- The Washington Times - Monday, December 24, 2001

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. Smiling children, soccer games in the park and neighbors celebrating holidays: The rhythm of everyday life is captured in breezy snapshots on page after page of Donna Glessner's photo albums.
But soon the carefree scenes of her small-town life take on a darker tone.
There's a photo of an impromptu memorial, a poignant jumble of scribbled laments, flags and teddy bears. Another shows a banner saluting "the Heroes of Flight 93." A portrait of grim firefighters captures volunteers who had hoped to save someone the day a plane crashed two miles away.
These are Mrs. Glessner's snapshots of lives interrupted, of an isolated hamlet that unwittingly became the overlooked ground zero. Here, in a town far from the power centers of New York and Washington, the pictures of this dairy farming community tell the story of how it came to share the spotlight since September 11.
"We feel real humble about the whole thing," says Mrs. Glessner, who has lived in Shanksville all of her 42 years. "We did nothing to be famous."
On September 11, two hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, killing thousands. Another hit the Pentagon and killed 189.
The fourth crashed in a lonely Pennsylvania field 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh after an ad hoc troop of passengers wrestled their hijackers to stop another sinister plan. Forty persons died near the no-stoplight township of Shanksville, turning the 245-resident slice of rural America into a living memorial.
This has become "our plane crash," Mrs. Glessner says. "People carry the biographies of these people in their heads."
These days, locals meet at the social crossroads of Ida's Country Store or Grines Service Center and discuss plans for a permanent memorial. They complain of traffic while giving directions to thousands of outsiders sometimes before they ask looking for the temporary memorial on a hill overlooking the site. They share stories of the 40, the details of lives now imprinted on their hearts.
"People talk about these people like they know them," Mrs. Glessner says. "One woman talks about 'my favorite passenger,' Jeremy Glick, like a grandson. She think he's the greatest, like she actually knew him." Mr. Glick was one of those who wrestled with the hijackers.
This past week, the remains of the 40th and final victim were identified, but the hijackers' remains are still unidentified. Townsfolk say they are glad the four hijackers most likely will stay unnamed.
When news spread of the first plane striking the World Trade Center, locals recall musing over how lucky they were to live in a town in the quiet Laurel Highlands, where traffic jams consist of five cars and the first day of deer hunting season is a town holiday.
These things don't happen here, they said.
Eighty minutes later, the ceiling tiles at the local school lifted from their hangers. Houses in a two-mile radius rattled.
Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Rick King was on the phone with his sister two miles away when he saw a plane above the trees, its engines screaming. He felt the explosion.
Among the first to arrive at the scene, he and four firefighters had been gearing up on the way to rescue people. They found no one to save.
For the next two weeks, the firefighters put out small fires in the crater, trees and brush, and mourned as they looked for remains, rebuffing attempts to call themselves heroes.
"It was very hard to discern it was an aircraft," he said. "What really hit our guys was when the [victims] faces started appearing on television, [especially] when we heard that people tried to thwart the terrorists."
In the hours and days after the crash, raw grief honed itself to purpose. Residents prepared meals and found clothing for hundreds of law enforcement officers from around the state and the nation. They fretted over grieving family members. They tended the impromptu memorials.
"Our way of grieving was to just do what we could," high school principal Connie Hummel said. "You almost hate to say it or sense it, but we're so grateful it wasn't us."
"What scares me is that if it had gone down six seconds earlier, it would have hit the school, and we wouldn't have any children," said retired dairy farmer Eddie Denner.
Two months later, a dozen new flagpoles went up, a church bell rang 40 times and residents ran a 15-kilometer race for Flight 93.
And now, after three months, the yellow ribbons remain on the cash register in Ida's Country Store, on signs and utility poles, on trees in a park near the school.
Letters to Santa posted on a wall at Shanksville-Stony Creek School show that life at least for children is returning to normal. But it's hard to tell from her hand-printed message if before September 11 little Maria would have wanted a "talking globe because it gives information about the world."
The school's curriculum now includes Middle Eastern religions and conflicts.
Locals say life must go on, but many say that they now measure time in terms of the crash.
Some say they can't look in 'that' direction anymore. Others still tend the impromptu memorials because it is sad, they say, when they are left alone.
Regrouping has been difficult for Barry Hoover, whose stone cabin was shattered by the impact. What possessions weren't looted were lost to contamination from the blast. His cat, Woody, was missing for days.
"Forty people I didn't know, but would probably have known well if they'd lived here, died there," said Mr. Hoover, 34, of his hesitancy to rebuild. "How do you feel when you quick start a dirt bike in a cemetery?"
It isn't the same place, he says. He didn't have neighbors in the woods near the abandoned strip mine.
"As you can see, now I will," he said.
The stream is constant, even on the misty, cold days that throw a surreal blanket over the site. The road to nowhere had to be paved.
On a knoll overlooking the crash site, pumpkins and holly sprigs have joined faded artificial flowers, flags, pictures, poems and other tributes at the temporary memorial north of Shanksville.
"Thanksgiving weekend we saw license plates from half of the 50 states," said lone guard Juleen Imler, who patrols the fenced-off crash site.
This has become the part of the "new normal," as former Shanksville resident and Somerset County District Attorney Jerry Spangler calls it. "We have a responsibility to reconcile the place we grew up in with a place where such a grievous wrong occurred. Things can never go back."
So the connections linger to people the residents have never met, to their loved ones they sometimes still talk to.
Victims' families still call Postmaster Judy Baeckel and others who comforted them and send "hugs" locals wish they could return. Mrs. Baeckel set up an impromptu memorial in her yard when no one was allowed close to the crash site.
So did Roxanne Sullivan, who now sits in a room at the Somerset Historical Center using conservation powder to brush off dirt from yellow plastic flowers and poems she collects at the sites.
Nearby, curator Barbara Black riffles through a catalog of more than 1,000 items left at the temporary memorials. Everybody just wants to leave something of themselves, she says, showing examples of a United Airlines flight attendant uniform, a Desert Storm veteran's hat, a Capitol Hill employee's note: "Thanks for saving my life."
"We are treating these things as museum objects and hope to keep them for [future] generations," she said.
"People now want someplace for these things to be displayed," she said. "They want a place to reflect."
That sentiment is now fueling discussions among residents, victims' families, government officials and the coal company, which owns the crash site, about how and where to commemorate the victims and, at the same time, prevent would-be entrepreneurs from exploiting and trivializing their sacrifice.
The site is unrecognizable from a few months ago. The crater is filled in and covered with dirt, a scab over a jagged wound.
"You can feel something there," said Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller, in charge of the site, victim identification and family notification since September. "It is a reverent place. It is a cemetery."
The memorial process will be long and arduous. In the meantime, a town heals even as the crash remains a part of everyday life.
Mrs. Glessner continues through her photo album until the scenes of grief and disaster recede, replaced by family pictures again.
"Then," she says, pointing to the pictures almost apologetically, "life went on."

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