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"The heroes' plane": Memories of brave passengers evoke grief and praise

Saturday, September 15, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Their lives were stolen by terrorists. The air crash that killed them was so furious that their remains are all but gone. And they died, the 45 of them, on a piece of remote countryside in a Pennsylvania county that most of them likely never even heard of.

The Rev. Sean Code, left, and Deacon Fred Weaver, both of St. Peter Church in Somerset, attended a training session yesterday for pastors who will counsel recovery workers and others affected by the crash of Flight 93 in Somerset County. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

The pain that follows the survivors of the victims of United Flight 93 will be severe and long lasting, said Joseph Prewitt-Diaz, a psychologist who has counseled relatives of victims of other air crashes and is now in Somerset County to minister to those who have been emotionally wounded by this one.

But unlike the survivors of the passengers aboard the jetliners that rammed the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, Prewitt-Diaz said yesterday that survivors of the dead from the Somerset County crash likely will draw great solace from the notion that this was "the heroes' plane" -- the one on which, some officials theorize, passengers battled hijackers who may have wanted to aim the jetliner at targets and humanity in Washington.

"They weren't the victims. They were the victorious," said Prewitt-Diaz, called by the American Red Cross from Guatemala City, Guatemala, to coordinate mental health services in the aftermath of Tuesday's air crash. "That's going to be a lot of consolation -- that the loss meant something to us, to the country. People will feel, 'I will regard my dear one as having saved many people.' "

The portrayal of passengers as heroes surfaced in the wake of reports that one passenger on the doomed jet called his wife by cell phone and confided that passengers had voted to try to overpower the hijackers.

Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, reinforced the suggestion in a teleconference with reporters seven hours after the crash, speculating that the plane -- traveling southeast as it flew over eastern Somerset County -- was otherwise bound for The White House, the Capitol or the Pentagon.

"The target wasn't that field," he said.

And Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum lent support to the theory during a visit to the crash site yesterday.

Already, Prewitt-Diaz said, he is hearing the idea offered by survivors of victims.

"They're feeling, 'This is the crash that saved Americans,' " Prewitt-Diaz said.

He offered his estimate as clergy and mental health counselors were marshaled to offer balm -- "emotional triage," Red Cross official Claude d'Estree told about 50 clergy members during a training session yesterday near Somerset -- to survivors and a region staggered by the crash Tuesday in Stonycreek that turned a Boeing 757 into specks of debris.

Only a handful have arrived so far. Red Cross officials expect more when the crash site is opened to survivors' inspection, likely next week.

The crash and the army of investigators that followed have unsettled a sedate countryside.

Yesterday at Friedens Elementary School, located five miles from the crash site, youngsters decorated classrooms with flags, came to class dressed in red, white and blue, sang "America," and gave 45 red carnations to police in memory of the crash victims.

As much as anything, first-grade teacher Duana Shaffer said, it was therapy.

"The kids are worried," she said. "A helicopter flew over a few minutes ago, and the kids said, 'I hope it doesn't crash here.' Now, they're asking questions like, 'What do terrorists look like?' "

It wasn't just students who were shaken.

"You think, 'We were right here, this close, and it crashed just seconds of air time away,' " kindergarten teacher Michelle Zarefoss said.

It's a troubling sense of vulnerability that the victims' survivors, too, will feel, Prewitt-Diaz said.

"We are all affected," he said.



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