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In Pennsylvania, two sites mark hallowed ground and heroism

By Joe Sterling, CNN
  • Somerset County in western Pennsylvania is shaped by two events
  • On 9/11, one of the planes taken by hijackers crashed in Somerset
  • Nearly a year later nine men were trapped in a coal mine, and all nine were rescued
  • Now, remembrance of those events is shaping all who come to Somerset County

SOMERSET, Pennsylvania -- The sprawling rural stretch of western Pennsylvania known as Somerset County went about its business modestly and quietly for years. Until history knocked.

On September 11, 2001, a plane fell from the sky, into an empty field so verdant that only locals would know it was once a chewed-up source of coal. Then, 10 1/2 months later and about 18 miles away, nine men became trapped in a flooding underground coal mine.

The people of Somerset County were the first responders in both events, lending their hands, their ingenuity, their grit and their prayers.

The miners' rescue -- which occurred late at night in a round-the-clock operation -- became a nationally-televised scene of deliverance for a country still smarting from the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Sweat, engineering and blue-collar gumption brought all nine miners to the surface alive. And when the last man arose from the hole, the nation exhaled.

The events thrust what Somerset residents now call "America's county" onto the national map. Nine years later, they reflect on both with a sense of awe at the courage of others and with pride in their own roles. They feel a deep responsibility as caretakers for new national shrine.

Shanksville Fire Chief Terry Shaffer quickly realized his department would lead a recovery mission and not a rescue at the crash site of United Flight 93. But he remembers watching the events at the Quecreek mine rescue with different emotions.

"It gave us a lot of hope and encouragement. I would hope there's a sense of pride in our county. We put our best foot forward."

A patriotic place

Somerset Borough, the county seat of a sprawling region of 76,000 people, is 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh and on the outer reaches of that city's influence.

But the county is like any other rural stretch of America, dotted with small towns, villages, farms -- and in this place -- coal mines.

Gigantic windmills, flag-festooned houses, satellite TV, small churches, sprinting wild turkeys, and signs of football mania define the landscape of field, brush and hillside.

"When you live in rural western Pennsylvania, it's easy to be isolated from a world that exists behind the mountains."
--Rev. Mike Dunlap

Hunting is popular. Many people own firearms, says John Weir, land manager at PBS Coals, who worked at the Flight 93 and Quecreek aftermaths because of his involvement with the coal industry at both sites.

If the elusive al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden would happen to parachute out of the sky, he says, "the boys would get the deer rifles out a little bit early."

Rev. Mike Dunlap, an associate pastor at St. Paul's Presbyterian Church, says, "when you live in rural western Pennsylvania, it's easy to be isolated from a world that exists behind the mountains."

Being thrust into the limelight, on September 11, 2001, and again in July 2002, "was a drastic change for people who don't usually have that broad focus." But the events dovetailed with the community's love of America and with its strong faith.

The heroism of the 40 passengers and crew aboard Flight 93, who fought back against the hijackers and are believed to have derailed their mission to strike Washington D.C., was a "booster shot of patriotism." And the rescue of all nine miners helped reiterate the belief that "God is alive and well."

"When you have an event of that magnitude, when people talk about God's hand at work, that the miraculous can still happen, when you say '9 for 9,' there's sort of that common experience, a mindset more open to understanding that great things beyond human expectation can still happen."

That slogan -- "9 for 9" -- became the rallying cry for the Quecreek rescue team: nine miners trapped and nine saved.

At a cozy-looking country church just a few miles away from the Flight 93 crash site, the Rev. Alphonse Mascherino put a sign out in front saying "9 for 9" as he watched the Quecreek rescue with fingers crossed.

"Everyone in the whole county was praying," he said, and the outcome was a testament to "the power of prayer."

His non-denominational Flight 93 Memorial Chapel is an eye-catcher from the road. The chapel serves as a place for people of all faiths to meditate, pray and occasionally hold services.

Outside is a memorial to those who died on the plane. The passengers' names are etched in benches surrounding a monument topped by a replica of a 757 plane. It bears the names of the pilots and flight attendants. A 3,000-pound remnant of the World Trade Center, with UA 93 inscribed on it, sits nearby. Across the road, American flags, each bearing the name of a victim, stand tall.

Ties that bind

At least 1.4 million people have made their way to the temporary memorial in pastoral Stonycreek Township to see the spot where the plane crashed, now considered hallowed ground.

The National Park Service is erecting a $60 million memorial at the spot and expects 250,000 visitors a year. Jeff Reinbold, the project site manager for the Flight 93 National Memorial, says that it is scheduled to be completed next year. Its design, he says, will have "more in common with battlefields."

On a recent day, Adam Krum, a 25-year-old ex-Marine who was wounded during his service in Iraq's Anbar province, motorcycled to the Flight 93 site with his dad and a group of others from Palmyra, Pennsylvania, to view the spot of the crash, now regarded as a cemetery.

He marveled at the thought of "ordinary Americans" who decided to fight the militants. He said he was "glad they kept it from taking out another building" full of people." He likened the events in Pennsylvania to his experiences in Iraq. Acts of bravery, he said, are about risking your life for your buddies. "We have these binds to people," he said.

Examples of living history

At the Quecreek farm where the rescue of the miners occurred, Bill and Lori Arnold are building a monument, too. Bill Arnold says people from seven states and two continents visited on a single day recently. A Japanese news agency stopped by to do a story.

"That shows the global impact of what went on here," he said.

"I would say 95 percent of the people are proud of the fact they live in an area where two national events occurred and they coped very well."
--Richard Claycomb, tour guide

Just a few days before the September 11 anniversary, more than 130 people from Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin on a trip to Pittsburgh stopped in Somerset for an itinerary that's become common: the Flight 93 site, the chapel and the Quecreek monument.

The tourism industry understands the link between Flight 93 and Quecreek. Tour guide Richard Claycomb of Osterburg, Bedford County, says the tours represent living history, helping people become more aware of the world today and get a textbook lesson in American ingenuity.

"I would say 95 percent of the people are proud of the fact they live in an area where two national events occurred and they coped very well," he said.

Bill Arrnold says most residents have gone back to business as usual -- but "with a little bit of satisfaction."

"The attitude is, something tragic and inspirational happened in our backyard," he said. "That's OK. It's not a big deal. We did what we had to do."

As more people trek to Somerset, careful planning is important to the elected officials. Pamela Tokar-Ickes, a Somerset County commissioner, said, "we have a huge responsibility to those who died on the plane to honor their memory."

A community's embrace

Gordon Felt regularly visits the sacred spot where his brother, Edward, died in the crash. He comes from his home in Remsen, New York, to a county he has come to love.

"It's peaceful, it's where I feel closest to my brother."
--Gordon Felt, brother of Flight 93 passenger

Somerset County opened its arms to the families of the 40 who died. The mood was set as soon as Felt and others victims' family members arrived: On every corner of the road, state troopers saluted them.

That gesture, says Felt, "will stay with me for the rest of my life."

Ever since, the community has made visitors feel welcome and let them know they understand what they are going through.

"You won't find a family member who will have a negative feeling about this community," Felt says. "The sense of community is amazing. Everybody knows everybody and people are looking out for you."

Only next of kin can visit the actual spot where the plane crashed.

"It's peaceful," Felt said. "It's where I feel closest to my brother."

This place in Somerset County, he says, has become a second home.

"We come to grieve, and we're not alone."