Cover image for From Memory to Memorial: Shanksville, America, and Flight 93 By J. William Thompson

From Memory to Memorial

Shanksville, America, and Flight 93

J. William Thompson


$19.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07699-7

Available as an e-book

200 pages
5.5" × 8.5"
26 b&w illustrations/3 maps

Keystone Books

From Memory to Memorial

Shanksville, America, and Flight 93

J. William Thompson

“Thoughtful and exceptionally well-written.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
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On September 11, 2001, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, became a center of national attention when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a former strip mine in sleepy Somerset County, killing all forty passengers and crew aboard. This is the story of the memorialization that followed, from immediate, unofficial personal memorials to the ten-year effort to plan and build a permanent national monument to honor those who died. It is also the story of the unlikely community that developed through those efforts.

As the country struggled to process the events of September 11, temporary memorials—from wreaths of flowers to personalized T-shirts and flags—appeared along the chain-link fences that lined the perimeter of the crash site. They served as evidence of the residents’ need to pay tribute to the tragedy and of the demand for an official monument. Weaving oral accounts from Shanksville residents and family members of those who died with contemporaneous news reports and records, J. William Thompson traces the creation of the monument and explores the larger narrative of memorialization in America. He recounts the crash and its sobering immediate impact on area residents and the nation, discusses the history of and controversies surrounding efforts to permanently commemorate the event, and relates how locals and grief-stricken family members ultimately bonded with movers and shakers at the federal level to build the Flight 93 National Memorial.

A heartfelt examination of memory, place, and the effects of tragedy on small-town America, this fact-driven account of how the Flight 93 National Memorial came to be is a captivating look at the many ways we strive as communities to forever remember the events that change us.

“Thoughtful and exceptionally well-written.”
“Thompson includes intimate and emotional details of individuals with diverse, and sometimes opposing, perspectives. This, along with Thompson’s skill as a writer, results in engaging literary quality. This significant strength allows Thompson to represent opposing opinions—about the politics raised by various memorialization activities, for instance—without flattening the narrative into a simple debate between local and national interests, partisan politics, or elite and unsophisticated aesthetics.”
“Thompson describes how heroic columns and figures for the final Memorial Plaza were rejected in favor of abstract minimalism, providing insight into human psychology, public controversy, theory of memory, the role of media, and national politics. Should be widely read by the public, scholars, and professionals for its scholarship and sensitive insights into a current issue. Summing Up: Essential.”
“Thompson raises and thoughtfully examines some of the central questions about public memory—and he does so with an example that has been relatively neglected, even seventeen years after the disaster. Therefore, this book makes an engaging and fresh contribution to ongoing discussions of memorialization, in general, as well as with specific regard to the events of September 11th.”
“Can serve as a historic overview of the process of building such a monument, with some useful orientation about the site and area for people who choose to visit the memorial.”
“Weaving factual details with oral histories, Thompson traces the commemoration of United Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, from the bluntly patriotic temporary memorial erected on the site immediately following the crash of the hijacked plane on 9/11 to the sober minimalism of the Flight 93 National Memorial, dedicated in 2011. Engaging, informative, and heartfelt, From Memory to Memorial especially explores how, and why, contemporary Americans make mass tragedies memorable in public space.”
“Bill Thompson’s thorough analysis of the oral histories surrounding the downing of United Flight 93 in Somerset County results in a poignant, compelling, and engrossing account that answers the question: what happens next in an ordinary place where nothing will ever be quite normal again?”
“A smart and moving account of the tragedy of Flight 93 and its effect on the families, the community of Shanksville, and our collective memories of 9/11. Thompson’s book will forever change your understanding of national grief and the memorials we erect to honor our dead.”

J. William Thompson is the former editor of Landscape Architecture magazine and the author of The Rebirth of New York City’s Bryant Park and Sustainable Landscape Construction.


Prologue: A Journey in the Name of Memory

1. The Day the Sky Fell Down

2. It Takes a Village

3. This Harvest of Sorrow

4. If Memories Could Heal

5. In Search of “the One Brilliant Idea”

6. The Many Faces of Memory

7. Memorial, Interrupted

8. The Shanksville Redemption




Chapter 1:

The Day the Sky Fell Down

It was a beautiful morning to be working on the roof. Not a cloud in the sky. When Robyn Blanset drove up to the farmhouse, her father, Ray Stevens, was already up there with his tools out, finishing work around the chimney. Blanset got the stroller out of her car and put her little girl, Twila, in it. Normally, she would give Twila snacks to keep her occupied while she was on the roof, but this morning a black cat wandered out of nowhere.

The black cat was a stray who knew Twila, and it jumped in the stroller with her, giving Robin an opening to climb the scaffold and set to work. Everything went well until Twila started to fuss and wanted out of the stroller. Robin began talking to her from the roof, trying to distract her. Meanwhile, the church bells around Somerset County, Pennsylvania, chimed out 10 in the morning.

They heard its engines roaring before they saw it. Then, coming over the hill, there it was—massive, gleaming, and gorgeous against the bright blue sky. It was so low they could see the windows and the cockpit, and it occurred to Blanset that, if the passengers were looking out, they could see her and her father working on the roof.

For Stevens, an aviation buff who loves to go to airports to watch the big jets take off and land, it was a treat. He was used to seeing small planes and military jets flying over, but he didn’t get to see a big jetliner that low over their little Pennsylvania valley.

“Twila, look at the pretty plane,” * called Blanset, and Twila stopped fussing. But the big airliner had already disappeared over the next hill. By that time Blanset and Stevens had finished the task at hand and needed a part or two. So Blanset climbed down, put Twila in the car, and set off to a store in nearby Hooversville.

Neither Blanset nor Stevens had turned on the TV or radio that morning. If they had, they would have been mesmerized, like anyone in Somerset County who was near a TV set after 9 AM, by the spectacle of terrorists flying planes into buildings in New York City.

At the Somerset Barracks of the Pennsylvania State Police, Sergeant Patrick Madigan and Lt Robert Weaver, like so many in the county that morning, were watching the collapse of the Twin Towers.

“Well,” sighed Madigan, “at least there are no terrorist targets in Somerset County.”

Terry Butler was taking a radiator out of a junked car at Stoystown Auto Wreckers when someone called him on his walkie-talkie to say that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Butler went down to the waiting room where there was a TV and watched until the second plane hit. When he went back out to the yard, he heard that the Pentagon had been hit. It wasn’t long after that that he heard the plane, but he was looking in the wrong direction.

When he turned around, right there it was, coming above the treetops and flying wobbly. Butler was from the boonies and had never seen anything like this. The big airliner was coming in just a few hundred feet off the ground, then it swung over to the right. Butler lost sight of it behind the trees. He thought it would pull up. It didn’t.

Linda Shepley was going out to hang clothes on the line when she heard a sound like a truck going over a bridge. Then she looked over her left shoulder, and there it was, close enough to see the big engines on the wings. She was used to seeing small planes coming in to the county airport, but she knew the airport couldn’t take a plane of that size. And the wings were wobbling—something was terribly wrong. Should she call someone? She watched it as it descended toward Buckstown—or was it going toward Lambertsville, where her son, Michael, worked at the Rollock scrap yard?

Then all of a sudden the right wing dipped, the plane took a nosedive, and Shepley started screaming for her husband, Jim, to call 911.

At the Rollock scrap yard work had started like any other day. Timothy Lensbouer was operating his crane when he heard over the radio that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. Just before 10 he shut his crane off and went into the lower building to get some parts. When he was coming back up with the parts, Tim stopped in at the office to find his wife, Nena, with the crock pot she always brought so the scrap workers would have a hot lunch. Chris Cordell, the owner’s brother, who was there watching a little portable TV, said that the Pentagon had also been hit and that they’d shut all the airports down.

He no sooner said that—exactly at 10:03 AM—than they heard a huge screaming noise, like a missile in some TV show. Then the office went dark, as if a giant shadow had passed over, and they heard something like what an atomic bomb would sound like going off next door. The building shook. Chris jumped up from his chair and he and Tim started toward the door, thinking their liquid oxygen tank had exploded.

When they threw open the door all they could see was a column of fire down the hill that billowed more than three hundred feet in the air. A cloud of black smoke enveloped the scrap yard and everything around it. As they ran out into the yard the scrap cutters, Michael Shepley and Lee Purbaugh, were running toward them, both terrified. They had been outdoors and had seen the thing scream over their heads— so sudden they’d barely had time to duck— and nosedive into the earth. They were the only ones who saw it hit.

“Call 911!” Purbaugh was hollering. The plane, he said, was “one of those great big [expletives] like hit the Pentagon and the Towers this morning.”

The company phones were out, but Cheryl, the secretary, was able to get through on her cell phone. By this time Nena Lensbouer was running alongside her husband and the Rollock crew downhill across the trenchy ground scattered with rocks and debris. If a plane crashed, thought Nena, a former firefighter, there has to be someone down there that needs help. It seemed to take forever to get down to the crash site, even though it was only two hundred yards away. The 911 control center wouldn’t let them hang up.

What do you see? they kept asking. Tell us what you see!

“Well, the trees are on fire. We see smoke from the ground. There’s some debris hanging, like papers and stuff.”

What about the plane?

“We don’t see no plane.”

There has to be a plane!

But there wasn’t one— Just a big hole in the ground that was on fire. They walked right up to the hole and looked down in it. Nothing. They hollered and screamed, but no one answered. They ran into the nearby woods, which were burning too, looking for survivors. There they found lots of scrap metal and debris, and lots and lots of paper, but no people – not even a body.

Two and a half miles away in the village of Shanksville, assistant fire chief Rick King was talking on the phone with his sister in Lambertsville. She said she heard a plane, but King pooh-poohed it.

<insert map 2 around here>

“No Rick, it’s really loud. It sounds like a big jet.” Phone in hand, Rick walked out on the front porch.

“Oh my God, Jody, I hear it too,” he said. Then there was a whining, screaming noise and, seconds later, the porch shook under Rick’s feet. Like everyone else in Shanksville, he was used to hearing explosions from the mining operations, but this was way beyond that.

King didn’t remember putting down the phone. He didn’t remember if he closed the front door. He started running up through the yards to the fire hall. When he was halfway there the fire siren went off—someone had already called 911. Rick and three others who’d answered the call piled into a fire truck and screamed off down the bumpy Lambertsville Road, just a few short miles through the woods and farms, not knowing where the plane hit, just following where it looked like the smoke was coming from. Thoughts of a commercial airliner with two or three hundred passengers, of fires and people trapped in a fuselage, kept racing through his head. His mouth was so dry he couldn’t swallow.

“Get ready, guys,” he said. “This is like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”

At that very moment two other firemen from nearby Stoystown, Norbert Rosenbaum and his son Mike, were also racing to the scene, their sirens wailing. They left the highway and drove up a big hill locals called Skyline Drive, where they came upon a man on a motorcycle who yelled, “Go down this dirt road!” When Rosenbaum got down the hill that had once been an open-pit coal mine, his fire chief was already there in his pickup truck and waved him on across all the debris straight to the fire. They put the pumper in gear and started pumping.

Other responders were converging on the scene—first three Pennsylvania state policemen who happened to be patrolling in the area, the county ambulance, and the EMS. From then on it seemed that every fifteen minutes somebody with a little more authority showed up, and soon the place was swarming with fire, police, and accident personnel. Three dozen FBI from nearby Johnstown were on the scene almost immediately. Almost as quickly, legions of curiosity seekers and souvenir hunters showed up. Rick King said they should perform a search and rescue operation.

“I don’t think you’re going to be rescuing nobody,” said Norbert.

It didn’t take long for paramedic Christian Boyd to come to the same conclusion. He had raced to the site in the county ambulance from Stoystown, put on his rescue gear, and prepared to do a triage assessment—determine who was walking wounded, who had a pulse, who was breathing, who wasn’t. He walked around seemingly forever and didn’t see anybody. As he looked closer he thought he could see the path the plane traveled from the treetops that were sheared off. With Norbert and Mike he searched back in the woods— even though the power lines were snapping and jumping around where one wing of the plane had sliced through them.

Along with the smell of jet fuel, which was overwhelming, there was another smell. Mike didn’t recognize it, but Norbert, who’d been to Vietnam, did: human flesh that was burnt. Now Christian began to see scattered bits of human tissue throughout the woods, such as a bunch of skin that looked like something had yanked it off from the shoulder to the wrist and rolled it up in a ball. Then he looked up in the trees, and saw that chunks of flesh had been catapulted up there.

There was a lot of scrap metal, but most of it you could have put in your pocket—until Norbert saw a piece the size of a car hood about 30 feet up in a tree. Among all the other debris, he and Mike found a lot of money scattered in the woods—Norbert picked up about $360 in twenty dollar bills. When they came out of the woods there were state troopers everywhere. Norbert walked up to one of them and handed him the wad of money. Meanwhile, dozens of souvenir hunters had converged on the site and were stuffing objects in their shirts.

Christian came upon a Bible that was burning diagonally from the corner. He didn’t know how to handle it, wondering if there were some rule about this that he hadn’t learned in Sunday school, so he called Mike, a devout Catholic, over. “Oh man, that’s not good,” said Mike, and he patted the edge of it with his hand until it went out. “I guess that’s all you have to do.”

When word spread about the Bible, many would see its survival amid the firestorm as a sign from God.

Mike Sube with the county fire department’s HAZMAT truck was still searching the woods. It was eerily quiet. He made his way to a small pond and finally saw large pieces of wreckage, a portion of the landing gear with one tire still attached and a piece of the fuselage with a few windows in place.

Roger Bailey, also with the county fire department, walked down through the debris field. He saw pieces of fiberglass, pop rivets, and mail scattered everywhere. He estimated 5,000 pieces, most of it, seemingly, from Blue Cross and Blue Shield. A piece of foam rubber from a seat cushion, hardly even burnt, lay near the crater. A man searching with them almost stepped on a piece of human remains and turned woozy. Roger excused him from the search.

Louis Veitz, an accident reconstruction specialist, first wondered, Where the hell did it go? Where do you stick an airplane of that size? But as he studied the rest of the site, he found it everywhere. When he climbed a knoll and studied the impact area, at first it seemed just a big hole in the ground, but he’d been in aircraft simulators and knew something about planes. The more he looked, the more he could see the outline of the airliner – where a wing went in, where an engine hit, where the rudder had dug into the ground as it went in. Just by looking at the scorched area off the side, he could tell the 757 was rolling as it came in.

As reporter Jon Meyer was leaving for work at WJAC-TV in Johnstown, he was feeling good because he and his family were safe from the terrorist attacks in places like New York because they lived in rural Pennsylvania. So it was really strange that when he walked in the door of the TV station, he got a call that a big plane had crashed near Shanksville, just down the highway. He and photographer J.D. Kirkpatrick jumped in a van and sped the 20 miles to the site. On the way Jon was conjuring up mental pictures of a broken-up fuselage and maybe survivors coming out of it. He was going to have to help them first and then cover the story. The more he thought about it, the more he didn’t know if he was ready for what he was going to see.

They drove up Skyline Drive, following the emergency crews. They stopped at the top of the hill, and Jon got out of the van and started running. He couldn’t see anything except a large field down below where something was smoking and emergency crews were gathering, so he ran as fast as he could toward that. He ran right up to the crater, but there was nothing he could identify as an airplane, except this incredibly strong smell of jet fuel. He climbed up on a mound that overlooked the crater and got out his little notebook and started frantically taking notes. This was a big story, and he needed to capture everything he saw. His adrenaline was pumping so hard he was afraid he wouldn’t remember it all.

The next thing he knew he was surrounded by firefighters and police telling him to get out of there. They pushed him back to the first media barricade about 150 yards away. When he looked at his notebook, almost every word he’d written was illegible.

Photojournalist Sean Stipp got the call shortly after 10 AM from his dispatcher at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He jumped in his car and raced the eighty miles down U.S. 30, following a caravan of police cars to the site, turned left into the scrap yard and walked down toward the smoking crash site. He was stopping to shoot pictures every twenty or thirty feet until a fireman stopped him.

But even though there were no compelling images—people standing around a smoking hole wasn’t exactly the same as planes flying into the twin towers— Sean could sense that a mammoth event had happened here and feared that the attacks weren’t over. He wasn’t the only one who feared that an all-out attack on the United States was under way.

County coroner Wally Miller drove around Skyline Drive past cars parked on both sides of the road. Like so many other first responders, he didn’t think he was prepared for an event of this magnitude. He’d been watching TV with his father, the retired coroner, that morning. When they saw the Twin Towers collapsing his father said, “How’d you like to be the coroner in New York City now?” Now the same calamity had struck the heart of their own rural county, and Miller was on his way to deal with it as best he could.

A tall, lanky, self-effacing man who, some thought, resembled a clean-shaven Abe Lincoln, he’d grown up with death, both in running the family funeral home and in serving as elected coroner. Still, in his entire career, he’d only handled two homicides: a domestic murder-suicide and the case of a woman who killed her husband after he refused to take her rattlesnake hunting.

As he drove toward the crash site, a more troubling question was: How many bodies was he going to find? He just drove by cars parked on either side of the road—hundreds and hundreds of people, many of them curiosity seekers, were already there—and parked his dark Ford Excursion as near the crash site as he could. As he approached the firemen he asked, “Have you seen any human remains?” Some said they had, but Miller walked the site for an hour before he saw the first recognizable body part, a piece of spinal cord with five vertebrae attached. As one firefighter put it, you knew there were people there, but you couldn’t see them. More than that: Miller sensed a vacuum, the departed energy of people who got snatched out their bodies really quickly. It quickly dawned on him that he wasn’t going to be a coroner here in the sense of dealing with intact corpses. He was dealing with a huge cemetery of vaporized remains.

Things were getting unbelievably strange, he thought, like a dream or something. He couldn’t believe this was happening here.

The first thing Robyn Blanset heard when she walked into the store in Hooversville was people talking about a plane that crashed over by Shanksville. Had anyone seen it?

“Was it a real big airliner?” asked Robyn. “I saw that flying over my house.”

“Well, it might be related to what happened in New York.”

“What happened in New York?” When they told her, Robyn left the store without buying anything. She drove back to where her father was, still up on the roof. “Come down, I need to talk to you,” she said, knowing the news would hit him pretty hard.

“What is it? You come on up,” he said.

“No, l want you to come down. You know that beautiful plane we saw? It crashed.” When she added what she knew about the Towers, they packed up their tools and collected Twila. That was the last work they accomplished that day.

As Shanksville Pastor Robert Way drove to Skyline Drive he was stopped by a policeman who was directing everyone out of the area. But when the officer saw his clerical collar, he said, “Pastor, would you mind going down to the crash site? They’re asking for ministers to come into the area to give last rites.”

Pastor Way wasn’t relishing walking into that scene—“carnage” popped to mind—but that’s what he’d been called to do, so he found a place to park. He immediately saw two ladies from a Buckstown church – two of the many curiosity seekers who’d immediately gravitated to the site. Could they please go in with him to the crash site? “I’m pretty sure it’s something you ladies are not going to want to see,” said Pastor Way. It turned out to be a moot point, because as he started down that road, he met a truckload of Shanksville men who told him just to turn around, that the FBI had declared the area a crime scene. So Pastor Way drove back to Shanksville and, just to do something that seemed normal, he walked down to the post office to get the mail. While walking he noticed knots of kids standing around, in particular a group in front of Ida’s Country Store.

“Is this World War III?” asked one of the kids, and another: “Are we going to die now?” Pastor tried to reassure them that, while the attacks in New York and Washington were indeed deliberate, the Flight 93 crash had to be an accident—there would have been no reason for anyone to crash into that field on purpose. That seemed to make sense to the kids, but Pastor Way sensed that this was the beginning of the end of life as they’d known it in their sheltered village.

At Stoystown Auto Wreckers, Terry Butler, who had seen the plane go down and had heard the explosion as it hit, went home to compose himself. After a couple of hours he made the mistake of coming back to the wrecking yard to find the news media lined up along the highway. First was WJAC from Johnstown, who interviewed him right there in the yard. Later came CNN and others—Butler lost track of all of them. Being interviewed was disorienting, with the newscasters bunched around, and Butler having to stand there and answer questions with those big mikes pointing in his face.

Jason Fedok watched coroner Wally Miller walking the crash site. An expert in accident survivability with the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, D.C., Fedok knew something about country coroners from his accident work: that they had no budget, no staff, no resources. As he watched Miller he couldn’t help thinking, “He’s in over his head. He just never experienced anything like this and the poor guy’s going to be on the tip of the spear until this is over.”

Fedok was right that Miller had always been a one-man band as county coroner and, as such, had zero experience in leading a disaster team or delegating authority. But he did know people across the state who were in the funeral business, and he liked to work with people he knew. He called his friend, the coroner from nearby Cambria County, and told him to get there as soon as possible. And a forensic anthropologist from up in Erie he’d worked with who had experience with plane crashes and fragmented remains. Then a funeral director from Pittsburgh just showed up, and Miller let him stay because he had connections with the Disaster Mortuary Response Team (DMORT) down in Washington, D.C. DMORT was essential because they had the sophisticated mobile equipment to deal with mass casualties and identify fragmented human remains. But others were clamoring to get involved, especially those who had had experience with the Flight 427 disaster in 1994 outside Pittsburgh, and Miller asked his father to take their calls and tell people if he needed them, he’d call them back.

With his tiny team of colleagues and his cousin Mark, a purchasing agent at Somerset Hospital, Miller set out to deal with the huge catastrophe in front of him. He knew that he was ultimately responsible for a lot of what went on here, because if there’s a deceased person on the scene in Somerset County, it’s his scene. He didn’t know how much control he was going to have over how it all went—for the time being the FBI was in charge of the site as a crime scene— but he knew he’d be held responsible if it didn’t go right. He was only too well aware that the county coroner outside Pittsburgh still had lawsuits pending against him seven years after the Flight 427 disaster because of mix-ups with remains and other issues.

“Well, this is it,” Miller said to his cousin Mark. “My career is on the line, one way or the other. We’re either going to see this through to a satisfactory—.” He didn’t finish the sentence, but he thought, “If it doesn’t go right, I used to be a bartender. I guess I can go back to doing that.”

In the early afternoon Miller was called to make a media statement. He was ushered into a big car with smoked-glass windows and driven over to the media village, where the journalists were camped out and where they now circled in for a feeding frenzy. Two big tables were covered with microphones, and the journalists were five deep and each one had a tape recorder. Miller was terrified. He had always been rattled by the mere thought of speaking in public. The only time he’d been on TV was the time he has to make a statement about the two boys who climbed into a closet and the place caught on fire and they died of smoke inhalation. Now he looked over at Colonel Paul Evanko of the state police and said, “What do they want me to say? We’ve only been here two hours. We don’t know what’s going on.”

“Just tell them what you know and be honest,” said Evanko, so Miller just relayed the bare facts he knew and thought that would be the end of it. As he walked away from the tables, however, a woman from The New York Times got to Miller, and he tried to sum up his impressions of the crash site. “If you walked around down at the crash site, you would have thought there wasn’t anybody on the plane.” The Times reporter wound up writing a feature article on Miller, and the quote about nobody being on the plane would come back to haunt him.

“At that time, I was not media savvy,” Miller would reflect later. “Not that I am now.”

That afternoon Miller and his cousin Mark set out to find x-ray and other equipment and a temporary morgue to deal with the human remains they found, in case DMORT took a while in sending a mobile unit or, worst case, was stretched too thin at Ground Zero and the Pentagon to come at all. Miller found a venue for his temporary morgue at the National Guard armory but, when he came back to the crash site about nine that night, an FBI agent yelled at him, “Where were you? You missed the six o’clock press briefing.” Miller had thought he’d give one briefing that day and that was it, but it turned out that he was going to be meeting the press three times a day for at least the next month and, for a year and a half after that, he’d often take 20 calls a day from as far away as Russia. The “hick coroner,” as he sometimes called himself, had become the unlikely focus of world attention.

Almost constant phone calls filled the first day at the site for law enforcement officials. Back at

the Somerset barracks, Corporal Link was manning the phones and took a call from a woman who said, “There’s a woman about 150 yards in front of the impact site where the plane went down. She’s alive and she needs help!”

“How do you know that?”

“Well, I can hear her.”

“Do you live out near the crash site?”

“No, I can just hear her yelling.”

“Were you driving by? Did you stop to help?”

“No, no. I’m a psychic. I’m calling from California.”

Photographer Sean Stipp’s biggest impression throughout the day was of people’s faces. One reporter, Rick Earl from Channel 11 News in Pittsburgh, had been a kind of role model for the young photographer. Sean was used to seeing Rick at major warehouse fires and the like, and such events seemed just a day’s work for the veteran journalist. But today, Rick Earle’s face was pale, almost translucent. He wasn’t talkative; he wasn’t joking. And seeing faces like Rick’s, it came home to Sean that American society, which he’d always thought so steadfast, so enduring, could really be cracked open to its core. By the end of that day at the crash site, he already had an inkling of why memorials are built and why veterans take their holidays so seriously.

Families were devastated all across America that day as the news filtered out. For Lori Guadagno, the day began in her special needs classroom in Vermont, when another teacher came in to tell her that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. Lori joined a group of students and teachers around the TV in the school library watching the first tower fall and remembering that her brother, Richard Guadagno, had an early morning flight out of Newark. He must be on the tarmac at right now, she thought, seeing this right out his window.

Richard hated flying. Always had. “With my luck, I’ll probably go down in a plane,” he had once said. Such fatalistic nonsense drove Lori crazy.

Then the newscaster said something that made her hair stand on end: A plane from Newark to San Francisco was unaccounted for. Lori frantically called her family in New Jersey. Her father answered. “It doesn’t look good, Lor,” he said. “I don’t know. It just doesn’t look good.”

Lori didn’t know how she got out of the school, how she got in her car and got home. She was racking her brain for someone to call who could get definitive information and thought of her cousin Lisa in Florida, whose godfather is John Glenn. “Find the passenger list,” Lori said when she finally got through to Lisa. “Call whoever you have to call in Washington. Just call.” Then Lori turned on the TV and watched in horror at a smoking hole in the Pennsylvania countryside and no sign of any of the passengers. But then she thought, “I know Richard. He’s so resourceful. He’s so fit. He knows so many survival skills. He’ll make it out.” And she stared at the trees behind the crater, half expecting Richard to come walking out any minute.

Then Lisa called back. She told Lori to sit down. “I have to tell you that Richard was on that plane,” she said. “It really was Richard. I’m so sorry.”

The rest of the day was mostly a blur. Getting her boyfriend to come home so he could drive her to her family in New Jersey while she cried nonstop. Driving down the empty New York State Thruway and seeing signs saying “New York City is closed.” And finally reaching her parents’ house and realizing that that morning, Richard had sat at their table and had breakfast. This can’t be happening to my family, Lori told herself. We’re boring! And watching the TV and seeing the names going down, and the smoking hole again, and thinking they would all die of sadness because how could her family go on without Richard?

Erich Bay and his wife Lorraine, a stewardess for United, had risen very early that morning. At 4:30 Erich walked into the bathroom where Lorraine was doing her hair and said good morning. “You know, sweetheart, I don’t feel so good at all,” Lorraine said. “I have a backache. And I have a terrible stomachache. I feel like calling in sick.”

But she decided to fly anyway. At five o’clock she came in the other bathroom where Erich was shaving. She squeezed his cheek and kissed him. “Goodbye, sweetheart,” she said. When she got back the next day, they were going to their favorite watering hole to celebrate his birthday.

Bay got to his office in Union, New Jersey, at about 6:30 and started working on the payroll. At 8:30 an employee came in and said a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center. Bay didn’t think much about it until the second plane hit. After that he got so nervous he couldn’t add one and one. Lorraine had been supposed to take off at seven, so he asked Marc, his nephew, to go to the United Airlines website and get current flight status. But Marc came back and said, “Look, they shut down the website. You better go home.”

Bay got in his car with a huge sense of foreboding. Under the blotter in his home office Lorraine always left her flight information, and that would tell the tale. Until he lifted that blotter, there was a ray of hope. On the way home Bay stopped for gas, just to make the trip last longer. When he came in sight of his house, the whole neighborhood was in his front yard waiting for him.

In Denver, Sandra Dahl, wife of Flight 93 pilot Jason Dahl, was packing for a trip to a cabin in the Rockies when Dan Hatlestad, a neighbor, called. “Sandy, where is Jason?” he asked. “I mean, where is he right now?”

“He was in Newark last night and by now he’s on his way to San Francisco,” she said. “What’s going on, Dan?” He told her to turn on the television, and as she watched in disbelief as one airliner slammed into the World Trade Center, then another. The second plane was from her airline, United. These are my people, she thought. This can’t be happening. Then Dan called back and told her to look up Jason’s status on the computer. As a flight attendant with United, Sandra was allowed to get into the company system. There she saw something that really scared her: Jason’s line was blocked. That only happened when there was a crash.

Then she remembered that her own computer had recorded what flight he was on: Flight 93. Still, she wasn’t worried about Jason, even when the newscaster said that another plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. Jason would be well past Pennsylvania by now. (She had no way of knowing how long he’d sat on the runway that morning.) But then the images of the crash site appeared on the screen, a big, black, burning hole, and where was the airplane? She’d studied crashes as part of her job, but she’d never seen a black hole, ever.

Now the media were speculating that the Pennsylvania crash was Flight 93, because all the other flights had been grounded or accounted for. She began softly wailing. Then she remembered Jason’s teenage son, Matt. She wanted to take him out of school before he heard anything. She called Matt’s mother to say she’d pick him up because she was closer, but Matt’s mother said no, she’d get him. As soon as she’d hung up Matt called—he had already watched TV with this class. “Where’s Dad?” he said.

“I don’t know exactly, Matt.”

“What’s his flight number?”

“I don’t know exactly, Matt.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Well, I looked it up and it might be Flight 93,” she said, and Matt started crying. Sandra went on, “Matt, that scene doesn’t look right to me. I’ve never seen a crash site where there’s no airplane. You know your dad’s a good pilot. They could have crash landed. We don’t know for sure.” Matt was still crying, so she told him to go to the office and wait for his mother. Then Sandra tried to call someone at United, but she misdialed and got a dial-a-porn line instead. But even after dialing properly, she couldn’t get through to anyone at United, so she was stuck with watching television—the black burning hole—and now they were confirming that it was Flight 93.

Sandra started to cry but then went into shock and just stared at the television. Soon people started coming over to the house and talking about the crash and crying and hugging her, and she wanted to get away from that. So she walked around the side of the house and sat on the hood of her car as the house filled up. Then she someone told her she had a call from Tim Adams at United’s Denver flight office.

“Sandy,” he said, swallowing hard when she picked up the phone, “I have to tell you bad news.”

“Is it—is it for sure?”

“It’s for sure.”

“Now Tim, nobody’s actually been out there yet. There’s just some helicopters flying over.”

“We know for sure, Sandy,” he said.

She got off the phone and told everyone in the house that it was official that Jason had died in the crash. Then she walked out the front door and around the side of the house, sat on the hood of the car, and just stared and stared.

Early in the morning in suburban San Diego, Deborah Borza was still at home watching news of the terrorist attacks, but wasn’t worried because her daughter, Deora Bodley, a junior at Santa Clara University in California, was scheduled to take a later flight from Newark. It wasn’t until she was in her office that Allie, one of Deora’s friends from New Jersey had called to say Deora had been on standby for Flight 93. Allie had dropped her off at the Newark airport in time to make the flight. Now Deborah’s only hope was that Deora had been stranded at the airport when all the planes were grounded.

“Allie, do me a big favor, honey,” said Deborah. “See if you can get back to the airport and see if she’s waiting, you know, at the terminal.”

Allie called back in an hour to say security wouldn’t let her near the airport. Deborah started to panic. Co-workers told her to go home, but she didn’t want to go back to her empty house. Human resources brought in a trauma person who told her what to do in case the worst turned out to be true. She crossed the street to Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church, where several others were praying for the country and the victims of the terrorist attacks. Deborah joined them near the altar.

God, you are the only one right now that knows where she is, she prayed. Tell me where she is. And she heard that quiet little voice she could always count on, the voice that was always with her. She’s with me, it said.

Deborah said a short prayer to the Virgin Mary and her cell phone rang. It was a woman at United Airlines, who probably had the hardest job in the country that day, breaking the unequivocal news.

Deborah dropped the phone and screamed.

People in the church hurried over. One woman asked if she’d like some water. Another offered a rosary. The priest led them in prayer, which suddenly seemed to Deborah like a lot of malarkey. She called Derrill Bodley, her ex-husband, Deora’s father. When Deborah reached him he was on the road. “You’ve got to pull over,” she said. When she told him the news he began yelling, “No!” into the phone, and then, “I’ve got to go. I’ve got to go.”

That evening in Somerset County, the TV began broadcasting news about the airliner. There had been forty passengers and crew on board. Good luck, if you could call it that, that the flight hadn’t been full. At 8:30 PM President George W. Bush appeared on television to reassure a traumatized nation. “None of us will ever forget this day,” he said. “Yet we will go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”

First responder Norbert Rosenbaum was back at home in Stoystown. The full impact of what he’d witnessed really hadn’t sunk in. Sure, he’d seen stuff like that in Vietnam, but he never expected to see it in Somerset County. It finally hit him around ten o’clock that night. He just couldn’t move. Paralyzed. Norbert’s wife called her sister, a registered nurse, who said he was in shock.

Night fell on the crash site. As a dense fog rolled in, high intensity floodlights were set to beam on the crash site. State troopers maintained a perimeter every 150 feet. No one could enter unauthorized. FBI agents were flooding in from all over the Eastern states. There were more than 100 state troopers, including many who had been called in from low-lying parts of the state and weren’t prepared for the cold night at almost 3,000 feet. To get them through it, local people began to bring in warm clothing and firewood. It seemed they couldn’t do enough.

Terry Butler, the auto wrecker, was one of those bringing supplies. He drove up to the dark perimeter as the fog was rolling in with a load of paper towels and bottled water that he had bought with his own money. It seemed the least he could do. Butler didn’t know that he, like many empathetic people in the county, would still be carrying the weight of the crash on his shoulders for years to come.

For Jean Croyle, a local freelance writer who also brought in supplies, the darkened crash site was downright scary. Suddenly this American heartland was vulnerable to something people had never seen before. Onlookers were willing to put an arm around one another and walk up to the perimeter. They stood there and wondered what those people on the plane had felt—how awful it must have been to know that it was all going to end here, in such an unknown place. In such a dark and fruitless field.

Wally Miller didn’t leave for home until three in the morning. His wife, Arlene, was with him. When she learned he was at the crash site, she had rushed home to bake cookies to take to him, because Miller, by his own admission, had some pretty strange eating habits. He’d been a vegetarian for twenty years, so he couldn’t eat much of the food, such as hamburgers, that were hurriedly brought in for the first responders. So Arlene brought cookies to they site, and the troopers stopped her at the checkpoint and asked for official identification. She didn’t have any, but she said, “I’m the coroner’s wife. Do you want a cookie?” And they let her in.

She and Miller didn’t talk much on the drive home because Miller was on the phone pretty much the entire time, and Arlene thought he had that deer-in-the-headlights look all the way. She and Miller decided to spend the night in of one of their two funeral homes because it was closer to the crash site and they knew they’d have to head back early the next morning.

Arlene and Miller had only been married three years, but Arlene felt that they were already about as close as two human beings could be. She didn’t know too many people who could say with confidence that their marriage was unbreakable, absolutely permanent, but theirs was. She and Miller improvised a bed in the smoking lounge of the funeral home, and it turned out that this was to be their bedroom for months and months as he worked out at the site.

Before going to bed Arlene and Miller unloaded his pockets, which were full of cards and notes and phone numbers. Both their heads were totally spinning, and when Miller lay down the events of the day seemed to pursue him into his sleep, because Arlene heard him mumbling, “Oh, Ar. Oh, Ar.” That was what he called her—“Ar”— for short. “Oh, Ar. Oh, Ar,” he kept mumbling, all night long.