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From Out of the Blue: A 9-1-1 Call from 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.

September 11, 2001 was supposed to be a day of celebration for the personnel of the Westmoreland 9-1-1 Communications Center in southwestern Pennsylvania.  It was dedication day for a new 11,000 square foot emergency communications facility.  The dedication, originally scheduled for 10:00 AM, was rescheduled for the afternoon due to a scheduling conflict. The state of the art facility was in the planning and construction stages for almost three and a half years, according to Dan Stevens, the Westmoreland County Public Information Officer.

All of the scheduling and planning changed at 9:58 AM.  A cellular 9-1-1 emergency call was received at the dispatch center from a passenger on an airline.  The Westmoreland dispatcher detected an immediate urgency in the caller’s voice.  The caller indicated that the plane was being hijacked and was calling 9-1-1 for help.  

The dispatcher, realizing that there was a limited window of opportunity for gathering information, was able to ascertain the plane was United Airlines Flight 93, which had departed Newark, NJ and was destined for San Francisco, CA.  The caller was also able to approximate the number of passengers on the flight.  The call lasted less than one minute.  According to Stevens, everyone at the center was shocked, especially in view of the three plane crashes into the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, which they had seen on TV news.

Under normal circumstances the dozen PSAP operators that work each shift do not monitor television, however a shift supervisor observed American Airlines Flight 11 crash into the north tower at 8:45 AM and alerted all those working the shift.  Due to the nature of the terrorist attacks on the United States, the personnel monitored the crash of United Airlines Flight 175 into the south tower and then the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

Dispatchers at the Westmoreland County 9-1-1 Center in Greenburg (PA).  An urgent 9-1-1 call from United Flight 93 as received here moments before the plane crashed in nearby Somerset County.  Photo via Westmoreland County DPS

Immediately all personnel relied on their experience and training, because Westmoreland County 9-1-1 had never experienced a hijacking.    The FAA and the FBI were contacted immediately alerting them to the situation aboard Flight 93.  Unfortunately, no one could change the circumstances that followed.  United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, PA in adjacent Somerset County at 10:37 AM.

Immediate counseling was provided for all personnel effected by the tragedy and continuing counseling was available for those who had the need. 

The center continues to operate under a heightened sense of security. The dedication of the Westmoreland 9-1-1 Communications Center never took place.  Stevens said the cornerstone, dated September 11, 2001, now serves as a memorial for all those who died on that ill-fated day.

 The site of the plane crash near Shanksville, PA is a rural area patrolled by the Pennsylvania State Police (see separate sidebar for the PSP response).   Shanksville is a small community of several hundred and is approximately 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, PA. 

Police Chief Bradley Cramer of the Somerset Borough Police Department, which is located approximately six miles from the crash site, said that a memorial service was held on Friday September 14, 2001, several days after the crash.  The organizers planned for approximately 500 citizens being present.  On the night of the service, approximately 3,000 citizens were present to honor those who died. 

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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