Thanksgiving has always been a special time in Shanksville, Pa. Anyone in town can tell you that.
“Shanksville has always been the kind of place that people come back to,” says Donna Glessner, the borough’s historian. “People go where the jobs are, but they always come home for Thanksgiving.”
This year’s Thanksgiving is more special than others’.
Shanksville, southeast of Pittsburgh, is the town where, on the morning of September 11, American passengers on the hijacked United Flight 93 rumbled with Arab terrorists to force the plane to plow into a field, to all appearances averting more terrorist damage to Washington.
“This town is never going to be the same,” says Terry Shaffer, a firefighter for 23 years, 15 of which he’s spent with the Shanksville volunteer fire department. As fire chief of the town of 245 souls, Mr. Shaffer lived through the events of September 11 in an intensely personal way.
The town has always focused on three things, Mr. Shaffer says: the local school, the church and the volunteer fire department.
Before September 11, the volunteer firefighters spent much of their time doing the things that most volunteer fire departments do putting out fires and raising money. There was Bingo night, the annual collection, and turkey and gun raffles.
But on September 11, the pace of life in Shanksville changed.
By the time Mr. Shaffer reached Shanksville that morning from his job at the Pepsi-Cola plant in Johnstown, his firemen were streaming in from all over the area. But hopes to find survivors in the wreckage were soon dashed.
“There was just a big whole in the ground,” he says. “Things were pretty ugly. I hope never to see again what I saw then.”
The first snow of the season had already fallen by the time the state police, the FBI and various federal agencies arrived shortly after the crash.
“They came with nothing more than the clothes on their backs,” Mr. Shaffer’s wife Kathie, a registered nurse, says of the police and federal agents. “We got together packages for them, everything from long underwear to warm sweaters.”
At the fire hall Mrs. Shaffer, along with Kathy Stull and Annie Daniels, nine months pregnant, worked to provide food and comfort to an ever-increasing number of rescue workers. And when the Salvation Army and the Red Cross took over the daytime duties, the women of Shanksville made sure that rescue workers had hot meals at night.
In the meantime, Pepsi-Cola let Mr. Shaffer know that he could take as many days off as he needed to work at the crash site with pay.
“I can’t praise them enough for what they did,” he says. “We were out there for two whole weeks.”
Since the tragedy, the crash site itself has become “hallowed ground.” People from as far away as New Jersey and Ohio stop by to offer their thanks to the passengers of flight 93.
For Shanksville’s volunteer fire department, the thanks keep coming, from schoolchildren’s drawings to letters from around the world. Donations have made it possible to buy a new truck, equipped to hold twice as much water as the old. So much food poured in, in fact, that the borough was hard pressed to find storage space. Even now, bags of candy sit underneath each firefighter’s helmet on the shelf at the fire hall.
For the families of those who went down on Flight 93, the doors of Shanksville are always open.
“We want the families to know that they’re always welcome here,” says Mr. Shaffer. “If you need it, we’ll find a place for you to stay. That’s the way we do things here.”