Arborist Mark Trautman prepares to climb 100-foot tall trees in Center Hall, Pa. He was among those who combed through the wreckage of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001.
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SHANKSVILLE, Pa. —It was a gruesome task that Mark Trautman was called to do in the days after Flight 93 crashed in an old strip mined field alongside a hemlock forest near Shanksville.
A childhood friend, Pennsylvania State Trooper Gregory Sullenberger, called on Sept. 12 to ask if Mr. Trautman could come to the crash site and use his skills as a tree-climbing arborist at Pennsylania State University to help recover evidence.
He and a colleague, Ben Haupt, would be climbing the hemlocks to retrieve pieces of the plane — some as big as a kitchen table — blown into the canopy and stuck into the sides of the tree by the force of the explosion. More horrifically, they were asked to recover physical remains of the passengers — few of them recognizable as human.
"I found somebody's foot. And it was just amazing," Mr. Trautman told Flight 93 National Memorial oral historian Kathie Shaffer in 2006. "At first, you, you didn't — you saw it. You just didn't think it was anything. And then, you look and there's somebody's foot with only three toes left on it. And you know, it just really touched [me].
"It was a, it was a bad situation."
His comments are from a printed transcript of the 2006 interview with Ms. Shaffer. Mr. Trautman's story is among the nearly 700 interviews that the oral history project has preserved for future generations.
Ms. Shaffer said the only reason she knew to contact Mr. Trautman, now 44 and a resident of Spruce Creek, is that she had previously interviewed Trooper Sullenberger.
They arrived on the scene on Sept. 13 and began their work the next day, wearing protective suits and respirators to climb trees — either with spikes on their boots or from set ropes — because of the noxious mix of burning jet fuel, charred metal and plastics, and human remains that Mr. Trautman wishes he could forget.
"But, the smell — it stayed, it stayed with me a long time. A long time. To the point I got it on my boots; I got something on my boots and I still had that smell. And I, I wanted to keep them boots. And after about a month or so, I just, I burned them. That smell was still there," he told Ms. Shaffer. "And I said to [someone], I said, ‘Smell these. It smells like the site.' And that's, that's what I remember the most about it was the smell. It's, you can't even compare it to anything."
But they endured the smell for four long days, working alongside FBI agents from all over the country, including the agent with whom they worked most closely, John Larsen, from the Chicago FBI office.
"Ben [Haupt] came across some remains on, on the first day, and it was pretty large remains, and he broke down," Mr. Trautman told Ms. Shaffer. "And Agent Larsen broke down with him. So, it just — I don't know if he did it to just let us know that everybody's human, but that was something to see a man of his experience break down with Benny. But, as Larsen said, ‘Hey, you have a good cry once in awhile and it helps you out.'"
The scene working in the forest was surreal, Mr. Trautman told Ms. Shaffer.
"That was the other unique thing. Since I have property 20 miles from here … [when] you're in the woods, you're constantly hearing chipmunks rattling around," he recalled in 2006. "It, it was just, it was really strange. Really strange. There was nothing. No birds. Nothing."
But a few months later, friends of his who live in the area told him wildlife did return, for its own reasons.
"There was quite a flock of crows in the area for quite a while in the fall of that year, so I don't think we got everything," he said. "But that's nature's way. It's nature's way."
The work Mr. Trautman and Mr. Haupt did at the crash site had an impact on both of their lives, Mr. Trautman said.
Mr. Haupt, who had been thinking about going into the ministry, left Penn State in December, 2001, to become a minister.
And Mr. Trautman, who felt he needed more freedom after working in a union situation with several layers of administration above him, left in May, 2002, to start his own business.
His work on Flight 93 has stayed with him in other ways, too.
"My mother has this saying she used to say to us when we were kids. She'd get us out of bed — and this kept going through my head all the time while I was down here — ‘Rise and shine. Your country needs you,'" he told Ms. Shaffer. "Probably the, one of the most important things about [this is it is] the most important thing I've ever done. Definitely."
When he returned to work, Penn State officials wanted to celebrate him and Mr. Haupt in a patriotic parade, Mr. Trautman told Ms. Shafer, and put him front and center for media to interview. But Mr. Trautman, bothered by the crassness of the attempt, refused and told them to never put any media in touch with him.
As a result, his interview with Ms. Shaffer is the only one he has ever given until talking to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently.
Mr. Trautman, tall and fit with the perpetual tan of someone who works outside for a living, had to give some thought to talking to the newspaper, finally deciding, he said in his baritone voice, "enough time has passed."
"I can talk about it now and I'm glad I did the oral history. It's something my great-great-grandchildren will be able to read," he said.
Like all other first-responders who worked at the crash site, he has been invited to the 10th anniversary ceremony, which he intends to attend.
He said he has purposely avoided going back to the site because of the intensity of the emotions it generates.
"It's just hard," he said.
He visited only once before — the day he was interviewed by Ms. Shafer in 2006. He hoped to go again before the 10th anniversary, to prepare himself so that his emotions are in check during the ceremony.
He wasn't sure if he couuld get there before Sunday's anniversary, however. He was called out again recently, this time to help out in the wake of another tragedy — Hurricane Irene, on the East Coast.
Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Sean D. Hamill is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette; contact him at: email@example.com or 412-263-2579.
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