News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

September 8, 2013

MARK BENNETT: This Little Light: Remote chapel keeps a light shining on story of Flight 93

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — Father Al explained the meaning of the lamp. He asked me to light it.

The reverence in his voice offset the raspiness, left by his latest battle with cancer. Clearly, he saw this place as special.

He began building the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel just weeks after a courageous uprising by passengers and crew members foiled terrorists’ plans to crash one more hijacked airliner into a symbolic American target, the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Through discreet, back-of-the-plane phone calls to loved ones and emergency operators, the flight attendants and travelers learned other suicide hijackers had already crashed airliners into the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. With the pilot and co-pilot already killed or incapacitated, the survivors decided to fight back, rushed the cockpit and battled the terrorists for control of the plane. The passengers’ determination forced the criminals to crash United Airlines Flight 93 into a sparse, grassy field in western Pennsylvania, 20 minutes short of al-Qaeda’s goal — the Capitol, the “People’s House,” the hub of the United States’ government.

That story motivated the Rev. Alphonse Mascherino for the rest of his life.

Wednesday marks the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed 2,977 people.

Each year, in different ways, Americans remember those who died that day. Through the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel, Mascherino remembered the 40 aboard — pilots, flight attendants and passengers — in a lasting way.

This week’s 9/11 observance will be the first without Father Al presiding over a ceremony in the small nondenominational chapel on a country highway, down the road from the crash site near Shanksville, Pa. Cancer claimed his life on Feb. 15 at age 69.

His modest idea to create a place to honor those 40 heroes filled an important corner in the nation’s collective memories. Mascherino took out a loan and sold his coin and antiques collection to buy an abandoned Lutheran church and turn it into a shrine. A lumber company owner donated building materials and labor, and it opened in March 2002. Families of the crew and passengers donated loved ones’ personal items. Visitors contributed military and religious symbols, and keepsakes connected to 9/11. A blacksmith, a friend of Father Al’s, made the lamp, representing the loss, sacrifice and freedom linked to Flight 93.

“The flame that burns within represents liberty and freedom that God gave to us when he created us; we hold these truths self-evident,” Mascherino told me on a warm afternoon in the summer of 2011, when I visited the 9/11 crash sites with my wife and daughter. “The light has been handed over to us, protected by the heroes, preserved and handed over to us, and now we have to keep it lit to pass it on to those who come after us.

“Since May of 2002, people from all over the world have lit that light,” he added, before cranking down the lamp and handing me the lighting candle.

Indeed, as the country approached the high-profile 10th anniversary in 2011, more than 300,000 people had visited the chapel, usually on their way to the actual crash site, now the Flight 93 National Memorial, a national park. The chapel has no official link to the memorial, overseen by National Park Service rangers and a team of volunteer local tour guides known as the Ambassadors. And though a few disagreements have arisen — such as a plan by Father Al and a Pittsburgh architect to move the chapel closer to the memorial and seek donations for a $10-million expansion — the chapel and the national park complement each other in telling the Flight 93 story. As Mascherino’s health faded, he passed guardianship of the chapel to Archbishop Ramzi Musallam of the Catholic Church of the East, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Last month, Musallam told the Somerset Daily American he’ll keep the chapel right where it is.

With all due respect to Father Al’s plan, the chapel fits in its place.

It fits in a place some would call “out in the sticks,” at the corner of Stutzmantown and Coleman Station roads, 2.6 miles from Shanksville. The harrowing struggle unfolding inside a jetliner on a quiet Tuesday morning in September ended in a field over the hilly ridges to the north. Forty average people, most of whom did not know each other, who thought they were on their way to sunny California, used the final minutes of their lives to prevent a yet more grave disaster.

Al Mascherino decided to devote his life to telling their story, honoring their bravery, and remembering its potential good.

As a man of faith who experienced his own conflicts with his church hierarchy, he saw something significantly open-hearted in those heroes’ actions. Within days after 9/11, he recalled in 2011, “We heard they had prayed onboard Flight 93. They prayed before they rose up against the attackers. They also prayed with one of the 911 operators. I think they prayed the Lord’s Prayer. They didn’t have time to say to each other, ‘What church do you belong to?’ They prayed together. And that expression of faith, to me, was inspirational. That’s where they got the courage and strength to do what they had to do.”

The chapel is a reminder of that, Mascherino said, “like a continual regeneration of the story of Flight 93.”

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

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