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Russin tells his story of the Flight 93 recovery

Tyrone Civics teacher Bill Abbott marked the September 11 anniversary with a lesson that shed light on a little known facet of the aftermath of that day. Abbott invited Bellwood funeral director Jon C. Russin into his classroom to help the students see a perspective not often experienced by the general public as he described what happens in the wake of a commercial airliner crash. As a member of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, Russin was called upon last September to help in the recovery effort of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Somerset County.
Russin, a graduate of Bellwood-Antis and the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science.
“The chain of command at a particular site like this the federal government, the state government and the county government,” Russin told the class of tenth grade students. Though the crash site was his second (he worked on the 1994 crash of Flight 427), it was his first experience with a deliberate act of terror. “It was a crime. It was a federal crime. That was the reason that site was even more secure than most of the other air crashes,” he added.
He explained the three main federal agencies that investigate the crashes — the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) ad well as the state and local agencies that assist.
“The County Coroner is, of course, the controlling officer at the scene for the recovery,” he noted. The Shanksville crash had 40 fatalities and as well as gathering evidence, the recovery team was also charged with finding their remains.
“The first thing that happens after the shock of incidence like that is that particular agencies are called in — such as DEMORT, which is the federal recovery team, and the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association,” he said. Russin said that the directors who work the recovery effort do so as volunteers.
At Shanksville, the National guard Armory was set up as the central staging area for his recovery team. He also pointed out that there was more to the job than simply recovering remains.
“Initially, there were 62 funeral directors that met with the families at Seven Springs (Resort),” he said. “That was where the families were sequestered and housed throughout the whole recovery period. We met with those families, we found out what type of memorialization or funeral arrangements that they wanted and we made those arrangements for them.”
Russin said that the FBI and DEMORT walked through the site and gather most of the evidence that they wanted before his team arrived. Once the initial evidence is gathered, the funeral directors were briefed by those agencies and sent to the site to meet with the recovery team.
“They’re made up of local medical and fire department personnel,” he said. In the Shanksville crash, those 600 – 700 volunteer personnel were from western Pennsylvania, he said.
Russin told the students that since it was a crime scene, the team was also briefed on what additional evidence may have still been at the scene.
“When the initial walk through is down by the FBI and they gather their evidence, they grid the particular crash area,” Russin said, comparing it to a football field. “When they walk through they use little flags and each particular color denotes a particular thing. Those flags denote the airplane debris, personal effects, human remains and evidence.”
Russin said that the team worked from the outside parameter of the crash site. By walking shoulder to shoulder, the team members worked their way to the center of the site — the crater. The crater, he said, was excavated down to 100 feet.
“When the plane came in it came over Shanksville backwards, with the tail down,” he said. “Then it plunged into the ground.” Where it crashed was a reclaimed strip mine and it plunged into the earth 40 feet. Russin noted that debris was ultimately found 15 miles away.
On Monday, part two of Jon C. Russin’s recollection of his experience on the recovery team of Flight 93.