Eight small American flags form a ragged semicircle around Mayor Ernest Stull's front porch, and a large one flies from a 20-foot flagpole in his front yard. Seven tiny flags are attached to the antennas of used vehicles on the lot at Marlin Dively's Car Store. Up and down the half-mile length of Main Street, from Walker Cemetery to Ida's Store, dozens of flags of all sizes flap in the late-summer breeze.
This is Shanksville's way of paying daily respects to the 40 passengers and crew members of United Airlines Flight 93 who died Sept. 11 in a reclaimed strip-mining field 3 miles north of town. The flags also fly as a personal expression of thanks. There is a sturdy belief here that had the hijacked plane continued its eastward path toward Washington for just a few more seconds before plunging to the ground, it might well have crashed into the Shanksville-Stony Creek school, where 500 students--kindergartners to high school seniors--were in classes that day.
"If this had to happen," Stull said, "what better place could there have been to put that plane down?"
To the amazement of many in Shanksville, no one in the town died on Sept. 11. But even the most solid homes shook from the blast. The explosion from the 575-m.p.h. impact shattered windows and blew in the doors of Barry Hoover's cabin in the woods near the crash site, but Hoover wasn't there.
All of this has helped fuel the forces of remembrance and explain why Shanksville's flags remain fastened to poles and pillars, hanging from windows and bushes and stuck in the ground, long after they have been lowered in most American towns and cities.
"In Shanksville there's a startling awareness that we were close to annihilation," said Sylvia Baker, pastor of the Assembly of God church. "We survived an international incident in our back yard. . . . God did protect our little town."
Now the people who live here wonder what will protect their quiet, tidy borough from the powerful forces that so often take shape after a big event happens in a little town. One year after establishing its place in history, Shanksville, population 245, grapples with the consequences of fate--the steady flow of tourists seeking directions to the crash site.
The worry in Shanksville, nestled in a lush Allegheny Mountains groove 90 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is that the town's quiet and isolation will vanish, driven out by tour buses rumbling through the narrow streets and strangers wearing T-shirts that read "Let's Roll."
After 199 years of Appalachian obscurity, such notoriety is unsettling, yet it doesn't matter because the forces of history already may have taken hold.
Shanksville is the caboose of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the incident consigned to the media sidelines because it did not provide compelling video footage like collapsing towers in New York or the gaping, smoldering chasm at the Pentagon. The death toll was the smallest. The physical damage was confined to a crater in the ground, which eventually was investigated and covered over with little notice. In news stories, Shanksville often is referred to in geographic generality as the crash that occurred "in Pennsylvania."
Apprehension and gratitude
But if there is a sense of being overlooked, of being forgotten, it decidedly does not register here.
"See, there's a bunch of strangers there," said John Fox, pointing at a carload of tourists heading for Ida's Store, directly across the street from Fox's home. "There isn't a day that goes by that somebody doesn't stop and ask us how to get to the site. It's worse yet on weekends. You just can't believe it."
Shanksville's unease over the future is mixed with--and complicated by--a powerful sense of gratitude that residents feel toward the passengers who helped overtake the terrorists, thwarting their murderous plans. Entrances to Shanksville welcome visitors to "The Home of the Vikings," "A Friendly Little Town" and, in a shingle attached last year, "Home of the Heroes of Flight 93." A crude sign at Bridge Street designates the "Boulevard of Heroes," directing visitors to the temporary memorial north of town.
In the days and weeks after the crash, residents provided assistance and comfort to families of the victims. Judy Baeckel created a makeshift memorial to the victims in her front yard, at Bridge and Main Streets. Kelly Hanes and her neighbor, Erica Walker, organized an effort to obtain donations for 14 flagpoles, most of which are planted along Main Street.
Shanksville held its first 4th of July parade two months ago, in honor of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department, the first to respond to the crash.
Every week, thousands of people make the twisting drive up Skyline Road, an old strip-mining road, to gaze at the tree-shrouded site in the distance and pay their respects at the chain-link fence that serves as a cluttered bulletin board of flags, hats, ribbons, posters and God-bless-yous.
Weathered by the elements, 40 wooden angels are planted in the ground, each bearing the name of a passenger or crew member. A curved guardrail is scrawled on the front and back with the solemn wishes of visitors including Tom and Monette Perry, Olivia Blankenship and the Hiltz's. Most say "God Bless You" or "God Bless Flight 93." The posts of the guardrails have inscriptions. The writings even have extended to the exterior and interior surfaces of four portable toilets brought in to accommodate the crowds.
Dozens of Shanksville residents take turns serving as "ambassadors" at the memorial, which, as one plaque reads, is "not as a memorial to those who died but rather . . . a celebration of their lives for which we will forever be in their debt."
In the flurry of movement toward a town that rarely is a destination point, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani spoke at the high school graduation in May. First Lady Laura Bush has visited Shanksville, as have Bush administration Cabinet officials and other dignitaries.
A Catholic priest bought a century-old Lutheran church 3 miles west of Shanksville and is turning it into a memorial shrine. Ida's Store, the town's nerve center and the only place to buy something to eat, sells hats, T-shirts, sweatshirts, inscribed stones and other Flight 93 memorabilia. Proceeds go to support the Fire Department.
`Always banded together'
"We realize the significance of what happened, but I don't know that the town has changed. It's always been a community. We've always banded together," said Linda Fox, who cradled her grandson Gabe in her arms as she rocked on the front porch of the home where she and her husband, John, have lived since 1964.
Longtime residents of Shanksville such as John Fox and Ernest Stull, who has lived all of his 78 years here, talk of the state high school basketball championships of 1945, 1946 and 1967, the big floods of 1936 and 1996, and how the town has made difficult transitions from wrenching changes in the coal-mining and steel industries.
"Everybody basically knows everybody else, and everybody gives freely of their time to help somebody else--not just for one day but for weeks and weeks," Stull said.
The next transition already may be upon Shanksville as Congress considers a measure to create a permanent memorial for Flight 93. If that happens, the economic foundation will be laid to tempt fast-food restaurants and others to capitalize on the crowds and change the atmosphere around the serpentine roads of Somerset County.
Rick Hanes, a 34-year-old coal miner who lives two doors away from the Foxes, said townspeople talk about the crash and its aftermath every day "because families live with it every day."
"I think it's changed everything--Sundays, holidays, every 11th. I thought this would fade off quickly, but not now," he said.
Change, some residents said, is not necessarily bad. As Hanes and others said, Shanksville could benefit from an economic stimulus. A local artist last month began selling pottery crocks emblazoned with an American flag, an airplane and "Flight 93. An Act of Courage."
Scent of commercialism
Inside the entrance of the old Lutheran church that is to become the Flight 93 memorial chapel sits a black newspaper sales box of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which contains collectors' editions that sell for $2. On Skyline Road, less than a mile from the crash site, a family has opened a shop selling gifts, collectibles and memorabilia from Flight 93. Atop the sign are six American flags. The scent of commercialization is in the air.
Some residents have wrestled with the creeping commercial aspects and concluded that Shanksville will join the ranks of Gettysburg, Antietam, Pearl Harbor, Oklahoma City and other places where historical events have overtaken communities.
"You know what? We all buy this stuff," said Judy Baeckel, who works at the post office. "People come from all over, and they want to take things back to show that they were there. That's just the way we are."
For now, many people in Shanksville are looking forward to Sept. 12 with the hope that traffic will subside and reporters will leave them alone. Linda Fox said she has no intention of battling the crowds on the first anniversary. "I'll watch it on TV," she said.
"We'll work our way through this and then things will get back to normalcy," Fox added.
Mayor Stull said he is resigned to the fact that Shanksville's days of comfortable insularity probably are over.
"This isn't going to go away," he said. "It will be a national historical site and people will come to see it."
As Shanksville clings to the lifestyle that had defined this town until Sept. 11, 2001, one recent change will remain, Baker said. The flags, dozens of them, will continue to fly.
"They are a symbol of who we are now," she said.