Three attacks, ten years of healing: A small town with a big heart 

click to enlarge A visitor stands at the temporary memorial for United Flight 93, near where the plane crashed on 9/11, in Shanksville, Pa., Friday, Sept. 9, 2011.  (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) - A VISITOR STANDS AT THE TEMPORARY MEMORIAL FOR UNITED FLIGHT 93, NEAR WHERE THE PLANE CRASHED ON 9/11, IN SHANKSVILLE, PA., FRIDAY, SEPT. 9, 2011.  (AP PHOTO/GENE J. PUSKAR)
  • A visitor stands at the temporary memorial for United Flight 93, near where the plane crashed on 9/11, in Shanksville, Pa., Friday, Sept. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
  • A visitor stands at the temporary memorial for United Flight 93, near where the plane crashed on 9/11, in Shanksville, Pa., Friday, Sept. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

With a population of 245, the town has fewer people than any given building in downtown D.C.

There are a dozen roads, tops, in Shanksville; a smattering of houses, log cabins and red barns. And not far away from the town center is a rolling field of yellow and white wildflowers.

Because of what happened in this field, Washington still has the Capitol. It still has the White House, and it has the confidence to fight.

Ten years have passed since United Airlines Flight 93 was hijacked by four al Qaeda terrorists who steered the jet toward Washington.

The 40 passengers and crew members formed a plan, rose up and stormed the cabin just 20 flying minutes from the District. They died in the field of wildflowers so that thousands more wouldn’t.

Unlike in New York, or at the Pentagon, the victims of Flight 93 were not from Shanksville; none hailed from Pennsylvania, for that matter. And aside from a bump in restaurant and hotel profits, the town itself hasn’t changed much.

But also unlike New York, Shanksville is a town where people work with their hands. They don’t lock their front doors. Phone numbers are rattled off without area codes, and just going the speed limit is often enough to lose the car behind you.

“It’s sort of true America,” says James Marker, commissioner of Somerset County.

Marker remembers that day in 2001, and the days after, when state troopers came to guard the crash site’s perimeter, and couldn’t believe that the townspeople were offering them water, food, the use of their bathrooms: “It’s in, to the left.”

It’s the kind of place where, as your bag passes through the courthouse’s metal detector, the smiling sheriff asks how on Earth you forgot your pipe bombs, and tries to sell you an elevator pass.

And families of the heroes who lost their lives on Flight 93 say Shanksville, with its one-lane roads and thick evening fog, has become their second home.

“Over the 10 years, I’ve made — I’m not going to say friends, because they’re family,” says Ken Nacke, a detective from Baltimore County, Md., whose brother died in the crash.

He says hello to the owners of his favorite businesses. Residents call him up, ask how he’s doing, what they can do for his mother. “I look forward to coming here,” he says. “The drive back is harder.”

Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93, says some family members of the victims come to Shanksville monthly. Felt makes it down five or six times a year.

“When we first came here, we didn’t know anyone,” he says. “I was floored by how open the community was then. And it hasn’t waned at all.”

It’s all that makes sense to do, says Debbie Scarcia, who lives in nearby Bedford. “Their remains are here. They’re family. They’re just like anyone else here.”

In the days after the tragedy, the county hosted a memorial service at the courthouse. Within a year or so, the National Park Service started making  plans for the permanent memorial, the first phase of which will be dedicated on Saturday.

The permanent memorial will allow visitors to get hundreds of yards closer to the crash site than the temporary memorial: a rusty blue shack — a former coal mine — and a simple chain-link fence overlooking the crash site, speared with American flags and wreaths and roses.

Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as well as Vice Joe Biden, are expected to drop into town this weekend to see the new memorial, along with 3,000 to 7,000 visitors.

Nacke says he has mixed feelings about seeing the temporary memorial go. It’s where the families first gathered, first saw what had happened, were first embraced by a small American town, and first realized what sacrifice their brothers, fathers, wives had made for the nation.

On Wednesday evening, an envelope bearing the return address of the U.S. House of Representatives is wedged against the gate. In cursive blue ink, it’s addressed to “Flight 93.”

By the morning, it’s gone.

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