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Volunteers in Shanksville tend a growing shrine at Flight 93 crash site

Sunday, August 11, 2002

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. -- It was last winter, still in the aftershock of Sept. 11. A visitor to the provisional United Flight 93 memorial was supposing aloud how the pirated jetliner dove from the sky.

Volunteer Linda McClintock of Berlin, Somerset County, holds a book with information as she waits to help visitors to the United Flight 93 memorial. In the background is the visitors' wall, where flowers, flags, painted messages and other mementos have been placed. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

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It plowed into the ground a quarter-mile up the hill, the storyteller said. So, all that steel tatter lying on the ground up there must be the 757's wreckage.

No, went another version, when the hijacked airliner crashed, it was about a half-mile down the hill, in a pond along a meandering, two-lane road.

Actually, both accounts were bilge.

The pond, a half-mile from the field where Flight 93 came to earth, was just another vestige of strip mining.

The hilltop clutter -- barrels, discarded appliances and more -- was merely the usual whatnot of a scrap yard going about its business.

"It just hurt us to hear people coming here and then taking that incorrect information back home," Shanksville resident Donna Glessner recounted. "It didn't seem friendly to have people visit that desolate site and not help."

So last winter, Glessner asked other members of Shanksville United Methodist Church whether they would like to donate some time. They'd hold vigil at the memorial and field questions from visitors to this outland that terror stamped onto the national map.

In five years, this might be a national historic site. Its story could be told by National Park Service rangers.

For now, though, the spot two miles outside little Shanksville is just a makeshift memorial, a prime vantage to a crash site that remains off-limits. Some of the tens of thousands of pilgrims to come so far have turned it into a shrine, decorated with everything from flags to cereal bowl-size rocks, hand painted with messages of remembrance.

And tending to it all are volunteers.

There is Glessner's brigade of 25 ambassadors, drawn from the whole community to help the visitors.

And there is the county historical society, preserving tributes that the wayfarers leave behind.

"We all feel very responsible for the site," said Barbara Black, Somerset County Historical and Genealogical Society. "Perhaps the hand of God had this happen here because he knew we would take care of it."

"I've been there when it was so hot you'd melt and so cold ice froze in the buttons of my wife's coat. It's been so windy, it turns the umbrellas inside-out," said Shanksville Mayor Ernie Stull, who, at 78 years old, ranks behind only Glessner's 79-year-old father as the eldest volunteer. "But we keep going and the visitors keep coming. It's the least we can do."

This time last year, a month before Sept. 11, Skyline Road was just a dirt stretch that carried no more than a couple of cars daily, said Nevin Lambert, a beef farmer who lives a quarter-mile away.

Then, Flight 93 fell from a blue sky.

"I was outside, shoveling coal, and I saw it coming, sort of wobbly, and I saw its nose going into the ground," Lambert said.

Within days, Skyline Drive and other nearby dirt roads were paved to help recovery teams move equipment in and out.

Two months later, the memorial was here -- no bigger than a golf green, U.S. and commonwealth flags flying over it, marked with a cross and a plaque listing the 40 people who died after four hijackers seized the plane.

"Go ye therefore ... let's roll!" says an American flag replica prepared by a church in Southside, Ala. A blue, stuffed bear sits protected in a plastic bag.

For crash victim Alan Beaven, a 48-year-old environmental lawyer from Oakland, Calif., there is a framed photo "from your old mates at Westlake Boys High School" back in his native New Zealand. One person left a harmonica; another, a necktie.

On summer weekends, the memorial draws about 1,000 people a day, Glessner said. "There'll be 75 to 100 people at a time up there," she said.

Among them most times will be the volunteers, officially christened ambassadors.

They aren't guides. They're supposed to blend into the background and offer information only when asked. But they're asked a lot.

Sometimes, it's directions -- how to get to Route 30 or the Pennsylvania Turnpike or Somerset County's other sudden tourist draw, the Quecreek Mine from which nine trapped miners were rescued two weeks ago.

More often, questions center on what happened right here.

Volunteer ambassador Patti Varner holds an information book and helps Cody Park, right, of West Philadelphia at the United Airlines Flight 93 memorial site. At left is Kareem Gibbs of South Philadelphia. Park and Gibbs are wearing uniforms of Buffalo Soldiers from the 18th century. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

"People want to know exactly where the plane came down, since there's no signage. They want to know where the permanent memorial will be and who owns the land and where were you on Sept. 11," Glessner said. "They want to know how did it sound and did you hear it. ... Yes, I heard it. The ground shook. I made the kids get out of the house."

And people ask why they can't tread closer to the fenced-off crash site, where humanity and large portions of airliner disappeared in the violence of the impact.

"You explain it's a sacred place, a final resting place," Glessner said, "and they're OK with that."

To date, the memorial has been problem-free, county Sheriff Carl Brown said.

The idea of plucking an army of volunteers shouldn't seem curious, not in Shanksville. This is home to people such as Judi Baeckel.

Even as recovery teams were coming in last year, she gave over her front yard as an impromptu memorial where even strangers could troop in and reflect.

"We had to show people who lost loved ones that we cared, too," Baeckel said.

Two-and-a-half weeks ago, son Jonathan Baeckel left his pre-pharmacy courses at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown to join the Army. He thought he owed the country one after Sept. 11, his mother said.

Up at the memorial, meanwhile, some people arrive curious, some arrive crying, Lambert said. They've toted guitars and a harp to perform impromptu tributes.

"One day there was a crowd and, suddenly, a lady in the crowd just started singing, 'The Lord's Prayer,' " Glessner said.

Before they grow weathered, everything the visitors leave behind except flowers are collected by the historical society, logged in a computer and kept in acid-free containers in 400 square feet of storage rooms, probably to be turned over to the National Park Service.

"It will show how the American public grieved," Black said.

A snapshot of a warm summer weekday shows 38 people milling through the memorial, a group ranging from a stocky biker to a gray-haired woman watching from the air conditioning of a Cadillac.

In French, a man explains the crash to a companion. "C'mon, grandma," a little boy insists, tugging at a woman's arm, "let's go find the hole." Another woman tells no one in particular, "You're OK till you start thinking about the depth of all this."

Into the memorial's gravel parking lot comes a small bus, carrying 16 Old Order Amish and Mennonite travelers home to Sugarcreek, Ohio, from a sojourn in Lancaster County.

"It's touching to know that right here is where it happened," Fannie Miller, an Amish woman, said.

Travelers come from the region, often shepherding out-of-town kin. "And I've talked to people from South Africa, Brazil, Europe, the Orient," Glessner said.

Victims' families arrive, often without notice. Lisa Beamer -- wife of Todd Beamer, the passenger who urged, "Let's roll!" -- slipped in March 4.

There are people on quests to see Shanksville, the World Trade Center site and the Pentagon and others who simply return to Shanksville over and over.

"I'm not sure what motivates them," Glessner said. "They just feel a strong connection, whether it's patriotism or whether they can't believe it really happened."

And by and large, they are nice folks, "the kind of people you'd invite home for dinner," she said.

What the memorial's guardians find disconcerting is any hint of people cashing in on Flight 93. Selling is barred at the memorial, and Stonycreek Township supervisors passed an ordinance in May, barring roadside peddling anywhere.

Bedford County farmer Ralph Fair drew sneers of disapproval six weeks ago when he started $65-a-person van tours that included the Flight 93 site. Locals looked coldly at Shelly Walker when she opened shop at a friend's Skyline Road farmhouse, advertising "gifts, collectibles, Flight 93 memorabilia."

A lot of her wares, she said, are generic. "But I did want to make a T-shirt. It'd have Flight 93 on one side and 'Nine for nine,' the slogan about the miners, on the other."

"If it was put to a vote," Glessner said, "people selling things would be run out of town."

For now, the flood of people to Shanksville shows no sign of dwindling and probably will pick up around the anniversary of the crash.

Glessner figures that acting as caretaker to the legacy is the Shanksville area's lot in life -- although a respite would be nice.

"Sometimes, I wish it had happened in some other small town, because any small town could handle it," she said. "Then, we'd be the ones out playing Little League baseball and having picnics."

Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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