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PA town reflects post-Sept. 11

Ask anyone outside of Shanksville where the town is, and you'll often get blank stares.


"I think people dealt with it more as a community than as individuals."

—Pastor Sylvia Baker

Ask anyone outside of Shanksville where the town is, and you'll often get blank stares. Not many people realize that's where Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001, killing all 44 people aboard.

"You don't have to go far to find folks who don't know about us," said Pastor Sylvia Baker of the Shanksville Assembly of God Church. "Many people don't know Shanksville is where it happened."

The pastors in Shanksville meet once a week for prayer and discussion. This past Thursday was no different as Baker, Rev. Bob Way, and Rev. Randy Newell met in Newell's office at the Shanksville United Methodist Church.

They say the small town of around 240 people changed dramatically after 9/11, but the past year has been quieter. "Not much change has happened in the last year, but there are some here who are still deeply affected by Flight 93, and then there are others who are dealing with it and moving on," said the Rev. Bob Way, pastor of the Good Shepherd Cooperative Lutheran Ministry in Shanksville.

"It's true," agreed Baker. "Some folks are really dedicated to the memorial site, some moved on. But this town will always be affected by it."

The pastors said their parishioners reacted each in their own ways, with some immediately volunteering to help and others pulling back. Baker and Way, who were pastors in Shanksville at the time of the crash, said they didn't actually receive very many help requests from their own congregations.

"I think people dealt with it more as a community than as individuals," said Baker.

The residents of Shanksville were overwhelmed at first by the number of people that swarmed to the town. Federal, state and local officials covered the area, not to mention the hundreds of media outlets, said Way and Baker. "The fact that the crash site became a crime scene made a huge difference - even the local firefighters who were first-responders had to leave the site," said Baker.

The community had to deal with showing their IDs to get to their homes and into their driveways. State Police were stationed all along the roads. Way said some residents held some animosity about all the restrictions, and Newell added that it wasn't an anti-government sentiment. "This was all just so strange to people, they'd never experienced anything on this scale before," said Newell.

Baker nodded. "This was a whole different world for people who were used to just hearing crickets chirp or cows moo out here," she said, adding that much of the initial shock later gave way to great friendships.

"Many of these folks who had officers sitting in front of their homes day in and day out ended up becoming great friends with them," she said. "People would often take the officers food and drink throughout the day and night, or get them chairs - one women even set up a canopy for an officer. People were going beyond the normal."

Memories and faith

Vivid memories of 9/11 are not hard for the pastors of Shanksville to recall.

"I was at the crash site within an hour and a half, having been summoned to give last rites there," said Rev. Bob Way. "When I arrived at the site, I saw two people I knew outside the barrier. They asked me to take them in with me - and I just thought, 'Why did they want to go in there?' you know, because I didn't even want to go in there."

Rev. Shirley Baker remembers the sounds. "I was waiting in my kitchen waiting for a ride to a funeral," she said. "I will never forget the sound or feel of it all, it sounded like some 18-wheeler was going to come through my front door. And then I saw volunteer firefighters running up to the station saying something about a plane having just come down."

The Rev. Randy Newell was not pastor of Shanksville UMC when the crash happened, but he did live in nearby Rockville. "I worked in this very loud manufacturing facility and I remember how dead silent it got as everyone listened to the radio," he said. "The out and out silence just struck me."

The 9/11 attacks shook many people to the core of their faith, agreed the pastors. Each of the pastors had their own faith reactions to the crash. Both Baker and Way said they often had to answer the questions about how God could let such a thing as 9/11 happen.

"People would ask me 'Where was God on 9/11?' and I would say he was right in it all where he should've been," said Baker. "He was on those planes comforting people and he was in the halls of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon holding people's hands."

Newell saw promise in the questions. "People were asking those questions, so I felt it was an opportunity to bring comfort through the word of God and the message of Christ," said Newell. "You have to be able to evangelize with compassion."

As far as the pastors getting the care they needed, Way and Baker said they attended a Red Cross aviation incident counseling session. "It was mostly for pastors and caregivers," said Way. "It stressed the need to remain ecumenical, which was tough at times but turned out to be very rewarding in the end."

Way said Lutheran Disaster Response also offered support, but he said the need wasn't there. "The community was healing itself," he said. "And any immediate prayer and worship needs were being met by the local clergy here."

Baker said when her district council asked what they could do for her, and she said what was really needed was a new fire truck for the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department. And her council came through with a check for $15,000 - enough to buy the department a new truck just weeks after 9/11.

Media gurus

Flipping through the pages of her Sept. 11 scrapbook, the Rev. Shirley Baker said she felt like a media celebrity for some time. She made the scrapbook not just for herself, but also for her children and her grandchildren. The book is thick with bulletins from memorial services, miscellaneous photos of town events, and endless amounts of news articles featuring her.

"I've had everyone from the BBC to Tokyo TV in my living room and in my church," said Baker.

Rev. Bob Way said he had the same experience. "All the media did get frustrating," he said. "I eventually had to put limits on it - and sometimes I would take time to just be alone in my office and get away from it all. There were many times I couldn't even leave my office without someone stopping me." Way said he got to the point where he would only grant interviews with media that could find a question he hadn't been asked yet.

Baker said she took her media involvement as an opportunity to spread God's word. "Oh, I made it a point to minister to any media who came to my church," she laughed.

Experiencing the memorial

On a windy Thursday morning after the pastors' meeting, Rev. Bob Way stands at the Flight 93 temporary memorial site in Shanksville. "Sometimes the site is overwhelming, and sometimes it's not," he says. "It depends on what you bring with you."

Way said he still comes to visit the memorial site several times each week. He used to stop by every day, both for himself and for anyone else at the site who might need to talk.

Flight 93 crashed into a huge field about one mile from Shanksville's Main Street. The field is a treeless, hilly area, with views of the local farmland and forests of Somerset County. A small pond lies at the bottom of the field, a scrap yard at the top, and on the opposite side of the field from where the plane hit sit two gigantic rusted dragline cranes left behind when the coal company that strip-mined the area vacated the mine.

The temporary memorial site rests in the center of the field, looking in the direction of the fenced-off crash site several hundred feet away by the tree-line. The memorial site itself is made up of a fence where visitors have attached tokens of remembrance, from local fire department hats to flags to homemade painted wooden hearts and handwritten poems. And every token left behind at the memorial is logged and kept by the Somerset County Historial Society.

There is also a large wooden cross, 44 small angels made of slate that bear each of the flight's victims' names, several large marble plaques from various donors, and benches that bear some of the victims' names.

The National Park Services runs the memorial, and a task force made up of Shanksville residents, families of the Flight 93 victims, and government officials is currently planning a permanent memorial. That task is proving to be fairly challenging for a number of reasons.

"The biggest issue is that this is a gravesite," said Way, who also serves on the permanent memorial task force. There's concern from the victims' families over what visitors are allowed to see and have access to, he said.

During the summer, the site receives some 5,000 to 6,000 visitors each week. Some Shanksville residents are concerned about the impact a permanent memorial will have on the town. Some are worried about what it means to have a local economic boom built off a tragedy. Other just don't want fast food restaurants or hotels popping up all over.

"We don't know yet how much of an effect having a national memorial here will affect the town," said Way. "And some folks are understandably very concerned."

'I'm proud of Shanksville'

If you walk around the Flight 93 temporary memorial site, you'll see one or two people wearing blue denim shirts and holding notebooks. Those are the memorial site Flight 93 Ambassadors. The ambassadors are Shanksville residents who stand-by to answer any questions visitors might have.

This same Thursday as Rev. Way's visit, Mary Alice Magnemeyer stands in front of a small crowd of people, pointing out sites around the memorial and answering questions. When asked about being an Ambassador, she responds with a smile. "I'm proud of Shanksville and I'm proud to be an American," she says. "I wanted to help."

The ambassadors started up informally. Shanksville resident Donna Glessner runs the program. She saw a need for the ambassadors shortly after 9/11 when people would come to pay their respects at the memorial site (which has changed places several times since 9/11 as people were allowed closer and closer to the crash site).

"Many people would be looking in the wrong direction from the crash site, or they'd leave with unanswered questions," said Glessner, who also serves on the permanent memorial task force. "I just saw the need to do something about that."

And with that, Glessner now has a team of 44 ambassadors who work one to two short shifts at the site throughout the week. Ambassadors must be locals and must have lived in the area when 9/11 happened.

She said they actually end up doing more listening than talking, and that each ambassador has had amazing visitors and amazing moments at the memorial. "The ambassadors feel honored to serve there, and we've had such wonderful experiences,' said Glessner.

One wonderful experience that Glessner and the Shanksville pastors all spoke of is the opportunity to interact with the families of the Flight 93 victims. "I'm amazed by the faith of the families," said Glessner. "They have such a peace."

Glessner added that she found it interesting how the families viewed the field where the plane crashed. "The families say they love how beautiful the area is, with the rolling hills and even the pond at the bottom," she said. "And here all the Shanksville residents always thought this field - which is an abandoned strip-mine - and its lack of trees was just ugly. Makes you think."

Way said he's honored to know that many of the families feel very strongly about Shanksville. "Many families feel this community is the hands of God," he said. "And you know, you couldn't be here and not be involved."

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