Former Cambria County Coroner, chief deputy recalls efforts during 9/11

Remembering 9/11

CAMBRIA COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ) – James Zangaglia took on the role of chief deputy coroner for Cambria County in 1989. Now, 32 years later, Zangaglia is retired and holds a lifetime of memories from working with the coroner’s office.

The most notable memory, however, was helping at the Flight 93 impact site for 11 days after the September 11th attack.

Even though he had been in his position for a decade at the time, Zangaglia said he’s never witnessed anything like the scene of the Flight 93 crash site.

“The scene was like being on a moon. And there was smoke and debris everywhere, and the stench of aviation fuel.”

James Zangaglia, chief deputy coroner, Cambria County

When Zangaglia initially received the call, he and his team were hours away from Somerset County. They were attending a Pennsylvania Coroners Association convention in Allentown, Pa. So when he received the call for assistance, he headed straight for Somerset and arrived within hours.

“Air transportation was down, we couldn’t fly back, the only vehicles on the highway or the turnpike were state police.” Zangaglia explained

For 11 days, Zangaglia spent dawn until dusk working on the site. Despite the hardship he faced, he said walking away from the location wasn’t easy when it was time for him to return to his regular duties.

“I really didn’t want to leave. Don’t ask me why because I was sunburned and tired and beat. But just the emotions, the feelings…” Zangaglia recalled.

James Zangaglia revisited his former office where he worked for about 17 years as the chief deputy coroner.

Working under the orders of Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller at the time, Zangaglia was tasked with bagging and tagging human remains to the state police. Initially, canines were brought in, to assist with the investigation. But due to the condition of the site, that operation proved to be unsuccessful.

“The state police had brought in cadaver dogs, which did not work out because there was just so much out there, the dogs were going crazy.”

James Zangaglia, chief deputy coroner, Cambria County

Zangaglia says he was impressed with how well local, state and federal officials coordinated their work throughout the entire investigation. Specifically, he says Wallace Miller who spearheaded the effort, was crucial in taking charge of the assignments for those working at the site.

“Wally was the hub, he was telling us where to go, where our triage was, stayed in communication with us. If somebody needing something—somebody else would jump in and help.”

James Zangaglia, chief deputy coroner, Cambria County

An intense and taxing investigation for everyone involved, Zangaglia says being organized was essential among all the agencies to help efforts run smoothly.

Zangaglia kept a diary while he worked on the site, writing down the emotions, memories and interactions he had with others during those 11 days. One of the most impactful moments for him was an exchange he had with a Flight 93 passenger’s family member.

“While we had taken the caskets out to the site, we were coming back and the one family member, grabbed my hand and said ‘thank you.’ That did it.”

James Zangaglia, chief deputy coroner, Cambria County

Now, as the 20th anniversary of September 11th approaches, Zangaglia hopes future generations take the time to visit the Flight 93 memorial to be educated on this crucial piece of American history.

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