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For Shanksville Residents, Flight 93 a Permanent Memory


The terrorist attacks against the United States last September profoundly impacted New York City and Washington, D.C. The fourth hijacked plane was taken off course and was believed to be headed for the nation's capital, but the passengers and crew attacked the hijackers and crashed the plane into a field, near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

In the last year, the 200 residents of this farming community have had their lives drastically changed. They have been interiviewed by newspapers, radio and national television. They routinely give information to the constant influx of tourists. Despite the intrusion into their personal lives, most have shown great patience and willingness to help.

Robin Rupli takes us to Shanksville where she found that the residents have also accepted the responsibility of being the caretakers of this cemetery that is now a part of history.

It's lunchtime at Ida's Store, the only market in Shanksville and the center of local activity. Rick King is the owner of Ida's, as well as Assistant Chief of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department next door. Mr. King was the first fireman to arrive at the crash scene. He says he knew immediately it would not be an ordinary job. "Because I heard the plane while it was still in the air and I heard it crash, I saw the fireball and I felt the earth shake under my feet," he says, "I knew that this was going to be a pretty major incident, something we'd never seen before. So it was pretty scary to confront that."

Rick King says the force of the crash and the fire that ensued left few recognizable human remains of the passengers and crew. He says the town of Shanksville immediately opened their homes and their hearts to family members of the victims.

"I think that's sort of been our mission, since this all happened," he explains. "Once we started to find out who was on board this plane and saw their faces on television and read about them and the cell phone calls they made to their loved ones, we sort of realized that we had, just a [few kilometers] from our town, we had 40 true American heroes die. And that's pretty special to us. As it is for all Americans."

"Because I live on Main Street, my phone has been used when it's needed to be used, and when I walk out of the house I generally have to give directions to someone about something," says Barbara Black, curator for the local Somerset Historical Center.

She says in the past year she has been interviewed by reporters literally hundreds of times. But Ms. Black says the biggest change she's seen in her community is that people have become closer. "It was a close-knit community to begin with," she says, "but this has brought out a lot more closeness, because in order to do things we have had to work together and that has shown what a good community it is."

Flight 93 crashed into an open field and missed injuring anybody on the ground. Gary Engel, superintendent of the Shanksville/Stonycreek School, recalls that his school was directly in the path of the flight. Had it come down seconds later, he says, hundreds more would have been killed. "When you think about 500 kids, you just feel so helpless," he says. "It's stressful. You go though it every day; it's like you don't get a chance not to relive it. And really, the people who lost families and lost relatives, have been very emotional, some of them - and they're still dealing with it. But you kind of share that with them and they share that with you and it becomes part of you. And that's never going to go away. It will always be there."

Funeral director and county coroner Wallace Miller was one of the first people to arrive at the scene. "It just looked like a big smoldering patch on the edge of the field," he says, "and there were a bunch of trees sticking up that had been defoliated from the blast through the trees." Mr. Miller took charge of contacting the victims' family members and coordinating with their local funeral homes for the transport of any remains. Since then, he has gotten to know many of those families well and says he will continue to make himself available for their needs.

"There's only two things that are going to remain constant with respect to this," says Mr. Miller. "The people who live in Shanksville will still be living there, and the family members will still be coming back here to this cemetery. So to me, that's the important thing: that that be remembered. I care about those family members who are my clients."

Today, Wallace Miller says the grassy field where United Airlines Flight 93 plunged into the ground shows no evidence of the crash. Where a year ago, the energy surrounding the site was "one of chaos," today he says there is a new feeling of calm. "For a long time, there wasn't any life down there at all. You couldn't hear crickets chirping or birds or anything," he recalls. "It went that way through the whole winter. And then, finally in the springtime, slowly we planted grass and things started coming back up and it got renewed. And a couple of weeks ago, I was down there with one of the land owners and as we walked, there was this big flock of turkeys and they were just outside that fence where the plane hit the ground. To me, I got the feeling again that nature kind of renewed itself. There was a certain amount of healing going on down there. And a maybe it is time to honor that rather than honor this tragedy and horror."

On September 11, 2002, an estimated 30,000 people were expected to gather at the memorial site in the Pennsylvania countryside near Shanksville to remember the victims of Flight 93, whose actions are being described as the first victory against the war on terrorism. The serene and peaceful setting where 44 people died led one woman, whose brother was killed on the plane to say, "If there had to be a place where someone had to die, this would be it."

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