SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 7, 2011

Tiny town becomes American landmark after attacks

By Kathy Mellott
CNHI News Service

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — Robin Duppstadt waited for a relative to bring a television to her family's store at mid-morning on Sept. 11, 2001, so she could watch the news about hijacked airliners flying into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Then she heard and felt a loud noise that seemed to come from just outside the store’s front door. It was United Airlines Flight 93 crashing into a former coal mine field a mile or so away at 10:06 a.m.

She thought right away there must be a connection even though this tiny town of 200 had no strategic importance to the organized terrorist attack on the United States that fateful day.

“It was real fast,” she said. “It sounded like something fell over, and we ran out the front door,” crash scene smoke visible in the sky just north of town.

Tucked away in the rolling hills of southwestern Pennsylvania, Shanksville changed in an instant from rural obscurity to American landmark, the place where a hijacked airliner plunged to earth instead of hitting its intended target: the U.S. Capitol building 125 miles away.

It changed forever the pastoral nature of the community. Now travelers by the thousands flock to Shankesville to view the crash scene, the national memorial to the hero passengers and crew, and to hear local stories about that day.

They also want to tell her their stories – where they were when they learned of the attacks, who they knew among the victims and how they’ve been affected. “We get some off-the-wall conspiracy theorists, too,” said Duppstadt. “I just listen to them.”

Dan Santoro, associate professor of sociology at he University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown, said it was purely happenstance that Shanksville “ended up being in the center of what happened.”

But, he added, it also drove home the point to Americans everywhere that “something like this can hit them at home.”

Interviews with residents of the town confirm the fear of another terrorist attack on the country, even possibly near Shanksville.

The Rev. Alphonse Mascherino, pastor of the Flight 93 Chapel at the crash site, said not everyone has gotten over the victimhood reaction to the region’s place in 9/11 history.

“Some almost anticipate that it could happen again,” he said. “It’s in the background of their thoughts.”

John Sotomayor, a retired military officer from neighboring Somerset, agreed the Shanksville crash has caused local anxiety over national security.

“It definitely had an impact,” he said. “But we must trust our military.”

Still, some folk express greater concern about the influx of traffic and tourists. Visitors frequently stop to ask directions to the crash scene, tempting a few locals to point them the opposite way.

A woman behind the counter at Ida’s Store in Shanksville, for instance, recently showed a reporter out the door when the conversation turned to Flight 93.

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Kathy Mellott is a reporter for the Johnstown, Pa., Tribune-Democrat. Contact her at kmellott@tribdem.com.