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Charles Sport, 17, left, and Lyric Holt, 15, junior ROTC students from Philadelphia, visited the site where Flight 93 crashed as passengers fought hijackers for control of the plane.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Road from 9/11: Serenity lost in Shanksville, Pa.

  • Article by: CURT BROWN
  • Star Tribune
  • September 9, 2011 - 4:27 PM

STOYSTOWN, PA. -- Ralph Blanset, 83, sits on his tractor, pulling a watering contraption to his hillside garden of 120 tomato plants, including his prized softball-size pineapple heirlooms.

His son-in-law, Calvin Maluchnick, swings by to pick him up for a family dinner. But first, they reminisce.

"Right here is where she went over," says Maluchnick, 55, a retired cop in Stoystown, population 385. "It was going so fast, all I caught was the tail. It was flying way too low and I told Ralph: If he doesn't elevate and get his nose up. ... Then we heard the boom and seen the smoke about three seconds later."

Just that fast, history scarred this sleepy corner of Pennsylvania, forever linking it to one of the nation's most gut-wrenching chapters: This is where a passenger rebellion prompted 9/11 hijackers to flip United Flight 93 upside down and plow into a remote coal-mining area lined with hemlock trees.

Ever since, people here have yearned for the tranquility they lost that day -- a longing mirrored across the country by Americans nostalgic for life on Sept. 10, 2001. But there's no going back.

Known as the Laurel Highlands, this stretch of the Allegheny Mountains has served as a retreat from East Coast intensity. Residents slip into a more relaxed life in the rolling hills and quaint towns of Shanksville, Stoystown, Indian Lake and Lambertsville. Everyone is on a first-name basis. No one came here looking for international media attention.

"From that day on, it's been traffic and bus tours and 25 years of peace and quiet are gone," says Valencia McClatchey, who lives nearby. "Now, it's just different."

'There was nothing'

Ralph was writing out a check for Calvin to take to their garbage haulers when United Flight 93 roared over the tomatoes on Sept. 11, 2001.

They had watched on television as planes tore through the twin towers and crashed into the Pentagon. It had seemed so far away.

Blanset's fire whistle sounded. The third-generation plasterer, hardware store owner and chief of Stoystown's volunteer fire department zoomed to the crash scene in his specially equipped pickup with his son-in-law. They were stupefied by what they found.

"We were looking for a plane wreck, but when we got there all we saw was a crater, a hole in the ground 30 feet deep," Blanset says. "It looked like a garbage dump. There was nothing there, nothing to do."

He took out a hose and shot some water in the hole.

One smoldering wheel from the jet was the only hint that a Boeing 757 had disintegrated. Bodies of the five flight attendants, two pilots, four hijackers and 33 passengers -- including Tom Burnett Jr. of Bloomington -- were consumed by the fireball. Five vertebrae would be the most recognizable human remains ever found.

Pretty soon, "dust started flying" as state troopers and federal agents descended, Blanset says. Someone put up yellow police tape, saying it was a crime scene.

"In 10 years, we'd only had one vehicle stolen around here," says Maluchnick, a police officer for 25 years.

No one knows exactly where Flight 93 was headed after hijackers wrested control over Cleveland and turned the jet around. It crashed going 580 mph, only 20 minutes by air from Washington, D.C. Some believe it was intended to hit the White House or the U.S. Capitol.

'End of serenity'

McClatchey is president of the Keystone Camaro Club, so she usually has her Hewlett-Packard 315 point-and-shoot camera handy for car shows. It was sitting on her coffee table at 10:05 a.m. that morning 10 years ago, as she watched the "Today Show" at her house on Indian Lake, a filled-in strip mine.

"Then I heard a surge of an engine and, man, was it loud," she says.

The explosion a couple miles west nearly knocked her off the couch. She instinctively stepped out on the porch and took one shot of a massive plume of gray smoke filling the sky next to her neighbor's red barn. Then she dropped the camera and the battery fell out.

Her photo instantly popped up in newspapers, websites and magazines around the world. She hired a lawyer to copyright her image, which she titled "End of Serenity."

"Another blink of an eye and it would have hit the Shanksville school and all those kids would be gone," she says. "After a while, it gets overwhelming just to think about it."

Ten years later, as grandchildren play in the driveway and an American flag flutters on her porch, McClatchey says she's had enough. She's trying to sell her acre on Indian Lake after 25 years. It's not going well. With the economy sputtering, McClatchey says the market "stinks."

Her famous photo, which sells for $20 at a nearby general store, "has been a blessing and a curse," she says.

Conspiracy theorists hound her on the Internet and even come to her door, claiming she faked the shot. She's burned through five lawyers, trying to protect her copyright. The FBI confiscated her camera immediately and she had to leap through all kinds of hoops to get it back. She keeps the memory card in a safe deposit box.

'Never forget'

Tiny Shanksville, population 219, is the name most often associated with the crash of Flight 93 in a field less than 2 miles to the north.

The town boasts two homespun memorials. There's a sculpture in front of the school of a tree with 22 flame-shaped leaves pointing to the heavens, etched with handprints of students, teachers and janitors alike. Next to the volunteer fire department, there's a cross fashioned from World Trade Center steel beams with a 9 11 01 in the center and an American flag draped behind it. The inscription says simply: Never forget: We honor those who saw their untimely fate before them and chose to defeat evil to ensure America's freedom.

At the actual crash site, efforts to memorialize Flight 93 have been anything but simple.

Over a few twisting roads, through tall trees, the temporary Flight 93 National Memorial Site is housed in a rusty tin mining shack the FBI used for its investigation for months after 9/11.

The 2,700-foot hillside, over which Flight 93 roared, is one of the highest points in Pennsylvania. Dozens of energy-harnessing windmills sprouted on a nearby ridge three autumns ago. The growl of earth-moving machines, preparing a circular road for the eventual permanent visitors center, interrupts the pristine quiet. A fence laced with flags, ribbons and handwritten notes keeps the public away from the zig-zagging memorial wall, built along the path of the doomed flight and engraved with the 40 victims' names. Family members will be the first allowed access when the memorial is dedicated on Sept. 10.

Some, including Tom Burnett Sr., have complained that the memorial's design honors Islam with its crescent shape facing Mecca. Donnie Zeigler, a National Park Service ranger in a crisp green uniform, calmly explains the road that will ring the area is circular and faces southwest.

Zeigler was a 13-year-old in math class on Sept. 11, 2001. He's now 23, and the memorial is the only place he ever wanted to work. His fellow park ranger Brendan Wilson was a 23-year-old law clerk in lower Manhattan on 9/11.

They tell visitors -- retirees, families, school groups, motorcycle riders -- the Flight 93 story day in and day out, recounting the tragedy in stark numbers. The plane was only about 20 percent filled, with 33 passengers instead of a potential 183. Flying to San Francisco, it took off 20 minutes late because of traffic at Newark airport in New Jersey -- just four minutes before the North Tower was hit. A few more minutes of delay and it might have been grounded. Had it taken off on time, though, there might not have been time for passengers to learn, via phone calls home, about the other hijackings and rush the cockpit.

"This isn't a park that people stumble upon," Wilson says. "They come for a reason, and a lot of people say they feel they need to be here."

The rangers say they spend as much time listening as they do reciting facts. Every day, they meet people from around the world, still sorting out that day's legacy.

"People come and want to tell what their experiences were on 9/11 and what memories they have," Wilson says. "This has become kind of a place to share. They are moved by this place. Some are very quiet. Some are emotional. It's a very deep and powerful place for them."

Zeigler recommends going to www.wikipedia.org to listen to flight attendant CeeCee Lyles' frantic message home. "I quit clicking on the site," he confesses, "because I cry every time I listen to her voice mail."

Floridians George and Jean Koch, married for 64 years, stop on their way to visit great-grandchildren in upstate New York. They gaze down at the new memorial wall and the field where the crash crater has been filled in. Wild purple vetch grows there now.

"I'm afraid people have become blasé about what happened here," says George, 83, a retired electrician. "Right after it happened, the patriotism was so strong. It reminded me of World War II. But now, you don't see the flags up anymore."

Don Wojtowich, a special agent with the Pennsylvania attorney general, stops by on his motorcycle. He estimates he's visited the site at least 20 times.

"It's history now, and in America, after a year or two, we forget," he says. "Not until it happens again -- and that's a when and a where, not an if -- will the patriotism and the unity come back. But now it's just history."

COMING FRIDAY: AT GROUND ZERO, A FOREST OF CRANES READIES A MEMORIAL TO HONOR MEMORIES STILL INTENSELY VIVID A DECADE LATER.

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

As the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks approaches, reporter Curt Brown and photographer Jerry Holt travel from Minnesota to ground zero, exploring the ways that day altered America.

Sunday: In the Twin Cities, living in a post- 9/11 world.

Monday: Reconciling pride and grief in Iowa.

Tuesday: Fading fears in Chicago, atop the nation's tallest skyscraper.

Wednesday: Into America's most intensely Muslim city, Dearborn, Mich.

Today: Near Shanksville, Pa., a return to rural tranquility is elusive.

Friday: At ground zero, as a memorial rises, what endures?

where America stands a decade later

where America stands a decade later

Read previous installments and view more photos and video at startribune.com/911 or on our new iPad app.

where America stands a decade later

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