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A year after explosive discord, town still seeks harmony

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. -- As teams of security agents combed the hillsides to make the day's proceedings the safest act of public mourning in history, a town half-tired of being famous soldiered doing what towns do.

There was concrete to be laid on one end of town. The high school was in session. At an Amoco station that hasn't sold gasoline for three years, mechanic Bruce Grine stood beneath a rusting Chevy Cavalier and tried to jury-rig a series of bright silver clamps to a leaky rubber tube that was passing itself off as a fuel line.

"All day long -- week in, week out -- people come in askin' where the flight site is. Then, where the mine site is," Grine said. A rumble of propellers cut into the midday heat and an Air Force C-130 banked across the town, just through the tree line where the smoke from United Flight 93 had traced a line in the sky one year earlier.

"Yesterday we had hellycopters goin'," Grine said. "Security, I guess."

No one in town would have had cause to know that it was all practice to make sure the Air Force planes arrived in time to the national anthem during ceremonies today.

Before 9/11, Grine told people where he came from by giving them the distance from Pittsburgh. "Now you say Shanksville and everybody knows," he said. That is to say, they have heard of the town and have placed it somewhere in their internal map of civic history, but finding the actual place can still be tricky.

The region was settled in the 19th century, meaning the roads represent a compromise to the surrounding mountains. An outsider looking for something can easily get turned around. Even the locals are sometimes unaware of how close they are to a given point, and modern life leaves them unaware of such simple things as the wind currents.

The village of New Baltimore is a dozen or more miles by automobile but eight as the wind blows, which it was doing a year ago. Melanie Hankinson was at the church next to her home, transfixed before a television that showed the World Trade Center ablaze, when the man who sprays her lawn stopped by to tell her he was finding odd things in the weeds.

"He said there was a loud bang and smoke and then these papers started blowing through your yard," she said. "I said, 'Oh.' Then I went back to the TV." Then the parish priest, the Rev. Allen Zeth, told her an airplane had crashed in Shanksville.

For the next few hours, Hankinson gathered charred pages of in-flight magazines, papers from a pilot's manual -- she remembers a map showing the Guadalajara, Mexico, airport -- and copies of stock portfolio monthly earnings reports.

"And there was some black webbing -- a lot of people found that," she said. The webbing, flexible where it hadn't burned, crisp where it had, was from insulation lining the belly of the jetliner.

"A couple more miles and it could have been here," Hankinson said. Those words have been spoken in straight lines emanating in every direction from the strip mine where Flight 93 rent the earth.

In Shanksville, people still wonder at how the unthinkable could have added another layer of hideousness had the plane crested the hillside and struck the high school. A few degrees more, added Grine, "and we wouldn't be here talking."

Instead, he was now talking with Brenda Sell, who despaired of getting one broken automobile back before she had to drop off the one she was now driving. Her family business constructed the chain-link fence around the now-filled-in crater where Flight 93 crashed. Beyond that, any commerce connected to the effort troubled her.

"I'm getting tired of people setting up little booths and selling stuff," she said. "It's the local people doing that."

True, said Grine. His brother is selling funnel cakes and lemonade near the crash site. Others are hawking T-shirts. At the Somerset exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, two enterprising women are peddling bouquets of "Freedom Flowers," some of which by now are no doubt crowding a makeshift memorial where, yesterday, such surviving families as could bear the weight stood on an old strip mine and looked down a hill at a chain link fence while airplanes rumbled overhead trying to get in time to the music.

Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.

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