The Other Ground Zero

It is a small, rural town still known mostly for the heroism that occured in the sky above it. But in Shanksville, Pa., is the American story of prople who opened their hearts to strangers.

October 11, 2001|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

The buses carrying mourners rolled slowly into town and the people of Shanksville looked up at the windows, at the siblings and children and parents and spouses of the passengers who'd died in the crash of Flight 93.

Through tinted glass the families looked back at them, and some of the townspeople wondered what to do, whether to wave or flash peace signs, salute or stand still. Some even talked about it: Would waving be inappropriate? Did a hand over the heart say enough? What gesture conveyed grief and showed gratitude and provided comfort all at once?

As the big white buses drove past their homes, down winding roads lined with flags and yellow ribbons and hand-lettered signs - "Shanksville salutes the heroes of Flight 93" - the townspeople had little time to figure out the answer. All they could do was what they'd been doing since Sept. 11, the day the floors shook and the windows rattled and the mushroom cloud of smoke appeared in the sky. They followed their instincts. They did the best they could.

As the buses passed, some of the passengers waved at them, which made some people feel it was OK to wave back. Others stood at attention, lifted flags, made a "V" with their fingers, saluted, stared in silence and cried. They knew the families on the buses would consider them strangers, and yet the connection they felt was indelible and real. After all, it was their land where United Airlines Flight 93 had crashed. Their back yard where 44 people had perished. Their loved ones who could easily have been killed had the nosediving plane traveled a few more seconds in any direction. Their volunteer firefighters who faced the wreckage and extinguished the flames.

Flight 93 wasn't supposed to crash in a field in Pennsylvania, but something happened - we all know the story - and it did. On a day of incomprehensible devastation, Shanksville was the forgotten Ground Zero: a town we'd never heard of, a crater we hardly saw, a footnote in many news reports, if mentioned by name at all.

In New York, the terrorists attacked the country's financial center. In Washington, they attacked its military strength. But in Shanksville, they struck at the heart of America, a place where ordinary people became bystanders to tragedy, where they rose to the occasion when the despair hit close to home.

It's not the sort of place people visit, just one where they live. It's in the middle of nowhere, and yet not far away, from Baltimore only a three-hour drive. It's just a speck on the map, population 245, but no matter which way you come from, you're likely to find a road sign pointing the way. The little town is accessible from so many directions that the locals have a saying about the place, meant to be a joke, but truer than they know.

Look at the map, they say, and you'll see:

All roads lead to Shanksville.

The pictures didn't show Shanksville. They showed a field in Stonycreek Township, just outside town, and there wasn't much to see: A scorched hole. The imprint of airplane wings. A scattering of debris. A line of tall trees.

When they called it "an abandoned strip mine," it made the place sound lifeless, a desolate backwater instead of the outskirts of a town with a store and a gas station and three churches and a fire hall and a school - two miles from the crash site - where 500 students, kindergarten through 12th grade, attend class under one roof .

There's a post office in Shanksville, too. Judi Baeckel, an assistant to the postmaster, was working behind the counter that morning. She was talking to a customer about the attacks in New York and Washington, and the customer made a comforting remark, something to the effect of "at least we know we're safe here in Shanksville."

And then the room shook.

After that, says Baeckel, the days blur together. There were endless, adrenaline-fueled nights spent volunteering at the fire hall, where townspeople worked round-the-clock to assemble and serve meals and snacks to hundreds of state troopers, FBI agents and other officials. The massive effort unified the town and infused it with pride, and yet who could think of the families of the victims and not want to do more?

If the post office is the first landmark as you pull into town, Baeckel's memorial is the second.

It began a few days after the crash, on her front lawn. One friend donated a plywood board. Another volunteered to paint it white, so people could sign it. Another brought over a giant wooden cross draped with cloth, and then someone donated a flag pole, and someone else donated a flag, and then there was a wreath, candles, and the yellow and pink mums Baeckel had planned to plant around her red maple. She asked someone from the local news station to fax the list of passengers on Flight 93, and then she took it to a friend who does beautiful calligraphy - working at the post office you learn these things - and the friend wrote every single name in elegant script on a plywood board.

Every single one, minus four, of course.

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