9/11’s burden weighs heavily on tiny Shanksville

Park Ranger Walter Planitzer holds up a photo of Sandra Waugh Bradshaw, a Flight Attendant who died on Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, and tells her story at the Flight 93 National Memorial, near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Aug. 14, 2021.

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — (TNS) A generation has passed since the plane plunged from a clear blue sky, changing this tiny rural town of miners and farmers forever.

That day was Sept. 11, 2001, and Americans would never look at the shadow of a jetliner crossing the sky the same way again.

Islamic terrorist hijackers turned four commercial passenger airplanes into missiles. Two slammed into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, the high church of American capitalism.

In little more than 90 minutes after the jet-fueled fireballs, both towers came crashing down.

A third plane rammed into the Pentagon. This terror target was the sterling symbol of U.S. military might just outside Washington, D.C.

Then there was United Flight 93.

The Boeing 757 goes wheels’ up at 8:42 a.m., with 40 passengers and crew bound for San Francisco. But there are five others onboard who aren’t mere passengers or crew.

At 9:29 a.m., an air traffic controller in Cleveland hears “a radio transmission of unintelligible sounds, possibly screaming or a struggle from an unknown origin.” This and the other flight details are detailed in the official 9/11 Commission report.

“Somebody call Cleveland?” the controller radios back.

The only response is more garbled screaming.

This time, the controller makes out four words: “Get out of here, get out of here,” someone in the cockpit shouts.

Then Flight 93 plunges some 700 feet and turns around over Ohio. The controller issues more radio calls, but there’s no response.

Flight 93 goes radio silent.

At 9:32 a.m., someone with a Middle Eastern accent utters these chilling words: “Keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board.”

By now, all of America knows it’s under an unprecedented, here-to-fore unimaginable, terror attack.

The souls onboard Flight 93 don’t know. But they’re about to find out.

Over the next 30 minutes, through calls to family on the ground, these passengers not only learn the terrible truth. They decide to do something about it, banding together to take back the plane.

Flight 93 is little more than 20-minutes flight time from Washington, D.C. when the Air Traffic Control System Command Center sees TV news reports of a third plane ramming the Pentagon.

There’s panicked talk of scrambling military aircraft to pursue Flight 93. But official accounts say air controllers lose track of the plane over Pittsburgh.

With a cry of “Let’s roll” and using a beverage cart as a battering ram to enter the cockpit, the battle for control of Flight 93 begins.

Visual reports from other aircraft peg the flight’s last-known location as 20 miles northwest of Johnstown.

Flight 93 is last glimpsed “waving his wings” — radical gyrations later interpreted as the hijackers’ attempt to thwart the passengers’ assault on the cockpit.

It doesn’t work.

America’s “War on Terror” hasn’t even been declared yet. But the battle has been joined – and won.

At 10:03:11 a.m., Flight 93 – belly-up and accelerating toward the ground – burrows nose-first into a defunct strip-mining site amid a rural, wooded area in Somerset County.

The nearest town, 2 miles away, is Shanksville, Pa.

It’s 250 unsuspecting residents feel their houses shake. Some fear for the safety of the school, a single building housing all of the town’s kindergartern-through-12th-grade students under one roof.

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Scores rush to the crash site, which raises just a single plume of smoke in that otherwise cloudless September sky.

In pickup trucks and on ATVs, people race to help. But in the field, there’s virtually nothing left.

At the scene, a deep, angry gouge in the earth is ringed with fire. Trees are singed by jet fuel. The field and surrounding woods are scattered with debris – clothes, luggage and thousands of letters from the plane’s cargo hold of U.S. Mail.

This is the day, 20 years ago now, when everything here changed.

“When the plane came down, I was watching the Twin Towers,” long-time resident Durinda Grine tells PennLive. “I felt the house shake. I thought, ‘Oh, they’re blasting again, because they strip (mined) across the road – years ago they did that. But they weren’t.”

Her neighbor comes running and screaming: “It hit the school! It hit the school!”

Grine phones her husband, then a volunteer firefighter with the Shanksville department who ran a service station in town. He’s since passed away.

“He said, ‘No, it didn’t hit the school,’” she recounts. “But I had to take my neighbor up the crash site to prove it to her.”

They’re among the first 15 people at the scene.

“There was nothing to see. Just some papers floating around, that’s all,” Grine describes.

She, like so many others, is dumbfounded.

“The first day made no sense to me,” she says.

‘Caretakers of the land’

In Shanksville, bewildering fear and confusing terror give way to heart-breaking sympathy for the lost and hot-blooded anger at the terrorists.

The crash site quickly goes from a rescue scene where there’s nothing to be rescued to an international crime scene to be scrutinized for weeks by the FBI, the FAA and state and local law enforcement.

“We lived through being barricaded and having to get through the FBI and everybody else to get to our houses,” adds Grine, who drove a school bus back then. “I would bring the kids down that road to go to Shanksville. You literally had to stop at checkpoints till they finally knew you.”

The crash site is the resting place for the 40 passengers and crew, soon to be hailed as heroes as their bravery aboard Flight 93 emerges.

Very little of the souls aboard can be recovered, however. Tim Lambert, a WITF reporter whose family owned nearly 200 acres nearby, including six acres very near the crash site, recalls the Somerset County Coroner’s explanation.

“He called it vaporized remains,” Lambert says. “The amount of remains recovered was 8% of the estimated body weight of everyone on the plane. A lot of that just sort of vaporized.”

This is when Lambert realizes his family’s land now holds a much higher purpose.

“You knew pretty quickly it was a cemetery,” he says.

Flight 93 families pour into Shanksville from all over the country and recognize this, too. Upon arriving and seeing for themselves, they realize this unlikely place, still littered with the remnants and machinery of strip mining, will become their loved ones’ graves.

“You knew pretty quickly we were just caretakers of the land. We weren’t property owners,” Lambert says. “Whatever was going to happen to it, was going to happen.”

The Flight 93 families make several visits to the crash site in those early days. In a convoy of tour buses, they’re escorted by state police. Residents of Shanksville and the wider Somerset County area line the route, standing at attention on their front lawns.

Ginny Barnett is aboard one of those buses as a Red Cross volunteer.

“I’ll never forget this one little girl, she was about 8, and she heard the buses coming, and she was standing at the roadside with all of these signs and memorials,” Barnett recalls. “The look in her eyes and the expression on her face — there was just such a shared loss.”

This kind of palpable communal grief demands an outlet. It takes shape on a public-access area overlooking the crash site.

Townsfolk, people from Pittsburgh, and soon, those from all over begin making pilgrimages to the bluff, the closest point the public is permitted. They don’t come just to look. Dozens, then hundreds, then thousands leave behind symbols of a grieving nation.

A chain-link fence and some haybales are soon festooned with red, white and blue — all manner of ribbons, flags, angles and other items.

This becomes the first Flight 93 Memorial.

From this point on, the site becomes both a family cemetery and national touchstone where everyday Americans pay tribute to other everyday Americans who became patriots.

Some still say this spontaneous memorial stands as the purest, most personal and heartfelt tribute to the heroes.

“I went up and saw the temporary wall, and that was very poignant and sad and heartwarming at the same time because people cared enough to come and do that,” Grine says. “There was someone who made slate angles for every person who was on that plane, and their names were on them. I mean, that’s heart-wrenching.”

Within a year, a formal national memorial is in the works. Shanksville is elevated to the modern equivalent of Gettysburg – an unlikely, unintended setting for exemplary bravery, heroism and sacrifice.

“Stories of the (Flight 93) phone calls were starting to come out. You knew something extraordinary happened up there,” Lambert recalls.

And when America does monuments, it goes big.

What began as a 40-acre crash site with a gravel-lined public access encircled by a simple chain-link fence has sprawled into a $60 million, 2,200-acre facility with a winding granite wall of names; 40 groves of 40 trees; a 93-foot-tall, wind-chime-filled “Tower of Voices”; and a slick, state-of-the-art visitors’ center.

“If you would have told me in Oct. 2001 this is what it’s going to look like in 20 years, I would have said this is absolutely perfect,” says Lambert, whose family sold 163 acres for the memorial.

Others in Shanksville say it’s way too big, expensive and impersonal. And despite the memorial, which attracts nearly 400,000 visitors a year, being right in their backyard, some here haven’t visited in years. Not even to see the visitors’ center and Tower of Voices, both of which opened within the last several years.

“I haven’t been up since the building’s been built or anything. I just don’t feel the need,” says lifelong Shanksville resident Martha Flick. Her late husband, Merle, was fire chief during 9/11.

“People from here don’t go that much up to the memorial,” she says. “Unless you’re a volunteer up there.”

“You don’t feel all that much,” Grine adds, describing her last visit, a decade ago, to see the granite wall etched with the 40 names – all part of what she calls the “major federal thing.”

It left her cold, compared to the personal touches that abounded at the messy-but-memorable temporary memorial.

“There’s the wall with names. It didn’t have that much of an impact, I didn’t think,” she says. “But I haven’t seen the new visitors’ center.”

Truth is, she probably won’t see it, either. Some of the self-described simple people of Shanksville are shocked by the memorial’s final sticker price.

“Sometimes we get really disgusted because we spent so much money on it – on the park and everything,” Grine says. “Remember, we’re farmers up here, mostly, and miners, without jobs. So, spending all that money, and all that. A lot of us felt it was too big. This was a little area. The plane was going somewhere else, and it literally fell down here.”

But Flight 93 didn’t just “fall down.”

The bravery of the heroes onboard brought it down. And the spot, just outside Shanksville, ensured that no one else on the ground would die that day.

‘Testimony of God’s healing’

Barnett is convinced none of this was random at all. Rather, it’s precisely what the Flight 93 heroes intended, as if they purposely picked Shanksville, she says.

This is the true power of the Flight 93 Memorial, many say. Not the architectural adornments and picturesque landscaping, but the story of what the heroes did.

They were ordinary strangers brought together by an unthinkable situation who rose up to do something that now echoes through history. Nothing short of preventing a fourth terror attack, quite probably on the U.S. Capitol.

“Can you image if the Capitol was hit and was left smoldering in ruins? How would we have recovered from that?” asks Lambert, adding:

“Flight 93 was a bright light on a very dark day. It is such a special part of the 9/11 story. They all got together and did the most American thing possible. They voted and they decided to fight back. They said, ‘We’re a missile now. We’re a bomb. But at least we have a chance to try something.’ That’s the beauty of it. People understand the power of it.”

This is the story Barnett comes to tell each week at the memorial as a Flight 93 volunteer. It’s the same story she shut out when she first came to the crash site as a Red Cross volunteer.

It was a defense mechanism, the only way she could function at the time.

“I didn’t want to know about the people onboard or their families because of how it would make me break down,” she says.

Months of refusing to feel became years, leaving Barnett all but numb.

“Honestly, it was the evil that I witnessed, the consequence of the evil,” says Barnett, who also volunteered with Red Cross at Ground Zero in New York City.

“This was the first man-made, intentional disaster I was ever assigned to. All the others were natural disasters,” she explains. “I kind of lost my hope in mankind.”

In 2005, she’s asked to share her own account of 9/11 for the oral histories the new memorial project is collecting. Barnett resists, but at her husband’s urging, she eventually agrees.

Barnett now credits the Flight 93 story she came to embrace with helping heal her PTSD.

These days, usually on a Saturday just after lunch, she stands before the rows of granite benches near the entrance to the wall of names and tells their story. She does this rain or shine. And she’s done it over the shouts of denial from 9/11 conspiracy theorists and so-called “Truthers” who are convinced it was all a hoax.

As always, Barnett just sticks to the facts. Because the facts of Flight 93 are more than enough.

“I am kind of like a living testimony of God’s healing,” Barnett says, just before giving her Flight 93 talk on a recent Saturday afternoon.

“To see these heroes and what they did. That gives me hope. It’s incredible what they did. I had to focus on that goodness to cancel out that tremendous evil.”

In her soft-spoken, soothing way, Barnett spreads the story to anyone who’ll listen.

“I am just blown away every time I can come up and I can do this,” she says. “I can actually tell their story now. It’s such an honor.”

Each time before she speaks, Barnett honors the 40, walking quietly along the wall, pausing before each name, touching each panel.

“A lot of us do that,” she says. “A lot of us begin our shift that way. We do it, so we remember exactly why we’re here – to honor them.”

Seeking a new generation

Two decades later, tiny Shanksville and the larger surrounding area is running out of volunteers to preserve the Flight 93 story.

Yes, there are U.S. Park Rangers at the national memorial, but their numbers are few. Local volunteers, including those organized by the Friends of Flight 93 National Memorial, have always filled in the gaps.

Now, a new generation is needed.

“Initially, there were a lot of community members who decided they were going to be stewards of the site, even before the National Park Service,” Donna Gibson, president of the Friends of Flight 93, says.

“They came here. They greeted people who were coming. They told whatever parts of the story that they learned. And they were so kind and so generous to the family members,” she adds.

These days, there are fewer and fewer such people.

“A lot of us croaked,” Grine quips.

“Somehow, we have to find a way to get the next generation of volunteers interested in being stewards of that memorial,” Gibson says.

Similarly, the ranks of the Shanksville Fire Department have few, if any, of the volunteers who responded on 9/11.

The department continues to uphold their legacy of being among the first-responder brethren on that terrible day. Firefighters from across the nation – and around the world – make a point of stopping at the fire hall.

In the grass just off the parking lot, a 14-foot silver cross, constructed from Twin Towers’ steel and donated here, blesses the bravest.

People stop, pray, pay tribute – then snap pictures.

Inside the small fire hall, a wall is dedicated to fire department patches from all over. Any time a firefighter stops by, Chief Jim Bent trades a sought-after Shanksville patch for one of their own to take its place on the wall.

“All over the world, firemen come here to check it out. If I know they are firemen, we usually trade patches,” says Bent, who was a sixth-grader living in Maryland on 9/11. “Firemen are firemen. We’re no better than anyone else.”

Bent’s family roots in Shanksville soon brought him back here. By the time he was in high school, he was already volunteering with the department. He’s in his mid-30s now, but that next line of young volunteers isn’t stepping up.

“We’re lacking new members, young learning members,” he says.

Meanwhile, the old guard with direct ties to 9/11 is all but gone.

“Only a handful are left,” Bent says. “They don’t talk about it a lot. It’s like a war thing – seeing such drama, they just don’t talk about it. They never really talked about it to the younger generation, what happened that day. I mean, you can ask, but I think they were speechless. People couldn’t grasp what was happening that day.”

Two decades later, some still can’t believe it happened. Not here. Not Shanksville.

“No, I never thought anything like this would happen here,” says Flick, born and raised here. “It’s kind of overwhelming.”

For years, the most sought-after commodity in Shanksville was directions to the crash site.

“For the first couple years, my husband used to say he spent more time giving directions to the memorial than he did working,” Grine laughs.

Now, Flight 93 visitors access the memorial from busy Route 30. There’s no longer any direct route between Shanksville and the site. The road that once connected these points has been swallowed up by the sprawling park.

Still, they come, albeit in lesser numbers, to the tiny town synonymous with 9/11. Shanksville has taken its place alongside New York City and Washington, D.C., in history.

They rumble in on motorcycles. They stop at Ida’s, the town’s country store. They take in the simple ways of small-town America where something very, very big happened.

“It has come to represent rural America,” Lambert says of Shanksville.

Others argue the place lost some of what it made it special.

“Before 9/11, it was everybody knew everybody. Now, it’s always strangers in town,” Flick laments.

“For years, I didn’t mind the motorcycles, the trucks, the caravans and the buses,” Grine says. “But I had neighbors who on 9/11, they go away. They don’t want to be here.”

Alas, there’s no escaping history. It’s written in stone now, not two miles away.

On 9/11, even those who have lived with all this for 20 years, growing tired of many of the excesses, will feel something old, yet familiar.

“We are a big part of keeping it going, paying respects to the families,” Bent says of his department’s dress-blue occasion that rolls around every Sept. 11.

“It’s part of the duty of the fire department,” he says. “We make sure the families know we are here for them.”

All these years later, so is Shanksville.

“It’s pomp and circumstance, but I think they all feel, not proud so much, but a sense of something we do to commemorate,” Grine says of the date no one here needs mention.

“It’s nothing to brag on. We just go and do it. People here did what they could. Around here, we figure if it needs to be done, it will get done. And that’s it. Very no nonsense.”

It’s a little like those 40 people onboard a doomed jetliner who faced their fate, uttered, “let’s roll,” then got it done.

“They stopped evil in its tracks,” Lambert says.

And the place they stopped it was Shanksville.

(By John Luciew, pennlive.com via Tribune News Service)