FBI Cannot Rule Out Shootdown of Penn. Plane
SHANKSVILLE, Pa. (Reuters) - Federal investigators said on Thursday that they have not ruled out the possibility that United Airlines Flight 93 was shot down over Pennsylvania, after three other hijacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (news - web sites).
As speculation about what happened aboard the Boeing 757 intensified, FBI (news - web sites) agent Bill Crowley told a news conference that it was too early in the crash investigation to rule out any possibility.
He declined to say whether evidence actually pointed to an explosion before the San Francisco-bound jetliner crashed 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh on Tuesday, killing 45 passengers and crew on board.
``We have not ruled out that. We haven´t ruled out anything yet,´´ Crowley said when asked about reports that a U.S. fighter jet may have fired on the hijacked airliner to prevent it from reaching a target, possibly in Washington.
His remark prompted deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to say he would look into the matter. ``I have no information on it at all. In fact, that´s the first I heard, and I´m going to look into it,´´ Wolfowitz, the No. 2 Pentagon official, told a briefing.
Much of the mystery could be settled if investigators locate the plane's so-called black boxes, which could provide a tape-recorded account of what occurred inside the cockpit.
The plane had been en route to San Francisco from Newark, New Jersey, when it veered off course over northeastern Ohio and headed back southeast toward Pittsburgh. Crash investigators said it appeared to be moving in an ``easterly´´ direction when it plunged to earth.
The fact that Flight 93 was the only hijacked plane not to hit a U.S. landmark has brought growing speculation about how the aircraft and its occupants met their fate. The speculation has ranged from a struggle between passengers and hijackers to a bomb explosion.
PLAN TO OVERPOWER HIJACKERSSeveral passengers managed to telephone people on the ground to report the hijacking. Accounts described three hijackers claiming to have a bomb and a plan by passengers to overpower them. There were also reports that one man heard an explosion.
``If they are going to take the plane down, then we are going to have to do something,´´ Deena Burnett of San Ramon, California, quoted her husband as saying during a cellular phone conversation moments before the crash.
The Pennsylvania state police said debris from the crash has shown up about 8 miles away in a residential area where local media quoted some residents as seeing flaming debris from the sky.
But investigators were unwilling to say whether the presence of debris in two separate places evinced an explosion. State Police Major Lyle Szupinka said debris found in the residential area seemed small enough to have been carried by air currents after impact.
Meanwhile, scores of searchers in white or yellow protective overalls collected human remains for storage in a makeshift morgue and set aside piece of the shredded fuselage for forensic analysis as part of an on-site probe expected to take three to five weeks.
Much of the debris is said to be in small pieces, none larger than a briefcase so far.
A team of archeologists were also at work digging for evidence in a huge crater left by the plane's impact.
But officials said the main object of the investigation was to find the flight's voice and flight data recorders, which could prove instrumental to agents trying to unearth the identity of those behind Tuesday's the horrific attacks.
``We´re confident that we´re going to keep working on it and that we will account for it,´´ Crowley said. ``That´s the investigative priority right now.´´
Families of the victims were expected to begin arriving at the crash site outside tiny Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as early as Wednesday afternoon.