Littwin: On 9/11, Shanksville, United Flight 93, boulevard of heroes and the town of memory

Flight 93 National Memorial located outside Shanksville, Pa. (Photo by Tami A. Heilemann NPS via Flickr: Creative Commons)

Everything changed and nothing changed. That’s not the lesson of 9/11. It’s the lesson of every trauma, every tragedy, every day for that matter.

I traveled to New York from Denver on the first day the planes flew after 9/11, which was the Thursday after the Tuesday we’ll never forgot. I was one of maybe a dozen on the plane, and I think one of two who didn’t work for the airline. I called my wife just before we took off to tell her this would be the safest plane I ever flew. She wasn’t convinced. When I got to Dallas to change planes, they couldn’t find a flight-attendant crew willing to fly. One finally flew in from San Diego, and I got to Philly (the New York airports had opened briefly and then closed) at about 4 a.m.

Took the train to New York, caught the subway downtown, where only one station was open: City Hall. When I got out — the train was nearly empty — there was a cop guarding the entrance/exit. I begged him to let me past, having just flown all night, and wanting desperately to tell this story. He did. Don’t let anyone tell you that there aren’t good cops.

I was able to get within four blocks of Ground Zero on West Broadway before I reached a security blockade. It was the day George W. Bush gave his famous megaphone speech at the Pile. I remember three things — there were so many more — that haunt me from that day. The terrible smell. It smelled like death, thousands of times over. The lines of workers, rescuers, marching in and out of the rubble. They went in like soldiers eager for battle and would emerge hours later looking like soldiers who had seen what no one should ever have to see. And a doggie day care center. Because with death there’s life, and there were loudly barking dogs left there from workers at the Twin Towers who never made it out. The owner didn’t know what to do with them.

Today, on the 17th anniversary, I see another sad story, how Donald Trump’s first tweet of the day was a phony tweet about Russia and NO collusion and the FBI. Then I saw him landing in Johnstown, Pa., near the Shanksville site, where he would go for a ceremony. Supporters were on hand at the airport and there was this devastating photo of the president, fists raised as if at the start of another Trump rally.

I had gone to Shanksville to write about the town on the first anniversary. I met the coroner, Wally Miller, with whom I had made an appointment, but when I got to his house/funeral parlor, he just wasn’t in the mood to do another interview. I couldn’t blame him. But we started talking on his porch, and, from the house, I could hear an HBO documentary on the American Basketball Association playing on his TV. I asked if he was an ABA fan. He said he loved the Pittsburgh Condors. I told him I covered the ABA as my first job in newspapers, when I covered Dr. J and George Gervin and the rest. He smiled, as if he needed someone to talk to about something other than death. He invited me in and we spent two days together, laughing about the ABA and crying for the victims and heroes — to Miller, they were the same — of United Flight 93.

And then he took me to the site, sacred ground, where few were allowed to go, shards of the plane still visible on the ground. You couldn’t help but be shaken and you couldn’t help but be forever moved.

And this is what I wrote for The Rocky Mountain News:

When you walk down the field toward the crash site, you start to see it how Wally Miller does.

Miller is a tall man, given to small ironies, who has a face that often looks as if it’s ready to break into laughter. He’s the county coroner in these parts and a funeral home director. He has been made famous — it’s official; his face has graced the pages of People magazine  — as the coroner for United Airlines Flight 93 and the unofficial advocate for the families of the 40 who died.

In his coroner’s role, he leads the way to the field next to the site of the crash — close enough to find metal shards from the doomed plane —  and still he can summon up a laugh. It’s part of his charm.

“This is the middle of nowhere,” he says of the field a few miles outside little Shanksville, a village of 245 residents whose welcome sign calls it a “friendly little town.”There is a newer sign pointing the way to the crash site, and yet another announcing what it calls the “boulevard of heroes.”

“You couldn’t find a more remote place for a plane to go down,”’ says Miller, who has been to the site hundreds of times. “Look on the map. Right there, it says middle of nowhere.”

There’s a fence around the area, which makes it look a little like a baseball diamond. It’s a private place, where Miller takes family members when they come to visit what is essentially a graveyard. A few hundred yards up the hill is the makeshift memorial, with its prayers and poems and a steady stream of visitors. One man holds his 4-year-old son and tries to explain what happened in that field. Another walks away, hiding his tears, only to walk back and walk away again.

We know the story, or as much of it as we can. These were the heroes. They stopped the terrorists from whatever their mission was. When the plane went down at full speed into what was once a strip mine, most of it simply vaporized. The largest piece of remains was a 5-inch section of vertebrae. We know the cell-phone conversations and the “let’s roll” command. Investigators tried to get a more complete picture of the final moments, but the ground yielded no clues. Miller says as far as he’s concerned, all the passengers were heroes.

As it happens, this ground is not very far from the ground that recently yielded the rescued miners. (Nine miners were trapped underground at The Quecreek Mine for 77 hours in July of 2002; all nine were rescued).For Miller, who would have been the coroner if those men had died, that rescue has confused the issue of Flight 93 for some people. This is what Miller sees.

“When the journalists arrived after the coal mine thing happened, they tried to make it seem as if we were some kind of land of destiny,” Miller says. “They were two totally different things. One was a rescue process. One was a recovery process. One had a happy ending. One had a horrible ending. It’s also as if, in the hero aspect of this, something has been lost. It’s not a happy ending. A murder was committed — a mass murder.”

And as for the land of destiny, Miller sighs. “The thing I always try to point out is, Somerset County was not destined to be the recipient of this crash. This is just where the ground met the plane.”

Just like that, Miller has gone serious. As a small-town coroner, whose father was the Somerset County coroner before him, he knows tragedy. For him, this historic tragedy differs only in scale.

“We tend to put the families into a group,” he says. “But the only thing they have in common is the tragedy. They each have their own lives, their own problems, their own way of dealing with the grief. I always try to be mindful of that.”

Miller is not just the coroner. He is the link between Somerset County — he lives in the county seat, about 10 miles from Shanksville — and the families. Most plane crashes occur either at takeoff or landing, in places where the passengers have a connection. Planes rarely just fall from this sky, as this one did.

There was no connection here. So Miller, who points out that no one on the plane had ever been anywhere near Shanksville, became the connection. No one told him to. No one told him not to. He just did it.

Shanksville is the small town of memory. It’s the kind of place where you leave a car running outside Ida’s Store, the only store in the town. But it has become the kind of place where the greeter at the United Methodist Church can tell you she’s tired of being asked how Shanksville has changed.

Rick King, a Shanksville volunteer fireman, shows off his new tanker, which has a Flight 93 mural on the back. He tells me how he heard that the FAA was considering restricting the airspace on Sept. 11 over New York, Washington and Shanksville.

“It sounded so strange,” he says. “Who’d have ever thought we’d ever be in the same sentence with New York and D.C.?”

King was among the first to see the plane go down. When Miller arrived, he had no idea it was an act of terrorism. He was stunned to see no part of the plane intact.

And so it began for him. Miller contacted all the families, telling them he would be available day or night. Many called back. Many still do. One calls at 2 a.m. She lives on the West Coast and knows Miller stays up late. It’s that kind of relationship.

“Where do you draw the line,” he asks, “between being a county official and being these people’s friend?”

Last January, he had a problem in both capacities. He was sending home virtually empty caskets. Only 8 percent of the remains were recovered, and only 40 percent of those were identified. There were 350 pounds of unidentified remains, and he wanted a meeting of the families – he picked Newark – to decide how to treat them. All he needed was funding.

He says United refused, and the Red Cross refused. He even tried to get to Neil Young, who had the hit with “Let’s Roll.” Finally, he got a call from United Way, which offered $100,000.

“Everyone told us it was too soon and that the families wouldn’t come,” Miller says. “Thirty-six of the 40 families showed up.”

And now many, who bonded at that meeting last March, are coming to a Shanksville where you can now buy $14 “Let’s Roll” T-shirts and an assortment of Flight 93 collectibles. There are private family activities set up for Sept. 10 and a public memorial, to be attended by the president, on Sept. 11.

Miller worries the families have had no chance to privately grieve and hopes that will change after the anniversary. But he also wants them to know this ground, where there will eventually be a permanent marker, is their ground.

As a funeral director, Miller knows this is not just a memorial site where a monument will one day be built. It is also, and forever more, a graveyard.

It was 16 years ago that I met Miller. We kept in touch for a few years. Then, eventually, we didn’t. Life moved on. Everything changed and nothing changed.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I flew right after and was also at ground zero afterwards. Truly the safest plane ride that I and a half dozen other passengers have ever taken. The smell is also what haunts me to this day.

    With the way things have played out over the years, I can’t help but feel deeply mixed emotions every 9/11.

    What an absolute clusterfvck on a thousand levels.

  2. Thank you for this reprise of your writing from back then. “Life moved on. Everything changed and nothing changed.”

    I find it uncommonly depressing to know the wars started after the terrorism of 9/11 continue with no end in sight.

  3. Thanks, Mike, for being the connection between your readers and Wally Miller. His story has lost none of its power.

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