FBI team puts together pieces from scenes of terror bombings

Explosives Unit skilled in managing attack sites

December 21, 2003|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

QUANTICO, VA. - At the center of a chilly, cavernous garage known as Evidence Bay 1284, Mohammed Atta's suitcase sits atop a table. It's a high-end Travelpro, barely used. On its handle the flight tag reads: American Airlines (Flight) #11. Los Angeles. Sept. 11, 2001.

The suitcase waits here among hundreds of other remnants of the 2001 terrorist attacks at the FBI's national laboratory for investigators who come by every so often to examine it. Across the room are other items - boxes that read "hijacker keys," "hijacker bags," "hijacker computer hard drives." One table holds an envelope marked "hijacker toothbrushes."

The items are not so much evidence of lives lost or buildings collapsed as remnants of the crime itself - clues to basic questions such as who, and complex ones such as how.

"All the events that happened that day are reflected by what we have right here in this room," said Don Sachtleben, supervisory special agent of the FBI's Explosives Unit. "It all tells a story."

While hundreds of other agents track the plot's financing or the hijackers' al-Qaida associates, the Explosives Unit, a small and little-known FBI division, pores over evidence of how the crime was carried out. Its responsibility is the forensic investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks, and its task is to detect the mosaic through a haze of detail.

Within a day of the attacks and in the more than two years since, the unit has used the items in this room for leads into the investigation, as it has done for every suspected terrorist attack since 1993.

The Explosives Unit began the forensic examination Sept. 12. To some, the unit was an unlikely fit: It has just two dozen agents and staff, and its expertise was in investigating bombs. But the reality, amid the chaos of three crime scenes, four disintegrated jets and 2 million tons of rubble, was that the Explosives Unit was the only division with proficiency in managing a large-scale terrorist disaster.

A piece at a time

With the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the Explosives Unit became the terrorist attack unit. And with each new disaster, it has refined its ability to manage the aftermath. Throughout all of them - the World Trade Center in 1993, Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, Saudi Arabia air base in 1996, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassies in 1998, the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, New York, Washington and Pennsylvania in 2001 - one thing is always the same: Something explodes.

"The biggest problem we see at these big crime scenes is organization," Sachtleben said. "It's chaos. Everybody is running around, and you just sort of have to walk into that situation and break it down into adjustable chunks.

"You have to get everybody together and give them a mission," he said. "You give them something to think about so it takes their mind off of the enormity of the problem."

When they arrived at the AlMurrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, unit members said they spent an hour staring at the half of the building that remained.

"You say, `How are we ever going to do this?'" Sachtleben recalled. "Then you get going. You're not going to do it all in one day. You say, `Today we are going to walk down this street and pick up everything that looks like a car part.'"

The parts in Oklahoma helped lead to Timothy J. McVeigh by identifying what turned out to be his rental truck.

The pieces the team collected on the ground in Africa, the type of explosives, the trucks used to drive up to the compounds, pointed to al-Qaida.

The boat parts in Yemen were examined for clues to the vessel's origin. The vehicle identification number from the first trade center bombing led to Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted of masterminding the attack.

It seems self-evident now: McVeigh blew up the federal building. Al-Qaida carried out attacks on the World Trade Center and on the USS Cole. Nineteen al-Qaida hijackers took over four commercial jets and killed nearly 3,000 people.

But, Sachtleben says, at the start, it never is so obvious. In the hours after the towers collapsed, officials could not say definitively that Osama bin Laden was the mastermind or that the hijackers were his followers.

There were, after all, other Middle Eastern men, others traveling alone, others sitting in business or first class who paid cash, on all four planes. They needed to know who was involved, Sachtleben said, and they could not be wrong.

So while the world was focused on New York and the Pentagon, Sachtleben and his team went where they knew almost all the intact evidence would be - in a crater in a Pennsylvania field. More than 90 percent of the key evidence that connected the hijackers to each other, to al-Qaida and to the plot came from Pennsylvania. It is collected here in the evidence bay and in another warehouse in a secret location in Virginia.

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