SOMERSET, Pa. (CNA) — When the last remains from United Flight 93 are buried on Sept. 12, two parishioners of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Somerset, Pa., will finish the work of mercy they started 10 years before: helping family members bury the dead.
The last, unidentified remains of the flight’s passengers “have been stored together for the last 10 years in a location that’s under the coroner’s control,” said Somerset County Solicitor Daniel Rullo.
Those remains, Rullo said “will be interred on Sept. 12 in a ceremony that the coroner’s intending to hold. It’s essentially a funeral ceremony that will take place. There are three caskets of these remains that will be buried at the crash site.”
Rullo, a lawyer who served as head of his parish council for many years, worked closely with County Coroner Wallace Miller, a Catholic convert and his fellow parishioner, to help victims’ families obtain the identified remains of the loved ones they lost on the hijacked flight. A total of 44 people, including the flight crew and the terrorist hijackers, died when the plane crashed into a field.
“That was a Tuesday, on Sept. 11,” Rullo recalled. “I was at a meeting in which we received information from the 911 (emergency) director that there had been a plane crash in the area near Indian Lake.”
Rullo’s 14 previous years as county solicitor had never included an event of this magnitude, nor had Miller’s tenure as the coroner.
“The worst exposure he would have had to these types of things probably would have been a multiple-death (car) accident,” Rullo recalled. “He never had any kind of consequence like this.”
Thus, the two men began a long and taxing process, not only confronting legal and logistical hurdles, but also sharing the burdens of hundreds of virtual strangers who had only one thing in common.
“United Airlines, for free, flew out any family members who wanted to come in. They would go to a resort here in Somerset County, and we would meet with these families on a one-to-one basis, so they’d have the ability to have any questions answered.”
The meetings took place, he recalled, “while all the reclamation was going on, that is, the determination of what remains were there, whether there would be a positive identification from the remains by way of physical observation, or whether it would be necessary to send them to the DNA laboratory.
“A lot of the people just wanted the opportunity to tell us a little bit about the family member, because, you know, these people really had almost nothing in common except for the fact that they were on an airplane together.”
The families had to choose whether to receive the remains of their loved ones as they were identified or in one batch when the work was finished. Some “didn’t want anything back,” Rullo remembered.
For many families, there was also a long waiting process, brought about by the strict rules that govern the certification of a death. “Most of them, because of the fact that you could not make positive identifications (visually) … had to wait for the DNA to come back from the Washington, D.C., laboratory where all the DNA was going.”
The process caused practical problems for relatives, as well as emotional distress. “There were life-insurance policies they needed to apply for, assets they needed to start to transfer, bank accounts had been frozen — all kinds of things that would pose a problem. And we were being told that it could take months until some of the DNA testing could come back.”
That was why Rullo ended up filling a lawsuit, on behalf of the families, to obtain presumptive death certificates for the passengers of United Flight 93.
“It was something that we wanted to undertake in order to assist these people,” he said. “Many of the people were in need of getting assistance right away, trying to move this thing along and get their lives back in order.”
“We undertook to go ahead and have a hearing, in front of our local court, in which we put up evidence from United Airlines, from the FBI and the coroner, and the judge issued presumptive death certificates within 30 days from within the date of the crash.”
Coroner Miller knew how to talk to grieving families, while Rullo’s focus was on their legal rights and interests. Both men helped one another cope with a situation that challenged their expertise in different ways.
“My involvement with (Miller) was more from the standpoint of making sure that he was able to interact with the governing agencies that were involved, whether it was the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, the FBI or the state police.”
“He focused on dealing with the families, the grief counseling that they needed, and I dealt with the legal aspects of everything.”
In 2011, 10 years after their initial efforts, the two men worked to obtain a court order that would allow families to give the last remains of Flight 93’s victims a proper burial.
“Under Pennsylvania law, you had to get court authorization in order to disinter and reinter remains. I had to present a petition with the coroner to the court, authorizing us to disinter and getting the appropriate permit to reinter these individuals.”
Rullo understands the importance of giving the dead a proper burial. The Catholic Church numbers it among the seven “corporal works of mercy,” along with acts such as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.
In retrospect, Rullo is struck by the way that all of Shanksville responded to an unforseeable tragedy.
“It really became something that the community took to heart,” he said. “There have been volunteers who literally embraced some of these family members, sometimes taking them into their home, getting to know them in a very personal way.
“These are volunteers who, when we set up a temporary memorial, would man that memorial whether it was rain, snow, or good weather, just to be there, to tell the story when visitors would come through at the site.”