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September 11, 2011

True heroism: Flight 93 rewrote conclusion to plot by 9/11 terrorists (see VIDEO)

Walking in the Shadows of 9/11: Part 3

SHANKSVILLE, PA. — The place ... chosen by fate ... holds a powerful silence.

Waist-high grasses and wildflowers sway in the breeze. The sky above the steep, wooded hillsides looks unending.

“There’s nothing more compelling than when the construction is gone and it’s quiet, and it’s just the birds, and the skies are blue, and you see the lone contrail from a plane overhead,” Jeff Reinbold said, standing on the hilltop. “It’s incredibly moving.”

As he spoke, trucks and earthmovers put finishing touches on America’s newest national park, the Flight 93 National Memorial, where Reinbold serves as site manager and a ranger for the National Park Service. Its 2,200 acres embrace the spot where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed at 10:03 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. It was the last of four hijackings that morning by suicidal al-Qaida terrorists in a broad scheme to inflict death and destruction at American symbols of capitalism, military and government. The three other captured airliners already had hit their intended targets — both Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing more than 2,900 people.

The 40 passengers and crew members aboard Flight 93 rewrote the conclusion of the plot by the terrorists, who wanted to crash the fourth plane into, most likely, the U.S. Capitol.

That’s why it all ended here, in a rural, grassy clearing, just north of the tiny mining town of Shanksville, Pa.

That’s why the first phase of the permanent Flight 93 National Memorial officially opens this weekend — the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

“An act of heroism,” said Bill Sirotnak, who visited the temporary memorial there in July.

Sirotnak, a 69-year-old retired New York State Police helicopter pilot, toured this remote location, where the temporary memorial has drawn an estimated 1 million visitors since 9/11.

Like every person who travels the rollercoaster backroads of southwestern Pennsylvania, Sirotnak came with his own 9/11 memories. Sirotnak lives in Belvidere, N.J., not far from his brother in Phillipsburg. Sirotnak’s brother planned to attend a noontime wedding reception on Sept. 11 in the World Trade Center. Fortunately, his brother did not go early to New York, where the planes crashed at 8:46 and 9:03 a.m., and saw it on TV, just as Bill did. However, one of Sirotnak’s former New York State Police co-workers, who was working inside the towers that day, died.

“That’s my story,” Sirotnak said.

He and others who come to the Flight 93 crash location typically speak in soft, respectful tones. Some voices rise just above a whisper.

“Unlike other places, this is one place where it’s a conversation with our visitors,” said Reinbold, who’s talked with thousands of those people since taking his position in 2002. “It’s not just us telling them what happened. It’s them telling us where they were that day, and what it meant to them, and what they might have lost. So, even though it’s been 10 years, it’s still an incredibly emotional place for people.”

Reinbold, his fellow NPS rangers, and a team of Shanksville volunteer guides known as “The Ambassadors” answer visitors’ questions about Flight 93. Sometimes, their response is, “No one knows.”

Some things are clear

Everyone on the plane perished that day — the pilot, first officer, five flight attendants and 33 passengers, along with the four hijackers. A small number of people witnessed the Boeing 757 streak overhead, upside-down, at 563 mph and crash nose-first into the field at the base of a coal mining operation. The story of what happened onboard emerged from cellphone and airphone calls made by the passengers and crew members to loved ones, airline employees and 911 operators on the ground. Also, the recovered cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder revealed stark details about the terrorists’ thoughts and movements.

Some elements remain a mystery, but others are clear.

At 9:28, the four terrorists, who boarded Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco along with 33 others, stormed the cockpit, killed or incapacitated the pilots, took control and turned the aircraft toward Washington. Their assault came later than al-Qaida planned. Routine traffic delayed takeoff by more than 25 minutes. And, for unknown reasons, the Flight 93 hijackers waited 46 minutes into the flight to act. Those who plotted the coordinated hijackings purposely chose the four flights because they were coast-to-coast (thus, fully loaded with fuel to cause maximum damage), sparsely populated (to prevent passenger resistance), and simultaneously departing around 8 a.m. (for the element of surprise), according to the 2004 9/11 Commission report. So, the delayed takeover by the Flight 93 hijackers meant the passengers who discreetly made cellphone and airphone calls learned of the three other crashes and deduced that theirs would be steered into some other landmark target as well.

They chose to fight back.

That decision, made with Washington less than a half-hour away, motivates the Rev. Alphonse Mascherino to maintain a memorial chapel honoring “the heroes” of Flight 93, just west of Shanksville. Using his own savings and donated funds and labor, the 67-year-old Catholic bishop bought and renovated a vacant country church in 2002, inspired by spiritual messages hand-written on a “Shanksville Salutes the Heroes of Flight 93” sign posted in the town after the crash. It is unaffiliated with the National Park Service. Since its opening, 300,000 people have toured the chapel.

Mascherino, himself, overcame three bouts of cancer. Chapel guests hear him retell the story, in a raspy yet passionate voice, of the decision by the “heroes” to overcome their captors.

Vote, pray, act

“They were hijacked by 9:30. By a quarter-to-10, they knew full well what was going on. They knew they were part of this plot,” Mascherino said, sitting in a folding chair in front of the altar. “And by a quarter-to-10, they said, ‘We’re going to do something about this.’ [Passenger] Tom Burnett even said [by phone] to his wife, ‘We’re going to do something.’ And she said, ‘Oh, Tom, don’t do anything. Wait for the authorities.’ He said, ‘We can’t wait for the authorities. We have to do something, and it has to be now.’ That’s how urgent this was. So by 10 o’clock, they decided to do something. They rose up in 4 minutes.”

Before the revolt against the hijackers, Mascherino said, passengers and flight attendants did two particularly significant things — they took a vote, and they prayed.

“That’s where they got the courage and the strength to do what they had to do,” the priest said.

In the uprising, according to the 9/11 Commission report, flight attendants boiled water to throw on the terrorists. Passengers repeatedly rammed a food cart into the cockpit door. Sounds of physical confrontations could be heard. The hijacker pilot tried tipping the plane side-to-side to unsettle the passengers. Sensing they were about to be overtaken, the terrorists opted to crash the jet short of their goal in Washington.

That place happened to be the field near Shanksville.

It was less than 20 minutes of flight time away from the Capitol, where Congress was in session. A strike on that historic structure would have “destroyed a lot more lives, and also would’ve been more of a feather in the terrorists’ caps to have attacked the Capitol of the United States,” Sirotnak said, standing by a fence covered with flowers and hand-made tributes near the crash site. “That would’ve been really disastrous, in my opinion. These people prevented that.”

A bronze plaque, expressing appreciation to those on Flight 93, now hangs in the Capitol.

While some details were lost along with those lives, one thing is certain to Ed Root, whose cousin, Lorraine Bay, a longtime United Airlines flight attendant, died.

“The people of Flight 93 wanted to live,” Root said while visiting “Father Al” and the chapel in July. “There’s no doubt in my mind, they didn’t want to die.”

That distinguishes the passengers and crew from the hijackers, in Root’s eyes.

“[The passengers and flight attendants] wanted to try to get control of the plane and, if possible, to survive,” he said. “But they knew from all of the phone calls that if they didn’t do something, it would be far worse. So it really is this comparison of philosophies of a free society versus a terrorist society. One is, their cause is death; the other is, their cause is life. And that’s what makes this worthy of a national memorial. That’s what makes this worth being remembered.

“The physical courage, to me, is amazing and wonderful,” Root added, “but it even goes beyond that — that these people, in a half-hour, got information, sat down together, discussed it, shared information, decided to act and then acted. In a half-hour. We all have to think, ‘What would I have done if I was there?’ And I think that’s one of the reasons that makes this place so moving for people, because I think you can’t help but have that cross your mind.”

The weight of that question seems apparent in the steady stream of visitors to the Flight 93 National Memorial.

Solemn place

Inside the temporary visitors center, more than a dozen people stood silently in July, reading panels depicting a timeline of events on 9/11, reading the cockpit voice recorder transcript and a log of cellphone and airphone calls by the passengers and crew. Though the temperature in the building — a converted mining shed covered in corrugated steel — topped 90 degrees, the sweaty guests patiently thumbed through the documents, signed a guestbook or wrote messages about their visit on cards provided and preserved by the National Park Service.

Then, they would walk out to the hill overlooking the crash site. At its base, construction crews worked on a new memorial plaza gateway. Beginning this weekend, tourists can drive on a new access road connected to the closest full highway (U.S. 30) to a visitors shelter and the black walkway bordered by the white, accordion-like Wall of Names, featuring all 40 passengers and crew members. Beyond a black barrier along the walkway is the grassy spot where Flight 93 went down. Once the FBI and police completed their investigation, the crater created by the collision and explosion was filled in and covered with wildflowers, explained Reinbold, the NPS ranger.

“We treat that area as a cemetery,” Reinbold said. “We don’t allow anybody on there. It is their final resting place.”

Since 2001, more than 1 million visitors have studied the scenery, paid their respects, read the recap or left a written thought or memento.

Many wear contemplative expressions.

Sharon Wane lives 45 minutes from Shanksville in Flintstone, Md. The 53-year-old credit union employee came to the Flight 93 National Memorial with her mother in July. The events of 9/11 enhanced her appreciation of family. “You don’t take things for granted as much,” she said.

Wane also visited there in 2004. Seven years later, the place still stirred her emotions.

“It’s just like seeing the Vietnam [Memorial] wall [in Washington] — you tear up,” she said of the tribute to those aboard Flight 93. “It’s hard to believe something like that was going to happen. And I thank them. And they’re at peace … they’re at peace.”

Nearby, Annie Snyder looked at flowers and photographs left on a fence at the memorial. Snyder directs the North Star Kids choir, a group of 7- to 14-year-olds from Pittsburgh. On each Sept. 11 anniversary, her North Star Kids perform at 9/11 remembrance ceremonies. In 2002, they sang “God Bless America” alongside “American Idol” star Kelly Clarkson in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Since then, Snyder’s kids have been a fixture at anniversary events at the Flight 93 Memorial and at the chapel down the road. They’re scheduled to sing there today, too.

Each year, the children receive one or two names of the Flight 93 “heroes” and must study their background and tell a bit of their life stories at the 9/11 ceremonies.

In July, bright yellow flowers placed on the fence in honor of Lorraine Bay’s birthday caught Snyder’s attention. Snyder’s granddaughter, a North Star Kids choir member, drew Lorraine’s name one year and left a tin angel on the fence in the flight attendant’s memory. “The children have a new-found patriotism,” Snyder said. “They understand what 9/11 is.”

‘All of her stories ended with a laugh’

Lorraine Bay was “kind of like the big sister I never had,” Root recalled.

They were first cousins, and both grew up in single-child families. Lorraine was 3 1/2 years older and captain of the color guard at her high school. “So I always kind of looked up to her as the ‘cool teenager,’” Root said.

When Lorraine joined United Airlines in her 20s, being a “stewardess was a glamorous thing,” Root said. The women got training for posture and makeup, which “is probably against the federal regulations to do that kind of stuff now,” he added, chuckling. By 2001, she’d served 37 years and mentored young flight attendants. She loved to shop for unique greeting cards for her relatives and colleagues. Two co-workers received cards that she’d dropped in the mail early on Sept. 11 after leaving home in East Windsor, N.J., where she and her husband, Eric, lived.

“When somebody dies, especially a tragic death of this nature, you always want to say nice things about them,” Root said, “but with Lorraine, I can honestly say that. She was a gregarious person. She would always tell us these great stories about people on the planes, and things that happened. And, you know, sometimes you get crabby passengers, or bad weather, or God knows what, but all of her stories ended with a laugh.”

Indeed, the most widely seen photograph of Lorraine shows her in uniform, smiling broadly, seemingly on the brink of laughter.

As a “senior flight attendant” at age 58, Lorraine was able to choose which flights she wanted to work, Root said, and Flight 93, from Jersey to California, suited her schedule.

After the hijackers commandeered the 757, passengers and crew members placed a total of 35 calls by airphones and two by cellphones, according to federal transcripts. Calls by 10 passengers and two flight attendants successfully connected; Lorraine was not among those. Thus, her role in the heroism aboard Flight 93 remains unknown.

“I don’t want to speculate and try not to speculate,” Root said. “I believe in my heart of hearts that, number 1, she didn’t want to call her husband because she didn’t want to worry him, because that’s the way she was. And, number 2, with all of her experience and training, that she was doing whatever she thought she should do — whether that was sitting down with another passenger, or consoling someone, or whether it was boiling water or looking for implements they could use as weapons.”

Shanksville remembers

One of the few intact items found in the wreckage and debris was Lorraine’s flight log book, which was donated by her husband to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where it is now on display. The manual gives flight attendants instructions on handling various in-flight situations, including the presence of a bomb aboard a plane. One of the Flight 93 hijackers claimed to have a bomb strapped to his waist, though passengers expressed doubts that it was real.

First responders to the scene discovered Lorraine’s log book.

One of the first two Pennsylvania State Police troopers to reach the site was Patrick Stewart. Crews from the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department and emergency medical services were already there. While a fellow trooper headed toward the crater, Stewart searched the edge of the scorched woods, unsure of what exactly had happened. “After that, it didn’t take too long to figure out that we had the real deal here,” Stewart said.

“It was just total devastation,” he added.

The sight contrasted with the climate on that Tuesday morning. Stewart had been on patrol in the mountains, heading to a 10 a.m. appointment at a judge’s office in a nearby town, Boswell. “I remember it being a very beautiful day. Actually, outstanding,” Stewart said.

As Stewart recalled his movements, he sat on a bicycle, talking with friends on John Street in Shanksville on a hot July morning a decade later. The town doesn’t look much different now than it did in 2001. For a motorist descending the steep stretch of Pennsylvania 1007, the first glimpses of Shanksville are of steeples. It’s still home to a handful of churches, about 250 people, a post office, an auto repair shop, a craft store and Ida’s Country Store — the local hangout since the 1940s. Stony Creek trickles through the middle of the village. In the lawn of the volunteer fire department, Station No. 627, stands an I-beam cross pulled from the 9/11 rubble at the World Trade Center in New York. Draped with a flag, the donated cross bears an inscription, paying tribute to the Flight 93 passengers and crew.

“Never forget: We honor those who saw their untimely fate before them and chose to defeat evil to ensure America’s freedom.”

Atop a hill to the east sits Shanksville-Stonycreek School, attended by 500 kids, kindergarten through high school, in this sector of Somerset County. Almost every child in Shanksville enrolls there. On Sept. 11, 2001, the school stood directly in the path of the hijacked airliner. Investigators estimated that if Flight 93 had been airborne just a few seconds longer, it could have struck the school.

Abby Duppstadt was a third-grader, and remembers hearing the sound of the crash, “a big boom.”

“We were working on a project, and our teacher just told us that it was probably that a tree fell. And so, we all believed her because we were so young,” said Duppstadt, now 18 and working the counter at Ida’s, the store owned by her uncle.

Today, a metal sculpture adorns the school’s west-side entrance, featuring the handprints of all 500 children at the school that day. Above the entryway’s right side flies an American flag, bearing the words, “Our nation will eternally honor the heroes of Flight 93.”

Such memorials placed around Shanksville reveal an acceptance by the community of its improbable role during one of the nation’s most trying events.

Asked to describe the townspeople, Jeff Reinbold, the NPS ranger, said, “The best way to answer that is their response to the crash.” The first responders were local people. Once state and federal officials moved in, the community offered the officers meals and even the use of their homes for sleep or showers. Father Al Mascherino remembers a woman who stopped while driving to work and handed the keys to her family’s house to police officers, telling them, “My house is the third one on the left. It’s a brick house. There’s food in the refrigerator. There’s fresh towels. Take a shower. Take a nap. Whatever you want to do, help yourself. And get your friends.”

American flags flew everywhere.

“It would give you chills just seeing all the flags in yards,” said Stewart, the trooper. “Everybody just forgot all about the bad.”

For future generations

Numerous Shanksville residents volunteered to greet and briefly explain what happened to hundreds of curious, concerned visitors in September 2001. Many of those same volunteers continue in that role as The Ambassadors at the Flight 93 Memorial. “They feel a strong connection to the story and this place,” Reinbold said. “But also, [there’s] that kind of down-home hospitality, that if someone comes here, they should be taken care of; we should answer their questions; we should tell them what we know; we should listen to them.”

The town and the families of the passengers and crew feel a kinship, Reinbold added.

“Sometimes, when family members come out here, they’ll stay with some of the volunteers they’ve met over the years,” he said. “It’s an incredible bond that’s developed.”

Many relatives visit the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel. Some have donated keepsakes. That includes Ilse Homer, mother of Flight 93 first officer Leroy Homer. She contributed a shovel from the groundbreaking of the national memorial, a model airplane Leroy crafted at age 11, and a collage of photos showing Leroy as an infant, at first communion, in grade school, high school and military academy, and at his wedding. “She said, ‘This is his whole life,’” Mascherino said of Ilse.

In his July stop at the chapel, Ed Root met Father Al with a warm handshake. Now 64 years old, Root willingly walked outside in the heat to pose for a photograph beside Lorraine’s portrait on a monument to the Flight 93 crew behind the chapel. He wore a ballcap embroidered on its front with a U.S. flag and the words “Shanksville, Flight 93.” On the hat’s back side was the 9/11 date and the phrase, “Let’s roll,” uttered by passenger Todd Beamer, when he and others boldy rushed the terrorists in the cockpit. Root, who lives four hours from Shanksville in Coopersburg, Pa., is the treasurer of the Families of Flight 93, a nonprofit group with nearly 2,000 members, and he served on two juries to select the winning design of the Flight 93 National Memorial. That contest drew more than 1,000 entries, including some from Shanksville.

The design chosen, created by Paul Murdoch Architects of Los Angeles, unveils its first phase this weekend. The latter two phases, planned for completion by 2014, include a 93-foot-tall set of 40 wind chimes, known as “The Tower of Voices,” a visitors learning center, and two memorial walls — the approximate height of the airliner as it passed overhead — creating an entry portal to the site. To finish, an additional $10 million in donations (through the National Park Foundation) is needed. Already, donors have contributed $20 million, joining $14 million in federal money and $18.5 million from the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

“When it’s completed, I think people are going to be amazed at what they see,” Reinbold said, “because it’s a very different memorial.”

Some regular visitors to the temporary memorial wished it remained as-is, to keep its simplicity. Root favors the new, permanent memorial. Its lasting elements, he said, will convey to future generations the significance of the actions taken by those 40 people aboard that plane. Along with his cousin’s own legacy, her name lives, too. Lorraine Bay and her husband had no children, but Root has three grandchildren, including two granddaughters. One of the girls is named Lorraine. The other shares her great-aunt’s middle name, Grace.

Likewise, Root sees the Flight 93 National Memorial as a way to ensure that such memories aren’t lost in an idyllic clearing in the Pennsylvania hills.

“This memorial, I think, is for 50 years from now, a hundred years from now, as long as this country survives,” Root said softly inside the chapel. “It’s for long beyond — people, those of us who were here that day, when we’re all gone, it’ll be more meaningful. It’s a peaceful site. It’s a beautiful site. And I think to just leave it like it was would’ve lost that immediacy with passing of the generation that lived through it. So I think it will be a reflective place, where people can go and think about whatever they want to think about. But it’s something where you can really focus in on what happened that day, and the people who did it, and what they all represent.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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