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Small town shoulders a nation's grief

Forever changed, Shanksville, Pa., can't escape its connection to 9/11.

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 10, 2003

[Times photos: Kinfay Moroti]
Rosary beads and crucifixes are amomg the nearly 10,000 objects that vistors leave at the temporary memorial for United Airlines Flight 93.
For nearly two years, Chuck Wagner has volunteered to help maintain the makeshift Flight 93 memorial.
Main Street is home to the majority of Shanksville's 247 residents. On Sept. 11, 2001, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field outside the town, killing its 40 passengers and crew.   photo

911 slide showCoverage from last year:
Remembering 9-11: Slide show
Sept. 11, 2001 was the New Day of Infamy, when foreign terrorism was unleashed on American soil.

09-11-01: One year later
The Times Online presents a retrospective of 911and a look to the future.

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. - Janet Rivera is a youthful grandmother who peppers her speech with homey phrases like "okey-dokle," lives on the dairy farm where she was born and keeps a cross-stitched American flag on her refrigerator door.

On Sept. 11, 2001, after the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in a field rattled dishes and scared the dogs, she and other women from her Lutheran church took cakes and perogies to the investigators and firefighters at the scene.

Her husband, Glenn, oversaw security for the Somerset County Sheriff's Department, escorting relatives of the 40 passengers and crew to the point of impact. Mr. Rivera worked at the site for a year and a half, and the Riveras support building a national monument there.

But some days, Mrs. Rivera, 62, would like nothing more than to politely ask the hundreds of daily visitors to the crash site to go home. Not that she ever would, of course.

"If that were one of my children or spouse or grandchildren out there, I don't know what I would feel," said Mrs. Rivera, who lives in nearby Stoystown. "But just being from the area, enough is enough already."

"After you beat a drum so long, it gets old," added Mr. Rivera, 68, who retired from the Sheriff's Department this summer. "We hear every detail every minute."

Two years after the hijacked jetliner thrust Shanksville into the international spotlight, the town and surrounding community are struggling with their newfound popularity, and the change sure to follow.

Shanksville is tucked in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains about 80 miles from Pittsburgh, out of the way from anyplace else. For many here, the notion of change is as foreign as the notion that a hijacked airliner might fall from the sky.

Plans are evolving for a national monument expected to become the second most-visited federal monument in Pennsylvania, behind Gettysburg, a couple of hours east. Unaccustomed fame and fortune have exposed petty jealousies. Some residents fret about the influx of strangers, and gripe about the traffic.

They feel guilty even saying it. This is a gracious community, and many here have met the families of the dead. Some relatives visit regularly, and townsfolk say they have developed a warm and enduring relationship with them.

The airliner also missed two schools before crashing into an abandoned strip mine, injuring no one on the ground. People thank God that it landed where it did.

But the crush has never let up. The first school buses arrived from Maryland less than two weeks after the crash, residents said. They've since played host to church groups from Pittsburgh, families from Colorado, retirees from Florida and motorcycle clubs from Milwaukee, all coming to gaze across an empty field toward the crater, which lies just out of view.

Tour buses bound for the makeshift Flight 93 memorial often crowd the narrow, two-lane blacktops winding past dairy cows and corn fields. Thousands have made their mark, leaving ballcaps and trinkets, scrawling "God Bless" or "Let's Roll" on the memorial's message board and the parking lot guardrail and even the door to the portable toilet. On Sunday, Lummi Indians from Washington state arrived with a "healing pole" for the little park behind the Shanksville school.

This summer, 5,000 to 7,000 people visited each week, and 70,000 have come since Memorial Day, the National Park Service says. More than 100,000 have visited in the past year.

The population of Shanksville is 247.

* * *

In those first, crazy days after Islamic terrorists hijacked four airliners, crashing them into the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and the field outside Shanksville, it seemed like everyone in town was there, either at the crash site with the volunteer fire department, or rounding up food and equipment, or answering reporters' questions.

The afterglow lasted for weeks. When someone needed shovels and wheelbarrows at the site, a truckload of shovels and wheelbarrows appeared. Investigators never wanted for a cup of coffee, even in the middle of the night.

But even a close-knit community isn't immune to the pressures of fame. Many residents complain traffic on the surrounding road has increased mightily, making chit-chat on the front porch difficult, especially when the motorcycle clubs roar by.

Bob Leverknight, 41, a native who lives on Lambertsville Road, the main route to the crash site, said he has stopped mowing his yard on weekends because 25 people will stop and ask directions.

Last week, Clair Weyant, 77, a Shanksville native, took a break from his woodworking to explain how he is glad to welcome visitors, but it doesn't come without cost.

"The big change it made for everyone is they lock their place up more than they used to, when there weren't so many strangers," Weyant said. "That's the hardest thing for me. When my car was in the garage, I never even pulled the keys out."

Shanksville Mayor Ernest Stull noted sourly that the traffic has meant unplanned road repairs and improvements. "And there isn't any money for it," he said. "The National Park Service is involved, and all these agencies, you'd think maybe somebody could come up with a couple bucks for you."

Meanwhile, Mrs. Rivera said, "I don't know if Mr. Green Man Jealousy stepped in or what, but people started to pull different directions, with different opinions."

Some grumbled that their neighbors liked being interviewed on TV too much. Then a rift over who arrived at the crash site first emerged between the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department and the chief of the department in the next town, Stoystown.

Shanksville maintains its guys were first. Stoystown fire Chief Ralph D. Blanset says he was first.

Blanset, 75, a beefy, balding man with a construction firm, has been chief in Stoystown since 1946. At a job site last week, he dropped the tailgate on his maroon Chevrolet pickup and opened the Sept. 11 edition of Life magazine to the centerfold: It was a photo of a beefy, balding man at the edge of a smoldering crater.

The maroon Chevy and Stoystown's minipumper were parked right behind him.

"Like they say, a picture is worth a thousand words," Blanset said. "Shanksville's (truck) is right behind. It isn't in the scene. I think it kind of irritates them."

Over in Shanksville, Assistant Chief Rick King rolled his eyes. He is sure he was there first.

"I drove the truck," King said. "I was the incident commander when the FBI took over."

Besides, he said, what does it matter?

But by virtue of being the department linked to the tragedy, Shanksville has, in effect, hit the jackpot. The Shanksville VFD has received donations totaling "a couple hundred thousand dollars," King said, enough to purchase a badly needed tanker truck, as well as new equipment.

It was the guys from Shanksville who met President Bush at the White House and who were asked to speak at the National Fire Institute in Maryland last year. Their message was preparedness, and how even something huge can happen somewhere very small.

"Everybody seems to be holding their breath and waiting," said Kelly Leverknight, a school bus driver who lives outside Shanksville.

"For what happens next," her husband, Bob, said.

* * *

The point of impact is near the end of a pockmarked little lane, in a shallow basin next to a pond at the edge of a stand of pine trees charred by the initial blast.

The site had been mined for coal, then refilled with dirt. It was still soft when Flight 93 crashed, and firefighters said the Boeing 757 tunneled right in. They had to dig 15 feet to find it.

The impact was such that few human remains were found, and the site is considered hallowed ground, a heroes' graveyard. It is surrounded by a chain-link fence, with a single American flag hanging from it. The Sheriff's Department added 15 deputies to provide 24-hour security.

Visitors flock to a nearby temporary memorial that overlooks the site. It consists mainly of a tall section of chain-link fence festooned with caps, flags, firefighter's helmets and jackets, patriotic bumper stickers and messages. On the ground around it are carved rocks from a community in Colorado, a marble marker from Guatemala and several plaques with the name of each victim.

At the edge of the clearing, where the gravel turns to wheat-colored grass, stand 40 little wooden angels, each with the name of a passenger or crew member. A few have photos.

Visitors speak in hushed, reverent tones with the volunteer "ambassadors," local residents who staff the site every day. Each ambassador wears a golf shirt with the copyrighted Flight 93 logo and totes a binder with photos from that awful day: a puff of black smoke in the sharp blue sky, the smoking crater.

"How we have changed, beyond the superficial and the obvious, is we have become basically history teachers," King said. "We are witnesses - some of us, eyewitnesses - to the crash of Flight 93, and people who come and visit the temporary memorial want to hear the story."

Shanksville and the surrounding towns of Stoystown, Friedens, Berlin and Lambertsville are geographically isolated, and old, with families whose roots go back generations. The names in the local phone book are the same as the names on the headstones in the historic graveyards: Glessner, Stull, Stahl, Mosholder, Shaffer.

It is a mix of postindustrial Rust Belt and pastoral beauty, where miles of dairyland are often interrupted by a scrap metal yard, or signs to a coal mine.

Until the decline of the steel industry in the 1980s, many area residents worked in the steel mills in Johnstown, 30 miles north. Now jobs are hard to find, and young people have moved away.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, the biggest thing to hit this area was the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, in nearby Berlin. "Nothing ever happened here," said Shanksville Borough Council member Robert Mowery, 76.

But as far as he's concerned, the most lasting effect of Flight 93 will be the new sewer system. Homes here have septic tanks, or no system at all - the waste simply drains into Stony Creek, which runs through town. Shanksville has sought state funds for a sewer for 30 years, to no avail.

After the crash, the state called Shanksville.

"On a hot day, you can't sit there and be comfortable, with the smell and the mosquitoes," Mowery said.

Others are less optimistic. The town of Somerset, on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, has plenty of hotels and restaurants, but visitors to the new monument will want someplace closer to eat. Shanksville has just one store, called Ida's.

Roads may have to be widened. Realtors say they expect property prices to increase.

The job of planning the memorial, meanwhile, has fallen to the Flight 93 Memorial Task Force, a group of 80 people that includes relatives of the victims, state and local leaders, residents and park service employees. Thursday, at an anniversary ceremony at the site, Interior Secretary Gale Norton will name 15 people to an advisory commission that will shepherd the task force recommendations to her department.

The deadline is Sept. 25, 2005. The park service hopes to start construction soon afterward.

"Obviously, a national memorial in your back yard is going to change things," King said. "We live close enough to Gettysburg where we can see what happens."

Gettysburg is a much larger city, but the tourists drawn to the national battlefield in turn have drawn a predictable menagerie of fast-food restaurants, ice cream parlors and souvenir stands.

King, who serves on the task force, and others say they want the memorial to reflect the feel of the crash site itself: peaceful, reverent, understated. The park service expects to need some 1,700 acres, but what happens outside that space largely will be determined by market demand and Somerset County's zoning laws.

On a cool, cloudy day last week, more than 50 people visited the temporary memorial in half an hour. Back in town, Mayor Stull sat in his easy chair at home, nursing a Coke. He and his wife had just returned from runing errands in Somerset, where they treated themselves to lunch at McDonald's on a two-for-one coupon. He hopes the new sewer system will allow Shanksville to get a restaurant, a little cafe to get a cup of coffee, or a nice bowl of soup.

Stull has spent all of his 79 years in Shanksville, except for three he spent in the Army during World War II. He is among those who believe the monument will spark a little growth, but nothing major. And besides, he noted, there is little they can do about it.

"The people we meet up there are such nice, nice people. They didn't come to be nosy, they came to pay their respects," Stull said. "Some people say enough is enough. My answer is, no it isn't. It will never be enough. It will be here forever."

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