“I remember telling the kids: ‘Don’t worry, we’re in Shanksville. We’re out in the boonies — nothing will happen here,’ ” recalls J.P. O’Connor, an elementary-school teacher in the town, who was watching television news reports in horror as the World Trade Center collapsed that morning.
“And then the ceiling started shaking.”
In the decade since, a curious relationship has developed between the town and the tragedy. Shanksville, home to just 237 people, has become known for an attack that was never meant to land on its doorstep and harmed no one there. Its residents pour time and money into being respectful guardians of the crash site, which has been visited by more than 1 million people. It is much like Lockerbie, the small Scottish town that was plucked from obscurity when Pan Am Flight 103 crashed there in 1988 after an onboard terrorist attack.
On the western edge of Shanksville, Bishop Alphonse Mascherino welcomes visitors to a one-room white timber building opposite fields of three-foot-high corn. Forty American flags are pitched on the lawn. Mascherino, who was living in nearby Bedford on Sept. 11, 2001, opened the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel on the first anniversary of the attacks. He prays with bereaved family members who visit the site, as well as visiting church groups who come from as far away as California.
“The services focus on what the heroes did and what that means to us . . . the message of selflessness,” Mascherino says. His church survives on donations and a few sales of commemorative mugs bearing the name of the chapel. He has recruited 30 volunteers for the 10th anniversary of the attacks this weekend.
At the crash site, yet more local residents offer their services for free. The Ambassadors, a fluid group of up to 50 volunteers wearing red sweaters, act as guides for relatives, school groups and motorcycle rallies (the latter often stop to visit while traveling along nearby Lincoln Highway). The Ambassadors come from across Somerset County, which is home to Shanksville and which oversaw the building of a temporary memorial at the site. Here, visitors hung offerings such as handwritten messages, bottles of holy water and softballs on a 40-foot-long metal fence. The Ambassadors will work at the permanent memorial, a 1,500-acre national park that opens Saturday.