Nobody asked for this, but as September 11 recedes, a small Pennsylvania town finds itself guardian of an American legend
By Peter Perl
Washington Post, Sunday, May 12, 2002; Page W32
Wally Miller hits the siren on his dark Ford Excursion. He's alerting the Somerset County sheriffs that he is once again entering the restricted area surrounded by dense forest and enclosed by an eight-foot metal fence. Inside his truck is the familiar stale smell of the wilted flowers that he brings back from the 90 or so funerals he conducts every year. Death has been the family business at Miller Funeral Home in Somerset, Pa., for nearly half a century. Never, though, anything that even remotely resembles this.
Before Miller can even unfold his lanky 6-foot-4 body from the vehicle, a deputy sheriff thrusts at him a plastic baggie containing a handful of jagged metallic nuggets, mangled and melted into irregular shapes, little bigger than children's marbles. They are the latest of the shreds to be recovered — nearly six months later — of what remains of United Airlines Flight 93. Miller holds up the bag and says that virtually the entire airplane, including its 44 human occupants, disintegrated in similar fashion.
"I'm just a hick," Miller says when he considers the enormity of what he does. "I'm a country coroner." He is a youthful 44, with dark hair and a long, angular face that sometimes suggests a young, shaven version of Abe Lincoln. He is quite comfortable talking about death, most of the time. He grew up watching his father, Wilbur, deal with the grief of countless friends and neighbors, and then Wally succeeded Wilbur, both in running the funeral home and becoming Somerset County's elected coroner.
So it is with a calm, practiced voice that Miller speaks whenever he escorts grieving family members, as he has again and again and again, up the muddy hillock that overlooks the spot where Flight 93 came to earth. Here on this mound and elsewhere, in hundreds of face-to-face conversations and on the telephone, Miller explains to families from New Jersey to Berkeley to Japan to Germany the grisly calculus of what happened to their loved ones: The Boeing 757 still heavily laden with jet fuel slammed at about 575 mph almost straight down into a rolling patch of grassy land that had long ago been strip-mined for coal. The impact spewed a fireball of horrific force across hundreds of acres of towering hemlocks and other trees, setting many ablaze. The fuselage burrowed straight into the earth so forcefully that one of the "black boxes" was recovered at a depth of 25 feet under the ground.
of grassy land that had long ago been strip-mined for coal. The impact spewed a fireball of horrific force across hundreds of acres of towering hemlocks and other trees, setting many ablaze. The fuselage burrowed straight into the earth so forcefully that one of the "black boxes" was recovered at a depth of 25 feet under the ground.
As coroner, responsible for returning human remains, Miller has been forced to share with the families information that is unimaginable. As he clinically recounts to them, holding back very few details, the 33 passengers, seven crew and four hijackers together weighed roughly 7,000 pounds. They were essentially cremated together upon impact. Hundreds of searchers who climbed the hemlocks and combed the woods for weeks were able to find about 1,500 mostly scorched samples of human tissue totaling less than 600 pounds, or about 8 percent of the total.
Miller was among the very first to arrive after 10:06 on the magnificently sunny morning of September 11. He was stunned at how small the smoking crater looked, he says, "like someone took a scrap truck, dug a 10-foot ditch and dumped all this trash into it." Once he was able to absorb the scene, Miller says, "I stopped being coroner after about 20 minutes, because there were no bodies there. It became like a giant funeral service." As a funeral director, Miller says, he is honored and humbled to preside over what has become essentially an immense cemetery stretching far into the scenic wooded mountain ridge. He considers it the final resting place of 40 national heroes.
Flight 93 is already beginning to pass beyond mere history and into the realm of American heroic mythology because the full story and true measure of the passengers' collective valor likely will never be known. What is known is that a group of men and women, randomly thrown together, somehow rose up as they faced death. Ages 20 to 79, from Manalapan, N.J., to Honolulu, from Greensboro, N.C., to New York City, they were energetic salespeople, ambitious college students, corporate executives, lawyers, a retired ironworker, a waiter going to his son's funeral, a four-foot-tall handicapped rights activist, a census worker, a fish and wildlife officer, a retired couple who were volunteer missionaries.
Like characters in an adventure movie, this ensemble cast included a wonderfully American mix of men and women of action: a former collegiate judo champion, a retired paratrooper, a street-smart weightlifter, a flight attendant who'd been a policewoman, a female lawyer who also had a brown belt in karate, a 6-foot-5 muscular rugby player who also was gay, and a take-charge former college quarterback. These latter characters, in particular, are likely to be lionized in at least two made-for-TV movies, and in several books scheduled for publication in time for the September 11 anniversary.
Fate, airport traffic and the cellular phone made their heroism possible. UAL 93 — Newark to San Francisco — was supposed to take off at 8 a.m., choreographed on virtually the same murderous timeline as the three other planes from Boston and Washington that were seized in the terrorist plot. But only the Newark takeoff was substantially traffic-delayed — until 8:42. So by the time UAL 93 reached the outskirts of Cleveland around 9:30 — and four Arab men abruptly stood and tied red bandannas around their heads, announcing they had a bomb — two other doomed planes had already slammed into the World Trade Center towers and the third was hurtling downward toward its target, the Pentagon. This fourth plane was only now changing course and, it is believed, aiming straight for Washington to blow up the White House or the U.S. Capitol.
Aboard Flight 93, most of the passengers were herded to the back of the plane, and because several had working cell phones or grabbed the onboard GTE Airfones, they were able to reach their families and a 911 operator. Only then did they realize that their hijacking was no isolated incident. Four passengers in particular — Todd Beamer, Tom Burnett, Mark Bingham and Jeremy Glick — would later be hailed as heroes because media accounts of their phone conversations provided the most heart-wrenching and detailed glimpses of the plan for the passengers' life-or-death charge for the cockpit, where the terrorists had seized control.
The lengthy 911 call between Beamer, a 32-year-old account manager for a Silicon Valley software firm, and Lisa Jefferson, a veteran GTE operator outside Chicago, became immortalized: As the plane lurched erratically and passengers screamed, Beamer, a devout Christian, and his seatmates recited the Lord's Prayer, with Jefferson joining in. "Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done . . ." As Jefferson intermittently heard more screams, Beamer and others recited the 23rd Psalm: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil . . ."
Then Jefferson heard Beamer say, "Are you guys ready? Okay. Let's roll!"
"Let's Roll!" Embraced and promoted by President Bush as a patriotic battle cry, the phrase is now emblazoned on Air Force fighter planes, city firetrucks, school athletic jerseys, and countless T-shirts, baseball caps and souvenir buttons. It's also commemorated in popular songs. Todd Beamer's wife, Lisa, pregnant with their third child, was summoned to the Capitol and recognized by Bush during his September 20 speech to Congress declaring war on terrorism. Lisa Beamer, blond, radiant, yet somber in a plain black dress, achieved a national celebrity as a stunned nation reached for symbols of hope. The Beamer family set up a charitable foundation to benefit all victims of September 11 and then sought to trademark the phrase "Let's Roll," Lisa Beamer says, to prevent others from profiteering. Only then did they learn that they were among more than a dozen already seeking ownership of a phrase that can't be owned by anyone.
But "Let's Roll" is only one piece of the legend, one fragment of the sketchy evidence that consists of cockpit-to-ground radio communications and the handful of frantic cell-phone calls. The final account lies in a loop of tape in UAL 93's cockpit voice recorder that preserves the last 30 minutes of every flight — yet even that fails to capture the full story.
The tape is mostly noise alternating with silence, and the howling wind created by a plane traveling so fast at low altitude. But the recording also includes the seven-minute death struggle in which muffled voices are heard screaming and cursing in both English and Arabic as the plane dives toward earth.
The FBI, after initially refusing, agreed for the first time to allow families of air crash victims to listen to the tape, which customarily is not made public. Flight 93 families heard it and viewed an FBI transcript on April 18 at a New Jersey hotel, but they said it is mostly indecipherable. In the tape, a female voice, apparently a crew member, is heard pleading for life. An American screams something like, Let's get them! and an Arabic voice shouts, They're coming! At least a few families thought they could hear the voice of their loved one. Others weren't sure. Some thought the passengers had successfully breached the cockpit, others didn't know. But they were united in believing it confirmed the unwavering courage of the passengers.
Families of the victims, joined by the people of Somerset County, now seek a lasting remembrance of that heroism. Despite all the attention paid to the passengers' bravery, UAL 93 seems to many of them to have become September 11's forgotten flight. "The president and the vice president haven't come here, and it's really been overlooked compared to the other sites," says Jim Oliver, editor of the local newspaper, the Daily American. The larger atrocities at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon obviously dwarf Flight 93 in loss of life and damage to national symbols. "Besides that," Oliver says, "there were no good pictures" at the Pennsylvania crash site to capture the nation's imagination like the heroic images of firefighters at Ground Zero. "Here, the best pictures were a bunch of guys standing around a hole. Just smoking trees, smoking ground."
So the grieving families have formed a unique bond with the people who live near the crash site. Their goal is for the nation and the world to always remember that there was a single uplifting moment in one of the most crushing days ever for the American spirit. They want to build a fitting national monument at the crash site to commemorate that in the skies of Pennsylvania, over the county of Somerset, in the township of Stonycreek, near the borough of Shanksville, a group of desperate, brave Americans gave their lives in the war against 21st-century terror.
Flight 93 crashed in a place whose roots are deep as America's. This scenic stretch of the Appalachians — 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, 170 miles northwest of Washington — was settled more than a millennium ago by the Monongahela, and crisscrossed by trails of the Shawnee, Iroquois and Delaware tribes. Then Europeans — German, English, Dutch, Italian — arrived here to hunt and trap, then to settle. In the late 1700s, a German named Christian Shank built a mill on the Stonycreek River, and a town grew in his name. It was supposed to become the hub of commerce, but it didn't. Shanksville remains a tiny borough of a few hundred people, who themselves sometimes describe it as a place that time forgot, in the middle of nowhere.
The very same families who settled this rural region often never left, and surrounding villages took their names from Acosta and Benson and Blough and Friedens and Ferrell and Geiger and Gray and Lambert and Husband and Kimmel and Shanks. They all came from somewhere else to become Americans. They farmed and fished and hunted, and cut timber, mined coal, and made steel. They built and worshiped in many churches, mostly Christian. They were taught to help out one another when crops went bad, when fires and floods wiped out their neighbors, when loved ones were taken away by death.
When Flight 93 hit in this isolated spot, almost instantly, telephone trees and informal church networks were activated. A cascade of hot casseroles, pots of coffee, cold drinks and clean clothes materialized at the site. Then, this quiet, tiny place was overrun by the FBI, the state police, a federal disaster mortuary team, the Red Cross, the National Transportation Safety Board, officials of United Airlines, and the state, national and international news media.
It hit with the impact of a "tidal wave," says Pamela Tokar-Ickes, one of Somerset County's three elected commissioners. "Every day, my voice mail was filled, from all over the world. Mostly media, but also Pennsylvania natives from across the country: nurses, doctors, lawyers and plain folks, saying, 'I'm from the area. I'd like to come back and help.' " With a total support staff of five, the Somerset commissioners were inundated with contributions of cash, checks, food, clothing, and pledges for all manner of charitable and fundraising events from across the nation and the world.
In the first chaotic week, when the entire country was in shock, Somerset's leaders decided the first public event should be a memorial service. Hastily organized, it was called for Friday night, September 14, on the front steps of Somerset's majestic century-old Greek revival courthouse. "We figured 500 to a thousand people at most," says Susan Hankinson, a local businesswoman who helped conceive the event. "When I walked out on the podium that evening, there were an estimated 5,000 people. The biggest gathering we've ever had. Our police chief went up to the dome of the courthouse and tried to estimate."
"That Friday service, I will never forget as long as I live," recalls Tokar-Ickes. "The sea of faces, the glow of candles . . . I choke up even now as I talk about it."
That first weekend, county officials were expecting the arrival of Flight 93 families, so a second memorial service was called on their behalf at the Shanksville-Stonycreek regional school on Sunday. A big crowd turned out, by local standards, but the families did not show up because United Airlines had arranged to put them all up at a ski resort 30 miles away. The service went on, nonetheless, but changed into a videotaped homage to the families. Ministers, plain folks and children all took turns at the lectern, addressing the Flight 93 families as if they were there; praying for them, thanking them for the great sacrifice of their loved ones, and also explaining to them about Shanksville. "Our town has never been much more than you see right now," said Donna Glessner, an unofficial local historian. "Only 245 people, a handful of businesses, a school, a fire hall, a post office, three churches, and a lot of front porches where neighbors sit and visit and wave hello to every passerby."
Extolling the special beauties and timeless cycles of every season, she told them of the long, cold winters that are ideal for skiing; the spring maple season with the sweetest of syrups and the melting snow that creates whitewater rapids and great trout fishing; cool summers excellent for growing corn, potatoes and oats; and clear autumns for harvesting, canning tomatoes, stacking firewood.
"We are a community of trusting people. Most don't lock their doors at night. We usually leave our keys in the car. We impulsively welcome strangers into our homes. We volunteer for scouts, for 4-H and PTA and Little League," Glessner said. "We salute our veterans on Memorial Day. And we take good care of our cemeteries."
Every day, no matter how cold or rainy or windy, carloads and sometimes busloads continue arriving in Shanksville. From every state in the union, they have found their way off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, down winding country roads, past old farmhouses, collapsed barns, huge hay bales, tall silos, herds of black-and-white dairy cows, sagging fences and telephone poles sporting bright yellow ribbons, and rural mailboxes flying American flags.
Thousands of people — the locals estimate up to 1,000 a week — have arrived at an old coal-mining access trail called Skyline Road, where finally they can see what remains of Flight 93: nothing. "There's not really much to it, is there?" Wally Miller often says to families and other visitors who are bewildered by what they don't see. Only a blank stretch of gently rolling brownish ridges against a backdrop of dark tree line and high blue sky. The deep gash in the earth has been thoroughly excavated, examined, sifted, restored, and is now virtually gone.
Right after September 11, on Skyline Road just outside the FBI perimeter, people began to leave flowers, and wreaths, and little American flags. They planted flags and banners in hay bales. So many visitors kept coming and leaving things that local officials realized they needed to manage the site once the FBI left. So, Mike Svonavec, whose family owns the old strip-mining site, donated a patch of land, and the feds and the township of Stonycreek paved and graveled the area as a temporary memorial, a quarter-mile up the slope from where UAL 93 hit.
People kept planting things. A tall wooden cross was erected. A 20-foot metal flagpole appeared, flying the Stars and Stripes, and a second pole with the Pennsylvania flag. A handsome polished headstone was put up with the names of the dead — minus four. And somebody planted 40 little "angels of freedom," carved from slate, standing in two straight rows. Mounted on wooden sticks, the foot-tall angels of Flight 93 are painted like winged American flags with little faces, and each bears the name of a passenger or crew member.
As more visitors kept leaving more wreaths, flags and flowers, township officials responded by erecting a 10-foot chain-link fence running 50 feet to accommodate the mementos. Broad sheets of white plywood went up to give visitors a place to write their thoughts. "People felt like they had to leave their words," says Barbara Black, curator of the Somerset Historical and Genealogical Society. "They signed the plywood. They signed the flagpoles. They wrote on guardrails. They signed garbage cans. Anywhere they could leave their messages."
Almost every day, Black, her staff and volunteers gather up what the well-wishers leave behind: a blue United Airlines uniform laid out on the ground; a Harley-Davidson Club T-shirt signed by its members; a plastic bottle saying it contained holy water from Lourdes; a silver POW-MIA bracelet commemorating the disappearance of a soldier named Eugene Handrahan in Vietnam on October 10, 1968; a Cherokee Indian ritual bag of sweet sage attached to a tree branch; a stunning blue banner with a painted sunburst from children in North Carolina who attached little fabric pouches that each contain their written prayers; and an old, weathered softball, signed, "We only have this to give. Thank you for the gift of life."
The numerous plywood message sheets and the collection of objects now fill more than 50 large cardboard boxes and two rooms at the state's Somerset Historical Center. Black and her assistants are staggered by the volume, but they are committed to cleaning and cataloguing all of the objects, and entering all of the text and digitized photographs onto the Internet in a searchable database. In preserving the memory of Flight 93, Black says, "people here have taken the responsibility very seriously. They have felt they are the caretakers."
That sense of stewardship has consumed Somerset. County commissioners thought that the wave of visitors, donations and worldwide attention would dissipate, says Tokar-Ickes. Instead, it continues. Overwhelmed, the commissioners created the new position of "Flight 93 Coordinator" in January, naming businesswoman Susan Hankinson, with a $27,000 annual salary paid by a charitable foundation. Her major mandate is to help oversee the lengthy local-state-national planning process for the creation of a permanent memorial, including the key issue of site selection. Many locals worry, says Hankinson, that their peaceful places could become crowded with tourists, made ugly by commercialism, made tawdry by profiteers. Some even have suggested the memorial should be elsewhere, perhaps in a nearby city like Johnstown that is served by an airport.
"There is such a rush to honor what happened, but this has got to be a slow, deliberate and inclusive process," says Tokar-Ickes. "It's our site, but not our victims. And we have to defer to the families. We want all of them to participate . . . It happened here, but the story is so much broader and bigger than us. This is the nation's story."
Immediately after the crash, the seeming absence of human remains led the mind of coroner Wally Miller to a surreal fantasy: that Flight 93 had somehow stopped in mid-flight and discharged all of its passengers before crashing. "There was just nothing visible," he says. "It was the strangest feeling." It would be nearly an hour before Miller came upon his first trace of a body part. The emotionally wrenching impact of what happened to the bodies caused Miller to resolve to seek out and talk personally to every one of the victims' families.
He did not think he was prepared for an event of this magnitude. Only hours earlier, he had been watching morning television with his father, the retired coroner, when the two jetliners exploded into the World Trade Center. As the two men watched, dumbstruck, he said to his father, "How'd you like to be the coroner in New York City now?" Born in Somerset, Miller had spent virtually his entire life within a few hours' drive. He'd gone to school at nearby Washington & Jefferson College, and done his mortuary training in Pittsburgh before coming back home to stay. In his entire career, he'd handled only two homicides: a domestic murder-suicide and the case of a woman who killed her husband after he refused to take her rattlesnake hunting.
Now, he was the man in the middle of an international disaster. Overseeing the recovery of remains and the temporary morgue set up at the nearby National Guard armory, Wally Miller became a momentary media star, giving daily press conferences beamed around the world, even when he had little new to say. He found all the hoopla to be annoying and distracting, he says, because mostly he saw his role as being there for Flight 93 families.
Some families would not or could not talk to him. Some declined his invitation to meet with him in Shanksville. But week after week, others kept coming and Miller kept climbing the little hill at the crash site and trying to explain. So many questions, so few answers. No, they hadn't made any positive identifications yet. No, they didn't know how long it would take. No, it couldn't go faster because the FBI investigation had to take priority. No, they didn't know if and when any personal possessions might be recovered. No, the FBI would not let them release anything to the families yet. And no, they could not tell for sure what happened onboard UAL 93.
Some families were silent and angry. Angry at the hijackers, at the airline, at their loved one for being onboard, at Miller and at God. Some were animated and talkative, at first, giving interviews to the media, speculating on the heroic roles played by their husband, wife, brother, sister, son or daughter. Others were quietly or openly resentful of those who were getting all the publicity. Miller tried not to be judgmental, just offering his condolences and listening. "I've been in this business 20 years," he says, "and the one thing I've learned is that everybody grieves in their own way." After a while, Miller says, his duty as Flight 93 coroner ceased to be that difficult — everyone knew why he was calling. He says it is far harder, for example, to have to break the news to the unsuspecting parents of a teenager that their child has committed suicide and "try to explain why."
Miller has kept in touch with many of the families. Five months after the crash, once the long, painstaking identification process was completed, he realized he had one larger duty remaining. Finally, some fragment of each of the dead had been positively identified, either by DNA or, in a few cases, fingerprints. So now the remains were going to be returned, he says, "and some people were going to look inside the caskets and I wanted them to know it would be shocking. I had to explain . . ."
So Miller arranged for a mass meeting at a New Jersey hotel in February at which 88 people representing 36 of the 40 families gathered with officials to discuss belated funeral arrangements and to confront other painful questions: What should happen to all the "unassociated effects," the thousands of pieces of possessions that could not be identified? What about the ultimate resting place of the unidentifiable remains, which are commingled and include tissue of both victims and hijackers? Burial? Cremation? And where would the remains go? There are no answers yet, and some of these questions will be addressed in the memorial design process, in which Miller urged the families to collectively take a leading role.
Often, the families turned to Miller for guidance. But he says he does not have any answers to previously unthinkable questions. "I never tried to portray myself as anything I wasn't. I'm sure not an expert," he says. "I'm a funeral director, and I know a little bit about grief."
On March 8, just before the six-month anniversary, dozens of Somerset, Stonycreek and Shanksville officials, rescue workers, students and teachers awakened in darkness to board a 5 a.m. charter bus that took them near the Civil War battlegrounds of Gettysburg and Antietam, whose rolling hillsides look remarkably like theirs. They were coming to Washington for a news conference announcing that legislation was being introduced in Congress to create a National Park memorial at the crash site.
When they arrived at the National Press Club, the event started with a blessing from the Rev. Larry Hoover, a Lutheran pastor in Somerset County who also runs a family lumberyard. The choice of Hoover had great local significance. He and his wife, Linda, own eight wooded acres with a secluded cabin that was their weekend retreat and their planned retirement home, along with a sturdy old stone cottage occupied by their 34-year-old son, Barry. But the shock wave from Flight 93, a few hundred yards away, spewed debris through the woods with such force that it blew out all the windows and doors and shook the foundation on Barry's place. It turned the whole Hoover property into a cemetery where human remains were still being found months later.
Larry Hoover is a calm, introspective man who loved his cabin as a place of
solace, his friends say. He has been a leading voice in stressing that properly honoring the dead and comforting their survivors takes priority over any local concerns. "His dignity and quiet reserve" and generosity have helped set the tone for Somerset, says Tokar-Ickes, because "if we have any local victims, it's the Hoovers."
The memorializing process had started in earnest in December, when the National Park Service convened a meeting in Shanksville and brought in several outside experts to help begin that discussion. "I was stunned by the intensity of the people of Shanksville, the clear, honest, sincere, wonderfully motivated grappling with the meaning of this event," says Edward Linenthal, a professor of religion and American culture at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh who studies national memorials and consults for the Park Service. Some were concerned about the specific location, he says, but virtually everyone seemed united in spirit.
The March press conference offered another chance for locals and some Flight 93 families to come together, and to affirm their belief that the memorial should be located at the crash site. "We all believe this area in Shanksville is the proper resting place," says Jennifer Price, who lost her mother and stepfather, Jean and Don Peterson. "That is where all of us will go to say goodbye — or to say hello." Citing the tireless work of the coroner and the volunteer fire crews, who personally helped families try to recover mementos, she says, "we feel so fortunate that it landed in Shanksville."
"Wally Miller and those volunteers all treated our family members like we were one of their own," says Paula Nacke-
Jacobs, who lost her brother, Louis Joseph Nacke. Their personal warmth was unforgettable, she says, her eyes welling. "This sleepy little town just put its arms around you and embraced you. If there had to be a place where someone had to . . . leave, this would be it."
Not long ago, a freshly painted new sign went up on an old building three miles from the crash site. It proclaimed:
THUNDER ON THE MOUNTAIN
UAL FLT 93
The new chapel immediately became a symbol of the fears that Flight 93's legend — and Shanksville — will be overrun by commercialism. The venture is the brainchild of a local antiques dealer named Al Mascherino, an ordained Catholic priest who for health reasons is currently not working in the priesthood. The operator of Somerset Galleries on West Main Street, he is a garrulous man of 58 with unruly graying hair, a well-lined face and an easy laugh.
Reverend Al, as friends still call him, bought the 100-year-old former Mizpah Evangelical Lutheran Church in January with an $18,000 bank loan. He is stripping off vinyl siding to restore the original church building, and gutting the warehouse interior at an estimated cost up to $40,000 to convert it into a "nondenominational" chapel that will also sell gift items. Mascherino says his original idea was to open "a reception or visitors center," because he knew it would take many years to build the permanent memorial. But he says he then thought also of including "a gift shop, not a souvenir shop." Mascherino stresses that last part, because he now sells September 11 souvenir buttons on a nonprofit basis to benefit local organizations, and he knows that some Shanksville people worry about his long-term intentions.
His honesty is vouched for by Rick King, a local businessman who is assistant chief of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department and who drove the first fire truck to arrive on the crash scene. King, after seeing September 11 buttons Mascherino was producing, contacted him. "People were skeptical," King says. "A lot of people didn't know him and thought he was going to make money. He told me otherwise from the beginning and I believe him. He is a very religious man, and he has such an intense feeling" about September 11.
Mascherino acknowledges that some locals remain dubious about this larger new enterprise, fearing it will become a tacky souvenir shop. He laughs at that idea, and, to illustrate, he unrolls his drawing of the chapel interior, which he says will be emblazoned with the soaring words of the Book of Isaiah that are among the lyrics of Handel's "Messiah": King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and He shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah! Mascherino also says the chapel will feature a multimedia show that will honor the heroism of Flight 93, a role he now considers his life's work.
Asked how he will finance all this, Mascherino laughs again. "I will just sell more stuff," he says with a broad smile. "It's on faith." The gutted interior is already outfitted with a church organ and a wood hutch stocked with souvenir coffee mugs. Mascherino stresses that he will sell only tasteful items, and only enough to keep the chapel operating. The deed of sale on Mizpah Lutheran specifies it cannot again be used as a "church," and he says it will not be.
"I'm going to use it for secular purposes. It's not going to be a church," he says. "I call it a secular chapel, a refuge."
Reverend Al's venture is by no means the only one that has raised fears about commercialism or profiteering. "I get calls from all kinds of people wanting to make a buck off it," says Hankinson, the Flight 93 coordinator. "They want the families' addresses to sell them things. Music, CDs, videos, hand-painted items, statues, T-shirts. Some of it's in bad taste. Some of it's with crosses and angels. It's all kinds of stuff, good and bad."
"I can't speak for everyone in Shanksville, but there is a sense of responsibility to keep this as pristine as we possibly can," says Tokar-Ickes. "The T-shirts, the salespeople, we can't keep it totally out. This is America, after all," she concludes with a laugh.
If Ernest Stull, the sometimes-cantankerous 78-year-old mayor of Shanksville, has his way, creeping commercialism definitely will be kept out. A few local people are making items like sweat shirts and hats for sale at very reasonable prices, he says, but no profiteers will be tolerated. "The word has been out and will continue to be out: This is not gonna happen here," he says, although he does not have any specific plan to stop it.
Stull, a white-haired, bespectacled retiree, can't remember the last time anyone opposed him for mayor "because nobody wants the job." But he says he's never been prouder to serve. "This has changed Shanksville forever," he says. "There's a spirit of 'What can I do? How can I help?' that was always present here, but not like now."
The mayor is among a cadre of local people who stand watch virtually every day at the temporary memorial, wearing small stickers identifying themselves as "Flight 93 Ambassadors," whose role is to help visitors and answer questions. "I feel I owe this to these brave people," Stull says one day at the site, "and I will do this as long as I'm drawing breath."
Flight 93 also took on special meaning for many of the children of Somerset. At Shanksville-Stonycreek regional school — whose entire student body of 496 for grades K through 12 makes it one of the state's smallest school districts — the students and teachers were so moved by the messages and gifts from across America that they didn't know how they could possibly say thank you to everyone. Not until second-grade teacher Karen Miller's idea trickled up through Principal Rosemarie Tipton to School Superintendent Gary Singel. It was a response that could express their feelings and also be sold as a fundraiser to aid those victims of September 11 who needed it.
So, Singel went out in the parking lot with a bunch of chalk. Then they drew up their plan and called a local aerial photographer. Then they gathered every single student, every teacher, the cooks, the janitors, all the parents they could muster, all the volunteer firefighters — seemingly the entire township of Stonycreek — until they finally had enough people.
On a clear, sunny autumn morning, they all gathered outside and spelled out in perfect alignment a giant human acknowledgment card that said to the world: "THANK YOU."
How will Flight 93 be remembered in American history? Will the story be lost in the larger tragedy of September 11 and the war against terrorism? In what form might the legend live on? At first, the media attention and the tendency to celebrate individual heroes put the focus on the same four men — Todd Beamer, Tom Burnett, Mark Bingham and Jeremy Glick. In those early days, the Pennsylvania legislature considered a measure to honor those four who had already become instantly famous. Quickly, however, state officials intervened to replace it with a resolution honoring all the passengers.
"We feel we have forty heroes, and not just four. A lot of the families feel that way," says Karen Model, coordinator of the state's September 11 victim-assistance program. Several families felt slighted and angered by the disproportionate publicity, she says. "Someone would say to me, 'My son was trained in combat. Do you think he was sitting there, not doing anything?' " Most of the anger and jealousy, initially, was directed at Lisa Beamer.
It was she who became the most sought-after guest on all the major TV networks, appearing on "Dateline NBC," on "20/20," on "60 Minutes," chatting with Oprah, with Larry King several times. It was she who got so much media attention that she hired a public relations firm and signed a deal with a religious-
oriented publishing house to collaborate with a professional writer on a book, tentatively titled Let's Roll!
Model says Lisa Beamer, like other family members, was swept up by a flood of media coverage and did not deserve the resentment. "She is a very sweet person. She didn't ask for this, and she was thrust into it."
Beamer herself agrees that too much attention initially fell on her husband, rather than the collective valor of the passengers. "We just happen to know the names of some people who made phone calls. But there are other people who made phone calls, or didn't call, and we will never know their contribution," she says in an interview from her New Jersey home. From what is known of Flight 93, she says, "there was very strong esprit de corps. There were elderly and disabled people, but they may have given advice, or prayed, or taken some other piece of it. We don't know what heroism the other people did." As for the legendary "Let's Roll," she says, "I'm really glad it came from Todd, but it could have been from anyone."
She says she hopes the memory of Flight 93 leaves the message that "there are individuals who, when called on to act, had the courage, the character, and the strength. Who said, 'I am definitely here to save myself, but I am gonna do whatever I can to protect other people on this flight and on the ground.' I think there are other people on other flights who would have reacted the same way. These people had the character and courage to do it, and I think these people showed that American spirit that we know is in our history."
The people of Somerset County have embraced that message passionately and are preparing, somehow, to become part of the nation's history. "In some ways, as Gettysburg can never again be a sleepy farm community in Pennsylvania, Shanksville can never be the same," says Linenthal, the National Park Service historical consultant. "Battlefields are centers for rituals that celebrate powerful American mythologies." Lexington and Concord, the Alamo, Gettysburg, Little Big Horn, Pearl Harbor. Each now has a special meaning, he says. But it is too early to know if or how Shanksville fits on that list, partly because the outcome of September 11 and the struggle with terrorism is unclear. Future generations may choose to embrace Flight 93, he says, because historically Americans don't want to dwell on complex issues like the Middle East, and instead seek to celebrate a simpler "preferred narrative," a story line that will just emphasize what is most heroic.
The process of conceiving a national monument is drawing the Somerset
community closer to the Flight 93 families, and the belated funeral meeting arranged by Miller has similarly drawn the Flight 93 families closer together, says Alice Hoglan, the mother of Mark Bingham. "We discovered one another at that meeting. It has been long and painful, but the meeting itself was healing," she says, weeping.
Each family is still struggling with its individual grief. Many are experiencing marital problems, unrelieved depressions, divisions within their extended families, deep troubles with their children and financial uncertainties that may not be entirely covered by expected payments from survivors' funds. Hoglan has linked most of the Flight 93 families via a monthly e-mail newsletter in which she tries to remind everyone that they are not alone. She routinely ends the letters by saying, "Stay well. Choose life. Next letter coming soon."
"How strange that 40 innocent people would have such a violent, horrible thing happen in such a beautiful, serene place," Hoglan says. "Wallace Miller was focused on getting us together to come to a consensus on the character of the memorial, and it was successful because, to a person, we said we want it to be a solemn place." And the people of Somerset have been uncommonly supportive of the families' wishes, she says, adding, "I hope they continue to feel that way, when they find their towns overrun by tourists, which is possible."
Wally Miller looks decidedly uncomfortable standing in a dark gray suit in front of a church audience. He is hugely popular in Somerset, reelected as county coroner last year with more than 80 percent of the vote — without campaigning. Since September 11, he has been in great demand as a speaker, not just locally, but at gatherings of coroners, emergency rescue workers and law enforcement groups from New Orleans to Toronto. He'll talk about his work, he says, but not too much about himself.
For months, he tells the church group, he's been conscious of "the burden I carried" as coroner, but reluctant to discuss it in public. He did not plan to attend this service at Somerset Alliance Church on March 11, the night of the six-month anniversary, he says, but has done so at the urging of friends who convinced him that "this is the time and place to talk about the spiritual aspect of what happened out there."
First, though, he wants to make clear that he has no special qualifications for the discussion or for what he's done since September 11. "I am a Christian," he says. "I'm not an exemplary Christian. For some reason, which remains unknown to him, Miller says, "God put me in charge of the site."
"I knew when I stood in that crater that it was going to be a long road ahead. But I knew we would make it through. I never dreamed it would go the way it has. My phone never stops ringing" and the demands seem endless, he says, "but it was okay . . . I was put here for this." He says he looks forward to the end of his role in Flight 93. "This is not something I want to be remembered for. It was part of my journey . . ."
Miller says he is often asked how he copes emotionally with the work he must do. He says he is not sure. Then he tells the church audience that, remarkably, two heavily damaged Bibles were found in the wreckage of the flight; a white one at the crash site that belonged to a passenger who was a practicing Buddhist; and a second one, black, of uncertain ownership. Miller says he ran across the second one on the floor of the warehouse where victims' belongings were being kept. The second Bible was scrunched up and was lying open, he says, to the 121st Psalm, which is customarily read at funerals. He says he has no idea who left the Bible in that position.
Then Miller opens the Bible he is holding and starts to read that Old Testament psalm to the church audience: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help . . ."
Peter Perl is a staff writer for the Magazine. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.