United 93: an interview with former FBI agent Matthew Hoke

by Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.
For the 22nd anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 Undicisettembre is offering its readers the personal account of former FBI agent Matthew Hoke who responded to the crash site of flight United 93 in Shanksville.

We would like to thank Matthew Hoke for his kindness and his help.

Undicisettembre: Can you give me a general account of what happened to you on 9/11?

Matthew Hoke:
On 9/11 I was the coordinator of the Huntington Violent Crime/Drug Task Force in Huntington, West Virginia, it was run by the FBI and included local and state police officers. We had been following a group of individuals who were acting unusually, they were renting a car from the airport near us on a Friday, driving like 3.000 miles returning the car on a Monday; that's a lot of driving and they did it several times. I had an hour to drive to go to work everyday, so I was listening to a national radio station and they reported that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. On the radio they made it sound like it was a small prop plane, so I didn't think much of it.

As I'm pulling into the parking lot of my office, which was an off-site that was unmarked because we did a lot of covert stuff such as drugs purchases and things like that, the second plane hit the South Tower. Like everybody else, immediately we understood we were dealing with something that was not a simple prop plane flying into the World Trade Center. Back then we didn't have cellphones, we had pagers. I was on the Evidence Response Team, which is a collateral voluntary duty of the FBI, and I received a page that told me to pack for two weeks because we were going to go to New York.

I drove home quickly and as I'm packing I received another page that said that a plane had crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and we were being diverted because Shanskville is in the Pittsburgh Division of the FBIs territory and Pittsburgh was my headquarter city. We drove immediately to Shanksville, we were a group of twelve or fourteen agents, it's usually a five or six hour drive but we got there in four hours.

United Flight 93 had crashed in an open field which was an old strip mine, on a bluff there were still empty warehouses. With a quarter-of-a-mile road through the woods you could reach the field where the plane crashed. The crash site was a couple of hundred yards from the opening of the woods, just off the road. By the time we got there in the early afternoon there were like three hundred people and several buildings set up; the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army were there, portable cell towers for telephone service, air conditioned tents, and the people there were already gathering evidence from the crime scene.

What I was preparing myself for while I was driving up was an airplane wreck, but the plane, as we found out, was going so fast and at a such angle that when it hit the earth, the earth shot up into the air and landed back on the remains of the plane. So you wouldn't see what you normally see in a plane accident. Anybody who had never worked on anything similar, wouldn't think there was a plane accident there. You could see the outline of the wings where the earth was moved, but you could see no big pieces of the planes. They assigned leads to go and find evidence. There were large postal packages on the plane, letters and paper were scattered everywhere; the farthest away we found evidence was in backyards eight miles away, things got caught up in the jet stream and pushed that far away.

That was the beginning of it, which we did for fourteen days. They set up a morgue and a room for evidence recovery. The main function of my team was not only to find evidence but to find the two black boxes: the data box and the voice recording box. We began doing that and we ended up finding the voice recording box like 38 feet in the ground and the data box 28 feet in the ground.

At the same time there were excavations going on. The heavy things like the engines and the wheel wells didn't break up like the fuselage did, they got shot forward and we found one engine in a pond a quarter of a mile away. We did some amazing things while we were there that showed what we could do when we get rid of the bureaucracy and only cared about making things happen. After 9/11 it rained for a few days so the road from the warehouse to the crash site was just mud and vehicles were having a hard time getting in and out of that location; I left one night, came back the day after and they had paved that road overnight. Things like that, things you don't normally see, just happened; everything got done very quickly.

Undicisettembre: How long have you been there, sifting for evidence?

Matthew Hoke: The crime scene was two weeks. In those two weeks we did a lot of things, they brought Evidence Response Teams from five different divisions, it wasn't just the Pittsburgh Division but also Cincinnati, a team from Tennessee, a team from Chicago and Cleveland. There were a lot of us there, every team had their duty and since we were the team from the division the crash happened in, we were responsible for the crash site. Another team was responsible for the woods that got burned out because of the jet fuel, they had a tougher job in terms of smell and danger because of the air they were breathing.

We were in the open, in a field bringing out tons and tons of dirt, putting it through a sifter, a huge machine that sifted it down to a half of an inch, from that sifter we would create a pile and from that pile we would hand sift to a quarter inch. One of our main goals was to identify anybody who was on that plane and eventually we accomplished that, we identified all the victims and the terrorists on the plane based on DNA. But it wasn't like we were finding large body parts, we were finding teeth, small pieces of skin. They were going to the morgue where the identification process began.

I was happy to be there and to be part of the solution, but at the same time not one of us knew what was going on in the outside world: we didn't know if we were going to war or if we had already gone to war. We had a little revolt three or four days into the crime scene, because we weren't getting information; because of health issues we had masks on, so we could not listen to radios or to the news and we got no updates. We wanted to be informed of what was going on, so our revolt consisted in asking for briefings at the crime scene about what was going on in the rest of the world: they did that, they started briefing us twice a day and giving us information about what was going on. That made it a lot easier to continue with our assignment.

Undicisettembre: How much did you guys know while doing that of the reason why the plane came down? Did you guys assume right away that it was because of a revolt of the passengers?

Matthew Hoke: It was just rumors initially. A lot of the town's people thought the United States Government had military jets shoot the plane out of the air because it was on a path to either the White House or the Capitol. I never believed that.

Five days in, family members of the victims came to the scene; at that time we knew what the passengers had done, they were heroes, brave and strong as nobody else. When their families came, they were just as strong. There weren't a lot of tears, there was a sad but proud feeling. We had a ceremony with the families there at the bluff where the command post was. I was so impressed with the strength of those families and it made us want to do the best job possible, either sifting or whatever your duty was, they were inspirational.

I went to the memorial in 2019 for the first time, it took me 18 years to go to the memorial, I went with one of my friends who was in the Pittsburgh Division with me. It was very emotional, but that respect and inspiration from the families continued and was strengthened by seeing what they had done at the memorial.

Undicisettembre: You mentioned finding pieces of the airplane and human remains, did you guys also find objects, like luggage or things that people were bringing with themselves?

Matthew Hoke: Yes, we found a lot of clothing, pictures, personal identification documentation and things of that nature, but that was found mostly in the woods while I was at the crash site; I personally wasn't finding a lot of that stuff because I was sifting through the dirt brought to us from the actual crash site of United Flight 93 looking for human remains. But we did find many objects and we identified everything and everybody based on what we found and DNA testing from human remains.

Undicisettembre: You also mentioned the black boxes, have you seen them?

Matthew Hoke: Yes, I was there when we found them and that was the number one goal in the very beginning, we found them at nighttime and they were immediately flown to Seattle so they could be tested and they could get data off of them. Everything happened really fast, there was no delay and we cut right through any normal administrative issues. It was impressive.

Undicisettembre: You saw pieces of the airplane, you saw objects belonging to the victims, you saw human remains, so what's your reaction when you hear people saying it was staged and that no plane crashed there?

Matthew Hoke: Well, it's frustrating to even talk about this. A conspiracy this big would mean that no one said anything in more than twenty years, it's just an easy out of the ignorant. By ignorant here I mean people who don't take time to do their own due diligence and find their correct news sources.

This is not just a problem with 9/11, this is a problem in general and it's very bad right now in the United States, some people are lazy as far as where they get their news from and how they count that first news source they read as Gospel without checking, fact checking and back checking it.

So it's frustrating but anybody who has worked for the FBI or law enforcement deals or has dealt with it during their whole career because somebody is always questioning if something happened or not. And then there are agendas of people who use conspiracy theories to make money.

Undicisettembre: How does 9/11 affect your everyday life?

Matthew Hoke: I gave numerous talks about United 93 and my partners who were there have done the same. It's not something I think about everyday anymore, but it's something that I think about a lot. I wish we didn't require a disaster like 9/11 for our country to come together and cross political disagreements. And I'll never forget the strength and bravery of the victims of United 93, not only did they save the US Capitol or the White House, they also saved hundreds of lives in downtown Washington DC. I cannot even put to words the amount of respect I have for them.

In the United States we were spoiled, because we didn't have terrorism in the back of our minds. Before 9/11 very few US citizens thought of terrorism as a threat to their daily lives. I worked a lot with NCA in the UK, NABU in Ukraine and the Indonesian National Police; terrorism is something they live with everyday and have for a long long time. I think from 9/11 we became a safer country with respect to terrorism and taking the necessary steps to combat it. It is a part of our history and it will always be a tragedy. We are unfortunate that it happened but we now pay more attention than we used to.

Nessun commento: