Tiny Pa. town's residents play reluctant role

Borough of farmers, coal miners unsettled by crash investigation

Terrorism Strikes America

Pennsylvania & Maryland

September 13, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin, Childs Walker and Jeff Barker | Jennifer McMenamin, Childs Walker and Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. - It can never be understandable when a plane falls out of the sky, but the tragedy that befell a United Airlines 757 seems especially incongruous in this borough of farmers and coal miners that is too small even for a stoplight.

Suddenly, Shanksville, a place where old people live down the street from their childhood homes, where the first day of deer season is a school holiday, finds itself the setting for an international guessing game over why Flight 93, commandeered by terrorists, crashed into the hillside of an abandoned strip mine two miles outside of town.

Yesterday, state troopers lined the main road into town, the whirring of helicopters mingled with the voices of children from schoolhouse windows, and the harsh glare from TV trucks flashed late into the night.

It's more than unsettling for residents who have remained here - sometimes long after their children have moved away - partly because Shanksville isn't a telegenic landmark that might be eyed by terrorists. The 235 residents have never had any expectation of seeing themselves being interviewed on the nightly news.

"You think, `Thank God I don't live in a place like Washington or New York where people try and do something like this,'" said Theresa Weyant, secretary treasurer of neighboring Indian Lake. "But this just brings us down to reality."

The flight was hijacked Tuesday en route from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco.

It remains the subject of speculation whether an act of heroism by one or more passengers caused the plane to crash instead of ending up aimed at a significant target such as Air Force One or Camp David, the presidential retreat in northern Frederick County, Md.

Yesterday, indications of passenger resistance emerged from reports of cell phone calls made from the plane before it crashed.

Passenger Thomas Burnett told his wife, Deena, that "a group of us are going to do something," she said from her home in San Ramon, Calif. Burnett learned of the World Trade Center attacks during the four phone calls he made to his wife and calmly told her that he and other passengers would try to take action against the hijackers.

The plane plunged into an area surrounded by hilly fields of corn and hay. The downtown contains old homes, service and fire stations, a single country store and three steepled churches.

In this borough, 85 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, people earn their living the same way their ancestors did - farming, mining coal, harvesting lumber and teaching their children.

Others work in the commerce centers of Somerset, nine miles away, and Johnstown, 30 miles away.

"I've lived through three major floods and a fire that totally destroyed my business," said Mayor Ernest R. Stull, 77, who once owned a car dealership. "But I've never seen anything even beginning to approach this. I just came up the road and the sight blows my mind apart."

Many others were similarly affected.

"I went to a funeral [Tuesday]," said the Rev. Sylvia Baker, 67, pastor of the Shanksville Assembly of God Church. "I knew people were getting married and having babies, washing dishes and going to work and then life changed for all of us. Who would have ever thought that in this little hamlet, any international incident would happen in our back yard?

"As one pastor said, `The world never knew where Shanksville was. Now they'll never forget.'"

Residents here look forward to seasonal craft fairs, tiny festivals in nearby towns and the annual Shanksville community picnic, scheduled each August at the same time as class reunions so anyone who has ever lived here can come.

"An invitation to a neighbor's pig roast is a big deal," said Matthew Duppstadt, who has lived in town all of his 38 years and has run his own custom butcher shop for the past 15. "We're pretty simple folk."

Yesterday, they were trying to help as best they could.

At the volunteer fire station, firefighters shuttled donated food from area merchants to a command center for the unexpected out-of-town visitors.

At the crater caused by the crash, federal investigators paced about, looking for the "black box," the voice data recorder - and for human remains.

The plane was broken into such small bits that the largest piece found so far appears to be a part of an engine the size of a kitchen sink.

"We cannot overstate how methodical and painstaking this process will be," said Roland Corvington, FBI special agent from Pittsburgh.

Federal authorities expect the search to last from three to five weeks, which means the borough won't return to normal for quite a while, if ever again.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.