Shanksville, Pennsylvania, a town divided

SHANKSVILLE, PA – It is late, and Karl Glessner calls his wife. He says: I’m up at the fire hall. There’s a journalist here. He’s writing a story about 9/11. I really think you should talk to him.

Karl looks at me. The journalist. I cannot hear Donna Glessner’s words, only her tone. Every sentence ends in a downward cadence. I know her answer is no. I understand. How many times can a person give and give and receive nothing in return?

. . . 

The terrorists drove United Flight 93 into the field at 563 miles an hour. The plane hit so hard, the ground swallowed it up. Then the FBI came, and the ATF, and the NTSB, and every other agency with a shred of jurisdiction. Thousands of people. FBI agents sat on their knees and combed the ground with their fingers. They excavated the crater down 40 feet. They removed every scrap of steel, every piece of flesh.

They tore this place apart.

Then they paved it over with dirt.

Then they left. The place was a jumble. It made no sense. At the top of the hill sat a junkyard. At the bottom lay two muddy ponds, remnants from an old strip mine. The crash site lay in between, just a field with no signs to mark it. Tourists came. They drove from Maine, from Virginia, from Oregon and Guatemala. They came to mourn, but they didn’t know where to look. Some prayed at the ponds, believing the plane crashed there. Others prayed at the junkyard, mistaking the broken cars for scraps of a Boeing 757.

Donna Glessner decided: This is wrong. It was Sunday, and the pews of Shanksville United Methodist Church were full. Donna stood up. We must go up there, she said. Outsiders are coming, they are lost, and we must help them. That place needs a human presence.

Four months after the attack, she led the first group of townspeople up the hill. Donna created a schedule, assigned each volunteer to a different time slot. That way, whenever tourists arrived, they’d meet a local guide. Nobody knew much back then, so volunteers kept it short. United Flight 93 left Newark for San Francisco at 8:42 a.m. It carried 33 passengers, seven crew, four terrorists, and 11,000 gallons of jet fuel. The terrorists took control over Cleveland. They crashed here, in a field, 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, on course for Washington, D.C. 

Volunteers received a three-ring binder with pictures to help visitors get their bearings. Some nights the binder wasn’t enough. It was so cold that first winter, so dark. Volunteers cradled the photo album against the steering wheel. They spun their cars around to aim downhill, marking the site of the crash with their headlights.

Flight 93 National Memorial Volunteer Ambassador Sally Ware at the memorial in Stoystown, PA, on Wednesday, August 4, 2021.

“It was pitch black,” says Sally Ware, 71, one of Donna’s original volunteers. “There were no lights. The whole car would shake because it gets real windy up there. So I let strangers get in the car with me. I did! Ha-ha! Because you hate for them to miss it if they came all that way.”

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Donna kept giving. She co-chaired the commission to design a permanent federal memorial. She flew to Oklahoma City and San Francisco to see how other people remember their tragedies. She joined the oral history team, helping to collect nearly 900 interviews with FBI agents, air traffic controllers and relatives of the dead.

Donna gave, and she received. She watched a beautiful memorial rise from the dusty hill. She met visitors at the crash site. They cried together. They shared the communion of pain.

Other people came to take. Journalists came. They wanted Donna’s tears, every impolite detail. Where did she stand when the plane came down? Did she feel the earth shudder? Did she see the horrible things? They took Donna’s sadness. Consumed it. They used it to write their stories, then they never came back. Politicians came. Mike Pence. Joe Biden came three times. Did they look out the black windows of their black SUVs? Did they notice Shanksville’s broken sidewalks, whole sections reverting to grass? Did they fix them? No. The sidewalks look worse than ever, an embarrassment to the town.

The Flight 93 National Memorial in Stoystown, Pennsylvania, on Thursday, August 5, 2021.

Donna Glessner still gives. She gives a lot. But over the last 20 years she’s learned: Only give to people who give back. No more freebies. No more posing for pictures with politicians — Donna seeks neither fame nor credit.

No more tears for greedy journalists.

Karl Glessner hangs up the phone.

“Donna says she’s done,” he tells me. “No more interviews.”

. . .

Shanksville is home to 224 people, 100 houses, three churches, one convenience store, and the most important event of the 21st Century.

The town occupies a westerly bend in the Stonycreek River, folded into the bottomlands of high country. From Main Street, all roads lead uphill. For miles in every direction, the corn farmers and coal miners and bank managers who live in the hills depend on a system of reciprocity, a system rooted in the institutions of town. They send their kids to the consolidated school, where teachers know their students’ families five generations back. Families from town attend the United Methodist Church or St. Mark Lutheran, the old brick churches on Main Street, but families from the country stick to the Assembly of God, the newest church in town, built in 1961.

When a barn burns, or when a tourist flips his four-wheeler at the ATV park up in Central City, everyone knows to call Shanksville’s fire department. Its volunteers are fast, well-trained and, thanks in part to donations after September 11, extraordinarily well equipped.

“On 9/11, the state troopers came with the clothes on their backs. They didn’t have toothbrushes,” says Judi Baeckel, who lives across from Snida’s Corner Store, Shanksville’s geographic and emotional heart. “People were donating stuff, not just from here in Somerset County, but clear from Pittsburgh. So we all went to the fire hall to organize the stuff. We loaded it into trucks and took it up to the site. Sweatshirts and coats, too. Because it did get cold up there at night.”

For weeks, this little town supplied a city’s worth of government employees. Shanksville firefighters drove food, coffee and firewood up to the site three times a night. The effort made this western Pennsylvania town famous. Twenty years later, those institutions of reciprocity still function.

But they are frayed. The school is down to 280 students, half its enrollment from 2001. If it shrinks any further, people worry, another consolidation may be in order.

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Donna Glessner made her plea for volunteers to a packed church. Back then, every pastor lived in town. These days, sermons in all three churches attract about 15 people each, says Sylvia Baker, who led the Assembly of God from 1993 until she retired in July. Shanksville’s churches now have traveling pastors, who divide their time among congregations in four or five different towns. This emptying-out happened so slowly, people barely noticed. It leaves just a few people who remember Sept. 11 and have something to say about it.  

“There’s been a separation. There’s more distance,” says Baker, 87. “The people that were here and felt the shock and were involved the first year or two, they don’t mind talking about it. But the people who came in or grew up since then, who weren’t as affected by it? It’s not a topic of conversation.”

On the first Saturday morning of August, a U-Haul truck parked on Main Street in front of Baker’s yellow house. It left that afternoon with Baker’s possessions, bound for her daughter’s home near Pittsburgh. The truck attacked the hill, filling the valley with engine groan. Then the town fell quiet. The last resident church leader of Shanksville was gone. 

. . .

Brad Shober, Deputy Chief of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department, takes a break from cooking food after the Volunteer Fire Department parade in Shanksville, PA, on Friday, August 6, 2021.

If the terrorists had flown the plane a few seconds longer, they’d have detonated the Shanksville school. Instead the jet crashed in a field, sending black smoke over the hemlock treeline. Children on the third floor of the school saw the plume from their classroom windows. A few adults in Shanksville saw it, too, including a woman I’ll call Mrs. P—.

Before I drove to Shanksville, I called some people in town. Few wanted to talk. Instead, everyone agreed I should call Mrs. P—. She gave so many interviews after 9/11, they said. Surely, she’d talk to me. I tried her number a few times, but the phone just rang.

On my third afternoon in Shanksville, I walk up the smooth concrete path to Mrs. P—‘s house. Through the front window I see an elderly woman in the living room, sitting by a lamp. I ring the bell and wait. I ring again. The house is silent. As I walk back to the street, I see the living room shades drawn shut. The lamp is off.

How many times can a person give and give and receive nothing in return?

“Everybody was proud that we had been part of something good,” says Elliott Ansell, 70, who lives a mile up the road from Mrs. P—.  “It changes because they get tired of putting up with the outsiders. The outsiders, they come in, and they ‘Ooh’ and ‘Aahh.’ They make a big to-do, and then they leave. And they really never cared about us.”

I called Terry Shaffer. He didn’t pick up, either. In New York City and Washington, D.C., journalists covering the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon called the mayor’s office, the governor’s office, the Department of Defense, the FBI, the White House. Each bureaucracy had staffs of people paid to speak with the press. In Shanksville, everybody called Terry Shaffer. As Shanksville’s fire chief on 9/11, he was the only person in town who knew what was happening at the crash site and was allowed to talk about it. Those early stories served as a road map for the next 20 years, pointing future waves of journalists to Shaffer’s door.

I ring the bell and wait. Shaffer opens the door. He says nothing. My arrival annoys him, but it does not surprise him. This is the first full sentence he says: “I think you’ll find a good many of the town people just want to get on with their lives.”

Lilly Baeckel, 6, and her dog Lollie in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on Thursday, August 5, 2021.

Through the open door I see Shaffer’s grandchildren in the living room, playing. He does not invite me inside. Rather he steps forward, latches the door behind him, and takes a seat on the porch. He describes the journalists who bushwhacked uphill those first few days, when the smell of death hung heavy in the woods. They tried to evade the state troopers and see the crater for themselves. They were arrested.

Shaffer’s daughter and youngest son were released from school early on 9/11. When Shaffer saw them, a reporter was chasing them down the hill.

“Some journalists do behave like idiots, to be very honest,” Shaffer says. “Some of them can be very obnoxious, and not care about the rest of your life. They just want what they want. They want the nitty-gritty.”

I say I’m amazed he answered the door at all. Why not move?

“I did move!” Shaffer says. “We built this house seven years ago. Most people don’t know where I’m at. But I have a sneaky feeling there’s people at the firehouse who rat me out.”

Then Shaffer shares a dream that recurs in his mind. Just once, he says, he wants to walk into the fire hall alone, unrecognized. Nobody’s in there but his wife, his fellow firefighters, and relatives of the 40 passengers and crew who died on Flight 93. In Shaffer’s dream, he serves the families cheeseburgers and hot dogs. They sit together at a table and eat. When everyone’s satisfied, they start talking. The families lead. Whatever they want, that’s what they talk about. This is reciprocity. This feels good. It is people who experienced hell, trusting Terry Shaffer with their pain. It is Shaffer listening, showing that he cares. No politicians. No clicking cameras. No questions from journalists — can’t they see how merely their presence destroys this moment?

“It would be nice to just walk in there and pay my respects. A sense of normality to my life would be good,” Shaffer says. “But I don’t know if that will ever happen. Leading up to September 11, I almost always have to deal with this.”

He waves his right hand to mean this interview. To mean me. Tomorrow, a man from The Washington Post will come to interview Shaffer with a big video camera. On Friday, it’s two reporters from Pittsburgh.

. . .

The first memorial to Flight 93 was Judi Baeckel’s yard. By that first afternoon, half the town was there. From Judi’s place you could see everything. The government vehicles flooring it everywhere. The utility men stringing phone lines and power up to the site. A satellite truck from Fox News. Anderson Cooper.

Judi’s son Christopher was just a freshman in high school then, but already he was popular. When he walked home, a bunch of kids followed him. Somebody put a plywood board out in the yard. People signed it with red and black markers, and wrote little notes. Our prayers are with you. God Bless Everyone. The board filled up within hours, so someone got another. Then another. And another.

It doesn’t sound like much, now. But in those first hours, it was all that anybody in Shanksville had. So that’s what they gave.

When the government left, the signature boards moved up to the crash site. A chain-link fence was erected, and the boards were lashed to the fence with wire. Donna Glessner’s volunteers were happy. The boards offered a little protection from the wind.

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Gradually the people of Shanksville imposed their rule on the place: Take what you need. Give what you can.

Nobody said this out loud. You just knew. Tourists left teddy bears and ribbons, police service patches, flags, blue plastic flowers, black stone markers, wooden crosses, hand-carved angels bolted to steel stakes, a flight attendant uniform, a firefighter jacket, a leather biker vest, T-shirts, baseball hats, fishing poles. One license plate just read JESUS.

“Somebody left a bowling ball,” says Sally Ware. “Just anything they had in their car that they wanted to leave and never get back.”

In those early years, people from Shanksville drove to the site all the time. Five minutes away, max. Jayne Wagner and her husband Chuck used to invite the whole family home for Sunday dinner, then leave for the site and their joint shift as tour guides.

The federal memorial rose slowly. It took years just to secure the land, 2,200 acres of homes, forest, farms and coal company tracts. The planning commission rented an outlet mall near the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and paid Karl Glessner’s construction company to build a chain link fence inside. Design proposals were hung from the fence. End-to-end, the posters stretched out for half a mile. Phase one of the memorial opened on Sept. 10, 2011, with a speech by Bill Clinton. Sarah McLachlan performed “I Will Remember You.”

Judy Ansell holds one of her paintings at her home in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday, August 4, 2021.

The backroad entrance closed. To see the crash site now, a person must drive a big loop: five miles north from Shanksville to the Lincoln Highway, then another four miles back on the memorial’s twisty main road, a drive that takes 20 minutes.

“We used to go up to the temporary memorial all the time,” says Jannah Slade, who was 11 when the plane came down. “But since they changed the entrance you don’t really see that anymore. I haven’t been up to the new one. We don’t feel connected to it.”

At the memorial on a summer afternoon, purple thistle, pink crown vetch and white lily pads of Queen Anne’s Lace hem the switchbacks from the visitor’s center down to the crash site. Jays and black-capped chickadees burst from the weeds. The path empties onto a broad black sidewalk bound by a low wall of black concrete. Beyond that a field, some deer, and a boulder that marks the site of impact. The only sound is the wind spinning the hemlock leaves. A jetliner cruises safely and very far overhead.

The story, asphyxiated from so many tellings, regains its breath. Forty hostages. Four terrorists, outnumbered, let the passengers use their phones. Their families relay the news. The towers are burning. Your plane is not going to land. You are riding a missile. United Flight 93 is twenty-seven minutes from the United States Capitol. The passengers and crew make a plan. Twenty-six minutes. They will fight. They will re-take the plane. Locked inside the cockpit, two hijackers hear the hostages attack. They roll the plane across its wings, sweeping the passengers off their feet. The attack continues. The hostages reach the cockpit door. The terrorists have orders. They must not lose control. If they are unable to reach their target, they must crash the plane.

They flip the plane on its back to commence the dive. Out the cockpit window, the view turns from blue to green. An air traffic controller in Cleveland watches Flight 93 disappear from primary radar. Shanksville trembles. A black cloud rises above the treeline.

Later, in town, I tell people my impression of the memorial. It’s solemn, I say. Reverent. Terry Shaffer agrees. He likes it a lot, especially when it’s quiet.

Others, mostly young people and those who never volunteered at the site, politely but firmly disagree.

“A gift shop in the visitors’ center? People died up there,” says Jill Shubik, 36. “I dunno. I think it’s gross.”

Others dislike the memorial’s grandiose scale. So many acres of productive land excised from the local economy. Families who raised children on that land had to sell their homes and move, one reason for declining enrollment at Shanksville’s school.

“They took all these acres of tax base, and the rest of us have to suck it up,” says Robert Snyder, who co-owns Snida’s Country Store. “I know that might sound terrible. But they don’t pay school taxes. They don’t pay nothing. Basically they cut Shanksville out of it.”

“Exactly,” says Leigh Snyder, who is Robert Snyder’s wife and Jayne Wagner’s daughter. “They cut us out.”

There it is. There lies the heart of this resentment. When the government investigation ended and the state troopers went home, the people of Shanksville took it upon themselves to hold things together. They led the tours. Their aesthetic — improvised, handmade, heartfelt — became the memorial’s aesthetic. The town’s story of loving reciprocity merged with the passengers’ heroism and their families’ grief to become one story, the full story of this place.

The federal memorial makes little mention of Shanksville’s sacrifice. And its design — smooth, black, restrained — leaves no room for reciprocity.

Most outsiders love it, Sally Ware says. Most people in Shanksville want nothing to do with it.

“I saw the old one. I don’t need to see the new one,” says Robin Lambert, whose father Bobby was among the first from Shanksville to reach the crater on Sept. 11. “We’re no part of it anymore. Our poor fire department, what they did on that site. And now up at the memorial, they want nothing to do with us.”

This fate was not imposed, and that makes it worse. Donna Glessner had a big say in the design, along with Terry Shaffer, his wife, and a few others. The process was open to anyone from Shanksville willing to devote the time.

“Everybody got to have their say and sit on committees if they wanted to,” Shaffer says.

He knows that many people in town dislike the result. He doesn’t bring it up. Neither do they.

“The memorial has divided the town,” says Gloria Black. “We don’t discuss it. Some people support the permanent memorial. I won’t go up there. We was the ones that took care of the families. Our firemen worked up there for months. And what do we get for it? To me, they kicked us in the teeth.”

. . .

(Right) Shanksvillel Mayor Chris Baeckel plays basketball with members of the Shanksville-Stonycreek High School junior varsity basketball team in Shanksville, PA, on Friday, August 6, 2021. Baeckel assists in coaching the team.

Chris Baeckel is now the mayor of Shanksville.

He volunteered with the fire department until college, work and family consumed too much of his time. Now he coaches the junior varsity basketball team. He tries to attend most school board meetings. For an hour before the parade, Baeckel also serves as the neighborhood babysitter. He is joined in his backyard by three girls, two boys and four puppies, all of whom yip around and ignore his commands.

“Hope, you have to use the bathroom before we go to the parade,” Baeckel says.

“No!” says Hope Belsterling, 6. “You’re not the boss, Chris!”

Baeckel laughs.

“Why do you laugh at everything I say?” Hope says. She sticks out her tongue.

“Everybody thinks you’re funny because you’re the little girl who likes to yell at the mayor,” says Bella Tweardy, 12.

Baeckel isn’t the only young parent raising kids in Shanksville. If the trend continues, maybe Shanksville will have enough children to save the school, enough adults to save the fire department.

“There’s a bunch of younger families moving in,” says the mayor. “I think it’s gonna start turning around.”

(Left) Shanksvillel Mayor Chris Baeckel throws candy to Boyd Benning, 3, during the Volunteer Fire Department parade on Main Street in Shanksville, PA, on Friday, August 6, 2021. (Second from left) John Abramowich sits in front of Baeckel.

After the parade comes the picnic. Country people drive to the park by the school; people from town mostly walk. As they arrive, Karl Glessner stands in the pavilion, peeling potatoes. Then he is called to empty a trash can. A trailer of ponies arrives, but their handlers are short a helper. Glessner goes looking for a volunteer pony wrangler. Next he walks to the dairy barn to fix the lights. Another volunteer needs a break, so Glessner jumps in to run the pig races. This entails switching on the batteries of 10 pink stuffed pig toys, raising the starting gate, and tracking the little robots as they waddle down the wooden track.

Jessica Sheeler gives a dollar to her daughter Lexi, age 4. Lexi bets her money on pig number two. Glessner raises the gate. The race takes a while. After a slow start, pig number two drops headfirst into the plastic bag, taped to the end of the track. Lexi wins. She points at the stuffed animals hanging above Glessner’s head.

“I want a black bear!” she says. “Hee-hee! I finally have a black bear in my room!”

Karl Glessner is 70. Recently he retired as the owner of Stonycreek Builders Supply. Now he works part-time for the shop’s new owner, plus his second job as the fire department’s treasurer.

“It takes 20 or 25 hours a week to do it right,” he says of the volunteer work.

Donna Glessner approaches her husband. She looks stressed. I pretend not to know who she is; she pretends not to see me.

“We’re almost out of ketchup — the little packets,” she says. “People are taking so much! We only have one handful left.”

Donna opens her fist to show the last of the ketchup, balled up in a plastic bag. Karl looks surprised. He leaves to find some money, then someone to drive to the Dollar General store. It’s so hot. Karl sees me sweating, and hands me a bottle of water. On the house, he says. I walk to the pavilion and buy a plate of chicken and French fries. It costs $9, so I give 10. Keep it, I say.

A dollar doesn’t matter, but the principle is important. People in Shanksville give so much. I wish to take nothing more.

Donna returns to running the kitchen. A young acoustic band plays old Christian hymns. People buy French fries and raffle tickets. All proceeds go to the fire department. The town is sewn together by a net of reciprocity. It is torn. May it be mended. 

Follow columnist Christopher Maag on Twitter: @Chris_Maag 

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