Pa. town became landmark after terrorist attacks

September 12, 2005|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have become a part of America's national memory, but every moment in time is also marked by a place, such as the field near Shanksville, Pa., where United Flight 93 crashed as its crew and passengers reportedly attempted to wrest control from the hijackers.

When the jet airliner crashed at 10:06 a.m., the Somerset County town ceased to be "a lost dot on the map," said the Rev. Jay Shaffer, pastor of Unity United Church of Christ in Shanksville. On Sunday, he recounted the events of that day and the days that followed at a service of remembrance for the Sept. 11 victims hosted by the United Churches of the Chambersburg Area at Letterkenny Chapel.

"None of us will ever know exactly what happened on that plane as it went down," Shaffer told about 100 worshippers. What is known is that the passengers and crew knew of earlier attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and their battle with the hijackers likely prevented the destruction of another national landmark.


Instead, Shanksville became a landmark.

"How do you deal with a tragedy when you have no bodies, when you have no graves, nothing tangible to hold onto?" said Shaffer, who helped organize the first memorial service on the evening of Sept. 11. The plane and the people on board were obliterated on impact and the first firefighters to arrive found little more than scorched earth and a few burning trees, he said.

Many of the 260 people of Shanksville and the 2,000 in surrounding Stonycreek Township reacted by supporting the legions of emergency personnel, police and investigators who descended on the area over the following days and months. Outsiders also came with donations, although some were a bit quizzical, he said.

"We scratched our heads when a group of people from Pittsburgh showed up with two wheelbarrows and some shovels," Shaffer said.

For more than three years, crews searched the site for anything that could be returned to the victims' families, the last search taking place in July, Shaffer said.

The site is still guarded by sheriff's deputies and a temporary memorial will by 2011 be replaced by a permanent monument costing millions of dollars, he said.

Shaffer said Shanksville never wants to forget the sacrifice of those on Flight 93.

"They were not going to allow another plane to be used for destruction," he said.

It might also be that the 40 passengers and crew averted a tragedy that would have left a greater scar on Shanksville, Shaffer said. Had the plane stayed airborne five seconds longer, the FBI informed them it could have hit the community's lone school, he said.

"It would have killed all 500 of our children," he said.

"And they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the waste cities," the Rev. William H. Harter of Chambersburg's Falling Spring Presbyterian Church said in his call to worship, quoting from Isaiah 61.

Harter said the former depot chapel, built during World War II by Italian prisoners of war, is a hopeful symbol from another dark time.

"This church represents the bridge between two people that were at war," he said.

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