Shanksville 10 years later: The same, but changed

September 9, 2011

In some ways, Shanksville still seems like a place where nothing ever really happens. Hidden among Pennsylvania’s coal mines and cornfields, the town includes one general store, one school and two churches. There is a rocking chair and an American flag on every porch — but there is no gas station and no bank. And yet this town played a starring and often inspiring role in the 9/11 attacks.

On Sept. 11, 2001, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed at about 575 mph into a patch of grassland just two miles outside Shanksville. The other three planes hijacked by al-Qaeda that day hit their high-profile targets, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but the passengers and crew on Flight 93 revolted midair. A plane thought to have been heading for the White House or the Capitol instead crashed into a far more unlikely spot, catapulting Shanksville into history entirely by chance. The 40 passengers and crew members died, as did the four hijackers.

“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.

Shanksville’s generosity stems partly from gratitude; many believe that Flight 93’s passengers made sure the plane missed the town. Residents are proud to be part of a very different 9/11 story.

“This is where the first victory against terrorism happened,” O’Connor says as he flips through his folders of newspaper clippings about the attacks. Every year around the anniversary of the attacks, he spends two weeks teaching fifth-graders about what happened.

But the unexpected celebrity has caused some tensions in Shanksville. The new memorial, in particular, has had a divided reception. The park has cost $52 million to date, with $18 million of that coming from state funds. At least $10 million more is required for extra features, such as a visitors’ center.

“A lot of people say [the old memorial] was sufficient. It was simple but personal,” says Doug Custer, who was one of Shanksville’s town supervisors for 26 years, until 2007. “The amount of money being spent seems like overkill. The people on the plane do need to be immortalized but . . . it’s a pretty price tag in today’s economy.”

The memorial’s vast size is another bone of contention. The last eight landowners with plots on the desired site finally sold in late 2009 after the federal government provided $9.5 million to settle testy negotiations. A planned 700-acre extension could restart such a process.

“It’s an issue in the community — a lot of people don’t know why they chose to have so much land,” says Linda Musser, who sold almost three acres of farmland for the park. She says she respects the heroism of the passengers, and she volunteers as an Ambassador for two hours each week.

Despite the bustle on its outskirts, Shanksville slumbers on in many ways. There have been more lost tourists and persistent television crews over the past 10 years, but the town hasn’t built hotels or cafes, partly because it is too tiny to do so.

“Shanksville’s roads are too small, and the water system is not up to the expansion. . . . The economic rewards [of the new memorial] are not going to be reaped by the community,” says Jerry Spangler, the district attorney for Somerset County. He says hotels and restaurants are likelier to appear in the borough of Somerset, just over 10 miles away.

Not that Shanksville minds. On the contrary, many residents hope the anniversary will provide a sober sense of closure rather than increased attention.

Such a turning point was seen in Lockerbie. Graham Herbert, the rector of Lockerbie Academy, says the Scottish town’s Christmas lights were turned off as a mark of respect after the December plane crash. “However, after 10 years, there was a conscious decision to turn them back on and show that the town could move on,” he says.

Today, the town has a granite memorial and a remembrance garden, which take up less than an acre. Each year, two Lockerbie Academy students earn one-year scholarships to attend New York’s Syracuse University, which had 35 students on the plane. A memorial trust funds community projects such as sports clubs. On the whole, though, “this is something that is quietly acknowledged, mostly in the churches,” Herbert says.

“It’s not resilience or callousness,” he adds. “It’s just that people get on with their lives.”

Shanksville and Lockerbie have captured the public’s imagination because of the surreal notion of such horrific attacks descending on an hitherto unknown town by chance. These towns are “a heightened version of what all terrorism involves,” says Richard English, a terrorism expert at St. Andrews University in Scotland.

“One of the key things that people feel about terrorism is the accidental nature of these events. You just happen to be in the wrong building, or cafe, or flight at the wrong time,” English says. “The statistical likelihood of it happening to us is virtually nil, but the nature of it makes us all think, ‘That could have been me.’ ”

With former president George W. Bush due to visit the new Flight 93 memorial Saturday and President Obama due Sunday, some people in Shanksville still find it hard to take in the past decade’s turn of events.

That sense of “What if?” can at times be overwhelming. “There were nearly 500 kids in the school that day,” says Musser, sporting her red Ambassadors sweater and thinking about what would have happened had the plane crashed a second later. “I would have known all of them. This is a small town.”

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