On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a small region of Pennsylvania recalls the horror and tragedy of Flight 93 and commemorates the 40 lives lost onboard.
I was only 2 years old when the shockwaves of 9/11 reverberated throughout my small county in southwestern Pennsylvania, sending locals into a panicked frenzy as a national tragedy struck far too close to home. I have no memory of the nightmarish day we commemorate each year, but I’ve heard the stories from my neighbors, from farmers who spotted the low-flying plane above their fields, and from countless locals whose memories so poignantly convey the terror they still struggle to shake.
I grew up mere miles from Shanksville, Pennsylvania, beneath the rolling Appalachian Mountains, which delineated a common flightpath for commercial jets heading south from Pittsburgh or west from New York. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was off to daycare while my parents began their workdays and thousands of Somerset County locals headed to their respective jobs as usual, but only for a few short hours. Just after 10am, Flight 93 nosedived at a speed of 563 miles per hour in a cornfield just beyond Stonycreek Township. The impact left behind a massive, smoldering crater surrounded by debris. In one fiery instant, quaint country life in Somerset County came to an abrupt halt.
Local teachers cancelled their lessons in every classroom to watch developing news from New York when images of a field near the neighboring town suddenly flashed onscreen. Terrified parents came to pick up their kids and to prepare for imminent attacks in what they suspected was the start of a full-blown war waged against the United States. Families hunkered in their homes, calling their loved ones to check in and to ask if they had heard the news or if they had spotted the plane overhead before it scalded the earth below.
My grandmother, a retired high school teacher, was hanging sheets to dry on the wash line in her backyard as locals conversed in the street about a nearby plane crash. She hurried inside and turned on her television to see images of the Twin Towers aflame and of scorched Eastern Hemlocks in a small Pennsylvania field above the smoky remains of Flight 93. Today, she recalls the act of terror with the same disbelief and sorrow that she felt 20 years ago. To her, the anniversary marks not only a harrowing day for the nation, but also a historic event for our rural region, forever changed by its unexpected connection to one of the country’s most somber tragedies.
“It was hard to believe that such a pivotal moment in history had happened just above our heads. We discovered only days later the heroism and bravery aboard Flight 93 as it passed over our area. As such a rural, bucolic region, we were so detached from worldly issues like war and terrorism. The events of September 11th brought our county closer through our shared grief and intimate perspective of a monumental national disaster.”
Twenty years later, September 11th remains a solemn day nationwide, but one that Somerset County residents prepare for with special care and grave commemoration. Reminders of our proximity to the crash site can be seen in every town surrounding Shanksville, particularly leading up to each anniversary as 40 rays of light that commemorate each passenger converge into a single beam above the Flight 93 memorial and illuminate the sky for 60 miles.
The Flight 93 Memorial Highway also memorializes the regional connection to 9/11 as it stretches between neighboring towns that overlook fields all the way to the memorial site. Visitors of the sacred ground can tour a museum where an interactive exhibit plays chilling recordings of the final phone calls made by passengers onboard. Just outside, a single boulder at the edge of a field marks the point of impact, and a 93-foot-tall Tower of Voices holds 40 wind chimes to honor the forty passengers and crew members who lost their lives just yards away.
On the 20th anniversary, clear skies ushered in by perfect fall weather set the backdrop for a reflective tribute with the familiar beam of light from the memorial clearly penetrating the darkness miles away. Former President George W. Bush and current Vice President Kamala Harris traveled the windy roads of rural southwestern PA to visit the Flight 93 Memorial, where the Johnstown symphony orchestra played quietly as family members and friends placed 40 lanterns before the Wall of Names of the heroes who perished onboard. With the arrival of hundreds of visitors from afar who had never before heard of Shanksville or of Somerset County until the fateful morning of September 11, 2001, the annual observance bridges the gap between a small, isolated region of Pennsylvania and a nation in mourning.
Though my understanding of the Flight 93 crash and the tragedy of September 11th has only been developed through class discussions and local conversations, I am rooted in the sacred grounds of an unforgettable day in national history. Once the setting of a grim catastrophe, the undulating hills and open fields projected on millions of television screens 20 years ago will forever be my home. Despite the collective sorrow of Somerset County locals on each anniversary of the September 11th attacks, no greater hometowners could guard the hallowed grounds of Flight 93 with more care, reverence, and honor.