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Shanksville Remembers: How Flight 93 Changed 9/11 and This Community

Shanksville, PA

Clara Hinton was home alone the morning of Sept. 11th, 2001.

"I remember it was a gorgeous day. The sky was just as blue as blue could be," the long-time Shanksville resident recalls. "Just a few minutes later, everything changed."

A few miles away, Chuck Wagner was receiving certification training for work, watching a satellite hook-up from Pennsylvania State University. 

"They broke into NBC on the hook-up and we saw the second tower being hit and everyone was dumbfounded," he said.

Exactly one hour later, Flight 93 crashed at 563 miles per hour into a field just two miles from Hinton's home in southwestern Pennsylvania.

"My house rattled. It was like a big tree had fallen," she remembers.

Her TV went black and her phone line went down. Soon after, a friend stopped by with news of the crash.

"I just remember such fear coming over me because things like that don't happen in Shanksville," said Hinton.

Today, historians believe the Flight 93 hijackers planned to fly it straight into the White House or the US Capitol building. 

Instead, under attack from the 40 passengers and crew on the flight, they crashed it, miraculously plowing straight into a field and harming no one in the rural area. 

Moments later, the plane would have hit the town's only school.

In less than 20 minutes, it would have struck Washington, D.C.

Of the four hijacked planes on that terrible day, Flight 93 was the only one that did not hit the terrorist's intended mark.

Within hours, the community surrounding the crash site was mobilizing, transforming itself into a crisis center to receive state and federal investigators and eventually, the family members of the Flight 93 heroes.

"Our community was just round-the-clock helping," Hinton remembers. "That fire hall was full of people with home-baked pies and great cooked meals and sandwiches were available constantly."

Wagner helped with the recovery effort and began meeting loved ones as they arrived.

A man of deep faith, he says he believes that God gave him the right words. 

"You can just imagine the grief they're facing, such a horrible situation," he said. "I could feel a compassion, not my compassion but the Lord's compassion."

Community leaders asked Hinton, a grief counselor, to be available to the families. She recalls an instant bond with many of those she met.

"We saw, we talked, we cried, we reminisced—we talked more," she said. "We shared tissues. We shared coffee. I brought several to my home to rest when they needed a break."

Over the years, Hinton, Wagner, and others in town have kept in touch with the families as commemorative events have drawn them together as well as their bond around the tragedy.

"Some keep in touch," Wagner said. "Some we're just cordial but others we'll give hugs. Anniversary times are like a reunion. We can catch up and see how the grandkids have grown up so much."

Markers around Shanksville bear witness to Flight 93, from a welcome sign to a plaque on the fire truck to a tiny chapel on the outskirts filled with mementos.

Ten years ago the National Park Service fast-tracked a memorial to the flight heroes at the original crash site. 

Today, its rolling landscape and abundant meadows offer comfort and opportunities for reflection on the forty people who quickly banded together 20 years ago, forming a plan that would cost their lives to save the nation's capital.

Katherine Hostetler, a spokeswoman for the Flight 93 National Memorial, says the original landscape around the crash site was scarred from surface mining. "In many ways, it parallels how scarred our country still is from Sept. 11th and when you see this natural area and the wildflowers and the trees, this living landscape—it inspires hope in many ways," she said.

Twenty years later, the tiny hamlet of Shanksville has moved beyond the raw emotions of the early days. Wagner has published two books with his photographs of tributes throughout the years and Hinton still collects memorabilia.

Some of their questions, however, will never be answered.

"I still don't make sense of it," says Hinton. "I cannot imagine in my mind that kind of hatred that prompted an act like this. Nor can I really grasp the heroism of those aboard Flight 93."

Wagner wrestles with the America he knew 20  years ago and the one he experiences today.

"It's a different America than what we had 20 years ago," he said. "It's painful in a lot of ways. Back then, we weren't Republicans or Democrats—we were Americans. I miss that."

For Wagner and Hinton, one of their hopes on this 20th anniversary is that a new generation will learn about what happened in the skies over Shanksville and see the hand of God.

"It changes you. I feel closer to God I would say—closer to God and closer to mankind," said Hinton. "I know that when something happens we bind together. We help each other. We are there for each other and I think tragedies often bring out the best in people and that's what I've decided to focus on.

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