Mercyhurst College professor and several students assisting at airline crash site in southern Pennsy

Dr. Dennis Dirkmaat, an associate professor of anthropology/archaeology at Mercyhurst College and also the director of the forensic anthropology department in the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute, was called on Tuesday, Sept. 11, to assist with the investigation into the airline crash in Somerset County.

Dirkmaat left for the southern Pennsylvania crash site just before noon, taking two Mercyhurst College students and several staff members with him. The team will assist in the gridding, mapping, photographing and excavating of the crash site.

The site in Somerset County was one of four crash sites linked to Tuesday’s terrorist attack on New York City’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in Washington,D.C.

Dirkmaat, along with Dr. James Adovasio, director of the college’s archaeology department, and Allen Quinn, professor of anthropology/archaeology at Mercyhurst, first became involved with handling airline crash sites when they were called to Pittsburgh in 1994 to assist with the crash of USA Flight 427, which crashed just north of the city. 

“Mercyhurst was excavating at Meadowcroft in southwestern Pennsylvania when the Pittsburgh crash occurred. Officials called us because they knew we were down there and they knew we had perhaps the most sophisticated gridding and mapping equipment in the world with us,” explained Adovasio. After the success of that recovery, Dirkmaat developed the process used by Mercyhurst College in Pittsburgh as a model for those crashes that have occurred since then. 

“Prior to Flight 427 and that experience, the methods at airline crash sites had been haphazard at best,” said Adovasio. “We basically map those sites just as we would an archaeology site, and the level of documentation we provide is unparalleled.”

Mapping and documenting the crash site is key, said Adovasio, because the pattern of the remains can be very informative and often leads investigators to the cause of the crash.

Dirkmaat has served as an expert in Guam in 1997 when Korean Air Flight 801 crashed and in Rhode Island when Egypt Air Flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Dirkmaat earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh. He joined the Mercyhurst College archaeology department in 1991. Each May, he presents a forensic anthropology seminar that attracts students, law enforcement officials and coroners from around the world.

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