SOMERSET COUNTY CORONER Wallace Miller discusses his role in Sept. 11 for members of a Friends of Flight 93 Series audience at the Flight 93 National Memorial’s Learning Center in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

SOMERSET COUNTY CORONER Wallace Miller discusses his role in Sept. 11 for members of a Friends of Flight 93 Series audience at the Flight 93 National Memorial’s Learning Center in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

SHANKSVILLE, Pa.

When Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller answered his phone the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he thought he was on the receiving end of a poorly timed prank.

But the grim news that United Airlines Flight 93 crashed onto a Shanksville area strip mine was all too real — and also the beginning of a 10-year “journey” alongside the families of the 40 men and women who died that day, he said in a recent address at the Flight 93 National Memorial.

While the aftermath of 9/11 was often one of heartache and horror, there were also touching moments Miller said he’ll never forget.

Miller spoke to a crowd of approximately 130 people as part of an ongoing Friends of Flight 93 Series at the national memorial’s Learning Center.

National Park Service officials who introduced him at the event described the event as a unique one, noting that Miller served as the lone liaison to family members who lost loved ones that day — and that the coroner hasn’t spoken about it at the site very often.

Miller told the group he wanted to leave the “history books” stuff to the National Park Service and its memorial.

He instead focused on his personal memories — both of the day of the crash and the years that followed.

‘Big trouble’

Sept. 11 would serve as a life-changer for Miller.

But if his schedule had been a bit different that week, he might not have been anywhere near Shanksville when Flight 93 crashed.

The Pennsylvania Coroners Association’s annual convention was getting underway that week — and nearly every one of his colleagues were already in Harrisburg, he said.

“It just happened to work out that I was still at home when I got the call,” he said.

The 911 system was “a mess,” Miller said, adding that he ended up hearing about the crash from a Cambria County Coroner’s Office staff member who called to see if he needed backup.

“I was like, ‘What are you talking about? This isn’t something to joke about right now,’” Miller recalled.

Instead, it was a scenario the second-generation coroner said he never could have imagined.

He arrived looking for a plane and instead found a crater and scattered debris.

There were tiny fires throughout 100 acres of strip mine land.

The odor of unburned jet fuel lingered in the air — and the remains of what was once a mammoth 757 was now scattered among the trees, he said.

“I could hear melted plastic dripping through those trees,” Miller said.

Before long, the flood of first responders — familiar faces Miller recognized from countless accident scenes — were gone, and he was surrounded by federal agents who were quietly at work.

The coroner suddenly had the job of gathering, storing and identifying the fragmented remains of 44 people.

And the world was watching, he said.

“There was all of this stuff I had no control over … yet I was the guy who was going to be responsible for everything,” Miller said.

The ‘face’ of Somerset

Before long, his phone was ringing again.

One minute, it was a distraught Flight 93 family member.

“The next thing you know, it’s a journalist from Russia calling,” he said.

Miller said he even received a phone call from a Lebanese man who was a relative of one of the plane’s four hijackers.

“He wanted to know about his relative’s remains,” he said.

Unlike trying to reach the White House or the lead investigator with the FBI, Miller’s phone number was listed in black and white in the local telephone book.

“I realized I was going to be a face of this investigation … and the face of Somerset County,” he said. “Somerset County was going to be judged by the way I carried myself.”

And there wasn’t exactly a “playbook” to turn to when issues arose, he said, noting the challenges of 9/11 were, in many ways, a first.

Mourning, after

Miller had to quickly arrange a morgue for the remains of the passengers and crew who died in the crash.

He also set up a center at Seven Springs Mountain Resort, where family members from as far away as Japan were suddenly flocking to for answers.

He said he soon realized the phone calls and one-onone meetings alone weren’t enough to console the collective he soon began calling “the families” — brothers, sisters, parents and children — who were mourning the sudden loss of loved ones.

Many were also frustrated by the difficulty of cutting through layers of bureaucratic red tape — another roadblock to their grieving process, he said.

Before long, Miller was leading families to the crash site.

He recalled Flight 93 pilot Jason Dahl’s family coming to Somerset to remember him on his birthday.

Miller arranged it so they could gather near the site where Dahl’s plane crashed — and said he was a bit surprised when one of them asked if they could bring a bottle of champagne.

“I said, ‘I don’t care,’” Miller said.

Soon, his phone rang again.

It was the family of fellow United Airlines officer Leroy Homer Jr., who wondered if they might be able to join the group, he said.

The coroner said he suddenly found himself in the middle of a celebratory memorial — nearly 40 people who were lifting their glasses, smiling and sharing stories about the two men.

Another time, Toshiya Kuge’s family brought Buddhist monks and burned incense to honor the 20-yearold native of Osaka, Japan, Miller said.

Miller said he found himself leaning on lessons he’d learned in his decades in the funeral home business.

“You learn to understand every funeral is different. You have to be adaptable,” Miller said.

In it together

It wasn’t long before Miller said he realized he had to find a way to get all of the families together.

Given that not a single passenger had Somerset area ties, that wouldn’t be an easy task, he said.

Many passengers lived on the West Coast — and others on foreign soil.

He decided to arrange a gathering in Newark, New Jersey, the closest thing to a central location.

At first, Miller worried he wouldn’t be able to scrape together the money to make it happen.

His office didn’t have the discretionary funds, and the county commissioners office turned down the request, he said.

When requests to national funding agencies went nowhere, Miller said he dialed up WDVE radio with an unusual request.

“Neil Young had just written the song, ‘Let’s Roll’ (about Flight 93), and I had it in my mind that I was going to get him to come in here and sing it and raise the money we needed,” Miller said.

He called the radio station’s Sean McDowell for help, recalling that he said, “I’d have to go through a layer of guys. It’d be like the FBI.”

Help arrived anyway.

The United Way stepped up, lining up a hotel for the families, Miller said.

United Airlines followed, covering the airfare to fly them to the event.

Miller described the Newark meeting as a chance to heal — and a start of something more.

Today, the nonprofit Families of Flight 93 group serves as one of the core caretakers of Somerset’s 9/11 story.

The group worked alongside the National Park Service to help develop what stands today as a permanent memorial to the passengers and crew lost that day.

‘Journey’ continues

Miller gathered with families one more time on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — Sept. 11, 2011.

The group had decided that three caskets of still unidentified remains should be buried at the crash site during a private funeral.

The service was not open to the media. But family members said later that a crowd of nearly 500 people, loved ones and first responders gathered while clergy from the Jewish, Christian and Buddhist faiths oversaw the ceremony.

Miller said he saw the moment as closure, both for the families, the passengers and crew — and himself.

“I told them once that there was a time when my role … would be over and I’d be done with this,” he said. “I told them (the 10th anniversary) was that day.”

In that case, Miller was mistaken.

In recent years, with the surge in social media, Miller said he has logged into his Facebook and Instagram accounts to find friend requests from Flight 93 family members.

“They kept it up. Now, I’m friends with all of these guys,” Miller said.

The topics have often shifted to family milestones and sports talk, he said, describing their bond as a special one.

“That’s what happens sometimes. You become friends with someone and you become part of their journey,” he said. “And I honor that.”

Miller likened his own memories of Sept. 11, 2001, to ripples in still water.

They’re a bit easier to talk about today than they were a decade ago — but reminders can still bring those days flooding back, Miller said.

Scott Scherer of Berlin credited Miller for being able to share his stories.

Scherer said he was working in Washington, D.C. when a plane hit the Pentagon and still has powerful memories of that day.

“He was the right person to be there for those families at the right time — when they needed someone like him,” said Scherer, who was among the crowd at the event. “He did well.”


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