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Shanksville, Pa., will never forget 9/11, and locals are reminding others too

Shanksville, Pa., will never forget 9/11, and locals are reminding others too
A visitor at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., looks through the portraits of the passengers and crew who died when the hijacked plane crashed on Sept. 11, 2001. (Jeff Swenson / Getty Images)

The customer needed a radiator for a minivan, and the job gave Terry Butler an excuse to get away from the shop's TV, which was blaring live news about planes smashing into the World Trade Center and leaving the Pentagon smoldering.

"I like to keep busy," Butler said. "Because I knew what was going on, I didn't want to believe it."

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No one did on that day, 15 years ago Sunday.

Butler, a burly yet soft-spoken man, willingly serves as a witness to the world events that flew over his head on Sept. 11, 2001, and crashed at 10:03 a.m. in rural Somerset County, about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

"This story has to be told," Butler said, his voice cracking with emotion. "That's my job, that's what I feel I need to do."

This story has to be told.


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If you travel to the Flight 93 Memorial's 15th anniversary events, you may run into Butler and hear his story in person. He is one of many local residents who volunteer their time helping National Park Service rangers keep alive an interlocking story of terrorism, heroism and small-town pride that speaks of the briefness of human life and the importance of American history.

"It changed me to appreciate life and what it means," Butler said with a sigh.

Here's his story:

Moving away from the TV, Butler got back to work, tracking down a 1995 Dodge Caravan in Stoystown Auto Wreckers. Under the hood, prying off the radiator, he heard engines roar somewhere above.

He turned to the left. Nothing. He turned the other way, and there it was.

"It was a plane," Butler said.

He would learn later it was United Airlines Flight 93. But on this cloudless day all Butler knew was that the airliner seemed too close to the trees and Allegheny Mountain hills that rise and fall around Stonycreek Township and the borough of Shanksville.

"I just watched," he said.

The plane pulled up. Then just as fast, it banked sharply right and disappeared behind trees.

"I saw the mushroom cloud, and heard explosion after explosion," he said.

Visitors at the Flight 93 National Memorial look over the flight path of the plane that crashed on Sept. 11, 2001.
Visitors at the Flight 93 National Memorial look over the flight path of the plane that crashed on Sept. 11, 2001. (Jeff Swenson / Getty Images)

As Butler radioed for his disbelieving co-workers to call 911, an invisible concussive force sped 4 miles down the hillside and slammed into Shanksville-Stonycreek School District's only building, which serves preschoolers through high-schoolers.

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In a fourth-grade classroom, Ben Eisler watched the shock wave rumble across the drop ceiling. Now 24 and a volunteer firefighter, Eisler said the image is seared in his memory. "I don't think anyone can forget."

That sentiment is echoed across the country, but here, it's more personal. The sight, sound and feel of the hijacked Boeing 757 smashing into a vacant strip mine at 563 mph reverberate in this community. And so does the knowledge that the passengers and crew died fighting their captives, as messages relayed in phone calls and the plane's data recorders show.

"We got the call around 10:06 am that morning to respond to an aircraft down," said Terry Shaffer, the now retired chief of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Co. "At the time we knew what was going on in New York City, but we never expected to have something like this in our area."

All 33 passengers, seven crew members and four hijackers died. No one on the ground did. Residents here know the difference between life and death was measured in heartbeats that day. If the plane had traveled just a few seconds longer, "it surely would have hit our town or the high school," Shaffer said.

That knowledge — captured soon after the crash in an aerial photo of students and teachers holding hands to spell "Thank You" toward the heavens — is why so many residents here have embraced their unfortunate celebrity not as a curse but as a blessing.

Often not seen in pictures are stories of residents who manned the crash site in two-hour volunteer shifts to ensure it was respected and not vandalized. Using notebooks to keep track of the facts, they relayed to tourists and mourners alike how the hole smoldered and the crash left little wreckage above ground except scattered papers and pieces of engine and fabric.

"We were just neighbors and friends," said long-time volunteer Chuck Wagner, 67, of Stonycreek Township.

They helped bring to fruition the Flight 93 National Memorial, which grew from barrels and a chain link fence holding small mementos into a stunning feat of architecture that embraces the beauty of nature and the resolve of mankind.

Former Gov. Tom Ridge remains in awe of the community's effort in embracing its part of history.

"From the day that plane went down to today and, I think, evermore, they have been the volunteer security team, the volunteer docents," Ridge said. "I don't think any story about the memorial should exclude a warm, grateful embrace of the people of Shanksville and that region, who for years and years have treated it as a sacred ground that it's proven to be."

The Flight 93 Memorial has attracted thousands of visitors each weekend since it officially opened last year.

Inside the Visitor Center Complex a wall-size display uses images, text, sound and video to tell the story of Sept. 11, 2001. One display plays the last recorded moments of Flight 93's passengers as they used airfones and cellphones to call 911 and loved ones.

"Honey, are you there?" Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas' preserved voice says to her husband, Jack. "Wake up, sweetie. OK, I just wanted to tell you I loved you."

Other displays tell of investigators' search for clues in the strip mine and surrounding woods, which retired state police Capt. Frank Monaco said yielded little because the plane hit the soft ground so fast the bulk of it burrowed underground.

"It was surprising to me because you never would have known there was a plane crash," Monaco said. "It just looked like a flaming hole with smoke coming out."

Today, the crash site resembles a park.

The outside of the memorial features towering walls on either side of a walkway that follows the final path of the doomed flight that was forced off its Newark-to-San Francisco course. The walkway ends on a coal-black platform that overlooks the crash site, which has been given new life as a field of grasses, trees and wildflowers.

One day a tower of wind chimes will rise here, too, adding a perpetual voice to the mountain winds that on a September morning scattered paper and debris for miles.

Esack writes for the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.

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