Where heroes lie
By Alfred Lubrano's
December 25 , 2001



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 picture window.

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 [permanent] memorial."

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 hand.

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 made here.

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 tickets.

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 Sept. 11.
 

 


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