Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Let's Roll to Shanksville, PA

Anna and I made an emotional pilgrimage yesterday. For years, we have talked about making the hour and a half trip from Morgantown to pay our respects to the hallowed ground where Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, PA. On Saturday, we finally did it. With the upcoming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we wanted to check it out before all the hub-bub. It will be interesting to watch the coverage of the anniversary services there, now that we have a “sense of place” for that location. For me, a sense of place is very important—if I have been to any specific geographical coordinates, I have a much closer and personal connection to that locale and all that happens there.

It was an interesting drive, through several small towns with a variety of interesting sights. We passed dozens and dozens of new wind turbines in different clusters along the way (Anna agrees that if you count those stretching north from the Cheat Lake area at the start of our trip, we may have seen a hundred of them).

Along the way, we had many enjoyable conversations. At one point, I tried to articulate why this was important to me. You see, I felt like the 40 Americans who died on Flight 93 were the biggest heroes of all. Now this is not meant to take anything away from those courageous first responders who perished at World Trade Center (WTC)—their bravery, too, is unquestionable.

However, I felt compelled to visit Shanksville to express my gratitude to those who fought back against terrorism, even if it was going to cost their own lives. Had they not chosen to fight, that jet would have likely crashed into the Capitol building in Washington, DC. It probably would’ve killed a young congressional intern like I once was (Anna loved the behind the scenes tour of the secret basement corridors in the Capitol building during our visit in the summer of 2001—since 9/11 there is no way to do that because of the security precautions in place now).

More importantly, it might have destroyed a huge and historic symbol of America. Of the four planes that crashed, Flight 93 had the fewest passengers, and no one was killed on the ground. Because so few died there, and because of its remote, rural location, it doesn’t always get the attention and credit that I think they deserve. As we drove up there, in my mind they were the bravest of all. They saved the U.S. Capitol, and demonstrated the American resolve that we will not stand by idly and allow such thing to happen. If their plane had crashed near an east coast urban area, with easy access to more of the population, I think these victims would get more of the attention they deserve. I wanted to honor these brave Americans—not just Todd Beamer, who famously uttered “Let’s Roll” as the passengers began their counter-attack, but all who gave their lives that day.

Upon arrival, we walked out to the viewing area, on a small hill overlooking the crash site. A local expert with a Flight 93 Memorial Ambassador shirt was explaining to folks about the actual crash, and about the new memorial that would be opened in a few weeks. You could already see the temporary fencing in the field below that was being set up for the special guests and dignitaries who would be arriving for the ceremony. A white cover flapped in the breeze down below, covering what will be the “Wall of Heroes” to be unveiled on 9/11.

Heroes. Indeed, I had come to pay homage to those whom I had thought were the biggest heroes of all. However, I learned a life lesson that day. Especially when you yourself cannot claim to be a hero, how can one presume to measure heroes? Who am I to say who the biggest hero is? Maybe calculating hero-ship is something most of us should not attempt.

I came to this conclusion, because we met a man at the overlook who had left his home at the Jersey shore to escape the path of Hurricane Irene. He had always wanted to visit Shanksville, too, and the immediate need to get away from the storms provided a good reason to come to the mountains of Pennsylvania. He shared his story with the “ambassador” and several other visitors like us. It was an absolutely fascinating story. We could have talked with him for hours.

Bob Mansfield worked on the 82nd floor of the second WTC building to get hit. He had commuted into work, taken a series of elevators (because none of them went the full height of the building), and had just arrived at his desk on the far side of the building (where he couldn’t see the first building that had been hit). As he sat down and grabbed his coffee mug, he was suddenly tossed backward by a big explosion—the second plane had hit his building. It didn’t take long to figure out what happened, because jet fuel was leaking through the ceiling (he knew what jet fuel smelled like from his military days). He and his coworkers realized they needed to get out. [The following few paragraphs include a few quotes from his interview with U.S. News and World Report shortly after it happened—although in the haste of the moment, some of the reporter's facts from that story were wrong, so I have woven what Bob told us with a few of his quotes from that article.]

"I thought it was an earthquake at first," he says. "The whole building just rocked." An official with the New York Port Authority, Mansfield raced with colleagues for the nearest emergency exit; they found a locked door. "We thought we were trapped." They retraced their steps, only to discover a fire had broken out in their offices. Bob was a volunteer fireman in his New Jersey community, and grabbed one of those glass enclosed wall mounted fire hoses and turned it on.

They doused the fire, found another exit, then climbed down 82 stories, meeting hundreds of others in the dark, silent stairwells. If you have ever seen the iconic picture of young firemen rushing up the steps of an interior stairway while others are walking down, Bob is in that picture.

After literally running down the first 50 flights of stairs, around the 30th floor, things started slowing down as the met the backup of others who were trying to get out. Once he made it to the mezzanine level, all he had left was to go down the escalator and get out the doors. He was near the escalator talking to a fireman when another huge explosion occurred, throwing debris and choking dust all over him. He did not know it at the time, but the first building had just collapsed, and as it crashed to the ground, its debris burst into the lobby of his building, and with it a thick darkness of nearly impenetrable dust.

"We hit the ground," Mansfield recalls. "There was debris flying everywhere, and it was pitch black. I heard a lot of screams, but I couldn't see anything." In the darkness, he followed another man with a flashlight, which only lit a few feet ahead through the dusty air. Eventually they joined some firemen, who were trying to find their way out as a human chain, each holding an arm on the shoulder of the one ahead; because it was so dark one couldn’t see much further. The first exit they tried was blocked, and Bob suggested going out another door on the river side of the building, used by commuters who came via ferryboat. That door worked and the group was able to get outside.

By then, he was a figure of ghostly white. His suit pants were coated in gray ash, his dress shirt balled up in his hand–it had been his mask. He worked his way uptown, initially desperate for water, and frequently asking to borrow cell phones to call his wife, but it seemed he could never get his call through. A woman in a car gave him a ride to the Port Authority terminal, where the manager gave him an “I ♥ NY” t-shirt from one of the vendor stores. He wore that clean new t-shirt along with his dust covered pants all the way home that night.

This is just a summary of Bob’s story that he shared with us. It was quite a memorable accounting of the horror of that day. Bob would probably cast off the mantle, but he indeed was a hero that day. He later saw a BBC documentary, where a British businessman talked about the Port Authority worker, with his suit tie askew, manning the firehose to beat back the flames, and then encouraging others to pass below the stream of water while he held the hose high so they could get to the stairwell. The British businessman credited this man—unknown to him—for saving their lives with his actions, and wondered on-screen whether he had made it out. Bob was eventually able to call the British businessman and let him know that indeed, he had made it out alive, too. They had a long conversation that day, as I am sure Bob has had lots of long conversations about his experiences on 9/11. Besides the residual dust damage to his lungs, the events of that day have changed his life forever.

Although he just thinks of himself as a regular guy who did what anyone else would do if put into that situation, Bob is indeed a hero in my eyes. It would be wrong for me to think of him as a lesser hero than Todd Beamer or any of the other brave souls from Flight 93. He proved to me that heroes walk among us and we might not even know it.

The rest of our time there was spent in the museum area, with posters explaining the details of the events that day, the following investigation, and the plans for the new memorial area to be opening soon. A brief biography of each of the 40 victims is especially touching. Although it was crowded with visitors, the entire room was silent with reverence. It is a powerful emotional experience that will leave a lasting impact on me—as well as that lesson learned on not measuring heroes.

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