x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Day weighs on psyche of 'Friendly Little Town'

Residents say not much has changed in Shanksville, but thoughts of 9/11 are never far away.

Small flags and mementos abound at the Flight 93 Temporary memorial adjacent to the crash site.
Small flags and mementos abound at the Flight 93 Temporary memorial adjacent to the crash site.

SHANKSVILLE, Pennsylvania // It is hard to tell at a glance that this small coal-mining town was one of the first battlefields in the "war on terror". Among the rolling green hills and rural landscape of Pennsylvania, the working-class people here prefer to talk about the Vikings, a local high school basketball team, rather than terrorist plots. They patiently give directions to the thousands of visitors who now pass through, but the town's 180 or so residents would prefer to be left to go about their business. The people of Shanksville cannot undo the morning of September 11, when United Airlines Flight 93, a hijacked plane bound for Washington, DC, slammed into a field on the outskirts of town. They do not like to guess how things might have been different had it crashed a few towns over. "It happened here, so everybody just deals with it," said Jean Young, who lives about two kilometres from the crash site and who said her window curtains flew "straight in" from the force of the plane's impact. "I thought a tree in the yard went down." The townspeople, like Ms Young, will eventually welcome a new national memorial planned for the crash site - delayed by an ugly dispute between the National Park Service and the land's owners - even though it might bring thousands more visitors to this remote south-western corner of the state. They smile and grant interviews to journalists who flood the town each year around the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, even if they have been asked the same questions a hundred times before. But if Shanksville is to be remembered forever as a place where something terrible happened that changed the world, the town itself has changed very little - at least that is what most of the people who live here say. "We're just the same as we was," said Bobby Lambert, the town's mayor, a stocky, jovial man who spent decades as a fireman before taking office in 2005. "Maybe for people who live in the big cities it would be different, but around here life is the same. "There are a lot of people coming through here now. But then the evening comes, they go, and we're still here." After all, the 205-year-old town of Shanksville is not the type of place that lends itself to change. There are just two local shops, including Ida's Country Store, which doubles as the town's meeting place. There is a Lutheran church and a Methodist church, a school up the road and a mechanic at a petrol station that no longer sells petrol. A small hall houses the volunteer fire department, but there is no police station and no traffic lights - or traffic to speak of. When two people pass on the street, they wave. A weathered sign greets visitors in the same spirit: "Welcome to Shanksville: 'A Friendly Little Town'." "It's just a little country town, that's about it," Mr Lambert said. "Everybody knows everybody and everybody is pretty nice - it's no hassle. We don't know no hassle here." But behind the small town simplicity, the weight of that tragic morning - and the fact that Flight 93's passengers fought back against the hijackers, almost surely sparing another target in the US capital - is never far from the surface. A stack of 9/11 T-shirts is waiting to be sold behind the register at the general store; a small plaque appended to the town sign says: "Shanksville honors the heroes of Flight 93." Some say there are more US flags about town, too. Both sides of Main Street are lined with stars and stripes, as if Fourth of July parade floats will soon come rolling past. Each house flies at least one US flag as if there were a municipal law. But most of the townspeople say that even the overwhelming display of patriotism is nothing new, or remarkable. "Maybe there's a few more poles that were put up after the crash," said Ms Young, who runs an embroidery shop out of her home that produces many of the 9/11 T-shirts, including a popular design with the words "Proud to be an American" emblazoned across the chest. "I'm not going to say this made people more patriotic, people just were." Perhaps the biggest sign that something significant occurred here are the various small-scale monuments that have sprung up around town. The newest is a steel cross made from the beams of the fallen World Trade Center and put up last month by New York City firemen. But wrapped in a US flag, it too somehow blends into the landscape as if it had always been there. Even at the crash site itself, a sprawling green field among many green fields, there is a sense that this stretch of Appalachian countryside is the same as it ever was. The crater where the plane hit at faster than 800kph has been backfilled and is marked only by a lone US flag, which is barely visible in the tall grass. Most of the visitors on Monday stood in a windy silence, broken only by the tapping of flags against their metal poles. But not everyone thinks the town can just go on being the quaint little place that it always had been. The Rev Robert Way, who became pastor of the Lutheran church on Main Street five weeks before the plane crashed, said the psyche of the people in town has been altered, whether they realise it or not. "I think the mentality of the people has changed somewhat. They are aware that they are part of something larger than they were before," Mr Way said. "For many of the people here, it was their own little Shangri-La - this was their place. It's no longer their place. Their place now belongs to the rest of the world now as well." Mr Way, who said he was on hand after the crash to give last rites to victims, added that people have become used to sharing their country roads with outsiders. Before 2001, "if a car from Georgia drove through the centre of town, people would go, 'Well, I wonder who that is, that's not somebody I know or a car that I recognise'. Now even if it's a German vehicle that runs through with German plates ? it's just another car." But seven years after the plane went down, there are also signs that the attention thrust upon this town may soon subside, allowing Shanksville and its residents to fade back into the mosaic of rural Pennsylvania. "The spotlight is not shining as brightly as it was the first couple of years," said Rick King, the former assistant fire chief and one of the first to arrive on scene after the crash. "I don't think there's much of anything new to say anyway. I tell [journalists] the same things I told them last year." In Ms Young's embroidery shop, where she once sold thousands of commemorative shirts with the words "Shanksville, Pa" on them, business has slowed to a more customary small-town pace. "Nowadays I sell very few," she said. "If I sell a dozen in a year, that would be lucky." In a recent order of 500 memorial hats, a customer even asked her to remove the town's name from the logo. "They remember the planes crashing, but they have no idea about the town of Shanksville anymore," she said. The September 11 attacks "put us on the map, but not in a big way". And for people like Mr Lambert, the mayor, that is a good thing. "A bunch of us old guys go to the [petrol station] every morning just to talk, you know, and then we go for the mail and we come home and do whatever we do - mow the yard; in the wintertime we shovel snow, and that's about it. "That's what we did before 9/11. It won't change." @email:sstanek@thenational.ae