Much of the focus of the radical Islamists’ terror attacks on September 11, 2001, was the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. But the first responders in a field in rural Pennsylvania faced their own kind of hell as they scoured the scene where 33 passengers and crew died after United Airlines Flight 93 went down.
That’s where two arborists — Mark Trautman and Ben Haupt — ended up after the attack to search through a smoldering forest for evidence in the horrific scene.
“I saw all the wickedness of man,” said Haupt, whose Christian conversion led him to become a pastor who even today uses his Pennsylvania experience to share with parishioners the darkness of sin.
“I look at this place, and I said, ‘I know this isn’t hell,’” Haupt recalled. “But if this isn’t, then how bad is hell?”
Twenty years ago Trautman and Haupt worked as arborists at the University of Pennsylvania tending the historic trees on that campus.
But on 9/11 they were asked to help in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as Reuters reported:
Before the al Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the local arborists climbed trees only to take down branches. When the hijacked airliner slammed into soil in a fiery explosion, turning the woods near Shanksville into a gruesome crime scene suspended above the ground, the two men would be called in for a task that transformed their lives.
For nearly a week, they clambered through the blackened canopy garlanded with wreckage and gore. They plucked down vital evidence for the prosecution of al Qaeda plotters and found remains for grieving families with no bodies to bury.
The two arborists emerged from the hemlocks as changed men, one left unmoored, the other with a renewed purpose.
State Trooper Greg Sullenberger had known Trautman since childhood and thought his expertise as an arborist could prove valuable and help protect others investigating the scene.
John Larsen, the FBI special agent in charge of scouring the woods, called the arborists unsung heroes.
“None of us could do what those guys were doing, and without them we’d have been dead in the water,” Larsen said.
Haupt turned to his faith to see him through 9/11 but Trautman is still suffering, according to the Reuters report.
“Mark Trautman enrolled in the federal World Trade Center Health Program and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder,” the report said. He is finalizing his third divorce, takes a daily antidepressant and sees a counselor twice a month.”
Still, Trautman is proud of his work on that tragic day.
“It was the most important thing I ever did in my life,” Trautman said in the Reuters report.
Trautman and Haupt recently reunited to visit the Flight 93 National Memorial recently after not meeting up for more than a decade.
They couldn’t cover all of the territory at that reunion because much of it is now off limits as it is considered hallowed ground dedicated to the victims.
The site is also much different today, including a stunning memorial to the 33 souls who perished that day.
But in some ways, it remains the same.
“It was a little greener now, but just as silent as before,” the report concluded.