Responders recall 9/11 tragedy in Shanksville
For the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 tragedies, a group of first responders with Fayette County Emergency Management Agency discuss their experiences in Shanksville, Somerset County, where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed.
The first responders said they realized the country was under attack as soon as many average citizens learned. They saw it on television.
“As soon as we turned the channel, the second plane struck the World Trade Center,” said Jodie Copeland, FCEMA shift supervisor.
Then FCEMA received a call from Westmoreland EMA, informing them that a low-flying airplane was spotted over the former Warehouse Groceries in Bullskin Township and then over Springfield Township.
Within an hour after Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, FCEMA was the first command post on the scene, setting up at a mining operations area that overlooked the crash site.
The job for FCEMA was to coordinate all of the agencies at the site.
“Every letter agency was up there — FBI, NSA,” said Scott Dolan, the former planner and trainer at FCEMA and now a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center EMS specialist. “Our job was to bring them all together. It was a pretty busy time for us.”
FCEMA, along with the Somerset County EMA, also had to handle requests from agencies and workers at the site for everything from lip balm and portable toilets to housing and a temporary morgue.
Tony Alviar, computer systems analysis with FCEMA, was one of the first to take the agency’s command post and set up in Shanksville.
Strangely calm, serene
For all the initial panic associated with the attacks, Alviar said that when he arrived in Shanksville, the crash site was strangely calm and serene surrounding the large depression where the plane crashed and smoke rose from the trees from the debris.
Alviar’s three-day job at the crash site was to set up communication channels.
“There was no cell service and no access to the outside world,” Alviar said, adding that the instant communication technology we take for granted today was not easily accessible a decade ago. “It was a major process to get information in and out of the site.”
Dolan was also at the mobile command post that first day, where he remained for 36 hours before heading home only to return for the entire 17 days.
Dolan said that with the amount of work and number of people representing agencies, many on the scene lost track of time.
“We had no concept of the days of the week,” Dolan said.
Every day someone had to post memos on the wall that read “Today is Thursday,” etc., he added.
“Crash site, work, sleep, crash site, work, sleep — that was our entire focus at that time,” said Susan Griffith, spokeswoman for FCEMA who was on and off the crash site for 17 days.
“The first eight hours we were still oblivious to everything that happened everywhere else,” said Roy Shipley, FCEMA director.
In fact, the workers on the scene were so focused on their tasks at hand, the full impact of 9/11 didn’t hit them like it hit regular people watching the attacks in real time on television.
Full impact hits workers
For Griffith, it didn’t strike her until that Christmas when the nation started to reflect on the year’s events and then on the first anniversary of the attacks when she opened an e-mail of a photograph and music montage of what happened in New York City, Washington, and where she was in Somerset.
For Alviar, the impact of what happened hit him on the night of 9/11 when he was driving home from Shanksville and stopped at a drug store for something to drink.
“The cashier asked me what I thought about the World Trade Center collapsing,” he said.
When Alviar left the FCEMA office to head to Shanksville, the television was showing the second plane hitting the World Trade Center and not the collapse.
“I said, it didn’t collapse,” Alviar said. “I didn’t realize.”
He didn’t realize until he returned home and was holding his 9-month-old son on his lap and saw the footage of the buildings collapsing on the television — footage he was trying to avoid — and then Alviar believed.
“I yelled at my wife to turn it off,” he said.
“Some things you want to remember and some things you would rather forget,” Griffith said.
Memories the responders do hold and share include Dolan watching the makeshift memorial at Shanksville start out with just a couple of hay bales and grow with the addition of flags, flowers, pictures and other personal and heartfelt items.
Another memory came days after the tragedy when the families of the passengers and crew of Flight 93 arrived in four charter buses for a prayer ceremony.
When the buses were departing, Griffith said she remembered the Somerset County EMA director instructing the workers to leave their posts and stand outside so the buses would pass them and the families could see them.
“The families were saying ‘thank you’ and those who did not speak English mouthed the words ‘thank you,'” Griffith said.
“It was very moving,” Dolan said, adding that a relative of one of the passengers shook his hand and thanked him. “They were very grateful for what we did.”
Griffith remembers an Asian woman on the bus as it was passing by. She made eye contact with Griffith and placed the palm of her hand against the bus window.
“I nodded, and then she slowly nodded,” Griffith said, and whenever she watches coverage of the Flight 93 families, she always tries to find that woman in the crowd. “What we were doing was not just helping the victims, we were helping the families. Later, I found out that they were the family of heroes.”
After the attacks, as the nation attempted to heal and return to normal, those first responders also did the same, but their profession went toward changing and adapting to dangerous times.
“It changed the whole scope of operations and planning,” said Shipley, who has been involved with emergency management since 1977. “After 9/11, it was a whole new ball game.”
Griffith saw her professional life going from handling a critical situation like 9/11 to how to prepare to prevent it from happening again.
“That’s why it took so long to realize the scope and the magnitude of the mourning nation,” she said of her experience.
With the stories of Americans coming together with blood donations, monetary donations, volunteering and whatever they could do to help their fellow man, 9/11 created a unity between agencies that didn’t exist before, the workers say.
Dolan said one of the major changes that came out of 9/11 was the willingness of different agencies to work together, that before 9/11 the FBI would never communicate with an EMA office. That has changed.
“It’s better to work together to prevent an event than working together during an event,” Dolan said. “Everyone learned what they could bring to the table.”
“Counties are helping counties now as they did back then on 9/11,” Shipley said. “Taking steps and preplanning and having the necessary assets also came out of the attack.”
Alviar said the goals of different entities, including the media, have changed since 9/11. They are now more willing to share information with authorities instead of rushing to get the story out first, he said.
“Those brick walls that existed then are not there now,” said Alviar.
“From an EMA standpoint, we were prepared before (9/11), and they’ve firmed up their preparedness now,” Shipley said.