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Finder on the Web: A small, rural school deals with a national tragedy

Tuesday, September 18, 2001

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. -- Games returned to the little school on the hilltop Monday afternoon.

Six days after their building and their lives were shaken by an international tragedy that hit so close to home they could feel it, the kids from Shanksville-Stonycreek High School had a junior high girls' volleyball match against Conemaugh Township. It was the first athletic event at the little school -- 529 students, kindergartners through seniors -- since United Flight 93 crashed into a reclaimed strip mine barely a mile and a half from their hilltop. Go ahead and marvel about the return of baseball and the relief of a sports diversion, but real renewal started here, amid the First Lady's visit and the memorial services and the ever-present FBI and Pennsylvania State Police.

In fact, the Shanksville-Stonycreek school buses at Monday's end had to linger in their parking lot until the police-escorted caravan of victims' families could pass en route to the lakeside memorial with Laura Bush. Minutes later, one of the school buses made its way down Lambertsville Road, through a cordon of state patrol cars, past the crash site. It's everywhere here.

Amid all this, the Lady Vikings had a swell time inside their gym Monday. They swept their best-of-three match with the Indians, 15-6 and 15-2. It was so much fun to reclaim the court, they begged first-year coach Kim Rhoads to keep on playing, and Conemaugh Township stayed for two more exhibition sets. Thirty-four friends and family members applauded as Shanksville-Stonycreek rallied from a 13-5 deficit to win the first exhibition set, 15-13, and then lost the second, 15-9. Two of the Lady Vikings came off the blue-and-gold court afterward clicking their heels and dancing.

You can keep your NFL games and your moments of remembrance.

I won't soon forget this one.

"It was good," said eighth-grader Laura Sandy.

"I think more or less now it's to the point where they don't want to watch TV and they want to get on with a normal life," said Rhoads the coach. "Which is hard."

Living around here means volunteering for the food drive at the fire hall, where goods are stacked higher than trucks, what with schools donating by the bag, box and bus load whenever they play host to a Shanksville-Stony Creek athletic team.

Being a student here means making banners and paint school windows ("Our Hearts Are With You, Families of Flight 93"), writing letters to President Bush and the victims' families, starting a gum drive once you heard site workers suffered dry mouths, answering questions when you're outside this hilly village, asking questions in private, weeping. "I cried," said seventh-grader Kaylin Glessner. Added her mother, Barbara Reed, "We take it day by day."

"We went to Rockwood," Rhoads began about a match Thursday, "and they didn't understand what this group went through. They didn't say anything to us. But these girls heard it. They went through the reality of it."

Last Tuesday morning, Athletic Director Jeff Kimmel was in Room 304 teaching his 10th-grade social studies class when the principal called to break the news from New York and Washington. Soon after, he turned on his television, almost simultaneously as the newscast replayed a tape of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center, a boom resonated. Doors through the school halls suddenly closed. Basement windows blew open, then sucked shut. An international tragedy hit home in rural America, in a place that once seemed so remote and quiet and safe.

"It buckled my knees," Kimmel said, showing how he was leaning on the window ledge when the blast occurred. It was followed by a mushroom cloud of black smoke that his class watched from those windows. "The look on the kids' faces ... it's something I'll never forget. Like they saw a ghost. They didn't know if their families were hurt. We didn't know where exactly it was."

So many wrought-up parents drove to the hilltop to collect their children, only about 80 of the 529 students remained by the end of that school day. Mental-health officials spoke to the teachers Thursday, warning them it might take two to three weeks for the unspeakable horror to finally show in children who internalize. Yet Friday, the students already weren't acting themselves.

Friday night, Beth Holser, a sophomore on the Lady Vikings' volleyball team, joined several other students at the memorial service outside the Somerset County Courthouse. Upon seeing one group member wearing a Shanksville sweatshirt, a woman approached and asked, "Don't you know how lucky you are? A fourth of a second longer, and you'd all be dead."

Holser retold this story Monday with a nervous laugh. "And we were already bawling enough."

"They saved our lives," Maegan Belsterling, a senior volleyball co-captain, added softly of the heroes who apparently steered Flight 93 away from the terrorists and into an uninhabited clearing. "Whoever they were."

The cafeteria down the hall was a gathering place for grief counselors Tuesday night. It was home to a memorial service overflowing with 300 people Sunday. A day later inside Shanksville-Stonycreek, balls bounced and girls giggled. During a half-minute moment of silence before the match, Glessner closed her eyes and got so deep into prayer that it took it her several seconds to realize see was the only one along the bench, her teammates holding hands on the court. After the match began in eerie silence, young athletes screamed with joy as they ran up a 10-0 first-set lead. Kids were kids again, albeit momentarily.

After Monday's junior high match, there are no more home athletic events at Shanksville-Stonycreek until Sept. 25, when the varsity volleyball girls play Conemaugh Valley. These two dark gym weeks were merely a quirk of scheduling. "Thank goodness," said Kimmel the athletic director. He is considering whether to hang on the gym walls -- amid the 16 Somerset County and District 5 champion banners and two PIAA banners for sportsmanship -- a retired number: 93.

"It's not as bad," added senior co-captain Tonya Swartzwelder, trying to sum up the emotions of the children on this hilltop. "But it still affects you. Especially since it was that close."

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