Special Segment: Evidence from the Ashes

September 7, 2011 5:05:08 AM PDT
On Sept. 11, 2001, FBI agents from Chicago raced to Shanksville, Pennsylvania and the crash site of United Flight 93. What they found there in the ashes was critical to the investigation of the 9/11 hijackers.

The field remains a pastoral scene that belies the violence done there a decade ago.

"Down there by the actual site, that looks today like it did ten years ago. That hasn't changed a bit," said Doug Seccombe.

Seccombe was there the day after with dozens of fellow FBI agents. The scene they faced was horrific.

"You could see a fireball effect. The forests had been burning. t was still smoldering when we got there," said John Larsen, FBI Special Agent.

Larsen was the Chicago Bureau's Evidence Response Team Senior Leader. He and his people, their counterparts from bureaus in Pittsburgh and throughout the Midwest, had a mission as monumental as it was grotesque: find everything they could, and identify everything as best they were able.

United 93 hit the earth belly up at over 500 miles an hour. There was very little left of the plane or the human beings aboard it.

"You gotta stay very objective and almost cold. You're seeing stuff everyday that just kind of really gets to you," said Larsen.

Seccombe was in charge of the temporary morgue set up at a nearby National Guard Armory. Everything gathered from the site was photographed and documented and brough there. Agents used DNA, dental, and - in a few cases - prints to identify passenger remains. Finding everything possible was imperative. This was, afterall, a crime scene.

"Ground Zero for us was this area for us - for the FBI - because we were finding evidence the very first day," said Seccombe.

And what they found was critically important. One of the items was a half-burned passport of Ziad Jarrah, the terrorist believed to be at the controls of 93. His face, name, and passport number were still visible.

The passport belonging to another of the four terrorists aboard - Said Al Ghamdi - was found in almost pristine condition by Chicago agents digging among the cockpit remains. And then this even more significant surprise. Al Ghamdi had taken his checkbook with him and it survived the crash. Name, Florida address, bank routing numbers. It gave the FBI a fast start on the money trail.

"It was one of those wow moments. You know your knees buckled a little bit. And we immediately photographed it. I got in my FBI car, and drove it up to the FBI command post as fast as I could to drop it off," said Seccombe.

What was flown each day to the FBI lab from a field in Pennsylvania began to drive the entire investigation. Deep within the impact crater, Pittsburgh agents unearthed the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, the latter revealing that the passengers on 93 had attempted to retake the plane thwarting the hijackers mission.

For the last decade, visitors from around the world have been drawn to the crash site, which is now a permanent National Parks Monument. In the quiet of the place is overpowering emotion.

The agents who worked there ten years ago had to put emotion aside over two very difficult weeks.

"It was great to come home. I came home and - I'm getting a little choked up now," said Larsen.

"I think back to what President Bush said - the fight against terrorism started here in this field, and he's right, it did. Those 40 people decided we're not going to take that, we're not gonna let those guys win, and they started the war at that point," said Seccombe.

Doug Seccombe returns this weekend to western Pennsylvania for the dedication of the Flight 93 National Memorial. Thousands, including the flight 93 families, President Obama and former President Bush, are expected in Stoney Creek Township. What's being dedicated is the completed first phase of a memorial that's been years in the making. "Timeless in simplicity and beauty, yet heroic in scale", is how the architect describes it.

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