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 > November 28, 2002 > News > Cover Story

Conspiracy Theory
Who brought down Flight 93?
How? And why are so many people
still asking questions?

-- BY CHRISTOPHER DREHER

Just after the one-year anniversary of Flight 93's descent into a field in rural Shanksville, Pennsylvania, one resident snorted indignantly at what has been reported about the crash. "You have to be crazy to believe what they tell you," he says, declining to give his name.

What really happened on Flight 93? Who was at the controls when the plane went down? Is there something sinister about the crash, perhaps something the government doesn't want you to know?

Perhaps more than any other event in American history, the assassination of President Kennedy helped shape what has become a national pastime, the conspiracy theory. One part of the Kennedy investigation in particular, the fantastic "magic bullet" theory endorsed by the Warren Commission, gave skeptics an archetype of governmental deceit that makes any official proclamation about a tragedy suspect.

September 11 has inspired skeptical inquiry as well. There are literally hundreds of websites and chat rooms offering a host of alternative theories, including a percentage that maintain that rogue elements within the U.S. government actually planned and carried out the September 11 attacks. One conspiracy-minded journalist insists that the WTC would have survived being struck by jetliners but was instead brought down by controlled explosions.

It's not a uniquely American phenomenon. A number of conspiracy theories from around the world try to reveal what really happened on September 11. In many Arab countries the rumor that thousands of Jewish workers in the Trade Center were warned not to come to work that fateful day is still taken as fact, as is the theory that Israel's Mossad was actually behind the terrorism, implicating Arabs in order to provoke worldwide anger at Muslims and destabilize the region. In France, a book purporting that the Pentagon wasn't actually hit by a plane became a bestseller. And of course, a predictable international contingency insists aliens had something to do with it.

In fact, there are few magic bullets in the September 11 scenario: Minute-by-minute video coverage, cell phone calls from the passengers on the planes, notes and letters left behind by terrorists, the proclamations of bin Laden and other al Qaeda members -- all provide a formidable body of evidence difficult for even the most imaginative theorist to dismiss.

But a growing number still have questions about the true fate of Flight 93, the plane that was presumably meant for a target in Washington, D.C. but that instead crashed into a field in rural southwestern Pennsylvania. After finding inconsistencies in physical evidence and eyewitness accounts, as well as incongruous statements made in the press by the FBI and some of the 70 other agencies and groups that worked at the crash site, many are skeptical about the officially endorsed story that the crashed happened while heroic passengers tried to seize control of the plane from the hijackers.

Based on evidence they've found, some have concluded that an Air Force missile or perhaps some sort of electromagnetic pulse weapon brought down the plane, pointing to Vice President Dick Cheney's admission that the order had been given to shoot down rogue airliners on that day to protect civilian populations.

Others believe that a bomb detonated onboard caused the crash, and cite published reports of a passenger who minutes before the crash called an emergency services center on his cell phone saying that there had been an explosion and white smoke in the cabin, the tape of which the FBI seized soon afterwards. In addition, some of the only available voices from the flight are air traffic recordings -- available online -- on which a terrorist announces chillingly to the passengers: "We have a bomb."

Such speculation has not been written about in the mainstream U.S. press, which has from the beginning embraced the theory that passengers fighting the terrorists brought the plane down, a fact that skeptics claim says much about the timidity and malleability of American journalists. But a number of British papers have covered the conspiracy theorists, including the London Independent, which in August 2002 published an article titled "Unanswered Questions: The Mystery of Flight 93," which stated there was enough evidence to "cast doubts on the soft-focus legend that the traumatised American public has seized so gratefully." Extensively interviewed in the article is Wallace Miller, the Somerset County coroner who worked for months at the crash site. The Independent quotes him as stating about the ultimate cause of the crash, "The order had been given to bring the airplane down. I do not rule anything out."

A few in the American press have taken up the story. One ambitious American freelance writer analyzed the seismic evidence of sonic booms in southwest Pennsylvania on the day Flight 93 crashed and found what he calls "irrefutable evidence" that there were more military aircraft in the area than the government reported. Perhaps, he suggests, one these unaccounted-for planes shot down Flight 93.

He titled his initial conclusions "Catching the FBI in a Big Fat Lie."

"The science is sound, it's a straightforward issue, a displacement of earth, a fact that you can't argue with," he says, noting that the site had received over 25,000 visitors since it was put up on July 31. "You can argue about what it means, though. It's a footprint in the mud, all it tells you is that another plane was there."

And William Bunch, a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, published a thoughtful article examining the fact that Flight 93's cockpit tape was silent in the final three minutes before the crash. Bunch's interest in Flight 93 was piqued when he discovered how few people he spoke to bought the official version.

"It struck me, going out there to Shanksville and talking to average folks, the number of people who thought the plane was shot down, either because of noises they heard or because they saw another jet," he says. "In fact, the closer you got to Shanksville, the more people don't believe the official version."

By far the most comprehensive source of Flight 93 crash information is run by Frank Carter, webmaster of the site www.flight93crash.com, who began accumulating information about the Flight 93 weeks after the crash.

"I've just been putting up all this stuff that doesn't make sense to me," says Carter, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, but declines to give his occupation. "I have no ax to grind, I just think it's interesting. But no one wants to talk about this."

Most of the evidence on the site is links to published news articles and reports from major media, which he says show a pattern of deception. He says that the public may have been misled into believing that a group of passengers overcame the hijackers and the plane crashed during the fighting.

"From all accounts, the cockpit voice recorder didn't get the sound of the door crashing in," Carter points out. "They reported that they could hear the hijackers' voices. Why not the heroes then? No one has ever officially said they made it to the cockpit. Don't you think if they had evidence that they did that it would've been all over the news?"

Carter's site offers a lively discussion board of people trading information, analyzing data and proposing possible scenarios explaining the discrepancies. The posts capture the spectrum of reactions to Carter's inquiry; among the earnest postings of people discussing the debris pattern and other irregularities are protests from less skeptical correspondents:

"I think you're [sic] conspiracy theories are full of shit," writes one poster. "But some people are easily misled and will believe the nonsense that you spew. It is disgraceful to disrespect the people who died on the 11th with your bullshit."

And some share this poster's sentiment: "Who really cares if it was shot down or not. It didn't make it to its target. Let the people on the plane be thought of as heroes. If it makes most people feel good then why do you care? The only people hurt by this conspiracy theory is the memories of those on the plane. They were either heroes or as you would have it just cowards being led to slaughter."

Carter has received hundreds of emails from people claiming to have information relevant to the crash -- Air Force and airline pilots, air traffic controllers, eyewitnesses who don't agree with the official version, people who are not allowed to share their knowledge or opinions because of where they work but who are able to alert Carter anonymously. "No one is going to put their job or their career on the line," Carter says. "That's just how it is."

He admits that there isn't a smoking gun among the evidence so far, but there's a lot that doesn't make sense. "Either they're really bad investigators or they're lying," he says. "And if there's one lie, you have to ask yourself, 'Are there others?'"

Some witnesses report the presence of an unaccounted-for white jet in the area just after the crash; other eyewitness claim that Flight 93 was on fire, or that there were loud explosions before the plane hit the ground; some report that air traffic controllers in Cleveland saw an F-16 following Flight 93 before the crash. The debris pattern the plane made, including bits of paper and debris found eight miles from the scene and a part of the engine found hundreds of yards away, seems to suggest that something happened to the plane in the air, before it hit the ground. And why won't the FBI release the cockpit recordings or the flight recorder to clear all this up?

"There's evidence of a midair catastrophe of some type," Carter says. "They have something they don't want to talk about."

One of the "they" is former FBI special agent Bob Craig, who from the FBI's Pittsburgh office led the Evidence Response Team at the crash site. He retired after more than 30 years in the Bureau at the end of 2001. He strongly denounces any speculation about a mid-air catastrophe, whether a bomb or a missile.

"You can see the impression of both wings, the tail and the fuselage in the ground," he says. "And these aren't pictures from us, it's actual news photos. You can't get any simpler than that. There's no chance. I mean none, zilch, zip, nada."

Craig, who has been at the scene of a half dozen plane crashes during his career, says that pieces of the plane were tested for explosive residue but nothing was found. And what caused the debris scattering was that after the crash a plume of debris went up into the sky and that the prevailing winds caught what was up there, including over 7,000 pounds of mail.

In fact, Craig says that there was so little evidence of either a bomb or anything else that the FBI didn't do a small-grid search of the site but kept it to large grids. "It was clear to us pretty early on what we needed to do, taking into account all the events," he says. "There wasn't any mystery there."

As to the cockpit voice recorders, Craig says that they are not being released because they constitute evidence in a crime and prosecutors are planning to use them in the trial of accused "20th hijacker" Zacharias Moussaoui. In any case, Craig, whose colleagues listened to a copy of the tapes just after they were taken from the ground and later listened to the cleaned-up versions, says there wasn't anything definitive on them. An Air Force veteran, Craig says that such tapes are usually of poor quality, and Flight 93's were more garbled than most because of the plane's high speed and the impact of the crash. "There's not much to be heard anyway," he says. "But you know what happens then. The conspiracy people are going to say, 'What's the FBI hiding?'"

For Dennis Roddy, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who wrote extensively about the crash, the idea of FBI or government machinations doesn't jibe with his experiences on the site the days and the weeks after the crash. "The authorities were so monumentally unhelpful that they couldn't even be bothered to make up a story," he says. "Reporters could have gone up the FBI and said, 'Lead us around,' and the FBI would have said, 'Not today.'"

Nonetheless, Carter and others point to newspaper stories and accounts that just don't go together, as though the story was changing, or being changed, over time. Back in September, the Air Force pilots who were going to intercept the plane claimed to have not received their orders and said they hadn't even heard about Flight 93 until it had crashed. Then in April, the pilots admitted having received shoot-down orders and having been on course to intercept Flight 93 just before it crashed. Then there is the timing of the jets that rushed to intercept the rogue plane: By one account they're not even close when the plane crashed; by another they're a few minutes away.

"They had plenty of time to get there," says Carter. "If they say there weren't any planes in the area, why weren't there? What were the planes doing?"

Roddy believes that the discrepancies in the press accounts are "more proof that people can't get their stories straight. Sometimes [the press] screws up and get things wrong. Somebody feeds us a line of malarkey and we fall for it."

In fact, there were a number of incorrect reports about the crash, many of which constitute the most convincing evidence of some sort of bomb or missile incident.

For example, in the days following the crash, the Associated Press interviewed Glen Cramer, a Westmoreland County emergency services supervisor, who told AP and other news agencies that he had read "off a transcript" that minutes before the crash a passenger, David Felt, had called and told the dispatcher that he had he had heard an explosion and that there was white smoke in the pane.

But in a phone interview, Felt's younger brother Gordon, who was played the 911 tape by the FBI when he went to hear the cockpit recordings in a special event for the victims' families, said, "There was no mention of white smoke or an explosion." Also, the dispatcher who took the call, John Shaw, confirmed that Felt had mentioned neither bomb nor white smoke. "It never happened," he stated.

As for the features that appeared overseas, it seems that they had manufactured some of their own mysteries. When told of his ambivalence in London's Independent, Wallace was surprised. He said that he'd repeatedly told the Independent's reporter that he didn't think there was a conspiracy.

"It was clear what [the reporter] was after from the beginning. All his questions were about a conspiracy," Wallace recalls. "And when I wouldn't say that, he got pretty angry, reminding me how far he'd come to interview me. I told him he should have just asked me over the phone then."

As to the physical evidence, Pulp contacted a number of experts about some of the crash theories. Robert Sherman, a conventional weapons expert with the Federation of American Scientists who worked for the state department as former executive director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Advisory Board, and also wrote extensively about F-16s and Sidewinder missiles, looked at the missile theories on flight93crash.com and deemed it "the usual paranoid crap."

"There was nothing there that gets me very worked up," he says. "Maybe [the plane] did break up. A crash is not a sanitary event. By definition, the uncontrolled impact of an airplane does strange things."

Sherman said that if a missile had hit Flight 93, there would have been more evidence. "If a Sidewinder had hit it, there would have been pieces of the fan or the fuselage in a larger area," he says. "If the engine breaks up, then the fan blades are going to come off like bullets. Pieces of the wing and fuselage would be all over the place."

Sherman argues that a shoot-down and cover-up makes no sense from an operational or political sense, saying that trying to cover up something like that makes as much sense as "bin Laden converting to Judaism."

"If you shoot the plane down the plane, the incentive to lie is nonexistent," he says. "The probability that it would be found out is high, the consequences horrendous. Why do it?"

As to the "irrefutable" seismic evidence, Pulp contacted two forensic seismologists who both looked at the online evidence and said it did not prove anything like a sonic boom. Also contacted was Edward A. Haering, Jr., an aerospace Engineer at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Airforce Base in California, who has a number of publications on sonic booms and is a principal investigator in a number of sonic boom experiments. He wrote in an email, "Bottom line, I don't think what this seismograph measured on 9/11/2001 in Pennsylvania is a sonic boom," and included an in-depth scientific explanation. He also sent the findings to the freelance who had originally proposed the theory. The freelancer quickly took down his site and admitted that he'd made a mistake.

Even the discrepancies in statements made by the FBI and other agencies after the crash, seized upon by conspiracy theorists as evidence of deceit, appear less ominous when considered in the context of the dramatic event. Pittsburgh FBI agent Bill Crowley, who acted as spokesman through much of the investigation, and other law enforcement on the scene said that any discrepancies were probably caused by confusion, by the fact that information came to investigators piecemeal and by the misinterpretation or misrepresentation of quotes.

"Secrecy is the culture and nature of a group like the FBI," says Roddy. "It's not a conspiracy, it's a bad habit. Crowley could dive into a stack of Bibles and say he didn't know and do it with a clean conscience. They don't tell these guys everything."

What actually happened onboard that day on Flight 93 will always be a matter of speculation. One scenario voiced by a number of sources holds that three of the passengers were trying to get into the cockpit when the terrorists tried maneuvering the plane in order to knock them down or throw them back -- a near guarantee of catastrophe when attempted by pilots with no flight experience in a low-altitude situation. More information may be revealed if the cockpit tapes are made public, which could happen if they are played at the Moussaoui trial, either in part or in full.

"Who was at the controls and what happened at the end is an open question," says Craig. "Inside the FBI or with anyone else. No one knows."

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