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United Flight 93 Revisited: Command and Control in Shanksville

Author: John M. Eller

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-11
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Originally Published in our Sept/Oct 2002_ issue. 

United Airlines Flight 93 departed Newark, NJ at 8:01 AM on the morning of September 11, 2001 destined for San Francisco.  By 10:37 AM, Flight 93 had became a part of history.  The passengers on Flight 93 have been declared heroes for resisting four hijackers, which resulted in the crash of the plane at the edge of a strip mine along a wooded area in rural Shanksville, PA.

Pennsylvania State Police Major Lyle Szupinka was the area commander and Captain Frank Monaco was the Commander of Troop A in Greensburg, PA, the closest state police facility to the crash site.  Since Shanksville is located in a very rural area, the Pennsylvania State Police were in charge of the crash scene, although numerous other agencies would follow to conduct the investigation and necessary follow-up tasks. 

A private corporate jet that was in the area was requested to fly over the area and report the crash site coordinates to air traffic control.  Initially, rumors were circulating that it was a military jet that may have downed the aircraft.   

A field in Pennsylvania... the site of Flight 93's crash has become a memorial in the year since.  Photo: Kevin Willett

The first trooper arrived some 10 minutes after the initial report and confirmed the crash.  The crash site was unusual.  There was a huge hole in the ground and the entire plane had seemed to disintegrate.  Reports from on-scene personnel like Somerset County 9-1-1 Manager Alan Baumgartner indicated no sign of the plane itself.  Debris were scattered over a four-mile area.  Pieces of US mail from the plane were found as far as eight miles from the crash site.  

Immediately personnel were requested from PSP Troop Stations A, B, and G.  There was a tremendous amount of work to be accomplished in a short period of time.  The crash site was at the edge of the Diamond T strip mine adjacent to a wooded area.  Telephone lines were damaged by the crash that severely limited communications.  Approximately 200 state police officers had arrived by the afternoon, along with several fire and ambulance companies.  A perimeter needed to be established and a command post set up. 

The crash site was quickly designated a crime scene.  Inside and outside perimeters were established.  As the Task Force Commander, Major Szupinka, designated that officers would work in 12-hour shifts.  Communications experts arrived from Nextel, Verizon, and AT&T, and by evening four cellular telephone towers had been erected.  Troopers were issued cellular phones, and all telephone services at the crash site was provided free of charge to all emergency personnel. 

Incident command staff realized this would be a long-term event.   It was necessary to obtain hotel accommodations in the communities of Johnstown and Somerset for the responders.  Troopers were notified to call their homes and have a family member pack 5 to 7 days worth of clothing in a container.  The containers were to be delivered to the local troop headquarters or they would be picked up at the trooper's place of residence.  Arrangements for the delivery of food and portable sanitation devices were of the utmost importance.

A state police command center was established.  An old parts warehouse at the Diamond T strip mine was utilized for strategy meetings, since the command center was filled with telecommunications operators and clerical personnel. 

The Pennsylvania State Police Mobile Command Post during operation at the crash site of Flight 93 in Shanksville.

Personnel rosters needed to be established.   A total of approximately 600 troopers were utilized at the crash site over a two-week period.   There were 170 to 180 officers assigned to the day shift, and 150 assigned to the overnight shift.  It became apparent that more relief was needed, so personnel from Troops C, D and E were requested.  Over a three-day period, all of the original troopers were replaced. 

The outer perimeter, approximately five miles in length, was established along the edge of the tree line; the inner perimeter was inside the wooded area. 

The nights became cold and it was necessary for the troopers to warm themselves with small fires.  Some officers found stores in nearby towns during their off duty hours and purchased lean-to tents to protect themselves from the elements. 

In order to provide better security at the crash site, 16 mounted troopers were placed on security duty, six on patrol during the day and ten at night.   The area around the crash site was dirty and dusty.  The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation responded by paving roadways around the command post area and eventually paved a roadway leading to the crash site itself.  Checkpoints were established along these roadways. 

Initially, the news media were staged in an area around the outer perimeter.  The reporters on location were being pressured by superiors to get photos and information as soon as possible.  Initially two individuals attempted to slip past the perimeter security to obtain pieces of debris and mail.  These two individuals were apprehended and charged.  This sent a message to everyone on location that breaching the security barriers would result in arrest.  During a two-week period, 17 individuals were arrested for criminal trespassing, disorderly conduct, or driving under the influence. 

The Major instructed that the news media be transported to the crash site in two busses.  They were permitted to photograph the site for one half-hour and then return to the staging area.  This allowed equal time for all news media on location.  It also established a spirit of cooperation between law enforcement personnel and the media. 

Initially there were two strategy meetings a day with representatives of all emergency services, law enforcement and emergency management.  As the days progressed, the meetings were reduced to one per day. 

Although the area was rural, citizens began to arrive at the outer perimeter with donations of clothing, food and firewood.  Many of the civilians in the area wanted to help by doing something.  A group of high school students was permitted to line the roadway with small American Flags.                                                    

Days and nights began running together.  Signs designating the day of the week began appearing around the command post and various other areas.  State Police officers assigned to the turnpike were designated to provide escort for the dignitaries to view the sight.  The security detail lasted approximately two weeks.    

The entire tragic incident was documented and photographed.  The information recorded enabled state police personnel to review and evaluate their response and handling of the incident.  Both Major Szupinka and Captain Monoco and all Pennsylvania State Police personnel are to be commended for dealing with a very tragic event in a very sensitive and professional manner.

What has changed?  Have the Pennsylvania State Police changed policy?  Have they changed their dispatching methods as the result of 9/11?  

The Pennsylvania State Police is such a regimented and structured organization, policies would not be changed in one area and not in another.  Lt. Barry Sparks, Station Commander of the Media Station in Middletown Township (Delaware County) confirmed that fact.  He said changes are being implemented but they were in the planning stage prior to 9/11.  The knowledge gained during such a tragedy is invaluable in preparing for future unexpected natural or man-made disasters.  The Pennsylvania State Police will use the information collected during this tragedy to be better prepared for another catastrophic event.

John M. Eller has been Police Chief in Brookhaven, Pennsylvania, since 1981.  In addition to being a columnist for 9-1-1 Magazine, he is a certified police instructor, consultant, criminal justice instructor, and weekly newspaper columnist.

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