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Sept. 11 crash still shrouded in mystery

CP | March 28 2004

VANCOUVER (CP) - The fate of United Airlines Flight 93, the last of the four hijacked planes to crash on Sept. 11, 2001 remains shrouded in mystery and controversy.

The famous cell phone calls from brave passengers on the plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field painted a heroic story of people storming the cockpit to sacrifice themselves for others.

The chief coroner who investigated the crash scene recorded a less appealing different image.

"There was, in my conclusion, no way we could ever know who they were that charged that cockpit," Wallace Miller told students at the B.C. Institute of Technology.

The American coroner was spoke at the B.C. Institute of Technology in Burnaby Saturday. He detailed the grisly task he had recovering the remains of crash victims for their families.

The lecture was part of a crime and science seminar on dealing with disaster.

Miller, the director of a family-run funeral home and elected county coroner for Somerset, Pa., said only eight per cent of the wreckage was recovered. Everything else was vaporised, he said.

"We found remains 50 feet deep," he said of the massive crater the plane left on impact.

The debris field spanned about 2.5 square kilometres of wooded area. Victim recovery efforts were hampered because most of the salvageable human remains were in the treetops.

"It was very important to me to identify every piece but in the end it wasn't realistic."

He said the greatest challenge as coroner was fielding families' questions about where pieces of their relatives were so memorial services could be held.

That aspect of the case continues to create controversy. Questions are asked about what to do with a five-pound box of unidentified remains. Some family members are upset because the remains may be mixed with the terrorists who hijacked the planes, Miller noted.

But, said Miller, he made it his personal mission to befriend each and every family member, even ones who lived as far away as Japan and Germany.

"You just realize that when you get someone ripped away from you, there's a hole that can't be filled. But what is reasonable is that there is a way to deal with loss and that's what I tried to help them with."

Miller also credits his spirituality for helping him through such emotionally overwhelming tasks.

The fenced off crash-site, with a memorial wood-chip pile erected out of the sifted debris, remains under Miller's coroner jurisdiction.

He said he had to blanket the area with eight inches of soil to deter the many relentless souvenir scavengers with their metal detectors.

"I don't know how it is with Canadians, but Americans have a tendency to flock to disasters and memorialize it immediately," he said.

BCIT's Forensic Science Technology program hosted the sixth annual conference aimed at understanding the growing role in society of forensic investigation.