SHANKSVILLE — For the past two decades, Shanksville has been known worldwide as the community that on Sept. 11, 2001, was on the precipice of disaster — and survived.
Beginning immediately after the crash of United Airlines Flight 93, the residents of the small borough and its surrounding area stepped forward to provide supplies for the first responders.
In the ensuing years, those same residents have gone the full measure to remember the heroes of Flight 93 — the passengers and crew who fought the hijackers and brought the plane down in a field near here.
The townspeople’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.
They’ve been honored for their caring attitude toward the victims’ families and for their continuing efforts to remember those who gave their lives as America’s first response in the war on terrorism.
A Houston-based company, Cornell Companies, sponsored a sculpture created by Pittsburgh-area metal artist Jan Loney. The tree-shaped piece features leaves bearing the handprints of Shanksville-Stonycreek School District students, all pointing toward Heaven.
The Helping Hands Memorial is located next to the school.
A second sculpture honoring the residents’ response is a totem memorial made from a western red cedar tree. The gift from the Lummi tribe in Washington State can be found near the Flight 93 Memorial in Stonycreek Township. It features a large bear with its arms protecting figures who represent the crew and passengers of Flight 93.
Christopher Baeckel, the 35-year-old mayor of Shanksville, was asked recently if the trauma of Flight 93 had changed the people of his small community.
“I don’t think it changed anyone. It just brought out who we were,” he said.
Baeckel, who works at a Somerset bank, was a freshman student in the high school that day, as were Tessa Belsterling and Jill Shubik.
A day to remember
Those onboard Flight 93 knew what was going on as news filtered to them through their cell phones. The hijackers didn’t care that the passengers and crew were communicating with family and friends on the ground — but that communication is what sets Flight 93 passengers and crew apart.
Shubik, now a high school English teacher, was a sophomore at Shanksville-Stonycreek High school that day.
She remembers a loud bang — like a door slamming shut.
Everybody was shocked, she said.
At that point in her life, Shubik did not know what terrorism was.
“I didn’t know why people would want to do this,” she said, as she stood outside her Shanksville home, her children by her side.
Her property abuts the parking lot of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Company, the first department to respond to the explosion that occurred when Flight 93, flying upside down, drilled into the ground of an abandoned strip mine just seconds away from Shanksville and its 200-plus residents.
The last communication from Flight 93 was at 10:03 a.m.
Shubik’s memory of that day coincides with the story told by Belsterling, who was attending a class on world cultures when the loud bang created by the downing of the plane reverberated through the school.
“It had to be a little bit of God, too,” she said. “In a couple of seconds, it (the aircraft) could have been on the school.”
There was awareness within the school that something was going on in the nation at large.
Some teachers had televisions on, and the students were aware that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers.
Some watched as the second plane hit the towers.
Then, from nearby came a “loud crash,” Baeckel said.
“We all jumped up out of our seats. We could see a big cloud of smoke,” he said.
Rumors circulated. One said it was a small plane that had crashed … a passenger plane.
“It took a while to figure out what had happened,” Baeckel said.
Eventually, the students were sent to the cafeteria, and parents came to the school to pick them up.
Shubik remembers delivering water to the state police who were keeping order and directing traffic around the site.
Baeckel helped a driver deliver supplies.
He was asked if he wanted to see the site. Of course, he assented with the curiosity of a 15-year-old.
The driver found a spot close enough for the young teen to view the site where Flight 93 crashed.
“There was nothing to see. It was just a hole,” he said.
Bacekel said that one of the leaders of the community’s response was his mother, Judi Baeckel. She has her own story to tell.
The first memorial
Judi Baeckel was the acting postmaster in the Shanksville Post Office in 2001.
“Oh, what a beautiful day it was going to be,” she recalled.
It was one of those days with a bright blue sky, plenty of sun and not too hot.
There were no TVs in the post office, and Baeckel noticed that business was slow. A neighbor finally called her and told her about the planes striking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The neighbor commented, “At least we are safe in Shanksville.”
Within an instant of making the comment, the post office shook.
“I thought it was a bomb. If it was happening here in Shanksville, it’s happening all over the country,” Baeckel said. “It was pretty scary.”
As the picture of events became clearer, Baeckel’s thoughts turned toward the victims and their families.
“We should have something for the victims to show the families that we care,” she remembered thinking.
Authorities had closed access to the crash site, but in response to a sign in her yard that proclaimed “Shanksville salutes the heroes of Flight 93,” visitors began to sign their names and leave messages to show their respect.
Someone suggested a cross be placed on a hill in Shanksville, but the railroad that owned the land denied the request.
So local churches placed a shrouded cross in Baeckel’s yard.
People also suggested that a permanent memorial be established, with Baeckel part of those discussions.
Some suggested the permanent memorial be in Johnstown or Somerset, two much larger communities.
But Baeckel argued a permanent memorial should be in Shanksville, where the plane came down.
Family members of the victims and visitors would come by the busload to see the makeshift memorial, she said.
As time went on, Baeckel would often go to the temporary memorial established at the site of the downed plane and explain to visitors what had occurred there,
That memorial, established by the Stonycreek Township supervisors and led by Doug Custer, placed a chain link fence along the perimeter of the site.
People stuffed the fence with mementos and notes.
When the National Park Service took over the site, Baeckel became an “ambassador,” which allowed her to continue her work at the site.
She also became close friends with Mary White, the mother of victim Honor Elizabeth Wainio, 27, who was traveling on Flight 93 to a business meeting.
Baeckel and White have stayed in touch over the years and have visited each other. White now lives in Florida, Baeckel said.
Asked what she thought about the permanent memorial erected in the field overlooking the crash site, Baeckel said, “I think it is beautiful. I feel it is in good hands.”
Chapel opens for first
Shanksville itself appears unchanged, but its residents in subtle ways remember the victims of Flight 93.
The street signs are red, white and blue. The volunteer fire company hosts many visitors and often holds commemorative events, and in a field not far from the Post Office, along what is called the Boulevard of Heroes, is the former Mizpah Evangelical Lutheran Church, dedicated in 1902 before becoming a grain distribution center in the ’60s.
A former Cathloic priest, Alphonse T. Mascherino, inspired by Judi Baeckel’s makeshift memorial, felt the need to grieve and meditate the loss of those on Flight 93.
His dream was to establish a Flight 93 Memorial Chapel and he was able to purchase the former Mizpah church.
“Father Al,” as he was known, died in 2013, but the chapel is continuing with volunteers like Connie Hay, who is able to convey the message of its founder.
It states, “These heroes of Flight 93 have hallowed our land.”
As Hay tells the story, the chapel was returned to its original status as a religious entity one week just prior to the first anniversary of the attacks.
Funds were donated by Maggie Hardy Magerko of 84 Lumber Company, and crews worked around the clock for 11 days to complete the transition from a grain distribution center to a chapel — just in time for the first anniversary memorial of Flight 93.
The chapel includes a meditation room where visitors can close the door and view the photographs and the biographies of the Flight 93 passengers and crew.
The front yard of the chapel includes a bell tower — Maggie’s Tower — reaching to the sky.
A garden in the backyard includes a 16-ton, 14-foot-high black granite obelisk donated by the United Airlines Attendants Cause Foundation and dedicated to the memory of the seven members of the flight crew who died when Flight 93 went down.
The chapel also contains quilts listing the Four Freedoms outlined in a 1941 speech by President Franklin Roosevelt as he prepared the nation for entry into World War II.
There is an angel, too, in memory of the unborn child of Flight 93 passenger Lauren Grandcolas, 38, who was returning to her California home from her grandmother’s funeral.
Hay became involved with the chapel after reading a newspaper article indicating volunteers were needed.
Answering the call
On the 10th anniversary of Flight 93, the chief of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Company, Terry L. Shaffer, said the community rallied around the fire department.
He said he was proud of his community’s response.
Shaffer, whose company was among the first to respond to the scene of the crash, has since retired, but the department remains close to people in the New York Fire Department and is involved in honoring the victims and their families.
The relationship between the first responders in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville can be seen in the fire station’s parking lot. There, New York firefighters installed a 2-ton, 14-foot high cross gleaned from the metal of the fallen towers.
The efforts to remember the victims of that day are a continuing part of the Shanksville department, said the company’s present chief, James Bent, who was 14 years old in 2001 and living in Maryland.
While he didn’t grow up in Shanksville, his grandmother lived in the borough, and he came to live there.
Bent said his company is dedicated to ensuring the sacrifices of those first responders will not be forgotten.
On Aug. 20, a group of Junior ROTC cadets from Albert Gallatin High School in Uniontown visited the fire company to prepare for the visitation the next day of Frank Siller, the CEO of Tunnel to Towers, who was in the process of walking 500 miles from New York to Pennsylvania to Washington to honor his brother, Stephen, on the 20th anniversary of Flight 93.
Stephen was a New York firefighter on his way home from his shift on the morning of Sept. 11 when the planes hit the towers.
Stephen Siller turned around and in full gear ran through a tunnel into New York in response to the attacks.
Stephen Siller died.
The Shanksville Fire Department’s volunteers joined Frank Siller on a 2.7 mile walk from the fire company to the Flight 93 memorial.
The Junior ROTC contingent was led by Lt. Col. Joseph Walsh, a retired Army veteran who served in Afghanistan.
The cadets installed American flags and the colors of the services.
During the ROTC stop, Bent offered the group a tour of the fire station.
One bay in the fire company’s garage contains a fire truck bearing plaques with the names of the 343 New York Firefighters who died when the towers collapsed.
The response by Shanksville “showed a small town that stood up and helped people they didn’t know. That’s what firefighting is all about,” Bent said.
The next generation
P.J. O’Connor is a longtime elementary school teacher in the Shanksville-Stonycreek School District.
He relishes teaching his fifth graders about Gettysburg, the Johnstown Flood and, of course, Flight 93.
He wants to be more than a “facts-and-figures” teacher.
“I try to make everything as real as possible and as personal as I can,” he said.
He wants the kids, despite their young ages, to remember something about the subject he is teaching, so when it comes to Flight 93, he begins by reading excerpts from Lisa Beamer’s book titled “Let’s Roll! Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage.”
Lisa Beamer’s husband, Todd, 32, was among the leaders of Flight 93 passengers who led the rebellion against the hijackers.
Todd Beamer was traveling to a business meeting on Sept. 11.
He has each of his pupils study the biography of one of the passengers and crew.
“It really leaves an impact on them,” he said.
Sept. 11 was a day of trauma, a day of heroes, but O’Connor thinks it was a day that also “changed everything.”
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