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Controller realized that Flight 93 hijacked

August 20, 2018

SHANKSVILLE — John Werth and Mal Fuller never met each other until both men were featured in this year’s final program of a speaker series, which was held at the Flight 93 National Memorial over the weekend.

Werth worked as a Cleveland-based air traffic controller for 32 years and was the first person who realized that United Airlines’ Flight 93 had been hijacked and crashed into a Somerset County field as part of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“I was pretty sure it wasn’t the crew after the first few transmissions, especially when they said they had a bomb on board,” Werth said, adding that Flight 93 was the only aircraft that did not return his call. “I started to call all the other aircraft just to make sure that I was talking with all the other crew. It was kind of a process of elimination to see who was and wasn’t (responding.)”

“When the crash was confirmed, I felt anger, frustration, sadness and loss. Even though I knew none of the victims personally, I always felt that I lost 40 people that day,” Werth said in a press release.

Fuller, who worked as Greater Pittsburgh International Airport’s watch supervisor of the control tower and radar room for 18 years, said he remembers Sept. 1, 2001 all too well.

“I went to the break room — where we generally had CNN on — we had no other word aside from the television. Like most folks, (I) just went into denial thinking that this could not have been a purposeful act; it had to be a plane that somehow went off course and spun into the building,” Fuller said about when the World Trade Center had been hit.

“I went back into the radar room and thought about it for a few minutes and thought, ‘I’m going to go back and see if CNN knows anything else because we still aren’t getting any word.’ As I walked into the break room, I saw the second aircraft hit, and that’s when I knew — we were either at war (or we) are going to war — the question was: with whom?”

Fuller said he thought the Pittsburgh control tower would be a target, too.

“That’s when I felt like I was in either a Tom Clancy novel or an episode of “24” because anything that was impossible was happening. I was starting to wonder if I would see my wife and kids again.”

The second-annual speaker series was a joint effort between the National Park Service and Friends of Flight 93 National Memorial nonprofit. Werth and Fuller’s program, which was the fourth in the series, had been moderated by the nonprofit’s President Donna Gibson and was sponsored by the Somerset Trust Co.

The series brought about 1,200 visitors to the memorial this year, according to officials. Even though not everybody had a seat to sit in, with roughly one-third of attendees standing, a crowd of about 150 visitors attended the program on Sunday. Among the attendees was McMurray, Washington County, resident Bob Donnan, who said he drove one and a half-hours to be there.

“I thought it was great to have people with first-hand experience sharing their details of the events that occurred,” Donnan said, adding that he has visited the national memorial about a dozen times. “This story has just always been extremely interesting to me. I have an interest in planes; I have an interest in history. This story was about sacrifice.”

Fuller is a former Friends of Flight 93 board member and said he tells his story to promote education and understanding for future generations.

“It has become increasingly evident as I speak to high schools and colleges, that today’s students have very little to no connection with 9/11 and even less understanding.”

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