Jet had turned toward Washington
The San Francisco-bound United Airlines passenger jet that crashed in western Pennsylvania shortly after 10 a.m. Tuesday had been diverted from its planned flight path and was heading in the general direction of Washington when it plunged to earth, killing all 45 persons aboard, eyewitnesses said.
Eyewitnesses said the plane, a Boeing 757-200 loaded with more than 11,000 gallons of fuel for the six-hour flight from Newark, N.J., to the West Coast, flew low and then suddenly fell from the sky, producing a huge fireball and a 10-by-20-foot crater in a field near Stony Creek Township, some 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
"When it decided to drop, it dropped all of a sudden, like a stone," said Tom Fritz, 63. Fritz was sitting on his porch on Lambertsville Road, about a quarter mile from the crash site, when he heard a sound that "wasn't quite right" and looked up in the sky.
"It was sort of whistling," he said. "It was going so fast that you couldn't even make out what color it was."
The explosion unleashed a firestorm lasting five or 10 minutes and reaching several hundred yards into the sky, said Joe Wilt, 63, who lives a quarter mile from the crash site.
"The first thing I thought it was was a missile," Wilt said. The impact shattered windows in his basement and knocked a shelf full of household objects from the wall to the floor.
Westmoreland County emergency dispatchers received a last-ditch 911 cell phone call from a passenger at 9:58 a.m., just minutes before the crash. Dispatch supervisor Glenn Cramer told the Associated Press that the call came from a passenger who had locked himself inside one of the plane's restrooms. "We are being hijacked; we are being hijacked," Cramer quoted the caller from a transcript of the call.
FBI agents quickly took possession of the tape of that 911 call, which constitutes the only public evidence so far of what was going on during the doomed plane's last moments. The FBI declined to provide any information about the tape's contents or the identity of the caller. At the crash site, FBI Special Agent Jeff Killeen said he was unaware whether there had been any communication from the pilot.
Some 20 FBI agents were at the scene and 30 more were to arrive Tuesday night, Killeen said. Authories late Tuesday recovered the plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders, federal government sources said. They should help authorities reconstruct what went on in the cockpit during the flight.
The FBI and Pennsylvania State Police cordoned off a huge area surrounding the crash site and blocked off all roads leading there. They permitted only emergency vehicles and some members of the media to enter.
Nothing was visible on the ground except for bits of fabric and aluminum.
Normally, United 93 would have arrived at San Francisco International Airport at 11:14 a.m. Pacific time, after six hours and 14 minutes in the air. At the time of the crash, passengers should have been just finishing their breakfast.
The flight, with 38 passengers, five flight attendants and two pilots on board, was relatively empty; the plane's capacity is 182 passengers.
Liz Meagher, a spokeswoman for United Airlines, said the company had confirmed the names of all those who perished aboard the plane, but would not release them until relatives were notified.
The airline has already paid $25,000 to the family of each victim, Meagher said.
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From the Times wire desk
From the AP