Mourners drawn to rural Pennsylvania site of Flight 93 crash
The Washington Post
SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — There is nothing much to see at the rural crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 — just a line of charred trees and a distant disturbance in the oat field where the giant crater was.
Yet people keep coming here, with the hushed reverence of churchgoers, more than a thousand of them a week. Most say it helps them somehow.
They stand quietly near the wall of tokens brought here by other visitors — the police patches and firefighters' caps from around the country, the flags with broken hearts designed by someone in Ohio, even plain rocks with "Thank you, Heroes of Flight 93" scrawled over them in big black letters.
They look out at the lone U.S. flag that marks the spot where the Boeing 757 crashed at 10:10 a.m. Sept. 11 a year ago. The terrorist-hijacked plane bypassed schools and neighborhoods and town centers, plowing instead into this reclaimed meadow atop an old coal mine.
"The feeling I get is that this is hallowed ground," said Kathy Coco, a retired teacher from nearby Johnstown.
President Bush flew here yesterday to join commemorations for the 40 people killed in the crash. More than 500 of the victims' relatives were in attendance.
The passengers and crew members were hailed by Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge as "citizen-soldiers" for struggling to take back their hijacked plane and avert a possible attack on the Capitol or White House.
The tragic events of that day gave this small community in the southern Allegheny Mountains, about 75 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, an instant place in history.
The terrorists aboard Flight 93, which originated in Newark, N.J., and was bound for San Francisco, had taken control of the cockpit that morning.
But several passengers with cellphones learned of the earlier attacks on the World Trade Center and, realizing their likely fate, hatched a fight-to-the-finish plan to storm the terrorists. The details of what happened are not fully known, but the words of passenger Todd Beamer, overheard by a telephone operator — "Let's roll!" — have become a catchphrase.
In the messages they leave behind here, many offer thanks to the passengers and crew, as if their heroics were somehow personally linked to the visitors.
"It was headed toward my home, but thanks to you, our country is safe," one person wrote.
Shanksville, actually several miles away but the nearest small town to the site, has about 260 residents, and all of them one can recall with a haunting clarity what they were doing that morning.
Most felt the boom. Nevin Lambert, whose farm sits on a hill overlooking the site, was shoveling coal into his bin when he saw the plane come hurtling in low and dive to the ground. A piece of blackened metal landed in his pasture, he tells the crowds sometimes at the memorial site, often shedding a tear.
As assistant chief of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Company, Rick Smith was one of the first on the scene, within seven or eight minutes.
"What sticks with me," he said recently, "was the total destruction of the aircraft. I remember the smell of the jet fuel. And just the horrific sight."
Soon, Smith and the other firefighters from eight local companies realized there would be no survivors.
"We felt helpless," he said.
Next door to Ida's Country store, which Smith and his wife operate, is the volunteer fire department and a sign that alludes to another local event that riveted the nation, this one with a happy ending: "God Still Answers Prayers — 9 for 9."
In late July, nine miners trapped in a Somerset County mine, just nine miles from the Flight 93 crash site, were rescued after more than 77 hours underground.
"There is hope, miracles do happen," said Shanksville Postmaster Janine Konieczny.
At the crash site, Rose Sprock, one of 30 "volunteer ambassadors," urges people to sign the register book. Visitors have come from nearly every state, she said.
Ronald and Joan Cross of Fairfax County, Va., had stopped by after a visit with their son in Export, Pa. They had to come, they said.
Looking at the site, its bareness and its serenity, only strengthened his resolve, said Ronald Cross, a civilian employee who was at work at the Pentagon when it was struck that morning.
"It happened, it was real," he said. "But you go on, and shame on whoever tries to stop you again."
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.