"Wally Miller hits the siren on his dark Ford Excursion. He’s alerting the Somerset County sheriffs that he is once again entering the restricted area surrounded by dense forest and enclosed by an eight-foot metal fence. Inside his truck is the familiar stale smell of the wilted flowers that he brings back from the 90 or so funerals he conducts every year. Death has been the family business at Miller Funeral Home in Somerset, Pa., for nearly half a century. Never, though, anything that even remotely resembles this.
Before Miller can even unfold his lanky 6-foot-4 body from the vehicle, a deputy sheriff thrusts at him a plastic baggie containing a handful of jagged metallic nuggets, mangled and melted into irregular shapes, little bigger than children’s marbles. They are the latest of the shreds to be recovered — nearly six months later — of what remains of United Airlines Flight 93. Miller holds up the bag and says that virtually the entire airplane, including its 44 human occupants, disintegrated in similar fashion.
"I’m just a hick," Miller says when he considers the enormity of what he does. "I’m a country coroner." He is a youthful 44, with dark hair and a long, angular face that sometimes suggests a young, shaven version of Abe Lincoln. He is quite comfortable talking about death, most of the time. He grew up watching his father, Wilbur, deal with the grief of countless friends and neighbors, and then Wally succeeded Wilbur, both in running the funeral home and becoming Somerset County’s elected coroner.
The Boeing 757 still heavily laden with jet fuel slammed at about 575 mph almost straight down into a rolling patch of grassy land that had long ago been strip-mined for coal. The impact spewed a fireball of horrific force across hundreds of acres of towering hemlocks and other trees, setting many ablaze. The fuselage burrowed straight into the earth so forcefully that one of the "black boxes" was recovered at a depth of 25 feet under the ground.
As coroner, responsible for returning human remains, Miller has been forced to share with the families information that is unimaginable. As he clinically recounts to them, holding back very few details, the 33 passengers, seven crew and four hijackers together weighed roughly 7,000 pounds. They were essentially cremated together upon impact. Hundreds of searchers who climbed the hemlocks and combed the woods for weeks were able to find about 1,500 mostly scorched samples of human tissue totaling less than 600 pounds, or about 8 percent of the total.
Miller was among the very first to arrive after 10:06 on the magnificently sunny morning of September 11. He was stunned at how small the smoking crater looked, he says, "like someone took a scrap truck, dug a 10-foot ditch and dumped all this trash into it." Once he was able to absorb the scene, Miller says, "I stopped being coroner after about 20 minutes, because there were no bodies there. It became like a giant funeral service."
Thousands of people — the locals estimate up to 1,000 a week — have arrived at an old coal-mining access trail called Skyline Road, where finally they can see what remains of Flight 93: nothing. "There’s not really much to it, is there?" Wally Miller often says to families and other visitors who are bewildered by what they don’t see.
Immediately after the crash, the seeming absence of human remains led the mind of coroner Wally Miller to a surreal fantasy: that Flight 93 had somehow stopped in mid-flight and discharged all of its passengers before crashing. "There was just nothing visible," he says. "It was the strangest feeling." It would be nearly an hour before Miller came upon his first trace of a body part. The emotionally wrenching impact of what happened to the bodies caused Miller to resolve to seek out and talk personally to every one of the victims’ families.
Miller says he is often asked how he copes emotionally with the work he must do. He says he is not sure. Then he tells the church audience that, remarkably, two heavily damaged Bibles were found in the wreckage of the flight; a white one at the crash site that belonged to a passenger who was a practicing Buddhist; and a second one, black, of uncertain ownership. Miller says he ran across the second one on the floor of the warehouse where victims’ belongings were being kept. The second Bible was scrunched up and was lying open, he says, to the 121st Psalm, which is customarily read at funerals. He says he has no idea who left the Bible in that position." – Washington Post (05/12/02)