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Shul in Shanksville

By Robert Strauss

33a_flight93.jpgIt was Yom Kippur, 2001, and Rick Hellman couldn’t get home for services. He was heading up the forensic pathology team investigating Flight 93 in Shanksville, halfway across Pennsylvania from his Delaware County home.

“I tried so hard in the previous two weeks of working there to emotionally detach myself,” said Hellman, almost a decade after the horrific terrorist attack that killed all on that plane. “So I went to a shul in Shanksville. At those services, I sat in the back of the congregation and just cried. It showed that it was hard to do what I was doing and be completely emotionally removed.”

The government had called Hellman because when he was in the military, he had had several mass disaster missions—plane crashes that had at least 30 casualties. He was at his job at the Delaware County Medical Examiner’s office, performing autopsies, when the news of the 9/11 attacks came over the radio that Tuesday. By Thursday, he was on the road to Shanksville to lead a team of 35 to 40 people, looking for human remains among the shards of the rural Pennsylvania crash.

“Anything that had any tissue on it had to be X-rayed and, as you can imagine, pieces of tissue were all over the place. The plane hit with such force that there were really not all that many dental remains,” he said. “We did what we could with prints and dental remains, but mostly it was dealing with DNA and hair samples.”

Hellman said he was on scene for a little more than two weeks, just weeks after the birth of his twins. “There are things I am not allowed to say even now, but coming, as it did, right after the birth of my children, it made me value life even more,” he said. “I have a copy of the movie about Flight 93, and I still can’t watch it all the way through.”

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