Court reporters to aid Flight 93 project

300 interviews over 9/11 need to be transcribed

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After 12 years of interviewing people connected with the events of Sept. 11, 2001, generally and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 specifically, Kathie Shaffer and her colleagues at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Stonycreek have built up quite a backlog.

In all, they have conducted 815 interviews of investigators, local first responders, military officials, politicians, reporters, families of the victims of Flight 93 and many others -- creating in their wake one of the most significant historical collections related to 9/11, but also a boatload of recorded interviews, all of which need to be transcribed.

To create those transcriptions, Ms. Shaffer has relied for the past seven years on a group of 10 local volunteers, most of them retired schoolteachers, who have steadily worked away at the backlog.

So far, about 65 percent of the interviews have been transcribed, Ms. Shaffer said, leaving about 300 to go -- a number that wouldn't go steadily down because Ms. Shaffer and her colleagues continue to conduct interviews.

But now, thanks to a serendipitous moment this past November between two childhood friends, that backlog could begin to drop precipitously.

The Pennsylvania Court Reporters Association, which has more than 300 members, has volunteered to assist in completing transcription of all the remaining interviews, most of which are two hours or longer.

"We have the skills. They have the work. It's a perfect match," said Donna Cascio of Somerset, a past president of the association who initiated the volunteer effort after she saw a story in her local newspaper about all the interviews Ms. Shaffer and her colleagues had done.

That same story in November quoted Lladel Lichty, president of the Friends of Flight 93 National Memorial, who, it turns out, graduated from Conemaugh Township High School in Davidsville with Ms. Cascio in 1971.

"I wanted to call her and congratulate her on an award she had received recently, and when I saw the story [on the interviews] I also wanted to see if the court reporters association could help," Ms. Cascio said.

It didn't take Ms. Lichty any time to think it over.

"I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this is perfect if we can get these two organizations working together,' " Ms. Lichty recalled of that first conversation.

The agreement to work together moved quickly and now is just waiting on bureaucratic issues.

That includes creation of a confidentiality clause that court reporters will sign requiring them to not disclose any of the interviews they transcribe until they are finally approved after a thorough confirmation process with the original interview subject to ensure that every word is accurately recorded.

The idea didn't take long to generate interest, said Susan Kiniry, current president of the court reporters association, who estimates that she has already heard from about 20 court reporters who want to help, and expects to get 50 to 100 total by the time the project is formally presented to the association at its annual state convention in March. Work on the project could start shortly after then.

"There's no doubt in my mind we'll have a lot of interest," Ms. Kiniry said. "It's of local interest, of course, with Flight 93, but it's really of national interest, too."

The idea struck a particular chord with Ms. Kiniry and Ms. Cascio because they were organizers of the association's 2001 convention. It was to take place at Seven Springs resort the week after Sept. 11, but they agreed to cancel it because so many victims' families were coming to the region and would need the hotel rooms.

One worry Ms. Shaffer has is the toll listening to these lengthy, personal interviews will have on anyone who has to spend so much time with them.

"There are many times that the emotion [by the person being interviewed] can be overwhelming," she said.

Ms. Cascio has already transcribed one interview of the sister of a male passenger on Flight 93, as a trial run. It went well, she said, and the interview was "very moving."

"But court reporters are trained to absorb all kinds of testimony," she said.

The idea of having court reporters help out made so much sense that everyone involved wondered why they hadn't thought of it before.

And to think, Ms. Lichty said, that it all started as "just a very simple case of two old girlfriends talking after one passed on a compliment."

Sean D. Hamill: or 412-263-2579.


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