‘A needle in a haystack’: The discovery at the Pentagon that this Montco FBI agent will never forget

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The summer of 2001 was full of changes for Scott Duffey. He had married in July, and by August, his wife was pregnant with their first child.

He had also just returned home to Ambler, Montgomery County, from Dubai, where he spent a month participating in a terrorism training mission.

He was asleep the morning of Sept. 11 when he got the call.

“It’s my wife on the phone and her first words are, ‘Where are you going and when are you going?’ And I had no clue what she was talking about,” Duffey recalled. “She realized and said, ‘Hey, turn on the TV.’ ”

Duffey saw the attacks, which would alter the course of his career. He had been working on a drug investigation in Wilmington, but by noon that day, he was ordered to “pack accordingly” and head for New York City.

While on the road, his mission changed.

“Within minutes being on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, [we] were told to stand down. We’re gonna be heading to the Pentagon,” he said.

Duffey arrived at the Pentagon the morning of Sept. 12. He was on an FBI evidence response team, and his role was to be the photographer. In the month that followed, he worked 12-hour shifts and documented everything he could with his 35-millimeter camera.

“We were specifically looking for human remains and for anything attached to that aircraft, inside that aircraft,” he said. “It was dark inside, and the water and the soot and just the immense damage — trying to literally locate a needle in a haystack.”

The unprecedented nature of the situation heightened safety concerns, but Duffey was confident that the layers of security, including an extensive perimeter around the Pentagon, would keep them safe. It was a painstaking search that paused whenever remains were discovered, out of respect for the victims.

During a shift, one of Duffey’s teammates found a military-green Velcro wallet, perfectly intact underneath thick soot and debris. In it was a hotel key card and a photo ID. They quickly realized it belonged to one of the hijackers.

“As all this was unfolding, we knew we had the names of [one of the] suspects of the hijackers,” said Duffey. “You can only imagine at that point, the bells and whistles are going off.”

That key piece of evidence was taken away for further investigation. Soon, after a search warrant was approved, Duffey and his colleagues joined the investigation team of that hotel room.

“To be inside that room knowing that one of the hijackers, if not several of the hijackers, were gathered in that room — you can’t help but think, what were they thinking? What was going through their minds?” he pondered.

Duffey, who now resides in Glenside, spent his 22-year FBI career in Wilmington. He retired in August 2018, then became the director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Wilmington University.

The events of 9/11 are always with him.

“For what you see, you can’t unsee,” he said. “But you try to process it in a way that all makes sense and live on, especially carrying on the memories of those who had passed.”

Each year, when remembrance ceremonies take place, Duffey thinks about his fellow Americans who were killed in the attacks. He also remembers the 15 FBI agents who died due to 9/11-related health issues in connection with investigations at the Pentagon, New York City and Pennsylvania.

“There isn’t a day when I go for my follow-up physical that I’m not thinking, ‘Is there something lurking that otherwise would not have been there?’ ” he asked. “It makes me appreciate life.”

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Scott Duffey