Day of Terror, Year of Courage
SHANKSVILLE: The crash of United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, put the anonymous community of Shanksville on the world map and gave it the black stamp of history as the first battleground of America’s ongoing war against terror.
Since the hijacked plane slammed into the soft ground of an abandoned strip mine just outside town, legions of people have flocked to Somerset County, bound together by a vocabulary of national grief and the collective memory of evil.
For some, the land about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh is a cemetery, a mass grave for the bodies of the 40 passengers and crew members killed in the crash.
For others it’s sacred ground, a place of hope, with the reported fight of several passengers to overtake the terrorists serving as a metaphor for the country’s larger war on terrorism and a sign that we aren’t completely powerless.
And still others come to find meaning and attempt to heal from their anger and uncertainty, to make sense of the senseless attacks that rocked the nation and launched Shanksville into the maelstrom of the 21st century.
One year ago today, on a clear Indian summer morning, Paula Pluta watched from her home as Flight 93 sank into the same ground where days before she took her children to splash in the mud and skip rocks.
“I heard a loud roaring,” Pluta said. “You could tell it was a plane and that it was too close. The windows shook. I saw the plane nose-dive. Then I saw it explode.”
When Pluta drove to the crash site minutes after calling 911, she was dumbfounded because all she saw were small fires, snapped pine trees and shards of metal – no seats, no airplane wings and, most disturbingly, no bodies or living victims.
“It was just a smoldering hole,” she said. “I never would’ve thought a plane went down there at all if I hadn’t seen it.”
When Pluta looks out the bay window of the hair salon she runs in the front room of her house along Lamberstville Road, scenes of flames and smoke replay in her mind.
“I try not to dwell on it,” she said, with a difficult smile. “For a while I was literally glued to the TV, but now I can barely watch the news.”
But for Pluta and the other residents of Shanksville and its surrounding communities, the bumper-to-bumper parade of cars, buses and motorcycles that passes daily en route to the temporary memorial for Flight 93 makes forgetting – even for a few moments – impossible.
The interim memorial sits on top of a remote hill overlooking the crash site, which is inaccessible to the public.
By its nature, the wide-open space raises unanswered questions.
Flight 93 was bound for San Francisco from Newark, N.J., when the hijackers took over and turned the Boeing 757 toward Washington, D.C. Did the passengers who investigators believe took control of the jet know they were headed toward a fourth target such as the White House or Capitolâ¢ Did they choose this empty patch of Pennsylvania land to avoid greater catastrophe?
Except for the rustling of flags, the jingle of tiny bells left by visitors and the din of distant tractors, the memorial is silent. But it represents an outpouring of raw emotion that might best be described by one word: American.
An unremitting stream of pilgrims from as far away as Hawaii and Guam have built a shrine to the people who died aboard the airliner.
They brought stuffed animals, license plates, silk flowers, plaques, rosary beads, crosses and photographs of the victims. They wrote messages like “Freedom is not free” and “Let’s roll” on the guardrails in the makeshift parking lot and on the walls of the portable toilets. They hung flags, ball caps, patches and banners and posed for pictures in front of plywood message boards.
The thousands of items left at the memorial are collected and cataloged in a computer database about once per week by the Somerset County Historical and Genealogical Society.
Sixty-eight-year-old Phyllis Musser lives at nearby Indian Lake and volunteers several hours per week as an “ambassador” at the temporary memorial to answer visitors’ questions and hold vigil at the site. She believes most people come to Shanksville to see where the fight against terrorism began.
“It’s so impressive – and overwhelming,” Musser said on a hot summer afternoon. “If that plane had to go down somewhere, this was a good place. I believe that God was guiding that plane, and it was a miracle it went down here.”
Musser said her life in her community hasn’t changed dramatically in the past year except for the increase in noise and traffic. Others say that’s enough.
Jean Fani moved to rural Somerset County seven years ago in search of quiet and solitude. Now she said she’s tired of giving directions to the crash site and the Quecreek mine about 17 miles away.
“It’s not quiet anymore,” said Fani, a 58-year-old grandmother who sells Flight 93 “commemorative” T-shirts, hats and towels embroidered by her daughter in her front yard near the crash site. Fani’s brash commercialism offends some visitors and pleases others seeking to take home souvenirs.
“Some people who come here ask me why I am doing this,” she said. “I tell them, ‘I’m doing it for you.’ No one in this area asked for the disaster. But we’re still living, so we have to make the best of it.”
The politics of memory in Shanksville are complex. The burden of protecting the dignity of the crash site and defending it against the forces of poor taste falls partly on the shoulders of the mayor of Shanksville.
Ernest Stull, 78, is the elected leader of the sleepy, pastoral town of 245 where the rolling fields and covered bridges are more reminiscent of the 1800s than 2002. On Sept. 11 last year, Stull watched the planes hit the World Trade Center on TV and then walked to pick up his mail at the post office.
“I said to the postmistress, ‘Boy, I’m really happy we live in Shanksville. Nothing ever happens here,’ ” Stull said.
But when the unimaginable happened at 10:06 a.m. that day, life for Stull was turned upside down. Meetings with county and federal officials to plan for a permanent memorial have consumed most of the mayor’s time in the last year. Council meetings that used to last 45 minutes now push three hours, Stull said.
Stull is a deeply patriotic World War II veteran who hasn’t missed a Memorial Day service since 1946. He is disappointed President Bush has elected to meet only with the victims’ families during his scheduled visit to Shanksville this afternoon. And while he can’t bear the way it started, Stull said he enjoys the publicity his town is receiving.
“If that plane would’ve stayed in the air for minutes longer, it would’ve hit Shanksville,” Stull said. “Every time I come up here to the memorial – and that is a lot of the time – I have a feeling of reverence, humbleness and respect for the 40 people who gave their lives so thousands of other people wouldn’t be killed.”
Last Wednesday, Stull met with Japanese architect Shigeo Kawanami at the temporary memorial. Kawanami, 52, flew in for the day from Kobe, Japan, to show the mayor his proposed design for a permanent memorial.
His drawings showed an open, underground, cross-shaped tomb where visitors could walk through and reflect on the tragedy of Flight 93.
Forty glass towers with candles inside would represent the 40 passengers killed aboard the plane.
“My eyes can’t help sticking in this place,” Kawanami said. “I feel very strongly that we lost a lot, but we also learned a lot.”
The U.S. House of Representatives approved the Flight 93 memorial bill introduced by U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, in July.
The legislation sets up a 15-member commission to advise the Interior Department on the design, construction and maintenance of the memorial.
The commission would consist of the director of the National Park Service and 14 people chosen by the director from the Flight 93 Task Force, which consists of local residents, landowners, families of the victims, local officials, historians and emergency responders.
But it might be two to three years before a decision is made about the permanent memorial, and even longer until it’s built, Stull said.
In the meantime, wayfarers will continue to journey to Shanksville to express their emotions in more fleeting, but no less heartfelt ways.
For example, architectural photographer Michael Joseph of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., arrived in Shanksville last Wednesday with his 40-foot-long paper memorial to Sept. 11 called the “We the People” banner. Joseph has traveled with his girlfriend, Paige Obrig, to 38 states so far to collect signatures on what he refers to as a “love letter or postcard from America.”
More than 11,000 colorful signatures grace his gigantic postcard. In the upper-right-hand corner where a stamp should be is a black-and-white photograph Joseph took of the World Trade Center two years ago.
The photographer hopes the Smithsonian will accept the finished project, which he plans to showcase in New York City today.
After traveling across the United States and talking with people about Sept. 11, Obrig and Joseph said they understand what draws people to Shanksville.
“People are searching for answers,” said Obrig, who quit her job in a veterinary clinic to travel with the memorial. “They bring themselves to the area where it happened to try and deal with their emotions.”
People like Pennsylvania state police Cpl. Daniel Dunn, who returned to the crash site a week ago almost a year after he was called there for duty on Sept. 11 from his station in nearby Ebensburg. Dunn said he led the motorcade for First Lady Laura Bush when she arrived in Shanksville.
“That day was crazy, hectic, scary,” said the soft-spoken Dunn, who said he was at a loss for words to describe his emotions upon returning to the crash site.
“I’m impressed,” he said, taking off his uniform hat to pay his respects.
Preferring to grieve more privately, Dunn has no plans to join the 30,000 people who are expected to gather in Shanksville this morning for a memorial service.
The program will feature a moment of silence, the tolling of bells for each of the 40 passengers and crew who died, the singing of “God Bless America,” and remarks by Sandy Dahl, wife of Flight 93 pilot Jason Dahl.
And with a look toward the future, 40 white doves will be released, a symbol of the prayer for peace from the ground over which Americans first fought back, a glimmer of hope on the anniversary of one of our darkest days.