In the sky, a heroic struggle aboard hijacked United Flight 93
By Samantha Levine
hanksville is the kind of place where everyone is somehow related and the names of people you meet sound awfully familiar after you've driven around a bitlike sometime farmer Nevin Lambert, whose family settled the Lambertsville Road area in the 1800s. And community organizer Donna Glessner, whose husband is distantly related to the namesake of the 121-year-old Glessner covered bridge that spans the Stonycreek River. Shanksville is the kind of place where people in passing cars give you a little wave, and you return the gesture without even thinking about it. It's the kind of place where many people have never flown in an airplane and certainly won't now.
The crash of hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 into one of Shanksville's reclaimed strip-mining fields on September 11 has become a defining moment in the previously understated life of this community. "To be forever linked to one of the country's worst days is pretty overwhelming," says Rick King, 38, Shanksville's assistant volunteer fire chief, who was one of the first responders to the scene. With visits from first lady Laura Bush and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, attention from big-city newspapers, and innumerable speaking engagements offered to local firefighters, the town's low profile is gone. The emotions surrounding the story of Flight 93 run too deepthose who live here know the spotlight won't soon fade. "It's pretty much our lives," says the fire chief, Terry Shaffer, 46, seated on one of the firehouse's two well-used brown couches.
Take Lambert, 55, an earnest man with a tendency to wear stained work pants and an easy smile. He was once so solitary that many folks around here had never met him. He stayed close to the white house his father and grandfather built, simply savoring his view of the Laurel Highlands as they fade in dimming summer evenings. But from his front porch, Lambert can also see the tree line where the plane made its fatal descent and the humble memorial arranged to honor the dead.
Now he goes to the temporary memorial nearly every day, collecting signatures and notes from the thousands who visit each month. He has joined the ranks of local volunteers, organized by Glessner, who answer questions at the site. He offers his homemade chocolate cookies to visitors and invites relatives of the victims back to his house for a sit-down. Lambert comes alive under his dusty ball cap. Marveling at all the new people he has met, the ebullient ex-hermit is like his town. They have both suddenly emerged into the public eye.
Shanksville is tactfully adjusting to its new role as host to those who journey to see where 40 airplane passengers and crew overwhelmed four al Qaeda terrorists aboard a Boeing 757. Those on the flight from Newark to San Francisco knew from urgent midair phone conversations what had happened at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that morning, and knew that they were next. So they organized a rebellion to avoid even greater horror on the ground.
"They fought a battle at 35,000 feet in an aisle no wider than 3 feet," said Elizabeth Kemmerer in a choking voice, as she testified before a congressional subcommittee about building a permanent memorial at the crash site. Her feisty 79-year-old mother, Hilda Marcin, was on board. "I know she was either consoling someone or helping a crew member boil water to throw on [the terrorists]." The aircraft careened into the soft earth, just shy of the Shanksville-Stonycreek K-12 school, where about 500 students and staff were beginning the academic year. Those who were there moments later say the smoking wreckage looked like a pile of scrap metal in a pit, until you focused more closely and saw the other kinds of fragments among the debris.
The signs of change in Shanksville range from the intangiblehushed reverence over an otherwise unremarkable fieldto the obviousunheard-of traffic on badly paved roads. Upward of 100 cars a day rumble past Robert Leverknight's house, heading the mile or so to the crash site. Before September 11, only a handful passed daily. Without wanting to sound disrespectful, he confides that the hubbub is making some "people here talk about leaving." And Leverknight, 40, a photographer for the Air National Guard and the county newspaper, the Daily American, has other new worries. Strangers from who knows where now ask his 12-year-old daughter for directions as she plays in the family's front yard, and she helps them.
It has been awhilemost agree since the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 (in which settlers rioted against excise taxes)that the country even knew the town existed. "It used to be, 'Where the heck is Shanksville?' " says Valencia McClatchey, who lives near the crash site and snapped the oft-reproduced photo of a plume of smoke hovering over an old red barn and staining the morning sky. It's not a place most would know about. The town of 245 people sits nearly two hours east of Pittsburgh in the middle of Somerset County. There are two ski resorts and two state prisons in the county, but you don't have to go through Shanksville to reach them. Its relative obscurity allowed residents to burrow deep into their quiet community, and its serenity attracted people like McClatchey and her husband, John. "If someone got a toenail ingrown, everyone knew about it," says retired Somerset County Deputy Sheriff Glenn Rivera, who was born 67 years ago in a house about 6 miles from the crash site.
Yet the emergence of Shanksville as a national destination prompted "pride in our little town that hasn't been there for a long time," says its plain-spoken, 78-year-old mayor, Ernest Stull. Fire Chief Shaffer can even say, with all sincerity, "We have made a good example of what a hick town is." There's now a street sweeper to keep the one-road downtown spruced up, new blue street signs to aid forever-lost tourists, and more flowers in front yards, Stull says. Shanksville may even get a sewer systema very big deal for any rural area. But he doesn't forget the source of his town's rebirth. Says Stull, "It's a very, very sad way to get the recognition that we have."
Besides the new shrubbery and bustle at Ida's Country Storethe only food shop in townthere's an altogether new sensation in Shanksville once you drive a short way from the center of town to Skyline Road. Near the crest of the lane running through the empty mining field is the temporary memorial, a paved turnoff about 500 feet from where Flight 93 fell to Earth.
Visitors cover a 30-foot chain-link fence, erected there for the purpose, with mementosfrom a huge toy dog to a medical clamp to a salt shaker dressed as an angel. They fill whitewashed 4-by-8-foot plywood boards with messages; 15 boards have been filled so far. They plant American flags while kneeling to read donated stone monuments thanking the Flight 93 heroes. They ink grateful graffiti on the metal railing around the makeshift parking lot; someone who apparently couldn't find enough space scrawled his thanks on one of the port-a-potties.
As the midday temperatures soared into the hazy 90s one June day, John and Joan Ogden of Poolesville, Md., and their 6-year-old grandson, Zachary, stood gazing down the hill to the scorched trees that mark the crash area. "I thought it was going to be commercial, with people selling souvenirs," Joan says. "But no, it's a place for spiritual meditation and gratitude. It's a privilege being here." Zachary used a black marker to offer a message on the railing: "Thank you," he wrote. "I like U.S.A."
A couple of days later, 7-year-old Fanny Stoltzfus pulled from the pocket of her pink, handmade dress a shiny penny that had been flattened and inscribed with the Lord's Prayer. Her grandfather, John, bought it for her, and she placed it on a memorial plaque. "You feel sorry for what happened," said the Amish man from Paradise, Pa., speaking for the shy little girl. "It's almost beyond words I can find."
The mementos are part of a growing lore. Everything, except live flowers and store-bought items such as plain American flags, is being carefully preserved and archived for the permanent memorial to be erected in the next several years. "We are not making judgments as to what's valuable," says Barbara Black, curator of the Somerset County Historical Society and keeper of all that's left behind. "That note written by a child, or a harmonica left on a rock, each has as much significance as a carefully composed poem or a beautifully drawn picture. We treat everything as if it were a treasured historical object."
Walking through the rapidly filling storage rooms at the historical center, past the colorful wreaths that tick off the holidays of a passing year and folding tables covered with trinkets and muddy scraps of paper, Black says, "Some people don't understand why we are keeping things and going through this trouble." But when she picks up a groom's faded boutonniere, her eyes seem to ask: How could I throw this away?
As for the actual land at the site, it was never terribly valuable to Tim Lambert, who owns about 164 acres of it. His grandfather bought the parcel in 1930, and it was passed down to the 32-year-old radio reporter, who didn't think much about it except at tax time. It had been 20 years since he'd even been to Shanksville when he was informed that the charred woods in all the news pictures were his woods. Then the real meaning of the land pierced his consciousness. "I think about it every day," says Lambert, who lives in Harrisburg, about 130 miles away. "I make the drive once a month. I feel like I have to go there."
Lambert (a distant relative of Nevin's) says his first trip around the site in October was "overwhelming and heartbreaking." He was absorbing the devastation when his escort, Somerset County Coroner Wally Miller, held up a quarter-size piece of metal. "As soon as he did that, you saw plane parts everywhere," Lambert says. Now, he can't help searching the ground every time he visits. "I don't notice the trees, the beauty of the land, the grass, or the snow," he says. "I just notice plane parts."
All that debris, and the fact that only 8 percent of the human remains could be recovered, mean the site is, essentially, a cemetery, Miller says. "The real story is about what those people did, deciding to rush the [terrorists] and sell everyone else on the idea," says Miller, who spent weeks crawling around on his hands and knees searching for remains and would rather talk about anything else. "Where it landed is not what matters. The most important thing is that they be properly remembered."
From the first chaotic hours after the crash, Miller has firmly kept the media and meddling officials he calls "JAFOs" ("Just Another F---ing Observer") from "tromping around" in the woods and among the handful of small cabins and houses at the scene. Only the seven landowners with deeds to various sections of the area may visit their acreage. Errant shards of the aircraft can still be found theretwisted plates of the machine's metal skin and swatches of patterned seat coversbut it's illegal to keep them. They're still considered evidence, and the area a crime scene, "until they catch [Osama] bin Laden," say many local police officers.
But the families of the victims deserve special care, says Miller, a 45-year-old undertaker who's known to pepper his language with profanity but calls himself "an easy touch." Miller brings them to a special viewing areaa high mound of dirt just a short walk from where the plane hit land. A stand of five battered American flags and a wreath in the United Airlines colors of blue and gray are stuck in the ground. The families must be with Miller to enter the actual crash area, which is cordoned off with a chain-link fence, but they often just stay for hours on the mound or stare through the thin bars as Miller tries to answer their questions. He'll take them just about anytime they want to go.
The coroner also believes the families should have the most say when it comes to developing the permanent memorial, a process that's just beginning, because the site is really theirs. In reality, however, area landowners, government officials, and residents will also have input. It could take up to six years and $6 million to build the national tribute, according to the National Park Service.
But until then, the crash site remains a place of tender, impulsive emotion. There are no big buildings, amenities, or brochures to tell you how to feel. It just is. The simplicity resonates one night as a red moon rises over the trees. Dark gray mist rolls in while patches of summer lightning color the sky. A blinking red light on a utility tower miles away is the only visible marker of civilization. The air that hung heavy with heat a few hours before turns to a chilly dampness, unmoving. The American flags staked in the soil do not waver.