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Remembering 9/11: Dr. Tom Hyslip Remembers Shanksville

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From Dr. Thomas Hyslip, 9/6/21

I don’t think about it often, but when I do it feels like yesterday, and I am transposed back to the field in Western Pennsylvania.  The smell of burnt jet fuel, nothing left but tiny pieces of metal and fabric. The hole, it was so small.  How did an entire jumbo jet disappear into the ground? 

    Like most everyone else in the United States, September 11, 2001, started off as a normal day. I had recently transferred from the U.S. Secret Service to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Criminal Investigation Division.  I drove to my office in Wheeling, WV and was working on some investigative reports when my boss yelled into my office, “turn on the TV!”  He had received an email from our headquarters that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

    The coverage was the same on every channel, a plane did indeed fly into the World Trade Center.  Most reporters were speculating that it must be an accident. Many were asking what type of plane it was, how could the pilots not avoid the building?  Then during the live television coverage, the second plane appeared and hit the south tower.  Many reporters did not know what to make of it, and speculation was all over the place.  Then 34 minutes later a plane crashed into the Pentagon, and it became apparent, the United States was under attack.  Television coverage began to show the brave first responders in New York City and Arlington, Virginia. People were streaming out of the towers and the Pentagon.  Then the unthinkable happened, The South Tower of the World Trade Collapsed.  A few minutes later news reports began to say another plane had crashed in Western Pennsylvania.  As confusion rained and people ran for their lives in NYC from the collapsing South Tower, the North Tower collapsed.  As I stood in the office, everyone was speechless.  Then the call came to evacuate all government buildings, and I was sent home. 

    I drove home listening to the radio, and the local reports were confirming a plane did crash in Western Pennsylvania near Shanksville.  I knew the area well, I covered Somerset County while with the Secret Service and it was only an hour away.  I got home and watched the news with my wife, Susan and we were in shock, how, why, so many innocent people died, for what?  Then I got really pissed off.  All of a sudden my government cell phone rang, it was my boss.  “The FBI needs our help, meet me in Shanksville tomorrow morning, get there as early as possible. I don’t know how long we will be gone so pack for at least a week.”  My wife asked what was wrong and I said I have to go to Shanksville tomorrow morning the FBI needs my help. 

    I couldn’t sleep, between the shock of the attacks and wanting to get to Shanksville, I just laid there. Finally, at around 4:30 AM I got out of bed, and left for Shanksville.  I arrived around 6:00 am and the town was swarmed with Pennsylvania State Troopers and local fire departments. I meet my boss at the Shanksville Fire Department and they lead us to the crash scene. 

    The scene was surreal.  It was controlled chaos.  You could see smoke as we drove up and the smell of the burnt jet fuel, fields and trees was ever present.  The FBI had a small command center setup, we signed in and went to work. The evidence response team was setting up a grid of rope throughout the field and establishing a perimeter around the crash site.  I walked up to look at the hole and couldn’t believe it. The hole seemed so small, where was the plane?  There were small pieces of metal, and fabric from the airplane seats, little pieces of language and paper flying about.  But no large pieces of the airplane.  It was difficult to grasp what I was looking at.  There were sporadic fires flaring up thru the hole and the field had been scorched.  The trees in the distance had burned as well.  Behind the trees was a small pond. Later the FBI drained the pond to retrieve pieces of the plane that flew into the pond at impact. 

    Then I was put to work. At first, I helped setup the secure perimeter, until I ran into the FBI’s Supervisory Senior Resident Agent (SSRA), the man in charge of the scene. He was a friend on mine and we taught together at the Bethel Park, PA Police Citizen Academy every year, but I cannot remember his name.  He didn’t realize I had recently transferred to the EPA-CID and asked what the Secret Service was doing here, was there a protectee coming to the site?  I told him I was now with the EPA and we were there to assist.  So, he took me up the hole again and asked what he should do about protecting the health of the evidence response team members who were now working inside the hole?  They had on respirators and protective suites, but he didn’t know if they were the correct respirators, what gases and fumes were present, etc.  I recommended we bring in a team of scientists from the EPA and setup air monitoring stations around the entire site for current protection and to know what everyone was being exposed to in case they have health issues in the future. He agreed, and the next day the EPA sent a team of contractors who worked under the Superfund contract.  The SSRA then walked me around the site and gave my boss and I quick over of the plan.  He asked if we could supervise the EPA team that was being sent and that was our job going forward. 

As we walked around the site, there were many different agencies present, all leading a hand however they could.  I remember seeing my friends from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and asked what they were working on.  They said the airplane was carrying a lot of US mail and the Inspectors were there to collect any mail that was found.  I asked what they would do with the mail, and they said their job was to record all the addresses, then destroy the mail and notify the sender and receiver their mail was damaged and could not be delivered. They would tell the people how the mail was damaged.

As the first day came to an end, we did not know where we would sleep.  I asked my friend the FBI SSRA and he said there was a block of rooms at a hotel in Somerset, PA, for the FBI and he would call to reserve us two rooms.  After we checked in, we went to the restaurant in the hotel, and it was full of law enforcement and first responders. Lots of FBI and Pennsylvania State Police. I knew many of them and we all talked and had a few drinks. It was a weird evening, no one talked about the crash site, but more so about the events of 9/11 in general. I think everyone was still trying to process what we were doing and witnessing at the crash site.  When I got back to my room, I called home to talk with Susan and she was with our good friends, so she wasn’t alone.  I talked briefly with my friend Justin, then talked more with Susan. As she began to ask about details of the crash site, I began to cry.  I had not processed anything from the 9/11 attacks overall, to victims of flight 93 at the crash site. I couldn’t stop thinking about the victims, who were they, how many, were there any children, and the fact there was literally nothing left of the airplane. How could that entire airplane disappear into the ground with hardly a trace?   

The next morning, we returned to the crash site and there was now a full command center running and the FBI was printing IDs for everyone to wear at the site.  My boss and I got our IDs and waited for the EPA science team to arrive. They called us from the fire department, and we led them to the site. We introduced the team to the FBI SSRA, and they explained their plan after reviewing the crash site in detail.  They setup air monitoring stations all around the crash site and logged all the data. My boss and I took shifts escorting the science team and standing with them at the hole. 

The FBI had brought in a backhoe and soil screener to dig into the hole and recover pieces of the airplane. They were searching for the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder. As the backhoe took a scoop of dirt a team would manually search in the hole, while another team used the soil screener to filter out pieces.  On September 13 the FBI found the flight data recorder at a depth of 15 feet. The next day they found the cockpit voice recorder at a depth of 25 feet.  These recorders are usually referred to as the black boxes on airplanes. But they are not black, they are in fact bright orange in color.

As I took breaks from escorting the EPA science team, I walked around and talked to different people at the site.  I also noticed there was also a large semi-truck trailer parked at scene and law enforcement from all different agencies were constantly bringing in luggage and boxes. I knew the FBI agent that was collecting the items at the trailer and asked him what these were? He said the planes cargo doors opened in flight before the crash and pieces of luggage and cargo has fallen from the plane.  He said the plane dropped these pieces for about 100 miles and as people called the police to say they found a suitcase or cargo; the FBI would send someone to pick it up and bring it to the crash site. 

At this point, my days became the same. Escort the science team to the site and watch them. I don’t know for sure how long I was at the site, maybe 5-7 days. But on my last day at the site, I was standing with the science team when the FBI SSRA approached me.  He said the FBI needed me in Pittsburgh and called my boss over. 

The Pittsburgh FBI had been assigned to investigate the cyber elements of the attacks. I was assigned to the FBI Cyber task force in Pittsburgh for the two years before the attack. The FBI SSRA said the task force needed help and when he told Dan, the FBI Supervisory Special Agent in charge of the cyber task force that I was at the crash site, he said to send me to Pittsburgh because they needed help. 

When I arrived at the FBI Pittsburgh Field Office the next day, it was crazy. There were so many people there. Every federal law enforcement agency had agents assigned to the call center. Any calls that came in about the 9/11 attacks were routed to the call center and a federal agent would interview the caller. If there was a credible lead, it was assigned to a team to investigate.  The teams were also agents from every federal agency. It didn’t matter if you were FBI, Secret Service, DEA, or EPA, everyone was there doing their part. I went to Dan’s office, the SSA over the cyber task force and he gave me the run down of what was going on. The Pittsburgh FBI was handling the email portion of the investigation as well as other cyber elements. I had my computer forensics station at the task force and Dan told me to get with my friends, Tim and Mike, both FBI agents, to take a portion of the emails for review. For the next few weeks, we combed thru the 19 hijackers email accounts.  The vast majority of the emails where from pornography websites and spam messages selling junk.  I can only recall one potential lead we found in the thousands of emails. One email message was infected with a virus that spread itself by sending new messages with the virus to every person in the email address book. This meant, whomever sent this email to the hijacker, had the hijacker’s email address in their address book.  We typed up the information and sent the lead for the owner of the email address to be interviewed. I never learned what happened with the email user.

Eventually the work slowed down and people began to revert to their normal jobs. I stayed assigned to the FBI Pittsburgh cyber task force for the next year until I was transferred to Raleigh, NC, by the EPA. 

Now 20 years later, I am writing this and recalling the attacks of September 11, 2001. It brings back so many memories, mostly all bad, the smell of jet fuel, the hole in the ground, and the question why? But there are a few good memories that offer a light in the darkness. The brave souls on Flight 93 who fought back and saved countless others on the ground at the intended target of flight 93.  All the law enforcement and first responders. Everyone doing anything asked, just trying to help however they could.  And now I fight back tears!

Dr. Hyslip is a Wellsville High School Graduate, an decorated Army combat veteran, served in the Secret Service, the EPA, the Department of Agriculture, and these are just the highlights. Today, Hyslip resides in Tega Cay, SC with his family and a contingent of Wellsville alumni. Tom teaches cybersecurity at the University of South Florida and works part time trying to keep up with his best buddy Brad O’Connor.

*Do you have a 9/11 experience or memory you’d like to share with the readers of the Wellsville Sun? This week we will be featuring articles, memoirs, and remembrances from the day almost 20 years ago that shaped all of our lives. Email anytime! [email protected]

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