I did something I never thought I would.
I attended the Flight 93 National Memorial dedication service near Shanksville as an invited guest. It’s not that I never felt like I’d go to the site or be living in western Pennsylvania 10 years after 2001. It’s just that Shanksville is my hometown, and we have a different perspective on the day that changed the world forever.
When you live in Shanksville, Flight 93 is part of your life. Everyone can give directions to what we call the crash site because chances are the person you are asking used to camp at that old strip mine or climbed the abandoned cranes that were once there. We know that the Lamberts owned the farm where the infamous photo of smoke rising behind a red barn was taken. And it's likely everyone knows someone who did something involved with Flight 93. Unlike thousands of Americans, we didn’t lose anyone on Sept. 11, but like those who did we were never the same.
I was a senior at Shanksville-Stonycreek High School sitting in a physics class that day. I don’t remember what we were learning, and I don’t recall feeling anything different at 10:03 a.m. that day. Looking back, a few of my classmates say they heard our classroom door shake and assumed something had hit it while running past.
Facing the crash site on the building’s exterior walls, teachers said they saw classroom windows pulled closed with the force of the impact miles away. Members of at least one class said they saw a gray cloud of dust and smoke rising from the trees. About 20 minutes later, we were made aware of what had transpired across the country, after my 17 classmates and I walked into our government class.
Our teacher, who normally could be described as jovial, was stoic. He was facing the classroom’s television watching smoke pour from the World Trade Center towers. Without a word, we crowded around to watch the morning’s events. Already shell-shocked about what we were watching, he told us about the windows and the cloud of smoke he had seen a few minutes prior. We didn’t know if it was related to what was going on in New York City or Washington, D.C., but like many Americans that day we didn’t know it wasn’t either. Anything seemed to be possible that clear, fall day.
We were glued to the television. I’ll never forget watching the towers fall. Most anyone that knows me will attest that I seldom cry, but even I couldn’t hold back tears as I watched them collapse. I cried again last week watching the video from 10 years ago.
For the next hour or so, we watched as our assumption was verified. Every few minutes the newscasters' estimates got closer and closer. It started out stating a fourth plane had crashed in Western Pennsylvania. Next it was near Pittsburgh. Then it was Somerset County, and finally Stonycreek Township. Like the others, it had been hijacked. It had crashed only a few seconds in air time from our building which held our entire district from pre-kindergarten students to our 34-member senior class.
We didn’t have an early dismissal that day — unlike many districts hours away from the crash site including some in Allegheny County. Instead to be released from school, a parent had to physically come to the school and sign you out. Despite that restriction, most of the student body ended up along Main Street watching the streams of black-windowed government vehicles roll into town.
The next few days were a blur. My classmates and I organized food drives and delivered supplies to the state troopers, who were posted blocking access to the crash site. We painted windows with patriotic sayings and we visited the crash site, placing flags along the road that would take family members to see their loved ones’ final resting place.
One of those days following Sept. 11 changed my future when I shadowed a local reporter who covered the events for Somerset County’s only newspaper — The Daily American.
For a teenager, who wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life, that day sent me on my future career path. Stories abound about Somerset County residents whose lives were changed by Flight 93— including those who now document oral histories of that day and others who changed professions or pursued their dreams after being at the site.
For us and many more, despite the innumerable losses of Sept. 11, we gained something we will never forget — a purpose.
If you want to join a national remembrance effort, check out ActionAmerica.com to tell the country how you're taking positive action in the North Hills. To access Action America, click here.