SHANKSVILLE, Pa. - The wind drives
horizontal sleet across the Laurel
Mountains on the edge of a filled-in strip
mine. Rosary beads dangle from nails on a
seven-foot crucifix planted in the ground.
Suspended in the frigid air by 30-m.p.h.
gusts, tiny crosses twist and black beads
flutter, part of a makeshift memorial
created by strangers and locals.
There were four planes on Sept. 11. You
can forget that sometimes. The last one
came down 500 yards from here, at the
Diamond T Coal Co., whose black dirt
absorbed United Flight 93, the machine and
the people, in a crash that linked this
remote hamlet to an agitated, dangerous
world. It hit upside down, says Paula
Pluta, who was distracted that day from
eating toast and watching Little House on
the Prairie by a roaring silver streak
that fell an eighth of a mile outside her
There was no plane when Pluta got there
moments later - just a 50-foot crater and
some sawed-off pine trees. This was the
flight of fighters, the ones who thwarted
Osama's robots. After phoning their loved
ones to say goodbye, the weightlifter and
the quarterback, the rugby player, the
woman with the brown belt in karate, and
the other passengers conceived a
counterterrorist plot in economy class.
Todd Beamer recited the 23d Psalm, then
said, "Let's roll," and maybe
the Capitol or the White House was spared.
Here in tiny, worn Shanksville, decorated
for Christmas and still bedecked in red,
white and blue, many of the 245 residents
are grateful. "People here look at
the people on the plane as heroes who
saved the lives of this town," says
Glenn Kashurba, a local psychiatrist.
Everywhere in these parts, 80 miles
southeast of Pittsburgh, it's the same.
People tell me that if the plane had
continued on its trajectory for three more
seconds, it would have hit the
schoolhouse, where 500 kids, K through 12,
were sitting that morning about a mile
away. "To think we'd have lost all
the youth of our area," Wendy Stemple
says. "The parents here are
appreciative of the passengers." Of
course, the plane could have hit anywhere,
and no one knows whether the passengers -
one of whom was a pilot - actually took
control and directed the Boeing 757 into
an empty field.
But this idea about the school's salvation
is locked into people's heads and is part
of how residents view Sept. 11. It's added
to the local sense of custodianship of the
dead fliers. "We're the caretakers
now," says Barbara Black, curator for
the Historical and Genealogical Society of
Somerset County. "It's like they're
part of us now," says Judy Baeckel,
who runs the post office. "You worry
about what'll happen to them. We have to
take care of things here, their
A sign left by a resident at the temporary
memorial explains the thinking: "God
put this plane . . . [here] because He
knew this community could take care of
it." The bureaucrat with the lowest
budget in Somerset County, coroner Wally
Miller, has been doing his part. On Dec.
14, he and a military DNA lab identified a
final set of remains, which belongs to one
of the 40 passengers and crew members
whose name he won't release. Miller has
been the main contact with the families.
He has collected remains, often alone.
He's not a doctor; he's a funeral-home
director who got his wife to lend him a
Before Sept. 11, the toughest case Miller
had had was a car wreck. He'll give the
remains to the families by February. There
will still be ashes left at the site,
though, and perhaps even remains that
could not be identified. Lots of people in
and around town ask Miller about the four
hijackers' remains. Although they'll be
given to the FBI, it's possible that
particles of the men's remains will be
forever intermingled with the unidentified
remains of the passengers and crew. It's
distressing, people tell me, a sacrilege.
But it's something they're willing to live
with, as long as some kind of memorial is
People from the National Park Service,
Oklahoma City and the county were in town
Dec. 9, talking about what the residents
will face: a years-long, undoubtedly
contentious process. Already, Shanksville
citizens whisper to me, they're starting
to feel edged out of decision-making about
the memorial. Unfortunately, politics
supplant emotions every time. What these
people want may not come to pass. It'll be
a while before anything significant is
done on the memorial, though.
Meantime, Kashurba says, "People will
try to find a new normality. But there's
really no ending, really no closure."
I understand that. For this series of
weekly essays I've searched for a meaning,
for a final lesson from Sept. 11. I've
spoken with dozens of people to find it.
Invariably, they tell me the same thing:
They now know life is short and fragile,
and that there's no time to waste.
Cliches, to be sure, but maybe some people
have realized epiphanies that have altered
their life courses. I vowed I'd never
again sweat the small stuff in life.
Well, soon enough I was complaining to a
waiter about cold potatoes, then kvetching
about the sins of my satellite TV company.
Maybe you, too, were whining and stressing
over nothing a lot sooner than you
thought. Human nature does not change just
like that. With the horrific events of
Sept. 11, irony did not die, as some
overwrought magazine writer famously
declared. Boorishness continues, giddiness
goes on. People have shopped, made love,
cleaned their kitchens, screamed at their
kids. I'd like to think I would have just
eaten the cold potatoes. But I didn't.
While we may not be permanently altered,
we certainly saw and did things never seen
or done before. We demonstrated
astonishing generosity, offering up more
than $1 billion to help the victims'
families. We showed profound ugliness,
turning on dark-skinned men in shameful
attempts to make ourselves feel better.
Willie Nelson and Sylvester Stallone
shared the stage at a benefit concert,
which has to be some kind of first. And
ersatz hoods from The Sopranos showed up
at ground zero on bicycles to help out.
We gained new respect for firefighters and
cops, although I question the sincerity of
some people's instant love for guys with
badges. For the record, I saw motorists on
the Pennsylvania Turnpike still thwarting
the highway patrol, flashing their
headlights to alert oncoming motorists
that smokies lay in wait to slap them with
While I may not be permanently altered,
there is sadness I can't purge. I will
live with the everlasting regret of not
having kept in closer touch with my friend
Billy, who died at the World Trade Center.
Four hundred people attended his memorial
service, the bald mensch with a
weightlifter's body and a child's sense of
fun. "We go on," the rabbi said.
Since the 11th, I've been calling my
brother more. He lives three blocks from
ground zero and lost 300 colleagues from
his firm. Two weeks after the attacks,
after the power was restored and he was
allowed back into his building, I helped
clean out his freezer. I tossed a stinking
turkey and some of my mother's leftover
pasta. Chris cranked an Allman Brothers CD
loud over the cemetery quiet of Battery
Park City, determined to let people know
somebody still lived there. Because he's
been through so much, I ask him what the
lesson of Sept. 11 is. "They can get
you wherever you are," he says
without hesitating. His understandable
paranoia is depressing. But he reminds me
of the truest thing I was told in weeks of
conversations with people about Sept. 11:
"We are all tied into the whole
thing," said Evangeline Bannister, a
Philadelphia laundry worker who lost her
job as a result of the terrorist attacks.
Certainly they know that now in these
mountains, whose rocky remoteness was
supposed to protect Western Pennsylvanians
from the troubles of this world. "We
can no longer tell our kids these
large-scale events don't happen
here," Kashurba says.
I contemplate the psychiatrist's words as
I watch three children wrestling with
cellos nearly twice their size in a hotel
parking lot in nearby Somerset. Their
Christmas concert finished, the kids lug
their instruments and talk excitedly about
school vacation. This holiday has caught
people here off guard. "We lost
time," Kashurba says. "We lost
the fall." Suddenly, it's Christmas
in a place fixated on a late summer
morning. But it's not too late for
Shanksville. It's seen the worst of what
people can do and has kept going.
My brother said something else from his
one-bedroom on the lip of ground zero:
"I've been amazed at people's
resiliency. You can get through things.
You can live through bad things."
They're doing that today in Shanksville,
in Washington, in Manhattan. Holding
together, and moving on. When all is said
and done, that's a lesson to take from