On September 11, 2001, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania during the horrific terrorist attacks that happened on American soil. The 40 passengers and crew members aboard Flight 93 courageously fought back against their hijackers to prevent another attack. Their brave actions likely saved many lives that day. However, this led to the devastating crash that took all of their lives.
In the aftermath of the terrible tragedy, the remains of the Flight 93 victims had to be carefully handled with respect and dignity. The process of identifying the remains and returning them to the victims’ families was extremely difficult given the violent nature of the crash.
This article provides a comprehensive look at what happened to the bodies of the passengers of Flight 93 after the crash and the painstaking efforts to identify the remains during the investigation and cleanup of the crash site in Shanksville.
Key Facts About the Crash of Flight 93
- Flight 93 was scheduled to fly from Newark, New Jersey to San Francisco on September 11, 2001
- The Boeing 757 aircraft crashed in a field in Shanksville, PA at 10:03 AM EST after being hijacked
- All 44 people aboard including 33 passengers and 7 crew members were killed in the crash
- The hijackers had intended to crash the plane into the U.S. Capitol Building
- Evidence indicates some passengers and crew members tried to storm the cockpit to regain control before the crash
- The plane crashed at a high speed leaving a large debris field across a reclaimed strip mine area
Arrival of First Responders at the Crash Site
After Flight 93 crashed around 10:03 AM, first responders from Shanksville and surrounding areas in Somerset County, PA immediately rushed to the scene. However, they encountered a devastating scene of a massive, fiery crash stretching for miles across an abandoned strip mine.
Given the dangerous nature of the crash site, first responders focused on containing the scene and looking for survivors instead of recovering remains in the initial response. However, unfortunately it was apparent from the catastrophic damage that none of the 44 people on board could have survived.
Once the fires were controlled, state police, firefighters, EMTs, and other officials began setting up investigation teams and a temporary morgue to carefully handle the difficult work ahead.
Retrieving Remains from the Debris Field
According to reports from the medical examiner and crash site investigators, the violent impact of the crash at over 500 mph caused most of the victims’ bodies to be torn apart and fragmented. Most of the remains were scattered across a debris field that was 8 miles long and 2 to 3 miles wide.
Search and recovery teams had to carefully comb the huge debris field looking for any remains over the course of several days. Fragmentary remains were marked and photographed where they were found before being carefully collected and taken to a makeshift morgue at a National Guard facility in Friedens, PA about 5 miles away.
Very few intact bodies were recovered. Most of the remains recovered were small body parts and fragments given the massive force of the crash’s impact. Officials reported finding an torso here, a leg or arm there. Only one or two nearly whole bodies were found among the carnage according to coroner reports.
Identifying Remains and Notifying Families
The arduous process of sorting, cataloguing, and identifying remains lasted for weeks after the crash. The fragmented state of most of the remains made the already heartbreaking task even more difficult for crash scene investigators and forensic specialists.
DNA analysis was used to identify and match remains with samples from the victims’ family members. All of the remains were carefully and respectfully handled according to protocols for mass casualty scenes. Ultimately, examiners identified remains belonging to all 40 victims over the course of about 2 months.
During this difficult process, officials relied on resources from other medical examiner offices, the FBI, the military, and other government agencies to handle and identify the remains. The Somerset County Coroner worked closely with United Airlines and victim advocates to provide updates on the status of identifying remains and return them to families once positive IDs were made.
Most families received remains of their loved ones by the end of 2001 or early 2002. However, small fragments and unidentified remains were buried together at the Shanksville Cemetery with a memorial marker in a group burial plot provided by United Airlines.
Temporary Storage in Refrigerated Trucks
In the initial days and weeks after the crash while remains were still being collected and identified, officials faced the grueling task of storing the fragmented body parts and human remains.
Morgue facilities in Shanksville and nearby counties were too small to handle the task. Therefore, refrigerated trucks were brought in to serve as temporary storage areas for remains recovered from the Flight 93 crash site until identifications could be made. Storing remains this way allowed them to be preserved and minimized decomposition.
Several large refrigerated trucks housed the remains collected from the debris field for about the first month as examiners began the identification process. This temporary solution provided the capacity needed while the investigation was underway before remains could be returned to victims’ families.
Why No Whole Bodies Were Recovered
Given the violentnature and high speed of Flight 93’s crash, it was inevitable that all the passengers’ bodies would be torn apart and fragmented across the 8 mile debris path.
The Boeing 757 slammed into the ground at an estimated speed of over 500 mph after making a sharp downward turn. The extreme forces involved meant no whole bodies could possibly remain intact.
Investigators compared the crash dynamics to “a head-on car collision at 500 mph” —something no one could survive intact. The combination of this high energy impact and the ensuing explosion and fires essentially disintegrated and scattered the occupants’ bodies across the reclaimed mine site.
Handling of Remains Followed Strict Protocols
The Somerset County Coroner’s Office and all officials involved followed careful protocols when handling, identifying, and returning the remains of Flight 93 victims to their families. Treating the fragmented remains with dignity was a top priority during the difficult investigation.
Standard practices for mass fatality scenes were used along with extra precautions given the sensitive nature of the 9/11 crash site. Remains were marked where found, carefully collected from the scene, and securely transported to the morgue facility according to established chains of custody.
Regular updates were provided to United Airlines and families on the efforts to identify remains using forensic methods like DNA analysis. This ensured all remains were ultimately identified and returned to the appropriate families in a timely, respectful manner.
Why Investigators Could Not Initially Recover Some Remains
In the first few days after the crash, investigators faced challenges recovering some remains from certain deep crater impact areas within the debris field. The powerful explosions and heavy machinery needed to access these craters meant remains had to be left temporarily.
About a month after the crash once the NTSB investigation was complete, excavators were brought in to safely recover remains from the deepest impact craters. The coroner and medical examiners returned to the site daily until all remains were finally recovered by mid-October.
Ensuring the safety of crash scene investigators was also a priority in the early stages of the search efforts. So remains that were not readily accessible had to be temporarily left behind until heavy equipment could be brought in.
Returning Remains to Families
Identifying the victims was just the first step in providing closure for the families. Once remains were positively identified by the medical examiner, they worked closely with United Airlines, victim advocates, and government officials to return the remains to the appropriate families.
The coroner made every effort to individually contact families once their loved one was identified before the remains were released to funeral homes. Most families received the remains by the end of 2001, though the identification process continued for some time to identify every fragment possible.
In the few cases where families opted not to take possession of remains, United Airlines worked with local officials to provide a dignified group burial at the Shanksville cemetery memorial site. The fragmented unidentified remains were buried together in a group plot with a marker to remember those lost.
Why Identification Took so Long
It took an exhaustive round-the-clock effort and hundreds of specialists working over 2 months to identify remains from the 40 Flight 93 victims. The process was extremely difficult and time-consuming for several reasons.
- The extreme fragmentation of remains across a 2-3 mile wide debris path
- Few intact bodies to identify visually
- Extensive DNA analysis was required to match every fragment to victims or families
- Tedious cataloging and sorting through thousands of tiny fragments
- Time needed to notify families, collect DNA samples, and make matches
- Careful collection required once NTSB released crash scene
Identifying 40 victims from tiny scattered fragments using forensic techniques like DNA profiling was an unprecedented task that required weeks of intensive analysis. Officials followed meticulous protocols to ensure every effort was made to identify all remains correctly.
Profile of Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller
County coroner Wally Miller became a key public face people associated with the Flight 93 crash site and investigation. His difficult job required him to oversee handling and identifying the victims’ remains.
Miller served as Somerset County Coroner for more than 20 years and worked closely with state police and medical examiners during the Flight 93 response and investigation. His compassion and dedication to treating the remains respectfully was evident in his public comments at the time.
Miller’s empathy and care for the families as he took on the difficult task of overseeing the morgue operation earned him praise. He strove to balance transparency about the fragmented nature of remains with sensitivity.
Wallace Miller passed away in 2021 at the age of 79. But his critical role leading the county coroner’s response after Flight 93’s crash will always be remembered as part of the history of that fateful day.
How the Violent Crash Affected Remains
Airline crash scenes are always extremely gruesome events, but the severe fragmentation of remains seen with Flight 93 was unlike most other crashes. The factors that contributed to no intact bodies being recovered include:
- Speed of Impact – The plane slammed into the ground at an estimated 500+ mph in a near vertical descent. This extreme velocity caused severe fragmentation forces.
- Explosions – The fuel explosions that erupted on impact added more energy of destruction to shatter and burn remains.
- Soil Conditions – The soft abandoned strip mine soil swallowed up and buried remains deep into crater impact areas.
- Aircraft Breakup – The force caused total breakup of the plane with debris scattered for 2-3 miles in all directions.
The combined extreme violence of the crash created a devastating scene where fragmented remains were strewn across a wide debris field. The energy and explosions essentially cremated and disintegrated the occupants.
Treatments of Remains as Heroes
The 40 passengers and crew aboard Flight 93 were hailed as heroes for fighting back against the hijackers and sacrificing their lives to save others in Washington DC. Treating their partial remains with dignity and respect became a priority.
Volunteers at the temporary morgue took care to clean and carefully handle each fragment as if it were their own family member. Many also donated supplies like toothbrushes and soap to provide a small measure of care.
When remains were identified and returned, most families chose to have caskets at memorial services to honor their loved ones even if just small fragments filled them. A few families even had empty caskets to recognize those lost.
The fragmented state of remains did not diminish the heroic legacy of Flight 93’s victims. All efforts sought to bring closure for families while paying tribute to those lost.
Continuing Investigation at Crash Site
In the first week after the crash while the NTSB conducted its on-site investigation, the recovery of remains took a backseat to documenting evidence. But the coroner’s office kept a presence at the site.
Once the NTSB investigation concluded and debris was removed for analysis, the crash scene could be fully searched for additional remains starting in mid-October 2001. Heavy excavators helped recover remains from deep impact craters.
Regular searches of the crash site continued through November 2001 as hundreds of FBI agents, state police, and volunteers combed the area and excavated soil. They recovered and turned over small fragments, personal effects, and human remains until the site was cleared.
Even years later, occasional searches have been conducted after heavy rains unearthed additional fragmented remains that were returned to families. Returns from the Flight 93 site serve as reminders of the sacrifices made.
Impact on Families Receiving Remains
Getting the devastating news that remains of their loved ones had been positively identified was extremely hard on families of Flight 93 victims. The condition of the partial fragmented remains added an extra layer of grief.
Many families expressed the difficulty they felt not having an intact body to mourn over and bury. The small unrecognizable pieces left them with little physical connection to their loved ones. However, experts say even tiny remains provided a sense of closure.
Receiving at least some identifiable remains from the crash allowed families and friends to hold memorials and funerals to remember those lost on Flight 93. Though heartbreaking, it enabled them to mourn collectively and find some comfort in each other.
Flight 93 Victims Group Burial Memorial
A crescent shaped group burial plot for Flight 93 victims was created at the Memorial Cemetery of the Alleghenies near the crash site. This provided a group resting place for unidentified remains.
Families were given the choice of taking possession of identified remains of their loved ones. In cases where families opted not to or remains were unidentified, they were respectfully buried together in the group plot.
A memorial marker was placed at the burial site with an inscription reading: “In memory of the passengers and crew of United Flight 93 who perished September 11, 2001.” This plots serves as a place family and friends can visit to pay respects to their collective sacrifice.
Why Ground Was Dedicated As a Cemetery
In the days after the Flight 93 crash, it became clear that the site where so many lost their lives should be made into an official cemetery. This was done for several important reasons:
- Provide a resting place for fragmentary group remains not claimed by families
- Establish a consecrated memorial site for future visitors to pay respects
- Allow families an established place to visit deceased loved ones
- Create an official cemetery area that was protected and cared for
- Honor the sacrifice and bravery of Flight 93’s passengers and crew
Establishing the land as an official cemetery was seen as the most respectful way to handle unidentified remains and create a permanent memorial. It provided families a dedicated final resting place for lost loved ones.
Importance of Following Protocol With Remains
Properly caring for and identifying human remains requires strict adherence to protocols and procedures. With an aviation disaster like Flight 93, it was vital for the coroner’s office to follow proper protocols closely.
Some of the key guidelines they followed included:
- Meticulously documenting and recording where each remain was found
- Using numbered tags to identify remains and tie to locations
- Following chain of custody to track remains at all times
- Using standard transportation and storage methods
- Employing experienced forensic experts for identifications
- Regularly communicating with families about the status
- Returning identified remains to families in a timely manner
Closely following established protocols for handling of remains ensured all victims were treated with proper respect and dignity despite the unprecedented challenges.
Efforts to Provide Families Closure
Providing some sense of closure for the families of Flight 93 victims motivated all the recovery and investigative efforts. Although fragmented, identifying even the smallest remains of their loved ones was seen as better than nothing.
Officials worked diligently to identify all remains and return them to families for proper burials. Family members were regularly updated about the status of identification efforts by the coroner’s office too.
United Airlines also played an important role in supporting families regarding handling and returning of remains. Airline representatives stayed in contact with families to relay updates.
Despite the heartbreak of only getting partial remains, families expressed gratitude for the care taken and efforts made to provide them closure through the return of their loved ones’ remains.
Frequently Asked Questions About Flight 93 Remains
Here are some common questions and answers about what happened to the remains of the 40 passengers and crew aboard United Flight 93:
Why were the remains so fragmented in the Flight 93 crash?
The plane crashed at an estimated speed of over 500 mph in a near vertical nose dive into an abandoned strip mine. This high velocity impact along with ensuing explosions essentially cremated and disintegrated the occupants’ bodies scattering remains widely.
How much of the remains were eventually recovered?
After thorough searches of the 8 mile debris field, examiners recovered about 1,500 pounds of human remains, or approximately 8 percent of the victims’ total body mass. Considering the violence of the crash, this was a significant portion.
Did any families choose not to accept remains of their loved ones?
Out of respect for families wishes, specific details were not publicized. However, some families did opt not to take possession of partial remains. In those cases, unidentified and unclaimed remains were provided a group burial at the memorial site.
How were families notified when remains were identified?
The county coroner worked closely with United Airlines and victim advocacy groups to contact families individually once DNA testing matched remains to a victim. In-person notifications were made whenever possible.
Is it possible more human remains could still be found?
Additional fragments have occasionally been found over the years when the ground is disturbed following heavy rains or erosion. If remains are recovered, efforts are made to identify them and notify families when possible. The possibility exists that more remains may still periodically be unearthed.
The crash of Flight 93 was unlike any other in the horrific violence and fragmentation of remains across a sprawling debris field in rural Pennsylvania. Recovering, identifying, and providing closure to families was extremely difficult. But through tireless efforts guided by compassion, protocol, and science, officials succeeded in providing dignity to victims.
Though fragmented, human remains of the 40 men, women and children aboard Flight 93 were ultimately recovered, identified, and returned to families. The coroner’s office worked diligently alongside other agencies to identify even the tiniest fragments using DNA analysis. This helped bring a sense of closure to loved ones, allowing them to properly mourn and memorialize the fallen heroes.
The sacrifices and brave actions of those aboard Flight 93 who fought back against terror to protect others will never be forgotten. Though their lives were tragically cut short, their legacy lives on through the memories of families and friends.