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Somerset County 9-1-1: The Crash of Flight 93

Author: John M. Eller

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-10
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Originally Published in our Nov/Dec 2001 issue.

For the men and women at the 9-1-1 Center in Somerset County, PA, September 11 took on a personal meaning when United Airlines Flight 93, hi-jacked by terrorists and bound for an uncertain target in or near Washington DC, crashed in the midst of their jurisdiction, in a field in Shanksville, PA.

Somerset County is a rather rural area in western Pennsylvania, approximately 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.  It encompasses 1,074 square miles and has a population of 80,000.  The 9-1-1 Center is located in the lower level of the County Courthouse in Somerset Borough.  A staff of 21 employees dispatches for 21 police agencies, 29 fire departments, and 13 ambulance/paramedic companies.

According to 9-1-1 Coordinator Alan Baumgardner, there was one supervisor and two dispatcher/call takers working on the morning of September 11th.  Typically, Tuesday mornings are somewhat slow.  The center usually monitors the weather and news channels. So, the personnel on duty were aware of the plane crashes at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC.  Due to the terrorist attacks on the United States, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency alerted all government buildings to increase security.  Since the 9-1-1 Center is in the courthouse, the County Sheriff’s Department and the County Detectives were placed on alert.

As the personnel were watching the twin towers collapsing on the television monitor, all the 9-1-1 incoming telephones began to ring.  Baumgardner said that this is typical when accidents occur on Interstates 70 and 76.  He assisted the dispatchers by picking up a telephone.  The caller, a woman, began crying and stated that a large plane had crashed.  His immediate response was “yes,”  “we are watching it on television.”  The reply was “no, this crash is in Lambertville,” which is a community eight miles north east of Somerset.  Being somewhat confused by her statement, Baumgardner requested her to repeat it again and she told him that there was a huge fireball in the area of the crash site.  By this time, the other dispatchers were all receiving similar calls.   Immediately Emergency Management Staff members who were in the center began fielding the telephone calls, assisting the 9-1-1 operators.  Two Somerset police officers who had stopped by the Center to check the east coast developments also began assisting with the incoming calls. 

Dispatchers at work in the Somerset County E9-1-1 Center in western Pennsylvania.  On September 11th, dispatchers had their hands full when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field near Shanksville in their county.  Photo: Alan Baumgartner

Within several minutes the 9-1-1 center was a flurry of activity with three assigned dispatchers, two police officers, one deputy sheriff, two members of the county emergency management staff, two county detectives, and administrative staff all working the telephones.  Within 15 minutes, off duty dispatchers began arriving to help out with the emergency.  Within 30 minutes there were three dispatchers assigned exclusively to the Flight 93 crash; the rest of the staff were answering telephones and addressing other 9-1-1 calls. 

The next immediate problem, according to Baumgardner, was setting up a mobile command post at the crash site.   Previous training and experiences with incidents such as tornadoes, floods, snowstorms, and several other man-made disasters were aided by the timely establishment of a mobile command post.  Mutual cooperation with surrounding counties had become extremely important in achieving this end in the past, and it paid off again on September 11th.   The Fayette County Emergency Management Team arrived at the crash site with their mobile command post.  This CP was in operation by noon, approximately one and one-half hours after the crash.  Fayette County also provided staffing for the command post.  Somerset, Bedford, Cambria, and Westmoreland Counties provided additional staff personnel to supplement the Fayette personnel. 

Within two hours of the crash, the Emergency Operations Center at the Somerset County Court House was in operation and was fielding all calls pertaining to the crash.  The 9-1-1 Center gradually began returning to normal, fielding the regular calls and non-emergency traffic.  Everyone was assigned a specific task and the communications challenges were caught up with.

Aided by the mutual cooperation and additional staff provided by the surrounding counties, the Somerset 9-1-1 and Emergency Operations Centers were fully staffed for a two-week period, while the investigation and recovery operations were under way at the crash site.  Baumgardner said that the tragedy only served to increase the cooperation between counties and EMA staffs.  He went on to say that within the first 24 hours after the crash there were 74 agencies on location with over 1,000 personnel.

It is tragedies such as the crash of United Airlines Flight 93, which demonstrate the training, determination and heroics of emergency service personnel.  All the personnel involved in the crash of Flight 93 deserve the utmost gratitude for dealing with an extremely difficult situation in a truly professional manner. 

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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