SHANKSVILLE, Pa. -- Investigators have identified remains of four of the 44 people aboard Flight 93, the jetliner that crashed here 11 days ago, the Somerset County coroner said yesterday.
But the attempt to identify the rest -- a process that involves using DNA testing to confirm the conclusions -- could go on for a year, Coroner Wallace Miller said.
Just the search for remains, across fields and woodlands in a little-populated swath of mountains, could continue for months before Miller decides to call it off.
"It's not going to happen until I'm satisfied that we've done everything we possibly can," he said.
Miller reported the first identifications yesterday as investigators continued to dig through the crash site seven miles northeast of Somerset, shoveling out mounds of earth, then sifting through that soil for remains, personal belongings and bits of the Boeing 757.
"I can't guarantee identifying remains of all the passengers," Miller said, "but I'm hopeful."
Miller would not name the people identified beyond saying that all the people were passengers or crew, not hijackers. He said that the first identification came two days ago, when a tooth was matched to dental records.
"The identifications we have made for now have been mostly through dental records and fingerprints. We're also using radiology (records), and we can find surgical work such as hip replacements," he said.
For now, the remains are being taken to a temporary morgue set up by investigators at Friedens, five miles from the crash site. From there, they will be transferred to the Armed Forces Laboratory at Dover, Del., part of a process in which the FBI has mandated DNA matches as final confirmation.
Victims' families have been asked to provide items such as the victims' hairbrushes and toothbrushes, so that medical investigators can glean samples from which to draw final DNA matches. The DNA matches, in turn, probably will be the link that investigators use to identify most of the remains, Miller said.
But the FBI's demand for DNA links could serve another purpose, offering one clue for identifying the hijackers from the Sept. 11 morning of terror, since investigators have suggested that the air pirates' real identities lie buried under layers of fake IDs.
Miller said that the first identifications brought a measure of solace to the families involved.
When remains are accumulated, they will be turned over to families for interment, a process for which no timetable has been set.
If all goes according to a tentative schedule, the FBI -- overseeing recovery workers clad in white suits to protect them from jet fuel and possible biological hazards posed by human remains -- could turn the site over to Miller.
That would mean the pullout of the 100-member federal Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team, which has aided in handling remains.
But Miller's search for remains could continue for months -- albeit becoming problematic if winter arrives in these highlands like it did eight years ago, with a 30-inch snowfall on Oct. 25.
Already, it is a painstaking operation, since remains were small and scattered by the impact.
"I'm not naive enough to believe we'll get everything, but we'll try to get everything we possibly can," Miller said. " ...When you have a plane traveling at 500 mph, I think you understand what the scenario is."
Once searchers have found the last remains they plausibly can find, Miller said, he and his staff could have thousands of specimens.
Yesterday, investigators drained a two-acre pond about 1,000 feet from the crater where the jetliner slammed into the ground, just another step in hunting airliner parts, personal belongings and remains, Miller said.
Officially, the land is an FBI crime scene. When the FBI leaves, it becomes a coroner's crime scene.
But when he surrenders control of the ground, Miller -- who considers himself a guardian of both the victims' dignity and the place where they died -- said he wants the land preserved, possibly as a government-administered memorial.