What is America?
The Shanksville Episodes:
[1:52 - Start of interview.]
Narrator: Her name is Val McClatchey and although you don’t know the name, you certainly know the picture of the red burn and the mushroom cloud that was ascending toward heaven shortly after Flight 93 crashed on that hill in Shanksville.
We met Val McClatchey several months after that picture was taken. What a wonderful person and what an inspirational story. It’s a story that will help us to answer the question, “What is America?”
Narrator: Tell us a little about life in Shanksville, Somerset, and western Pennsylvania.
Val McClatchey: September 11, 2001 started out just like most days. I got my husband off to work. I was sitting on the sofa watching TV having my 2nd and 3rd cup of coffee as usual and that’s when everything started going wrong in the world it seemed. The first plane had hit and at that time we thought it was an accident and when the second plane hit, it was just an incredible feeling like the whole world was gone crazy.
I was pretty much glued to the TV, like I’m sure most Americans were who had access to the TV at the time, and I had called my husband, who was on his way to a meeting, and while I was talking to him, the Pentagon had just been hit and it was, he was going to try to get back home. He knew they were not going to be able to make their meeting, so he was going to try to fight the traffic to get home.
And it wasn’t long after the Pentagon had gotten hit that I had heard a very loud surge of an engine. I just turned out to look out my front window and I just caught it, just a glimpse of just a flash and then the explosion had hit. It was forceful enough that it about knocked me off my sofa.
I’d had my digital camera -- was right by the door -- and I ran out and took a photo. The smoke rising over the hillside was just; it was so incredible when you think of the clear blue sky and everything. It was just, I don’t know what possessed me to do it, but I just did and I ran and grabbed my cellphone and got in my truck and tried to call 9/11 -- couldn’t get through. The cell -- we don’t have cell service very well at Indian Lake.
From then on I ran to our saw mill and they still had power and their phones were still working. That’s when we initially heard that it was a commercial liner that had gone down.
Narrator: The story of your photograph is very important. Tell us how the photograph came to be and how it changed your life.
Val: Well the photo, as I said, it was -- that was just an accidental, it was nothing intended. It was basically something that I’d just taken just because of the strange and not knowing what had happened, or anything.
It sat in my camera for a few days. You know, to me it was just a photograph of something. The state police and the FBI were asking for any photos related to Flight 93.
When I went to download it, I then realized my then seven month old puppy had chewed the end of my chord to download it into my computer, so I had taken the chord and everything, had it replaced, could not get it to recognize my camera into the computer. Ran back and got a memory card reader and as soon as I did I downloaded, made a copy of the photo, took it to the state police and within an hour, three FBI agents were in my house.
It turns out to be the very first photo taken related. It’s -- timed it out -- it was approximately 5 seconds after impact that I snapped the photo. It was the very first one related. In some of it, I -- apparently the FBI thought it was worthwhile; they took the original memory card. So it turns out that photo was a piece of history that I captured that second in time. I still look at it in kind of disbelief that I’m the one who did that, or had the presence of mind to do it and that’s not something you think about.
Narrator: Val as I understand it, your photograph has brought agony and ecstasy. Tell us about the initial reaction of the FBI when they discovered that you had this incredible photograph.
Val: Well the FBI, when they came in, they looked at it on my computer which is a lot clearer. They could actually see, you know, what they appear to be debris flying out from that cloud of smoke which I’m sure with modern technology they could do a little more scientific evidence I believe.
I really don’t know, I mean when I think about it, the agony of it is knowing that just seconds, lot of people died… But since then it’s, that photo’s been everywhere. People, neighbors want a copy, so of course they wanted to pay for the paper and my ink and everything. Taking the money for myself didn’t feel right, so we decided that the money needed to go to the families of Flight 93.
At that time there were no funds set up for it. So I was on my way to the bank -- I had sold a few pictures -- and that’s when Lisa Beamer had taken the same flight that Todd would have taken. She announced at that time the forming of the Todd Beamer Foundation and the checks that come and money that comes in and we’ve been sending out to support the families of Flight 93 and that’s just -- it felt like the right thing to do.
The photo has been all over the world; Australia, France, over in Germany, everyone. It’s now hanging in the Smithsonian Institution and that was the most unique experience out of it. I’ve seen the photo thousands of times already, but seeing it hanging there and hearing the other people’s reactions to it, that was probably one of the most memorable times regarding my photo.
Narrator: When you look at your picture, what do you see there?
Val: The end of serenity. Things haven’t been the same since obviously; the traffic. For the two weeks afterwards, we had the generators running at night. You could hear them all night long. You could see the glare, the lights against the sky. You couldn’t, you didn’t feel free to drive up and down the road. There was state police and FBI and everything surrounding the area for weeks afterwards. It turned our quiet little town to something out of a movie scene.
Narrator: What has it done to you personally?
Val: Well our life has definitely changed. Right before 9/11, we suffered some severe business loss to the point we were forced to file Chapter 11 with our business. We were in the process of reorganizing and right afterwards the insurance company decided they no longer want to deal with high-risk businesses. I feel that the insurance companies took advantage of the 9/11 situation in general. When we tried to get insurance, we could no longer afford it. The rates have doubled, tripled, quadrupled to the point we couldn’t recoup, so as of Dec. 31st, we ended up losing our business, putting 40 some other people out of work, which is not a great way to start the New Year.
(JCM Industries is named after Val's husband; John C. McClatchey, CEO.)
I’d had some health problems. Gall bladder surgery and during the testing for all the gall bladder problems, they found a tumor on my kidney and lesions on my liver, so day after Christmas, I had my gall bladder out. Right after there I went right into taking real estate classes to start a new career to help support my family.
Narrator: And to you, what is important in life?
Val: Wanting to wake up everyday. Just knowing that people I care about ’s going to be ok. Lot to look forward to, a wedding to plan. I’ve got a great husband that -- he’s been through a lot and he has supported me. We’ve done a complete role-reversal. He’s at home, doing some work at home and I’m the one going out with the briefcase in the morning, which is quite a unique challenge, facing life’s little twists and turns, but we try to look forward to the fact that as one door closes, who knows what lies on the other side of the other doors? That is what I’m trying to focus on right now.
We may have lost our company. We may lose my house, but who knows? We might find a nicer house, we might – you know you just don’t know? Things have changed, but somehow love finds a way to make it all work out.
Narrator: So how do you go one? What motivates you? What inspires you?
Val: Well what inspires me is having to get up everyday and face life. It beats the alternative.
I have a young, well my son and his young wife. They just bought a house, looking forward to starting their family. A daughter, who is getting married in May, just found out she has cancer, so now I have to be strong for her and supportive and get her through her crisis and get her happily married and start her family. And I have a great husband and somehow we’re going to make it.
Narrator: You have the strength and resilience and good spirit and good will of the most admirable dimensions. Where does that all come from?
Val: I would say, just comes from the love I have from my family and friends and just the faith that if you do the right thing and live the right way, it’s gonna come back. Yeah, I have my bad days. Yeah, I feel like going out and punching somebody in the face and I go home and punch on the pillow, or something, or take my frustrations out on exercise, or some other way, but I’m only human. Like everybody else, I have my faults. But as I say if you do the right thing and sooner, or later, it’s going to come back for you; ten-fold.
Narrator: When it’s all said and done, what do you want people to know about you? What do you want your legacy to be?
Val: That in no matter what, that somehow, someway, I’ll find a way to smile and keep going and somehow, someway put it behind me and just trust in God that he’ll make things right for us.
[23:37 - End of interview.]
- Val McClatchey Photo: More Smoking Guns, or Total Fraud? (07/18/06)
- The Shanksville Episodes: Val McClatchey - Windsor Park Stories (download)