WESTMORELAND COUNTY, Pa. — It’s a day Richard Matason will never forget. He was the director of Public Safety for Westmoreland County. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he and others had gathered outside the new 911 center in Hempfield Township to officially dedicate the state-of-the-art facility.
“Around 9:30 (a.m.), one of my guys comes out that was in the command post. He comes out and he says, ‘Hey, a plane just went into the Trade Center in New York City,’ and we just said, ‘What was it, like a smaller aircraft or something?,’ and he said ‘We don’t know just yet.’ Two minutes later he comes in and says, ‘You’re not going to believe it, but another plane hit the other tower.’ And at that point, we’re starting to think this ain’t right, and then shortly after that when the plane went into the Pentagon, everybody’s beeper started going off, and that’s when we realized that the country was under attack,” said Matason.
Matason quickly wrapped up the ceremony to focus on what was unfolding in New York and Washington.
That’s when his center began receiving reports of a low-flying plane.
“One of our telecommunications officers had taken a call from a gentleman by the name of Ed Felt, who managed to get into the bathroom in the airplane, and made a call to whoever, you know 911 call to whoever would receive it. John happened to receive the call. and basically, said the plane’s being hijacked; he wasn’t sure if there’s a bomb on board, but it was just, it happened so fast, because the plane then cruised into Somerset County and then it crashed. I told Dan Stevens, our public information officer, ‘Dan, we just stepped right into the history books,’” said Matason.
Flight 93 was over Mount Pleasant Township when Ed Felt dialed 911 to report the hijacking. The call only lasted 70 seconds. Matason said he listened to the recording before turning it over to the FBI.
“He was in the bathroom. You can tell obviously he was upset. He said a number of times, ‘We’re being hijacked, we’re being hijacked.’ I remember him saying, ‘I think one of these guys has a bomb.’ And then that’s the last I heard on the tape,” said Matason.
Later, Matason and his staff would learn that the plane had crashed in Shanksville, Somerset County, about 40 miles east of Westmoreland County’s 911 center. There were no survivors.
“It was very traumatic for everyone. I remember coming in the next day and the mood in the EOC (emergency operations center) was very somber,” said Matason.
While Matason was dealing with all of this, he was worried about his daughter who was living in Washington, working on her Ph.D. at American University.
“She lived in Shirlington, which is three miles away from the Pentagon, under the flight path of the plane that hit the Pentagon, and we tried calling her. I could not get through; the cellphone signals were jammed. I couldn’t get through to her until late in the day and finally established contact with her, but there were some anxious moments there too, because we really didn’t know what the damage radius was in Washington D.C.,” said Matason.
In the days and weeks after the crash, Matason would learn about the heroics of the passengers and crew who fought back against the terrorists, and likely prevented the plane from crashing into the U.S. Capitol or the White House.
“That’s why that flight will forever be immortalized as a significant event in the fight against terrorism ... it was remarkable what those folks did,” said Matason, who has been retired for a decade, and has visited the site in Shanksville before it was turned into a national park.
“I haven’t been to the new one yet. I was there a couple years ago when it was still in the open field, but it was such an eerie, almost sacred-type feeling that you have when you go to that site, and then you see the names of all the passengers that were on the plane; and of course I was immediately drawn to the Ed Felt marker, because to us that was a personal identification between us and that flight, and I’ll remember his name forever,” said Matason.
The transcript of Ed Felt’s call to the 911 center in Greenburg was released, but the actual audio recording of the tape has never been made public. The Felt family has heard the tape.
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