SHANKSVILLE, Pa. -- Until yesterday there had never been a Fourth of July parade in this borough of 245 people, a self-proclaimed "Friendly Little Town" where Main Street seems a generous name for a road with just one store. But, then, there had never been so much to celebrate.
That, by and large, was the sentiment in this once-anonymous place just over the hill from the spot where an airplane hijacked by terrorists -- United Airlines Flight 93 -- smashed into a field on the morning of Sept. 11.
Several thousand people from Shanksville and miles beyond turned out for the first formal Independence Day celebration, complete with two Uncle Sams, a string of volunteer fire companies that had responded to the crash and a "living flag" whose members sang songs and recited the Pledge of Allegiance as they made their way up the milelong parade route.
"It just really makes me appreciate the fact that we live in this country," said Charlene Walker, 50, a software engineer who grew up in and around Shanksville and had a co-worker die in the crash. "I feel like I have won just about the biggest lottery going, to live here. I feel lucky."
Walker made the trip to southwestern Pennsylvania from New Jersey, where she now lives, to spend the holiday with about 25 of her relatives, who watched the parade from front-row seats outside niece Erica Zeigler's house on Main.
"You couldn't help but be more patriotic this year," said Zeigler, 24, who owns a salon in town and helped plan the event.
Amid all the celebration, though, there was sadness, too -- both for the lives that were lost Sept. 11 and, in part, for what has happened to the town as a result of its forced notoriety. The plane that crashed near here was believed to be headed for a Washington target, and some passengers are thought to have fought with the hijackers in an effort to save the plane.
Pride and solemnity
"We're all proud, and yet we're kind of solemn," said Chris Hemminger, 38, a nurse who graduated from Shanksville-Stonycreek High School in 1981 in a class of 50 students. She, her husband, Sam, and children Faith, 12, and Noah, 10, came from nearby Somerset for the parade and a family gathering in town.
"I think we're all trying to overcome the fears we have from Sept. 11th," she said.
Never had Shanksville, which sits about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh in Somerset County, seen the likes of what marched down its streets yesterday.
"It's always been three or four fire companies, a band and some kids," said Tammy Strohm, 41, who watched the spectacle from her front porch with her husband and parents, who live just over the borough line. "We're up with the big towns now."
Nearly 70 units took part. There was the brand-new Shanksville Volunteer Fire Company truck with red, white and blue hoses, dedicated to the 40 passengers and crew members who died on Flight 93. There were Uncle Sam and Betsy Ross in a horse-drawn carriage. There were a basset hound with balloons tied to his collar and several marching bands, some of whose trombone players had affixed American flags to their slides.
A most grand finale
Then there was the parade's finale, which seemed to be the biggest draw of all: a "living flag" made up of 273 people wearing red, white and blue T-shirts and bandanas, some of whom carried white cardboard stars.
Onlookers stood, clapped and snapped photographs as the flag marched past, singing "God Bless America" and other patriotic tunes in between recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. Sixty percent of those in the flag came from Somerset County, one-fourth from Shanksville. One girl hailed from Pasadena, Md. A few folks made the trip from as far as Michigan and Florida.
"We are young, old; we are in between," Donna Glessner, 44, sister-in-law of the Shanksville fire chief, told the crowd that had gathered for a post-parade program under a hot sun at the Grove, a community park. "One thing we have in common: We honor the American flag and the nation for which it stands."
Glessner and others on the parade planning committee had wanted to honor the local firefighters -- from Shanksville and several other area units -- since Sept. 11, but the "first responders" were booked to speak or be honored in so many other places that it was difficult to find a date.
Eric Beckner, 22, a volunteer firefighter in Shanksville, sang a Sept. 11 tribute song by Alan Jackson that asks, "Where were you when the world stopped turnin' that September day?"
Lt. Col. Walter Piatt of the 10th Mountain Division in Fort Drum, N.Y., who recently returned from Afghanistan, talked about the war against terror.
Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller reminded locals to continue to welcome to town the families of the crash victims. Many, he said, probably never would have had reason to pull off the interstate in Somerset County had not their loved ones died there.
Joe O'Brien, 57, and his wife, Mary, 55, who were dressed as Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty, both felt a rush marching in the town's inaugural Fourth of July parade, especially when they heard the crowd cheer.
"It really sent shivers up you," said Mary O'Brien. "As hot as it was, I had goose bumps almost the entire way."
Her husband added, "Makes you proud to be an American."