Thousands have paid their respects at the crash site in Shanksville
THESE ROLLING HILLS have paid homage before to their dead. To the tens of thousands of coal miners who did not return from the dank pits. To the Pennsylvania farm boys, and the other volunteers from nearby states, who waged a decisive Civil War battle just across the Tuscarora Mountains at Gettysburg. But history’s a distant hand-holder. Nothing truly could prepare for that Sept. 11 day a year ago when a hijacked jetliner came tipping out of a cobalt blue sky, crashed into a yellowy meadow of waist-high grasses and turned sleepy Shanksville, Pa., into the small-town custodian of a nation’s grief.
The wreckage was driven deep into the soft earth and smashed into tiny pieces. But if its smouldering image was something of a television afterthought to the dramatic collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York City, that’s not the way it entered the American psyche. Within days of the tragedy, middle America took to its vehicles and headed for the crash site, leaving flowers and U.S. flags on the front lawns of Shanksville residents and at the intersections of dusty country roads. There were several of these makeshift memorials in the early going. They changed location, not unlike the way Americans themselves shifted about emotionally in those early months, trying to make sense of what had turned their lives upside down.
By December, a tiny area not much bigger than a golf green was set aside on a balding hilltop overlooking the crash site to serve as a temporary monument—a people’s shrine—to the 40 passengers of United Flight 93. It’s not easy to find. Shanksville itself is not easy to find. A tiny manicured community of 245 with three churches, one school and seven service organizations—including the unfortunately numbered American Legion Post 911— Shanksville is not on every map. Still, people came.
“With the warm weather, we’re estimating about four to six thousand a week
now,” says Shanksville resident Barbara Black, curator of the Historical & Genealogical Society of Somerset, the county seat, and the woman charged with preserving the simple tributes that are left. Many of the visitors are doing the triangle—New York, Washington and Shanksville. But significant numbers are just coming to Shanksville, from every state in the union, from all over the world. Somehow they discover their way up the switchback roads, past the cornfields, the covered bridge, and the old dump. There are few signs, though handdrawn maps are posted at campsites and motels, also on the Internet. “For most people, it’s like a pilgrimage,” says Black. “This is how America grieves.”
More than grief, though, this is also how America builds the rich tapestry of legend. From the ground up. For Shanksville is different in important respects from the other terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. If they were Pearl Harborsneak attacks on an unsuspecting citizenry—this was more the Alamo, where the passengers aboard Flight 93, delayed on the runway and connected by Airphone to their loved ones at home, made some kind of last-ditch, mid-air stand in a war that no one yet fully comprehends.
“I truly believe they gave the ultimate sacrifice,” says Roy Holtz, a financial adviser from Patton, Pa. He’s not alone. Thank-you notes dominate the memorial
message board. They are written even on the steel guardrails in the parking area and the sides of the portable toilet. The mementoes left—autographed baseballs in zip-lock bags, flags, T-shirts, police and firefighter caps, a piece of slate from Colorado, handmade crosses, and tiny wooden angels in red, white and blue with the photos of each of the passengers on them—would be a monument to kitsch if it weren’t for the sense of sacrifice that hangs in the air. Everyone speaks in hushed tones. Young parents walk about instructing small, quiet children. Someone has donated a Purple Heart.
The Holtzes made the 90-minute trek from their Patton home in mid-week for some quiet reflection—and because Roy’s
mother, Mary Louise, wanted to come. “This is my summer vacation,” says the 78-year-old. “I wanted to stand on the spot, just to be present.” A sprightly, auburn-haired woman, she reports how bikers from their area are said to have showed up at the Shanksville memorial and wept like babies. “It’s a very solemn place. I feel very prayerful,” she says, pausing for a moment, then adding with a mischievous twinkle, “Let’s roll.”
Let’s roll. It’s a battle cry etched into the very soul of Flight 93. Forty passengers were on board that commandeered plane for what was supposed to be a six-hour jaunt from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco. Go-go businessmen, an environmental lawyer, an arborist, a retired teacher mov-
ing to California to be near her daughter. From what’s been pieced together from phone logs and the airplane’s black box, it seems clear that a group of passengers, knowing they were hijacked and knowing the fate of the other planes, fought a pitched battle with their aggressors in the cramped aisle, and then the cockpit, using whatever weapons they could put their hands on, including scalding water from the coffee machine.
Some passengers had talked with their loved ones by phone, describing their plans. Todd Beamer, a 32-year-old account manager with a software company, hadn’t been able to reach his wife, Lisa, but he did connect to the telephone company supervisor. To her he described what was happening, and poured out his love for his family. They recited the 23rd Psalm together. Then in one of the last transmissions to come out of Flight 93, he was overheard to say: “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.”
Local heroes. There is another thing that separates Shanksville from the other terrorist attacks: the degree to which residents have taken it upon themselves to become the pallbearers for a nation’s pain. Barbara Black may have started it when she was out at the site last fall doing her curatorial work: “I’d end up staying for hours because the people that came just needed someone to talk to.” So Black told her friend Donna Glessner about what she was experiencing, and Glessner stood up one Sunday after church service and asked for volunteers. And from that was born the Shanksville “ambassadors,” a group of now 40 volunteers who spend at least two-hour turns each day at the site—in rain or shine, in January as well as July—explaining to those who want to know exactly what happened in that bucolic field below the memorial. They can tell you, matter-of-factly—these are country folk after all—the percentage of body parts (less than 10 per cent) that have been discovered. The size of the largest piece of the plane—it could fit on the back of a pickup truck—that was salvaged. And how local coroner Wallace Miller had to keep going back to the area repeatedly after the spring rains as more bits of human remains would surface, up through the springy ground, freshly filled in recent years after having
been stripped for its soft black coal.
The county has taken over some of the organization now. It is overseeing the Sept. 11 memorial service in the lower field that was to include area residents like the ambassadors and family members of the victims; George W. Bush was to make a private visit later in the day. It has also put out strict rules about tree-planting and commercialization near the site, not that these needed to be spelled out. Peer pressure has kept souvenir selling to a minimum, says Ernest Stull, Shanksville’s 78-year-old mayor. “People here just don’t want that kind of thing,” he says. “If you try it, you might get run out of town.”
There is a plan afoot in the U.S. Congress to fast-track a national memorial at Shanksville, in as soon as five years, and to turn its upkeep over to professional wardens. That would be welcomed, it seems, by most of the local residents, who want their quiet lives back. But it might also be a shame. For this tragedy has knitted together large groups of Americans, and others too, with a profound need to understand and to tell their stories. Like Leno Zanoni and his wife Josephine. From nearby Ralphton, the Zanonis saw Flight 93 career over their house and felt the shudder of its impact.
Now they are regular visitors to the memorial site. It’s like a church service. They come, sit quietly for about 30 minutes or relay their life stories almost intimately with perfect strangers, as people tend to do when tragedy strikes. As it happened, Leno’s sister, who works in Manhattan, was almost trapped in the fallout from the World Trade Center. And years ago, his father, a former miner, was covered for a time under a rockfall in the very same Quecreek mine—it’s just 20 minutes up the road, the next property, in fact, to Barbara Black’s historical centre—where nine miners were dramatically rescued in July after 72 hours underground.
The hills here do, on occasion, give something back. The Disney people are moving in later this month to make a TV movie of the Quecreek miners. Flight 93 is another story. If you stand on the memorial plateau and blot out the patriotic offerings, all you can see are hills that seem to roll forever and a nearly pristine meadow where an airplane once went down. That scar at least has healed. ITO
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.