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Shanksville: A small Somerset County town struggles with getting on with life

Thursday, September 13, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Suellen Reetling figured she was just doing what the president ordered.

"He said to act normal, go ahead with your routine and do what you normally do," she said yesterday.

Reetling was making the effort.

"But it's hard," she said as she stood outside a friend's house near Lambertsville, a slip of a village in eastern Somerset County.

Not quite two miles away over a hill, well hidden from view, investigators were going through the unrecognizable pieces left when a United Airlines Boeing 757 with 45 persons aboard slammed into a reclaimed strip mine Tuesday morning.

Terrorists had viciously violated a nation.

Against that backdrop, normalcy, if not impossible, was tough. Fear and bewilderment were easy.

"Aren't you scared somebody is going to blow you up? I am," said Rich Grine at the auto shop he runs in nearby Shanksville.

"I'm confused about why it happened, why it happened , like, here," 11-year old fifth-grader Katelynn Foster said.

In the hunt for recovery, routines were critical.

"We're treating [Wednesday] just like it were another day," Connie Rummel, a principal at Shanksville-Stonycreek High School, said as she sat behind her desk.

Tuesday morning -- after the ground shook and a fire plume shot into the air from the crash site a mile away -- officials in the school district of 501 students, one of the smallest in the commonwealth, decided to stick to the calming routine of classes, cafeteria and gym.

"We calmed younger students, telling them, 'You're OK, you're not hurt,'" school Superintendent Gary Singel said.

Students were released only if parents came for them -- something many did.

Shanksville-Stonycreek was doing more than sticking stubbornly to routine when it decided against total dismissal.

"We didn't know if houses were hit or community members were killed," Singel said.

"I didn't want 5-year-olds to be sent home on buses and to see something horrific," said Rummel.

Sometimes, routine was forced on the community.

The Rev. Ronald Emery, pastor of Shanksville United Methodist Church, was in his car when it was buffeted by the blast from the jet crashing. Fire sirens sounded and car radios filled with reports of a plane falling from the sky.

But Emery had to go ahead with burial services for a member of his congregation.

"Life goes on," he said. "These events just drive home the fact that you're not guaranteed your next breath."

"We thought we lived in a place that was almost untouchable," Singel said.

But even for those who didn't buy into that notion, those who occasionally pondered such tragedies as a plane crash, the real event was off-putting.

"We talked about something like this," said Keith Custer, 28, a member of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Company, a department that by last night was running on sweat and adrenaline.

"I thought we'd get there and there would be a big plane on fire and victims. But you get there and it's all just little pieces. Now, I don't want to seen anything like it again, just thinking of that massive loss of life."

Ten hours after the plane crashed 90 people crowded into Emery's church for a memorial service, many of them lingering an extra 15 minutes to pray.

Last night the attempt top regain rhythm continued.

Back in Lambertsville, people hung flags from their houses.

"We'll recover. We'll put this behind us with time," Emery said. "But its nothing we'll ever forget."

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