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A blur in the sky, then a firestorm

"It dropped all of a sudden, like a stone,'' a witness says of United Airlines Flight 93.

By KEN ZAPINSKI

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2001


"It dropped all of a sudden, like a stone," a witness says of United Airlines Flight 93. "It dropped all of a sudden, like a stone," a witness says of United Airlines Flight 93.

STONY CREEK TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- Kelly Leverknight was watching news of the attacks on New York and Washington when she heard the plane.

It sounded like it was flying low above her home in rural Pennsylvania, moving from west to east. It was an odd enough sound that she stepped outside to have a look.

"I heard the plane going over and I went out the front door and I saw the plane going down," said Leverknight, 36. "It was headed toward the school, which panicked me, because all three of my kids were there.

"Then you heard the explosion and felt the blast and saw the fire and smoke."

Leverknight and dozens of her neighbors raced to the Shanksville-Stonycreek School where they found their children safe. The plane, United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco, had plunged into a reclaimed coal mine surrounded by corn fields, leaving a 200-yard swath of debris with no individual pieces bigger than 2 feet across.

Witnesses said they thought the wings of the Boeing 757 were wagging from side to side as it plunged toward the earth. A Congressman said later that law enforcement authorities speculated that the hijackers wanted to crash the plane into the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md. It was not known why they didn't make it.

"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 off the wall.

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 bathrooms. "We are being hijacked, we are being hijacked," Cramer quoted the caller from a transcript of the call.

The curious were kept more than 3 miles away from the crash site, about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Residents of Somerset County set up camp near the police lines, scratching their heads at how their small county became the scene of an international terrorist incident.

Terry Butler works at Stoystown Auto Wreckers, which is in the flight path of the doomed plane. Butler was pulling a radiator from a 1992 Dodge Caravan when he heard the plane's engines.

He was listening to the news and was surprised because he had heard that all flights nationwide were grounded, and he didn't think there were supposed to be any planes in the air at the time. He looked up and behind him saw the plane come out of the clouds, low to the ground.

"It was moving like you wouldn't believe. Next thing I knew it makes a heck of a sharp, right-hand turn." He said the plane banked to the right and appeared to be trying to climb to clear one of the ridges, but it continued to turn to the right and then veered behind a ridge, "like somebody grabbed the wheel."

He said the plane disappeared behind a tree line on a ridge. "I knew it was going to crash," Butler said. About a second after it disappeared, he heard the boom and saw the smoke rise above the trees. "It was eerie."

Standing near that ridge late Tuesday, truck driver Chuck Auckerman pondered how it could have happened.

"It's unbelievable. They attack the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and then they hit Somerset County," Auckerman said. "What the heck is in Somerset County?"

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