Twenty years later, we remember a group of volunteers from Southwestern Pennsylvania who responded to a scene that changed the world. Here are their stories from that day and the weeks that followed.
The 911 dispatch center wasn’t very busy the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, recalled Roy Shipley, director of the Fayette County Emergency Management Agency.
At the suggestion of a colleague, he turned on the television and watched in disbelief as the North Tower of the World Trade Center burned. For a rural Southwestern Pennsylvanian, lower Manhattan might have been a world away. Then he received a phone call.
“One of our dispatchers came on and said, ‘Hey, we have a plane talking to the 911 center,’” Shipley said in a recent interview. “It was something like, ‘We’re on the plane and we’re hijacked.’ And that was about it.”
It was a brief conversation that likely happened as United Airlines Flight 93 was flying over part of Fayette County, Shipley said. Afterwards, the passengers connected with Westmoreland County 911.
Minutes later, Shipley got a call from Rick Lore, director of emergency management in Somerset County, saying that “he had a plane down in Shanksville.”
“He didn’t know what it was,” Shipley said. “He said, ‘I have nobody on the ground and no report; could you start your equipment this way?’”
After watching the second plane explode into the South Tower, Shipley activated his crew. His team was headed to Shanksville before he even knew the Pentagon had been hit.
“When they said, ‘Bring all your equipment,’ we were prepared to look for survivors and go into rescue mode,” Shipley said. “It was just a crater, and it was still smoking. Of course, there were no survivors, and immediately we started to secure the area, because it was a crime scene.”
As hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, terrorists in a fourth aircraft targeted Washington, D.C. Passengers fought to take back control of Flight 93, which crashed in the field in Shanksville, killing all on board.
Shipley and his crew set up a command center near old mining buildings just north of the crash site.
Dozens of local fire departments and hazardous materials teams responded along with the Salvation Army, Red Cross, state emergency management officials, and the FBI. UPMC also brought in its critical incident management team.
“The first couple nights we were there all night,” Shipley said.
By the second or third day, Shipley said federal officials wanted to clean up the site and pave some roadways to make it slightly easier for the families of victims to visit.
“The families were all staying at Seven Springs,” Shipley said. “They brought them in on buses, and they got to go to this overlook site that looked down on it. That’s where the memorial started with people leaving things.”
“I went to Shanksville on Day Two,” said Uniontown Fire Chief Buck Griffith, who was part of Fayette County’s response team. “We went up to relieve those guys. Shift change was 7 a.m.”
The FBI had arrived at the site overnight and was running operations, though Fayette’s command post ran logistics.
“If they needed something, we found it for them,” Griffith said.
Some of those requests were unexpected, like more than 25 flags and flagpoles, to prepare the site for the victims’ families and other dignitaries.
“We were on a strip mine. Walmart is 10 miles away – I don’t think they realized where we were,” Griffith said. “But they found a manufacturer to bring them in and put them up overnight. When we came back the next day, there were flagpoles up, flags flying, and the state paved all the roads.”
The locals were “gracious,” Griffith said, donating food, drinks and offering help in any way.
“It was small-town America at its best,” he said. “You see the best in people at a time like that. I met a lot of really good people down there.”
Among those to respond to Shanksville in the days after the attacks was Dan Haeck, then chief of Pleasant Hills Volunteer Fire Department in Allegheny County.
“They called it ‘Operation Final Sweep,’ and our job that weekend was to comb the wood line, maybe 50 to 100 feet into the woods, and there was a big pond we had to search,” said Haeck. “We literally poked around with sticks and crawled up the hillside and picked up parts.”
As members of Allegheny’s response team, Haeck went to Shanksville with his brother-in-law, Mark Grimm, who at the time was assistant chief of Pleasant Hills and is now North Strabane Township’s fire chief.
“The feds and everyone on scene just realized they needed more help looking for plane parts and tagging,” Grimm said. “We found more than just plane parts.”
He remembers watching footage of the crash site on TV, but that was nothing like seeing it in person.
“It’s a sight that I will never get out of my head – that hole in the ground and the debris everywhere,” Grimm said. “It was absolutely massive. It was 40 to 60 feet deep and a football field long. I remember the tire from the landing gear was in a tree. It was very surreal.”
The treetops and hillsides were littered with debris, Grimm remembered. There were hunting cabins and small houses in the area, but no one was there because hunting season hadn’t started.
“You had hunting camps with plane parts everywhere,” Grimm said. “There was shrapnel everywhere – in the trees, into those cabins and through the roofs.”
Haeck said they were tasked with filling 55-gallon drums with debris found at the scene. Grimm and Haeck filled one with plane parts and another with pieces of human remains.
Grimm and Haeck, along with many other volunteers, found walking sticks that they used to help them scale steep hillsides and poke around at debris. Grimm and Haeck still have theirs.
“We had gloves on, but you didn’t really want to be touching some of the stuff we picked up,” Haeck said. “We were finding stuff constantly. It was every half-hour you were calling out for the coroner.”
In those moments, there wasn’t a lot of time to think about the work they were doing, but those emotions sunk in later at their hotel.
“When you’re lying there trying to go to sleep, you wondered, ‘Wow, did we just do that, did that just happen?” he said. “Years later even, it will just hit you.”
Grimm, who had a wife and two young children at home, said the same.
“It didn’t really hit me until the first night at the hotel, and I just thought, ‘Man, I really miss my family,’” Grimm said. “That’s when everything starts setting in and you start to think about the people that perished on the plane and the people it affected.”
‘It really got you thinking’
Jo Lewis, who was a responder with Greene County’s 911 Center and one of the many volunteers deployed to scour the wreckage site, remembers walking outside the day of the attacks, looking up, and wondering what was next.
“I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat, I was scared to death,” she said. “You felt like there was nothing you could do, but this was my way of saying I helped.”
She remembered the ground being carpeted with tiny pieces of red, white, green, blue and yellow wiring.
“I know we found a ton of it,” said Lewis, who retired nine years ago. “If you went up in those woods right now, I bet you’d still find some.”
Lewis’ crew found purses and jewelry along with human remains. She said they found a locket embedded in a piece of breastbone as well as a male passenger’s wedding ring with initials inscribed on it.
“The Somerset County coroner was there – I don’t think he slept,” Lewis said.
Mark Blaker was one of four Carmichaels volunteer firemen, including Fred Clark, Mark Henry and the late Hank Workman. Blaker said there was an anthropology professor from Mercyhurst University assigned to their group.
“It was amazing – we’d be picking up fragments of remains and he knew what every body part was,” Blaker said.
For Blaker, the tougher things to find were the personal belongings, such as a retirement watch that had stopped at the time of the crash.
“We’d go through and flag the trees with toilet paper to make sure we weren’t all doing the same areas,” he said.
They were working about 400 feet from the crash site.
“It was amazing to me that we were in thick woods and there was a few hundred yards of trees, and we were finding plane parts through there,” he said. “It was just amazing we were finding things that far away.”
Ron Sicchitano, who worked in Washington County’s emergency management department and with the hazardous materials team, said there were dozens of folks offering to help in the aftermath of 9/11.
“When things like that happen, all these people want to go and help,” he said. “It was so people weren’t self-deploying and so we’d have a more organized response, that we put together a list of people.”
Sicchitano, who recently retired from the county and now works with Ambulance and Chair EMS, said Southwestern Pennsylvania’s response, “Region 13,” was the first regional counter-terror task force in the state, though other areas were working to create them.
He said it was started a few years prior to 9/11, but its response during 9/11 – coordinating multiple teams from different counties to respond to Shanksville – made it a model nationwide.
“It was a group effort response, and we set a model in making that happen,” he said.
Washington County sent 20 people to help with the cleanup the first week of October. Sicchitano and his wife, Gina, who also works at Ambulance and Chair, were part of the group.
“It was mine and Gina’s wedding anniversary,” Ron Sicchitano said. “We spent it cleaning up the site.”
They took a bus loaded with supplies, gloves, Tyvek suits and eye protection.
“There was a big divot in the earth, and you had to be suited to go in there, with a Tyvek suit and a couple layers of gloves,” he said.
Gina and Ron were there for two days. They returned to the site and the memorial a few years ago on their anniversary.
“It just gave you chills,” Gina said.
‘A different world’
Shipley, too, returned to the site to see the wall of names when it was initially erected for an early anniversary observance.
“Loved ones and family members of the victims brought up lanterns,” Shipley said. “That was very moving. Every year when it rolls around, you think more of the families and what they went through and how they adjusted.”
Not everyone’s been able to return to the site. Grimm said it’s hard to believe 20 years have passed, because he remembers it like yesterday.
“I’m honored that I was able to go,” he said. “I want a feeling at the end of the day that I had some part in trying to help and bring some closure to the families of anyone involved. That’s what I signed up to do.”
It was a scene that changed the world, but it also changed those who helped clean it up.
“The ‘what if’s’ are a lot to think about,” said Lewis, of Graysville. “It’s always in the back of my mind – this could happen again.”
Shipley can’t sit at a table in a restaurant without first observing all the exit points, he said. “It’s a different world the last 20 years,” he said.
Shipley has been a first responder 46 years, in firefighting, EMS and emergency management.
“That was a life-changing thing,” he said. “It changed the way I looked at things from emergency management and as an individual. It changed the way we plan, the way we look at equipment and the way we trained and drill for things.”
Griffith said he believes the disaster freed up more funding for fire departments.
“It’s a shame it takes disaster to open some people’s minds,” he said. “I’ve heard people say we’re no better off now than we were then, but, oh, yes, we are. I think emergency services are better prepared by a long-shot than we ever were.”
Grimm said 9/11 raised awareness and a standard for how the fire service prepares and responds to calls.
“Anybody would have said it never would have happened here, but it happened,” Grimm said. “Obviously, that wasn’t the target, but it crashed there. People responded from across the state, and everyone worked together.”