How five days at Flight 93 crash site shaped one young Mercyhurst scientist's life

Christina Rugh
Your Turn

Editor's note: Christina Rugh was part of a forensic anthropology team summoned from Mercyhurst University to aid in the recovery and identification of the passengers and crew who died after United Flight 93 was hijacked and crashed near Shanksville on Sept. 11, 2001. In this column, she shares with readers her reflections in the days leading up to the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Twenty years. For some that is a lifetime, while for others it’s merely a season. As we all know, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the events of Sept. 11. Certainly, many things have changed since then.

Christina Rugh

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a 21-year-old college senior at Mercyhurst University. As cliché as it sounds, I remember that day like it was just yesterday. It was a beautiful morning as I came out of my honors philosophy class and headed to an American government lecture, where my professor told us to just go home and watch television. I walked back to my apartment on East 38th Street and turned on "Good Morning America." There were phone calls to my then-fiance and to my mom. Then came reports that a plane might have crashed near Pittsburgh. My phone rang with the call that would change my path.

Dennis Dirkmaat, Ph.D., chair of Mercyhurst's applied forensic sciences department, had been summoned to serve as the chief scientific adviser to the coroner at the United Flight 93 recovery scene in Somerset County. Without hesitation, I agreed to go. I quickly threw clothes into a duffel bag and had my roommate drive me back to campus. I hopped into a van with my college professor and three other students, and we drove to Shanksville.

We worked at the crash site for three days, before shifting to the morgue for my last two days there. I won’t go into much detail about what I did for those five days, suffice to say, it has had a profound impact on my life today.

Lasting impact:Nearly 2 decades after 9/11, a former firefighter sees the NYC memorial for the first time

In 20 years, a lot has changed. I married my high school sweetheart in 2002. We have welcomed four children into our lives. This year, my oldest will be a high school senior while my youngest heads off to kindergarten. I am currently the Venango County Coroner. I am frequently asked, “How did you get into this job?” My answer is always the quote from Douglas Adams, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” And, I truly believe that principle is what put me into the events of 9/11.

My experiences in Shanksville and what I learned there about the work of a county coroner guide how I operate my office in Venango County today. In 2001, the coroner in Somerset County was Wallace Miller. He is still the coroner there. I vividly remember how strongly he advocated for the victims and how he treated the families of the passengers as they came to Somerset County. I learned there how to truly be the voice for those individuals who can no longer speak for themselves. Coroner Miller demonstrated strength and compassion, and for impressing that upon me, I am grateful.  

Gordon Felt, right, whose brother died during the crash of Flight 93 greets Wallace Miller, Somerset County Coroner, during the Flight 93  anniversary observance on Sept. 11, 2016. During her senior year at Mercyhurst University, Christina Rugh was part of a team of forensic scientists from Mercyhurst that aided in efforts to identify victims' remains at the Flight 93 crash site. Rugh, 41, who now serves as the Venango County Coroner, said the strength and compassion with which Miller interacted with crash victims' families  taught her "how to truly be the voice for those individuals who can no longer speak for themselves."

Perhaps where 9/11 has had the most profound impact on my life is within my own family. During the time I worked at the crash site morgue, I helped at the triage table. Experts from different fields —  such as pathology, fingerprinting and dentistry — would examine the remains that came in and would determine what stations would review the remains to help make positive identification. One of the last pieces that we reviewed happened to have clothing and a driver’s license in the pocket. I can still remember the clothing. The license belonged to Lauren Grandcolas. I remembered that name for days, but it wasn’t until I left Shanksville that I learned that she was pregnant at the time.

The plane crash site in Shanksville where FBI investigators look over the destroyed Flight 93 hijacked plane.

This woman has been with me since that day. I have cherished being a mother because I know she never had that opportunity. I have told my children about her, and the times that we have been to the Flight 93 Memorial, we have stopped by her name on the wall to honor her.

In forensic science, we are taught what is known as Locard’s Exchange Principle. The principle at its most basic form is that every contact will leave a trace. While usually it pertains to more physical elements, the same can be said of the less tangible. I never physically met those 40 crew and passengers aboard Flight 93, but I feel like they have taught me so much.

They taught me to be courageous in the face of the unknown. They taught me to enjoy every opportunity that you are given because you only have one shot at this life. They taught me love. Those who were able to place phone calls from the plane called to say, “I love you” one more time. They taught me that there is much more to this life.

9/11 legacy:A generation of firefighters witnessed Sept. 11 as teenagers. How did it influence their careers?

On the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 events, steel bracelets were made. My professor received one and gave it to me. I have worn that bracelet on major events in my life, from having my children to the swearing-in ceremonies for my office. It is a physical reminder that I have those 40 people with me.

This photo of Christina Rugh's 9/11 steel wristband and her access cards to the Flight 93 crash site was taken 2011. ROB ENGELHARDT/ERIE TIMES-NEWS

With the anniversary approaching, I debated returning to Shanksville for the memorial events. The impact of those on Flight 93 on me is so great that I feel as though I left a part of myself in Somerset County. In the times I’ve been back to the memorial, it feels like I never left. When we go, I eat at the same restaurant that we ate dinner at every night. As we drive by certain locations, I tell my family what happened there in 2001.

But instead of looking back, I think the best way that I can honor those 40 people is to spend this 20th  anniversary living a full life. I’ll be spending the bulk of my day in bleachers, enjoying events that my high school senior will be experiencing for the last time. I’ll be surrounded by my family and friends. I’m sure we’ll share some laughs. My heart will be full with those around me. But, I will have my bracelet on, and I know, I’ll reach down to touch it a few times that day and I’ll remember. And, with every memory, I will be forever grateful for the impact that 40 strangers have had on my life.

Christina Rugh, 41, is a wife, mother of four children, and serves as the Venango County Coroner.