September 9 2002, The [Australian] Age, On Hallowed Ground, by Gerard Wright,
Shanksville: How a small town became keeper of an American legend, writes Gerard Wright in Pennsylvania.
The planes still roar, softly. They pass 10,000 metres above the restored land, and the little town that can never be the same.
On this stretch of open ground and in the nearby grove of trees, the distant sound of the jets mingles with the wind and the chirp of the crickets, as though to lay a soothing, ambient balm over troubled, hallowed ground, littered, still, with fragments of aeroplane and humanity.
A few weeks ago, Wallace Miller, coroner of Somerset County, walked around the perimeter of this area with a landowner, Tim Lambert.
Their rambling disturbed a flock of wild turkeys. Amid the racket of their departure, a thought occurred to Miller: nature had finally begun to reclaim this place.
He can remember his first time there, 10.45am, Tuesday, September 11---the stench of jet fuel, still puddled on the ground, the smell of the burnt and smouldering trees and grass, the silence of nature and the men who had arrived to find they could do nothing, the overwhelming evidence that a Boeing 757, 55 metres long and weighing 110 tonnes, had somehow been obliterated, and with it, the 44 people on board.
There was another feeling, too. Miller sensed a vacuum, the departed energy of people "who got snatched out of their bodies really quickly".
He stands next to a mound of wood chips, the remnants of the trees that caught the full force of the fireball that was flight 93. The first screams had been the sound of the tree trunks, riddled with metal from the exploded plane.
"Right now, we're standing on vaporised remains," Miller said. "This is a grave. This is a cemetery."
The 8 am United Airlines flight 93 was 42 minutes late in taking off from Newark, New Jersey, for the trip to San Francisco. Its 43,000-litre fuel tanks were brimming for the six-hour flight.
Three other 8am flights, two from Boston, one from Washington, DC, had already taken off.
They would be aimed at the most potent symbols of American financial and military might: the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, on the southern tip of Manhattan, and the Pentagon, across the Potomac River from Washington.
Flight 93 had been in the air for about 50 minutes when it reached the outskirts of Cleveland. By then, America was already reeling from the impact of the three hijacked planes.
Air traffic control in Cleveland heard the violent entry of the terrorists to the cockpit of flight 93, and then an announcement from one of them---"ladies and gentlemen, it's the captain"---telling them to remain seated, and that they had a bomb on board.
Calls from on-board and mobile phones alerted emergency and phone company operators and families to the hijacking and the plan by the passengers to try to retake control of the aircraft. The cockpit voice recorder revealed seven minutes of pandemonium in English and Arabic as the passengers, apparently led by Todd Beamer, Tom Burnett, Mark Bingham and Jeremy Glick, stormed the front of the plane.
Whether their assault was successful will never be known but for their fellow countrymen, the resistance symbolised the first victory in what became the war on terrorism.
Victory, in this case, could be measured by what did not happen---a high-speed and explosive collision with either the White House or the Capitol, the seat of American Government, as was believed to be the intention of the hijackers---as by what did.
After its abrupt U-turn, flight 93 was tracked on radar by the control tower at Cleveland. The jet hurtled low and erratic, south-east over Pennsylvania. The otherworldly turn of events in New York and Washington had all Americans racing to television sets and then to phones, for confirmation, information and re-assurance.
Keith Piper rang his wife, Christine, from his office in Ligonier, 50 kilometres north-west of her office in Somerset. The Pipers had moved to the area earlier that year from Pittsburgh, settling on a 35-hectare farm.
"Christine, relax," Piper told her. "You don't have to worry. There's nothing going to happen in Somerset County."
Minutes later, he rang back. A jet had just passed overhead at treetop level, looking as though it was about to crash, before abruptly climbing. The plane followed a highway, State Route 30, then veered south.
Terry Butler was working in the yard of Stoystown Auto Wreckers, pulling a radiator from a junked car. Butler could see the last remnants of fog burning off in the adjoining fields. It was 10.02 am.
He recalled what followed in a book called Courage After the Crash, a collection of interviews published by Glenn Kashurba, a Somerset child psychiatrist and Red Cross volunteer.
Butler saw the plane. "It was just above the treetops, flying straight. Maybe a little bit wobbly, but it was flying straight. Then it went up." As it passed overhead, Butler estimated the plane's height at no more than 100 metres, before it suddenly climbed to twice that.
At that moment, at Ida's store in Shanksville, three kilometres away, store owner Rick King heard "a whining, screaming noise of the engines" as the plane briefly ascended.
Terry Butler saw the plane bank right at the top of its climb, then lost sight of it behind some trees. Within three or four seconds, there was the impact, marked, he remembered, by four explosions.
King, the assistant fire chief of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department, felt the ground shake beneath his feet.
In Kashurba's account, the ceiling tiles bounced, then settled again in the fourth grade classroom of Shanksville-Stonycreek School.
In another class, students were ordered to hide under their desks as the room shook from the shockwave.
Flight 93's estimated speed at the point of impact was 975kmh. In its final moments, it spun 180 degrees, hitting the ground upside down and at a 45-degree angle.
Then, Butler said, there was silence. And the plane disappeared.
Until the mid-80s Pennsylvania was the throbbing, noxious heart of the American steel industry. For almost a century, coal extracted from the rolling hills of south-western Pennsylvania had fueled those mills. Somerset County is dotted with mines; some still working but most abandoned. The 20-hectare plot that Wallace Miller walked had been mined for coal on its surface and underground for 30 years.
In 1990, the reclamation process began: 190,000 cubic metres of soil and dynamited rock were spread over the site, then sewn with grass.
To the casual eye, it looked like solid, consolidated ground but in reality the reclaimed expanse was loose and uncompacted. When flight 93 hit the ground, the cockpit and first-class cabin broke off, scattered into millions of fragments that spread and flew like shrapnel into and through the trees 20 metres away.
A section of the engine, weighing almost a tonne, was found on the bed of a catchment pond, 200 metres downhill.
Some of the plane's cargo was found intact---200 kilograms of mail in the hold, a Bible, its cover scorched but its pages undamaged and later, as the excavation began, the passport of one of the four hijackers.
The rest of the 757 continued its downward passage, the sandy loam closing behind it like the door of a tomb. Eventually these pieces and its human cargo---the heroes and the cowards, as a message left at the nearby temporary memorial put it---came to rest against solid rock, 23 metres below the surface.
The scene was captured in a picture taken soon after by a local photographer, Mark Stahl. Published in a magazine commemorative book, the scene is remarkable for its total absence of urgency.
The point of impact, about 10-12 metres across, is black and smoking. According to Miller it was about three metres deep. In Stahl's photograph it looks more like an excavation.
Four men stand next to the crater, one with his back to it. Two others stand nearby, next to an unmarked Chevrolet Suburban. One of the men has a hand on his hip.
Other photos taken at the scene by Miller show a small furrow, like a hand-dug drainage ditch, running back from the crater. This was the mark left by a wing.
"It was the most eerie thing," Miller recalled. "Usually, when you see a plane crash on TV, you see the fuselage, the tail or a piece of something. The biggest piece I saw was as big as this (spreading his hands less than a metre apart). It was as though someone took a tri-axle dump truck and spread it over an acre."
As coroner for the previous four years, and a funeral director all his working life, Miller was familiar with scenes of sudden and violent death, although none quite like this.
Walking in his gumboots, the only recognisable body part he saw was a piece of spinal cord, with five vertebrae attached.
"I've seen a lot of highway fatalities where there's fragmentation," Miller said. "The interesting thing about this particular case is that I haven't, to this day, 11 months later, seen any single drop of blood. Not a drop. The only thing I can deduce is that the crash was over in half a second. There was a fireball 15-20 metres high, so all of that material just got vaporised."
A smoking black crater and a no-longer-existent jet plane are not as telegenic as the explosive and awful demise of twin skyscrapers, or the airborne breach of the perimeter of a nation's military headquarters.
Neither President George Bush, nor Vice-President Dick Cheney, have yet visited the site, although their wives have, to attend memorial services for the victims.
There have been other, grimmer, visitors. First the FBI evidence recovery team members came in. They had sieves built to filter the evidence, but especially the human remains, from the soil.
The bureau members stayed at the crash site for 16 days and recovered 230 kilograms of remains.
Searches of the area were conducted on hands and knees. Wallace Miller remembers seeing an agent, from Mississippi, in tears as he crawled forward. When the FBI left, it handed legal responsibility for the location to the coroner, who was left with hell's own clean-up.
Miller and workers from the company contracted by United Airlines to clear the site found some dental work among the piles of dirt excavated from the crater. They used fine sieves to work through the piles again and extracted a further 45 kilograms. When that was done, the soil went back into the crater.
"That makes it a grave," Miller said.
In fact, he already knew this, through a calculation of a morbid mathematical problem.
He estimated the average weight of each of the 44 people aboard flight 93 was 79.5 kilograms, for a total body mass of 3500 kilograms. "We recovered 270 kilograms. Of that, we identified about 110. The main thing I've been saying ever since that is the area down there is a cemetery because 92 per cent of these people's loved ones repose there."
As the coroner, Miller's job description was simple: identify the remains, notify the next of kin, return the remains home.
"I didn't do any of that," he notes. "This became a job for a funeral director."
He is a lanky, evocative, relaxed talker; lean and youthful at 45. If he were in a more pro-active branch of medicine, you would say Wallace Miller had an engaging bedside manner.
Coroners may be born, as Miller was, to a former coroner and funeral director but, in America, they also have to be elected. At the last ballot, running as a Republican, Miller was re-elected with 82 per cent of the Somerset County vote.
Beyond the coroner's job description, there were other tasks facing Miller. First, to scour the site for every sign of remains, identify it, and return it to the family.
"We went through here on our hands and knees hundreds of times," he said. "You could drive yourself crazy, picking this stuff up. But, by God, I tried. I did my best." Last November he was in the car park of his funeral home, talking to a client. "I found myself looking down in the parking lot, scanning for stuff."
The other job is to persuade decision makers that the site is and should be treated as a cemetery, with the reverence and privacy that entails.
"To make this some sort of tourist destination would be really disappointing," Miller said. "I've got the feeling that's what's eventually going to occur."
For now, the site is off-limits to the public.
A temporary memorial stands on a rise overlooking the crash site. From there, a lone American flag, 400 metres away, directs the eye to a point just beyond it. A viewer with binoculars will see the black, metre-high pipes jutting from what was the crater.
Sharon Griffith, a member of the Somerset County emergency response team, remembers seeing a grandmother, with her arms around her two teenage grandsons as they looked out over the site. Griffith heard the woman tell the boys, "Isn't this a beautiful place that your daddy is? Isn't this a beautiful place to be?"
The memorial attracts 6000 people a week, most of whom make their way to Shanksville. And it is an idyllic place. The houses are red brick terraces, close to the streets, but with space on either side. On Main Street, a horse and buggy rolls downhill, into town. A community of 14 Amish families lives nearby.
Donna Glessner, whose family has been in the town for three generations, says: "It's like Shanksville has become the little town of your dreams, the little town you wished you came from."
But the town has also become a roadside attraction, a stop on what Wallace Miller dismissively refers to as "the grief tour".
Terry Shaffer, the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department captain, thinks the town is being overwhelmed. "I don't know when that sort of thing is going to slow down. We're pretty much saying, after September 11, we have to take a break."
Back at the site of the crash, Miller carries a shovel and bucket. He has been asked to gather soil to be presented in 40 urns to the families of the passengers and crew.
Earlier this year a further 15 centimetre layer of topsoil was strewn over the crash site, and sown with grass. Still, there are signs of the crash everywhere, from the tiny pieces of gnarled and twisted metal, to the black scorch marks on a power pole, as beautiful and abstract as a Maori tattoo.
The shovel twists and is caught among the root-ridden soil at the base of a stand of hemlock trees. The soil is dark and rich on top, lighter underneath. Brightly covered pieces of electrical wire are still strewn and wrapped around the base of some of the trees.
"Kind of jolts you, if you're open to it," Miller says of the atmosphere. He lays the tools down for a moment and then, half-bent, looks back to the crash site, up over a gentle rise. "I don't like this spot."
Wallace Miller, caretaker of souls, picks up his shovel and bucket and heads downhill, deeper into the glade.