene.
The FBI plans a news conference on the investigation of the scene today.

September 25, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, FBI ends site work, says no bomb used, By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer, Tuesday,
STONYCREEK, Pa. -- The FBI said yesterday that it has finished its work at the crash scene of United Flight 93 after recovering about 95 percent of the downed airliner and concluding that explosives were not responsible for bringing it down.
At the same time, the Somerset County coroner said that he has ended his own search for remains of the 44 people aboard the airliner.
"It's been very thorough," Coroner Wallace Miller said of the recovery effort.
Now, the probe of the Sept. 11 crash is in the hands of investigators examining the jet's so-called black boxes for a better sense of what happened during the hijacking.
In the meantime, Miller will oversee the task of matching remains with the names of people aboard the jetliner. So far, doctors, dentists and forensic scientists have made 11 matches.
"I don't think it's appropriate to say with certainty that we can identify all the individuals on board," Miller told reporters yesterday.
The inventory of jetliner debris gives testimony to the devastation of the Boeing 757 when it hit a Somerset County field at somewhere between 400 and 580 mph, the last of four domestic flights to crash that morning after being seized by terrorists.
FBI spokesman Bill Crowley said that the largest piece of plane recovered was a shred of fuselage skin that covered four windows -- a piece seven feet long from a jetliner that was 155 feet long.
The heaviest piece, he said, was a half-ton section of engine fan.
The jetliner exploded in a fireball, witnesses said -- but not a fireball caused by a bomb, according to Crowley.
"The conclusion of the investigation is that no explosives were used on board the plane," Crowley said yesterday. He would not elaborate further.
At least two passengers aboard Flight 93 made calls from the plane after it was hijacked and said they believed one of the hijackers was carrying a bomb.
Of the airliner parts, the pieces that investigators judged most significant were the plane's cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, both unearthed within 3 1/2 days of the crash. The voice recording that remained is being analyzed for clues to confirm the identities of the four hijackers who seized the Newark-to-San Francisco flight before it crashed.
But whether investigators can ever establish a DNA link that would firmly identify the hijackers is uncertain, Miller said, because investigators don't know if they have a data base which would identify any of the terrorists by DNA.
Passengers probably tried to overwhelm the air pirates, Attorney General John Ashcroft has said.
Since it had no more use for it, the FBI turned the airliner debris -- but not the data and voice recorders -- over to United Airlines yesterday. Asked what United will do with the debris, airline spokeswoman Whitney Staley said, "I don't think a decision has been made ... but we're not commenting."
Through Friday, the crash site had been alive with recovery workers clad in protective suits to shield them from airline fuel and biological hazards posed by human remains. Yesterday, the site was silent, a crater surrounded by mounds of excavated soil, bordered by trees into which debris had rocketed.
As many as 1,500 people worked at the recovery site or out of the command post, a small village of trailers on the bluff above. By midday yesterday, most had filtered out and state police -- who watched over the surrounding roads with an army of 400 troopers, 16 mounted police officers and three helicopters -- pulled back into a smaller security zone.
Miller said his own search for remains ended Sunday, [9/23] with the highest degree of certainty he could muster.
"We've been as thorough as we possibly can ... but we're not naive enough to think that we've gotten everything," Miller said.
He said that the remains of 11 of the 44 people aboard the jetliner have been identified through fingerprints and dental records. Among the tasks left for Miller is to get DNA identification of the remains of the other 33 passengers and crew.
DNA also will be used to verify the findings for the 11 people already identified

His other job, Miller said, is to work with United at returning the crash scene to the way it looked before the airliner went down. That work that could be a prelude to a permanent memorial at the site.
For now, though, it will be a crash scene surrounded by a chain-link fence and posted with no-trespassing signs.
"If anybody is caught penetrating that perimeter and disregarding those signs, they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," Miller warned.
Yesterday morning, state troopers arrested the seventh person they have caught trying to get onto the site, state police Capt. Frank Monaco said.
President Bush met yesterday at the White House with about 50 relatives of Flight 93 victims.
Officials turned the focus from the site yesterday after bidding thanks to support that ranged from the American Red Cross and Salvation Army to the commonwealth and troops of volunteer firefighters.
"We had phones. We had ATVs," Crowley said. "Virtually anything we requested, we got in triplicate."
This region -- which decked itself in American flags and yellow ribbons -- never finished throwing in its support. It was charity that ranged from mountains of food donated at the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Co. for recovery workers to local resident Nang Coslic, who cooked meals nightly for the state troopers guarding the road outside her house.
Recovery teams initially said that the FBI investigation could go on for up to five weeks. Instead, the FBI officially ended its investigation of the crash scene late Saturday afternoon, 12 days after the probe began.

September 25, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Flight 93 victim identification long, arduous, By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer,Tuesday,

A licked stamp. A used razor blade. A forgotten toothbrush left out of its owner's suitcase.
All over the world, these and other equally mundane items are being sought and retrieved from the desks, dressers and medicine cabinets of the people who were aboard United Flight 93 when it crashed into a Somerset County hilltop two weeks ago.

Those items will end up in Rockville, Md., at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology's DNA-identification laboratory -- arguably the best in the nation at analyzing and matching DNA samples. Experts will attempt to match genetic material left behind on those items with DNA found in human remains recovered at the crash scene.

DNA comparison is just one of several techniques to be used by members of the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, which is charged with recovering and identifying the remains of Flight 93's passengers, crew members and hijackers. All 44 people who were on board died in the crash.

The team that has been at work in Stonycreek, Somerset County, is one of several that have been activated to assist with identification of thousands of people who died in the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Other teams have been sent to identify people who died at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The teams were created in 1996 under the federal Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act. That legislation was passed in response to calls for better, more coordinated assistance from families whose loved ones died in the September 1994 crash of USAir Flight 427 in Hopewell and other airline crashes.

The teams are part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' national disaster medical system. They are assigned to 10 regions around the country to identify victims after incidents with mass casualties.
Teams include forensic pathologists, anthropologists, dentists, fingerprint analysts, radiologists, X-ray technicians and others with scientific skills that can be used to identify remains. Members are private citizens who have offered their skills and who are activated and paid by the federal government to assist local coroners or medical examiners when disasters occur, said Paul Sledzik, who headed the team in Stonycreek.

A forensic anthropologist, Sledzik is a world-renowned curator at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology's National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C.

A specialist in identifying skeletal remains, Sledzik, 40, has worked as an expert in numerous murder cases. He has helped to identify bodies of soldiers killed during the Persian Gulf War as well as passengers who died in the USAir Flight 427 crash.

In Stonycreek, Sledzik supervised a team of about 65 DMORT workers from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.They are expected to complete their work at the site this week.Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller retains authority over the recovery process and will sign all death certificates, Sledzik said, but DMORT workers have been helping Miller with identification processes.

"Local jurisdictions often don't have a mass disaster plan," he said. "We don't come in and take over, but we augment what the local coroner has set up. We provide whatever support is needed by local officials."
Some DMORT members worked alongside FBI agents and state troopers at the site to recover tissue, bone and dental remains.

Dr. Dennis Dirkmaat, a DMORT member and forensic anthropologist from Mercyhurst College in Erie, said the remains were "extremely fragmented" after the crash, in which the airliner hit the ground at hundreds of miles per hour.

Still, Dirkmaat said, DMORT workers were attempting "to document every piece of tissue," no matter how small. By walking or crawling over the crash site and by sifting dirt through mesh screens, DMORT workers hoped to recover tiny samples that, despite their size, could be analyzed and identified.

Once the remains were recovered, they were sent to a temporary morgue four miles away in a Pennsylvania National Guard armory in Friedens. There, more DMORT workers analyzed the remains utilizing equipment shipped from Dallas.

Fingerprint specialists examined tissue and dentists examined teeth, fillings or wire from dental braces that had been collected for comparison with X-rays and other records obtained from relatives of the crash victims. Anthropologists and X-ray technicians have done the same with bones, looking for evidence of healed fractures, past injuries or surgeries.

If remains still couldn't be identified, DMORT workers sent samples to the DNA laboratory in Maryland to be matched with the genetic markers of those who died.

That can be done by obtaining blood samples from relatives or by obtaining DNA from strands of hair left in combs, from saliva on toothbrushes or stamps, even from nearly invisible bits of blood or tissue or a razor blade.

Sledzik said it was too early to know how successful that identification process will be or whether they will be able to identify the hijackers.

"We know that it is very important to the families to be able to make those identifications and we will stick with it until we've exhausted all processes," he said.

"It's heart-rending work, absolutely," he said. "But this [DMORT operation] has a distinct difference to it. Given what's been going on nationally, people here are extremely focused on completing the work here. They feel they can provide a service to these families and to their country and they are here to do that." Staff writer James O'Toole contributed to this report.

September 29, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / Associated Press, Searchers to return to Flight 93 crash site, Saturday,
SHANKSVILLE, Pa. -- About 250 workers will make another search today in the area where United Flight 93 crashed, believing high winds and heavy rains may have shaken additional evidence out of the trees.
Miller said consultants with United Airlines suggested another search because bad weather this week might have shaken additional airplane parts out of the trees in a wooded area near the crash site. The coroner said the workers would also be looking for any human remains not already collected.
Some pieces of the aircraft -- most no larger than one square foot -- have already been found because of the bad weather, he said.
The FBI, which had treated the site as a crime scene, turned over control of the field where the plane crashed to Miller on Monday. [9/23]
Miller said he had identified 12 of the victims through dental records and fingerprints. He is refusing to release the names of those victims, saying he does not want to upset their families.
He said DNA testing would be used to identify the other victims, a process that could take months.

September 30, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Volunteers scour Somerset County crash site, woods to remove debris, By Joe Smydo, Post-Gazette Staff Writer, Sunday,

October 03, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Latest Somerset crash site findings may yield added IDs, By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer, Wednesday,

STONYCREEK, Pa. -- The Somerset County coroner said yesterday that he should know by this weekend if the last big sweep of the United Airlines Flight 93 crash scene yielded remains that he can link to any of the 44 people who were aboard the hijacked airliner.
But a week after the FBI closed its criminal investigation at the Somerset County site, county Coroner Wallace Miller indicated that his job has switched largely from search and recovery to a cleanup of what he deems sacred ground.
"I consider this site almost like a cemetery," Miller said yesterday. "When you walk through a cemetery and you see debris, you pick it up."
Over the weekend, about 300 volunteers combed a half-mile square around the crash site and found enough debris from the Boeing 757 to fill about one-third of a trash container.
Most of it was little more than thumbnail size -- "no bigger than a pop rivet holding two pieces of aluminum," Miller said yesterday -- that last week's rains washed from trees bordering the stretch of strip mine where the airliner crashed nose-first Sept. 11.
No significant evidence turned up, Miller said, and there probably won't be a repeat of anything the size of last weekend's search.
"We don't anticipate anything else on that scale," he said. "But I wouldn't rule out at least one additional sweep."
The FBI has mandated DNA testing to confirm the identities of remains, a process just beginning that Miller said could take four to six months. But using mostly dental records, Miller and staff have identified remains of 12 passengers -- a number that the coroner said might grow with last weekend's recovery of additional remains.

Remains, like the aircraft wreckage itself, were scattered when the jet hit the ground at as much as 575 mph, then exploded in a fireball of fuel.
With those of 12 people identified, Miller and his team have identified the remains of 27 percent of the people on the plane, more than the 20 percent match he said that experts predicted at the outset.
Now, attention has turned to restoring the site itself.
By today, Environmental Resources Management Inc. of Pine, a contractor hired by United, expects to return 5,000 to 6,000 cubic yards of soil to the 50-foot hole dug around the crater left by the crash.
The soil is being tested for jet fuel, and at least three test wells have been sunk to monitor groundwater, since three nearby homes are served by wells, Betsy Mallison, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman, said.
So far, no contamination has been discovered, she said.
For Miller, the focus seems to rest just as heavily on aesthetics -- from removing debris to felling charred trees that could be upsetting to relatives of Flight 93's passengers and crew.
"This site won't be released until we're comfortable that we've removed as much of this debris as is humanly possible," he said.

October 10, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 4 more Flight 93 passengers identified, By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer, Wednesday,

The Somerset County coroner said yesterday that officials have now identified the remains of 16 of the 44 passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that crashed into a former strip mine in rural Stonycreek Sept. 11.
The addition of four names to the list came through DNA sampling -- the first DNA matches made in the identification of remains, Coroner Wallace Miller said yesterday.
Identifications of remains of the first 12 passengers, made through the beginning of last week, was done using dental records and fingerprints. Investigators had exhausted that avenue and have since been relying exclusively on DNA, which will enable the coroner's office to identify more remains at a steady pace, Miller said.
DNA identification requires use of DNA samples, such as hair culled from a hairbrush or material taken from a toothbrush.
"Obviously, the families have provided no information of those people," Miller said.
He said that none of the remains identified belonged to the four hijackers
who seized control of the Newark-to-San Francisco flight, then turned it southeast -- possibly aimed for a crash landing in the Washington, D.C., area -- before passengers tried to wrest back the controls.
The decimation of the Boeing 757 and its passengers led Miller and a team working for him to the painstaking routine of recovering and identifying remains.

October 12, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Judge OKs certificates of death in Flight 93, By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer, Friday,

Everyone who died aboard United Airlines Flight 93 except the terrorists who hijacked it will get death certificates under a ruling issued yesterday by a Somerset County judge.
At the insistence of the FBI, the terrorists won't be getting them because investigators aren't sure of their identities.
To date, the remains of 20 of the 44 people who were aboard the airliner have been identified, allowing the county coroner to issue death certificates for them. Yesterday, Common Pleas Judge Kim R. Gibson approved county Coroner Wallace Miller's request to issue death certificates for another 20 people without their remains being identified.
The decision allows the victims' families to more easily deal with settling estates, collecting death benefits and gaining access to bank accounts, county Solicitor Daniel Rullo said yesterday.
Flight 93, bound for San Francisco from Newark, N.J., had two pilots, five flight attendants and 37 passengers aboard when it crashed in Stonycreek. Four were hijackers who seized control of the Boeing 757 as it approached Cleveland; they were possibly diverting the plane to Washington, D.C., when a battle for control of the airliner took place with the other passengers, federal investigators say.
The names of the hijackers have been given as Ziad Samir Jarrah, Ahmed Alnami, Ahmed Ibrahim Al Haznawi and Saeed Alghamdi, but the FBI is not confident enough of their identities to have death certificates issued for them, Rullo said.
"The FBI indicated that they might have used false identifications to get their airline tickets," he said.
In the meantime, the identification of remains continues. The first dozen matches were made through use of dental records and fingerprints. The rest have come through DNA testing.
Some next of kin have asked for remains to be returned and some have asked the coroner to handle interment. Remains never identified could be buried at the crash site as part of a memorial that is being planned, county Commissioner Brad Cober said yesterday.

October 15, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Newsmaker: Coroner's quiet unflappability helps him take charge of Somerset tragedy, By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer, Monday,

The high science of DNA is pairing remains with the dead.
He has acted as a caretaker for the site, ground that he wants to see consecrated as a memorial.
After the crash he swore in a cadre of deputies -- helpers such as hospital workers and fellow funeral directors --

October 27, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Another 14 victims of Flight 93 identified, By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer,
Investigators have positively identified the remains of another 14 persons aboard United Airlines Flight 93 and Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller said the investigation could conclude more quickly than expected.
Yesterday's confirmation of victims' identities by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology DNA lab in Rockville, Md., means that 34 of the 44 people who were aboard the jetliner crashed Sept. 11. have been identified.
"We're progressing at a very steady pace in identifying the victims," Miller said. "Originally we thought it might take four to six months, but things are moving faster than we thought."
Miller said the lab is continuing to test DNA material to verify the deaths of the last six crash victims.
He said DNA tests won't be able to identify the four hijackers on board.
"To make a DNA identification we need something from the victims or their family members -- personal effects, or blood samples -- to match," Miller said. "We don't have that kind of information about the terrorists."

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