Volunteers, first responders relive emotions
Shanksville Fire Department member Annie Daniels carries the axe as she marches with the department contingent during Sunday's ceremonies. Sandee Eggleston, a retired United Airlines flight attendant supervisor, cries at the Flight 93 memorial.
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As a rule, the hundreds of Flight 93 first responders and investigators who came from nearby small towns and distant states to collect evidence and remains at the site in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, don't do reunions.
"A reunion implies a happy occasion," Michael Kaner, a forensic dentist from Newtown, Pa., who was part of the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Responses Team brought to the site in 2001 to help identify remains, said Sunday. "This was a somber occasion."
Still, for many of the several hundred DMORT members, firefighters, Pennsylvania State Police, Salvation Army volunteers and others attending this weekend's dedication of the Flight 93 National Memorial on this 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, some old acquaintances were renewed and memories -- and emotions -- rekindled.
"It was more emotional than anything," said Steve Grieger, a now-retired FBI evidence response team photographer from Cincinnati who was here for 21/2 weeks in 2001, but hadn't been back until Saturday. "I remember again how when we first started working here on Sept. 12, and picking up pieces, we didn't have any faces that went with them. But then the families held a memorial (at the end of that first week) and when you saw faces of the victims, it had an impact."
Memories of those weeks working on the crash site are still too overwhelming for some of his fellow FBI agents in Cincinnati, Mr.Grieger said.
"Some just didn't want to come back," he said.
State police Sgt. Craig Bowman, who came to Saturday's ceremony with his wife, made it to the crash site on Sept. 11, 2001 within a half-hour, and he said his most salient memory is one that every other first responder repeated: "Disbelief. Because we had received word of a plane having crashed and there was nothing recognizable as a plane that we could see."
Many first responders and investigators have come back to the anniversaries over the years, largely on their own, particularly the local firefighters and state troopers.
But this year, with the memorial opening and the 10th anniversary, the National Park Service made a special effort to invite everyone who played a role, from the arborists who recovered evidence from trees, to the FBI agents who combed the ground, to the Salvation Army volunteers who delivered food.
In all, more than 200 firefighters and emergency responders were invited, as well as nearly 400 FBI workers, state troopers, National Transportation Safety Board members, Red Cross and Salvation Army workers, and others, said Barbara Black, the park service's chief of interpretation and cultural resources.
Most said they would attend one or both days this weekend, she said, though a final count was not available.
Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93, recognized them all during his speech on Saturday, saying: "As the course of our lives was so violently altered that day, they heard the call to duty and in their own way were the first to honor our heroes through their actions."
That line was very much appreciated by the investigators in the audience.
"I liked that. It was nice to hear," said Mark Trautman, an arborist who climbed the trees near the crash site to help recover evidence.
In an interview, former Gov. Tom Ridge said perhaps the most important result of all the work the investigators did -- even beyond recovering the black boxes with the flight data and voice recorder -- was something vitally important to the victims' families.
"The forensic opportunities that remained after that impact [of the plane] were few and far between," he said, recalling his own visit to the site as governor on Sept. 11, 2001. "But they had to do everything they possibly could to see if they could recover remains. And they succeeded."
Mr. Kaner said that was implicit in that work of DMORT, which brings together dentists, morticians, pathologists, anthropologists and others to try to identify remains when they are called to a mass casualty scene like Flight 93.
"We just wanted to treat the remains with dignity and respect and give them back to the families and help give them closure," he said.
Though only about 8 percent of the human remains were recovered, some remains were found for each of the 40 victims.
"It really left me at peace the way the first responders took care of the site," said Debbie Borza, who wears a gold star necklace filled with the ashes of her 20-year-old daughter, Deora Bodley, the youngest person to die on Flight 93. "Wally [Miller] went through this site with a quarter-inch sieve."
Mr. Miller is the coroner for Somerset County, where the crash occurred, and he oversaw the collection and identification of remains, with the help of several dozen members of DMORT, 11 of whom showed up this weekend dressed in their dark blue DMORT fatigues and black boots.
The families of the victims expressed their thanks to Mr. Miller Sunday when, during a speech, U.S. Rep. Mark Critz acknowledged the importance Mr. Miller held for the families. The families rose spontaneously in a standing ovation for Mr. Miller, the only standing ovation for an attendee this weekend who was not a former U.S. president.
Part of the reason the investigation team was able to perform so efficiently, FBI agents and others said, was the outpouring of support they got from the local community of first responders, virtually all of them volunteers.
"We tried to do everything we could for them. If they needed anything, we got it for them, boots, rakes, food, whatever they needed," said Sean Daniels, a member of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department.
That was a fallback role for many firefighters like Mr. Daniels, who initially showed up Sept. 11 hoping to be able to help in recovery.
But, given the degree of destruction, "there really wasn't much we could do," he said. "What we could do is help with food and protect the area to keep it free of people not involved in the investigation."
Mr. Daniels and his wife, Annie, also a volunteer firefighter, spent the next three weeks working every day at the fire hall trying to provide whatever it was that the investigators needed, even though Ms. Daniels was eight months pregnant at the time.
That job continued this weekend when they served as part of the honorary color guard during Sunday's ceremony, with Mr. Daniels carrying the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania flag and Ms. Daniels carrying the large, silver, commemorative fire ax.
They agreed to serve in the honor guard, he said, "so we could help again."
First Published September 12, 2011 12:00 am