Legacy of Flight 93 lives on 20 years later
By Jill M. Ercolino
The smoke may have cleared, but 20 years later, the memories linger.
Dave Dovala recalls walking out of New York City’s Penn Station into the bright sunshine. For reasons he still doesn’t understand, Dovala was drawn to a street artist who was recreating the city’s skyline and landmarks with a trio of unusual tools, a belt buckle, a can opener and spray paint. On one completed canvas, tiny lights glittered in the windows of the World Trade Center’s twin towers.
Dovala, a member of Bedford Rural Electric Cooperative (REC), plunked down $30 for the art and left to enjoy the weekend with his family.
Two days later, on Sept. 11, 2001, Dovala would cross paths with the towers again. This time, he would narrowly escape death.
HALLOWED GROUND: The final resting place of the 40 passengers and crew on Flight 93 is considered to be hallowed ground. The site in Shanksville is now home to a 2,200-acre national memorial that ensures America always remembers the heroism these strangers displayed on Sept. 11, 2001.
Roxanne Sullivan and her family were spared, too.
United Airlines Flight 93, one of four commercial airliners that terrorists hijacked and used as weapons that day, crashed in the reclaimed strip mine
behind her Stonycreek Township home, killing everyone on board.
Sullivan, a member of Somerset REC, was visiting a friend when she heard the news. Panicked, she jumped in her SUV and sped home, hoping she still had one. She did.
Overcome with grief and relief, she remembers cradling her dog and crying for three days.
“How do you handle an airliner crashing in your backyard?” Sullivan wonders now. “You don’t.”
Steve Aaron was with then-Gov. Tom Ridge when he flew to Somerset County to view the Flight 93 crash site and meet with family members and news crews in nearby Shanksville, a quiet, rural community of 250.
It wasn’t until the governor’s helicopter lifted off for Harrisburg that Aaron, Ridge’s deputy communications director, had a moment to reflect on the day’s events.
The roar of the helicopter made it impossible to have a conversation with anyone. Instead, Aaron stared at the horizon, awash in brilliant streaks of color — blues, reds, pinks and yellows.
“In that silence,” he says, “I noticed the beautiful sunset. It was so striking compared to the ugliness of that day.”
KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON: Flames from the downed airliner melted nearby power lines. Initially, federal officials told the staff at Somerset Rural Electric Cooperative that it would be several weeks before the co-op could repair the damage, but employees persevered: They restored members’ electricity within eight hours of the crash, instead of the predicted eight weeks. (Photo courtesy of Rich Bauer, Somerset REC)
Shanksville becomes a household name
America — and Americans — changed on Sept. 11, 2001, something those who are old enough to remember the attacks will understand. The nation’s sense of security was shattered, but from that loss, unity and patriotism emerged.
Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” became the anthem, and one verse in particular, “I’m proud to be an American,” captured the spirit of the time.
Since then, however, 75 million people have been born in the U.S., which means that a third of the population has no tangible ties to the single deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil. This raises a concern. Will this pivotal point in history — and the bravery that defined it — fade into obscurity?
The phrase “never forgotten,” which pops up in unexpected places in and around Pennsylvania’s Flight 93 National Memorial, indicates otherwise. Those words and variations of them appear on handwritten notes to the passengers and crew that are tacked to a bulletin board near the Wall of Names and on plaques at the local fire company.
And for many, the phrase has become a promise — and a pledge.
“Forty people died in my backyard,” Sullivan says, “and I have a need to take care of them — probably until the day I die.”
NEVER FORGOTTEN: The 40 passengers and crew of Flight 93.
A volunteer ambassador at the memorial, she is among a group of Shanksville area residents who have developed a deep connection to Flight 93 and dedicated the past two decades to protecting, preserving, and telling its story.
Their work, they say, was born out of respect and gratitude for the 40 heroes aboard the plane and their families, and it ensures that future generations will always remember what happened in the skies over Pennsylvania, where many believe the war on terror began.
Flight recordings indicate that some 30,000 feet in the air, the passengers and crew fought four extremist hijackers with makeshift weapons to retake control of Flight 93, en route that morning from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, Calif. Calls made from the flight to loved ones on the ground had confirmed the worst: The terrorists on board were part of a coordinated effort to kill thousands while crippling the U.S. government.
They succeeded on one front: nearly 3,000 innocent Americans died.
The first hijacked plane, out of Boston, hit the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. The second, also out of Boston, struck the south tower at 9:03 a.m. The third plane, leaving Washington, D.C., slammed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m.
News of the errant airliners spread quickly, and like much of the world, Shanksville’s residents were glued to the live TV coverage. Somerset REC employees were among them.
“I remember looking around at my staff and seeing the fear in their eyes,” says Rich Bauer, then-general manager of Somerset REC who now serves as president & CEO of Valley REC in Huntingdon. “One of them even thanked God that we lived in rural America because things like this don’t happen here.”
Or so they thought.
PAYING TRIBUTE: As news spread that Flight 93, one of four airliners hijacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, had crashed in a field in Shanksville, visitors and media flocked to the scene. Mementoes for the 40 passengers and crew were left behind at several temporary memorials.
At 10:03 a.m., Flight 93 came screaming out of the sky at 563 miles per hour and slammed into a grassy field about a mile outside of town. In that moment, Shanksville became a household name, and Flight 93 became the only hijacked airliner to be diverted from its target, thanks to the passengers and crew.
“Around here, we measure time two ways: before the plane crash and after the plane crash,” says Terry Shaffer, the now-retired chief of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department and a member of Somerset REC.
The massive disaster would put people like Shaffer and Bauer to the test. Among the first on the scene, the pair say nothing could have prepared them for what they found: death, destruction and heartbreak.
“We relied a lot on instinct and common sense,” Shaffer says.
Bauer, a young manager at the time, agrees: “You can’t plan for this. You just react.”
‘They’re the heroes’
Flames from the downed airliner melted nearby power lines, one of many challenges the co-op’s team would overcome, Bauer says. The crash site also had been declared a federal crime scene, which also threatened to slow the co-op’s response.
Initially, federal officials told Bauer it would be several weeks before the co-op could repair the damage, but the staff persevered: They restored members’ electricity within eight hours of the crash, instead of the predicted eight weeks.
“Truly, it was a miracle; things just fell into place,” Bauer says. “Going into it, the Somerset staff all had the same attitude: This was for America, so it was all hands on deck. And we did what we do best: improvise, overcome, and adapt.”
COMMUNITY VOLUNTEER: Terry Shaffer, left, now-retired chief of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department, opened the fire company’s doors to the grieving families as the small, rural community was thrust into the international spotlight. Shaffer is a member of Somerset Rural Electric Cooperative.
Looking back, Shaffer says that some things have changed, but others haven’t. For instance, curious reporters still ask him to relive the day’s events, usually as Sept. 11 draws closer. So he tells them about the smoldering crater left behind by the flaming wreckage, the blank faces of the firefighters who had never experienced anything like this, and the media outlets that came from around the world to tell the Flight 93 story.
Shaffer also talks about the fire station, which became a gathering place for grieving families and inquisitive out-of-towners, the bumper-to-bumper traffic, and the stress of it all on locals.
Mostly, though, the former fire chief prefers to focus on the passengers and crew of Flight 93, a group of strangers, ranging in age from 20 to 79, who would make history.
Forty-six minutes after take-off from Newark, the hijackers commandeered the cockpit, herded the travelers to the rear of the plane, and turned the airliner around toward its most likely target, the U.S. Capitol Building.
What the hijackers didn’t count on was a mid-air rebellion, which resulted in the plane nosediving into a vacant field, just 20 air minutes from Washington, D.C., and a mere mile and a half away from a local school. Miraculously, no one on the ground was killed.
There’s evidence that the passengers and crew had voted to launch a counterattack, one that required them to sacrifice their lives so that many others could be spared.
“The real story isn’t about our response,” Shaffer says. “That plane never would have crashed and ended up here if the people onboard hadn’t fought back. They’re the heroes.”
“They realized their fate and took action; they weren’t paralyzed,” says Shaffer’s wife, Kathie, who became Flight 93’s oral historian and knows more than most about the people and their actions. “Who wouldn’t be inspired by their story?”
‘We will remember’
Today, the final resting place of Flight 93’s passengers and crew is hallowed ground and home of the Flight 93 National Memorial, a 2,200-acre landscape tribute that ensures America never forgets, National Park Service Superintendent Stephen Clark says.
“Every Sept. 11, we will remember,” he says. “We will never let that day go by without honoring those 40 passengers and crew.” (To learn more about the Flight 93 National Memorial and this month’s observance of the crash, go to nps.gov.)
Roxanne Sullivan says she’s always had a place in her heart for the 40 heroes, and calls the Flight 93 Memorial “a sad, but beautiful place.”
The acres of grassy fields, trees and wildflowers, and the reverential tributes to the passengers and crew, which include the Wall of Names and the Tower of Voices, are a stark contrast to the scorched land of 20 years ago.
Then, it was swarming with investigators and police, who were reluctant to allow Sullivan and her family to stay in their home, which abutted the crime scene. Eventually, officials relented under three conditions: The Sullivans had to check in with police when arriving and leaving, they couldn’t have visitors, and when home, they couldn’t go beyond their property line.
“The first night was really horrible with all of the helicopters,” Sullivan recalls. “All I could think about was what was going to happen to us.”
She says curious onlookers would gather in her neighborhood, leaving Bibles, letters, stuffed animals and other mementoes. Touched by the trinkets, Sullivan created a makeshift memorial on her land for the Flight 93 dead. It eased her sadness.
“I was doing something for them,” she says. “I wanted to help.”
On a hill closer to the crash site, the Stonycreek Township supervisors erected another temporary memorial, a chain link fence lined with plywood. Over time, they added benches, flagpoles and a maintenance shed to protect volunteers from rain and snow.
“We maintained the property until the Park Service took over,” says former supervisor Doug Custer, also a member of Somerset REC. “It’s hard to believe it was 20 years ago.”
His wife, Natalie, agrees.
“It’s a scene you don’t ever erase from your mind, but one you don’t want to remember either,” she says.
THE CARETAKERS: Residents of Shanksville have developed a deep connection to Flight 93, and many have dedicated the past two decades to protecting, preserving, and telling its story. Their work, they say, ensures that future generations will always remember what happened in the skies over Pennsylvania, where many believe the war on terror began. They include Roxanne Sullivan, left, who catalogued thousands of mementoes left behind. Kathie Shaffer, middle, conducted nearly 900 interviews, the basis for Flight 93’s oral history, while her sister, Donna Glessner, right, was instrumental in recruiting the first local “ambassadors” to greet and educate crash site visitors. All three women are members of Somerset Rural Electric Cooperative.
Early on, as the township supervisors tended to the land, roads, and traffic, other caretakers stepped up to preserve the legacy of the Flight 93 passengers and crew.
They included Sullivan, who voluntarily preserved, photographed, and catalogued thousands of mementoes left behind at her memorial and others in Shanksville. Eventually, the project turned into a part-time job with the Somerset Historical Center.
“It became a mission for me,” she says.
Kathie Shaffer, a registered nurse, would change careers to preserve the Flight 93 story. She’s conducted nearly 900 interviews, the basis for the memorial’s oral history project, and says it’s the most important work of her professional life. The audio-recordings took 12 painstaking years to gather and were invaluable when the NPS began developing the permanent exhibit at the Flight 93 Visitor Center.
Shaffer says it was difficult to remain stoic when people shared details of the toughest days of their lives.
“It did get very emotional, and there were tears,” she says, adding that some of those interviewed have passed on, making the oral history project even more important. “As time passes, there will be fewer and fewer people with us who knew the passengers and crew members, but their recorded memories and voices will continue to speak to future generations.”
Her sister, Donna Glessner, helped with the interviews and was instrumental in recruiting the first local “ambassadors,” who greeted and educated crash site visitors. The program, now managed by the NPS, continues today with many of the original volunteers. Glessner was also vice chair of the federal commission that oversaw the memorial’s design competition.
All three women, members of Somerset REC, believe they’ve been called to keep the memories of Flight 93’s heroes alive.
“This is the story of 40 people working together in ways we will never know,” Glessner says. “They were ordinary people, but what they did that day was extraordinary.”
LINGERING GRIEF: At the entrance to the Wall of Names at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, visitors can leave messages for the 40 heroes who went down with a fight on Sept. 11, 2001. Although it’s been 20 years since the terrorist attacks in Pennsylvania, New York City and Washington, D.C., the grief still lingers for the 3,000 innocent Americans who died that day.
Grateful to be alive
September 11 is an emotional day for Dave Dovala, too.
In 2001, while on that trip to New York City, he and his then-wife were supposed to tour the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11. They went to the Statue of Liberty instead.
Several blocks away when the first plane hit the north tower, the couple was knocked to the ground by the impact. Minutes later, another low-flying plane cruised in front of them on its way to the south tower.
“I could count the windows; that’s how low it was,” says Dovala of Reynoldsdale.
The father of three is still amazed — and thankful — that he made it out of Manhattan alive.
“When we left Johnstown on the train that Saturday, it never entered my mind that we might not be coming back,” he says. “That’s why I live every day like it’s my last.”
It has taken time to heal, but Dovala finds solace in his collection of Sept.11 memorabilia, which started with the unique twin towers painting he bought minutes after arriving in the city by train.
Another one-of-a-kind painting in the collection was done on the hood of an S-10 Chevy pickup and features the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Flight 93. The artist was a friend’s 15-year-old daughter. The extensive collection also includes a piece of the World Trade Center.
Dovala travels with the memorabilia and gives free presentations. On Sept. 11, for instance, he’s bringing the display to the Duncansville VFW for an open house from 1 to 5 p.m. Those interested in scheduling something similar can call him at 814-839-2156.And when he’s not doing that, the 73-year-old is singing with his oldies band, “The Past-Tymes.” September 11 will always be a part of him, so he ends each performance the same way: with “God Bless the USA.”
“At times, I wonder: Why was I spared?” he says. “There had to be a reason … maybe the good Lord wants me around to play some good old rock ’n’ roll, and I’m happy to oblige.”
MEANINGFUL MEMORABILIA: Dave Dovala, a member of Bedford Rural Electric Cooperative, bought this painting of the World Trade Center’s twin towers from a street artist minutes after arriving in New York City in 2001. Days later, on Sept. 11, he would have another close encounter with the towers. This time, Dovala would narrowly escape death. Today, the Reynoldsdale resident has a large collection of 9/11 memorabilia that he takes on the road to ensure people, young and old, always remember the events of that day.
Schweiker: Where’s the justice?
Seventeen years after being captured, the terrorist who orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks and his co-conspirators still sit in a federal prison, awaiting trials that have been repeatedly delayed, most recently by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker says the inaction boggles his mind.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” he says, “and I promised the families I would never let this drop. This is what they want.”
In a recent editorial, Schweiker, who befriended many of the families of Flight 93’s heroes, implored the Biden Administration to finally prosecute the terrorists.
“Once upon a time, we made a promise that we would seek — and secure — justice,” he wrote. “Now, as we approach the solemn 20-year mark of these attacks, our work remains alarmingly incomplete. … It’s time for justice.”
Schweiker’s life, like many others, changed dramatically after the attacks. In the span of a month, he went from being Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor to governor when then-Gov. Tom Ridge was tapped to oversee the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
After all of these years, Sept. 11 still stings, and Schweiker refuses to call its annual arrival an anniversary.
“This is nothing to celebrate,” he says. “It’s a gut punch … it underscores man’s inhumanity to man.”
JUSTICE FOR THE DEAD: Every year, the families of Flight 93’s heroes hold a candlelight vigil in their honor. Meanwhile, the terrorist who orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks and his co-conspirators still sit in a federal prison, awaiting their trials. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker says it’s time for justice to be served. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, Flight 93 National Memorial)