Article first printed in the Wall Street Journal and reprinted at the Journal Gazette. See my rebuttal to this article here. (emphasis mine)
Tuesday, September 12, 2006By Jeffrey Zaslow, The Wall Street Journal
SHANKSVILLE -- On Sept. 11, 2001, United Airlines Flight 93 fell from the sky and crashed in a field three miles from Chuck Wagner's house.Five years later, he says, his life priorities are now crystallized: "My family, my church, Flight 93."A 57-year-old heavy-equipment operator, Mr. Wagner is one of 42 volunteer "ambassadors" at the crash site. They are all local people who now see it as their duty to tell visitors about the heroics on that plane, when passengers fought back against terrorists.Mr. Wagner helps preserve the thousands of mementos left by visitors at the site's makeshift memorial. He maintains decorum; if tourists are giggling into cellphones, he asks them to take their calls elsewhere. When people cry, he has cried with them. "I've told the story thousands of times, but some things just grab my heart," he says. "I'll see a tear running down a woman's cheek, and it's hard for me to keep talking."Like Mr. Wagner, many of the 2,500-or-so area residents here say Flight 93 forever changed how they view their role in the world. And their sense of purpose has profoundly touched the families of the passengers and crew members. The locals "watch over the area where the plane went down as if it were their own family cemetery," says Christine Fraser, whose sister, Colleen, was on the flight."From day one, they opened their arms, their hearts and their homes to all of us," says Larry Catuzzi, who lost his daughter, Lauren, on the plane.For residents here, such praise makes them wonder: Is there something about their rural area -- populated largely by blue-collar, church-going families -- that makes them special, or would any community have risen to the occasion?Locals say the past five years haven't been easy for them. Some ambassadors say their home lives have been tested, as they pay less attention to their children while giving long hours to Flight 93 projects. Others have been targeted by bloggers and conspiracy theorists, who charge that they are somehow involved in nefarious cover-ups involving the flight.At the crash site just outside of Shanksville, in the township of Stonycreek, a $58 million permanent memorial is slated to open in 2011. The 2,200-acre National Park Service project will have 40 groves of maple trees leading to what it calls the "Sacred Ground," where the plane fell. A tower with 40 wind chimes will mark entry to the site, which will include a museum. About $30 million of the cost is to come from nongovernment sources. About $7 million has been raised so far.Many Shanksville-area residents approve of the design, calling it a fitting tribute to the 40 passengers and crew, whose actions prevented terrorists from reaching their alleged target in Washington, D.C. Others fear the formal memorial won't offer the emotional tugs found at the "temporary" one, which overflows with handmade tributes, crosses, flags and photos.The current memorial has a Mom-and-Pop quality to it. Mementos are placed on a 40-foot-long, 10-foot-high section of fencing erected on a gravel lot overlooking the filled-in, now grassy crash site, 500 yards away. Ambassadors bring their personal photo albums, showing snapshots they took in the aftermath of the crash. They share stories about how their homes shook when the plane hit, or how debris from the crash floated into their yards. In bad weather, ambassadors invite visitors to talk in a small former state-park guard shack.Locals think of the memorial as "the people's place," says Donna Glessner, 48, who works at her family's building-supply store and organized the ambassadors. "We didn't make it. The world made it. We just take care of it."More than 130,000 people visit the site each year -- the ambassadors count them on hand-held clickers -- and all have questions. The ambassadors say they try not to speculate too much. During a training process led by Ms. Glessner, ambassadors agree to stick to the official 9/11 Commission Report or to say, "We don't know."Dignitaries come and go here, usually on anniversaries. President Bush is due to visit Monday. But the ambassadors are on duty 365 days a year, from morning to sunset. They are scheduled in two-hour shifts. They have collected 30,000 mementos and notes left by visitors, all of which are stored and catalogued: poems, baby pacifiers, guitar picks, soldiers' boots. "We can understand the visitors' words," says Barbara Black, curator of the collection. "Their objects are harder to understand."Some ambassadors say they appreciate all the crosses and religious tokens now at the site, and worry that the permanent memorial won't have references to faith. "If it is secularized and sanitized, I don't know if I will be involved," says Ed Klein, an ambassador. He believes symbols of faith "bring order out of the chaos that was that flight."Many say religious expressions belong here, because the crash site is a final resting place. Flight 93 took off from Newark, N.J., bound for San Francisco. There were 33 passengers, seven crew members and four hijackers, and given the impact of the crash -- the plane hit the ground at 580 miles an hour and debris was imbedded 45 feet deep -- more than 90 percent of human remains couldn't be recovered from the site, according to the county coroner.Shanksville-area residents understand the impulse people have to come to the site. And they are getting used to outsiders. At first, they admit, they were nervous when hundreds of leather-clad motorcyclists would roar through town in search of the crash site. Ambassadors now say bikers are among the most reverent and patriotic visitors.At the site, ambassadors show visitors a photo taken by local real-estate agent Val McClatchey. She lives just over a mile from where the plane fell. At 10:03 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, she was in her living room, watching TV coverage of the World Trade Center attacks. A loud boom shook her house. She grabbed a digital camera that was by her front door.The photo she took shows a mushroom cloud rising into a blue sky, with a neighbor's barn in the foreground. The FBI says it is the only known image taken within seconds of the crash. Ms. McClatchey, 50, says, "If I knew how much chaos it would create in my life, I might have just deleted it."Accusations about her photo have spread across the Internet. Conspiracy theorists say the photo actually depicts a bomb blast, or that the cloud suggests the plane was shot down by the U.S. government. Others charge the photo is a phony. It is hard, she says, to see her name on the Internet alongside the words "total fraud."The ambassadors feel for Ms. McClatchey. If bloggers would come to Shanksville, "they could talk to a hundred people who saw that same cloud that day," Ms. Glessner says.Many ambassadors and other locals have formed lasting friendships with the victims' families. Shirley Hillegass, 68, lives three miles from the crash site. Six months after the plane fell, she attended a church service for victims and sat behind a woman who was weeping. Ms. Hillegass says she felt the woman's pain so deeply that "it was like I was in her body." The woman was Esther Heymann, stepmother of Honor Elizabeth Wainio, who died on Flight 93 at age 27.Ms. Hillegass also has lost a child. Her 32-year-old daughter, Annette, died in a car accident during a 1994 snowstorm.Ms. Heymann, 57, lives in Catonsville, Md., and every couple of months, drives 180 miles to the crash site. Over time, the two mothers have grown close. They talk about their daughters: vivacious young career women who were alike in many ways. They also recognize the differences in their losses -- one so public, one little noticed beyond friends and loved ones.Ms. Hillegass last talked to her daughter, who lived out of town, a week before the car accident. It was an uneventful conversation.By contrast, Ms. Heymann received a cellphone call from her stepdaughter before Flight 93 crashed. They decided that, to remain calm, they both would look at the beauty outside their windows. Ms. Heymann, safe in her home, looked into the sky above Maryland. Ms. Wainio gazed out of the plane at the sky above western Pennsylvania. Ms. Wainio expressed her love for each family member, then said she had to hang up because passengers were "breaking into the cockpit."Lined up on the grounds of the Flight 93 memorial are 40 painted angels on sticks. The angel bearing Ms. Wainio's name has a photo of her looking radiant, wearing jeans and a short-sleeve white shirt. In the winter, that photo saddens her stepmother. "She's not dressed for snow, and I feel so impotent," Ms. Heymann says. "I wish I could keep her safe." Between Ms. Heymann's visits to the site, Ms. Hillegass checks up on the photo, or places flowers there.Mr. Wagner, the heavy-equipment operator, is the ambassador in charge of maintenance at the site. He often emails Flight 93 families to let them know that tributes or photos have gotten sun-bleached or tattered and should be replaced. "I try to be their hands and eyes at the site," he says.For seven days after Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Wagner volunteered at the crash site, helping to gather plane parts, personal effects such as clothing and shoes, and human remains. "I asked God to direct me," he says. "If it was something I could handle, I wanted to be part of it." Some passengers' loved ones know that Mr. Wagner saw a lot that week. They don't ask him many questions, he says, "and I don't share much."At the crash site, presentations have changed as information has become available. This spring, the transcript of Flight 93's cockpit voice recorder was made public, revealing the mayhem of the final 31 minutes. Ambassadors now bring photocopies of the transcript to the site each day. Many visitors stand there, solemnly reading every word.Ambassadors keep a log about each day's visitors. One entry describes a busload of blind people, who crawled along the ground, feeling the tributes left by other visitors. They also asked to touch the ambassador's face.The ambassadors, who will remain on duty once the permanent memorial opens, say they have become better listeners since 2001. Many visitors want to tell them where they were on Sept. 11, and how they felt, and ambassadors see it as their job to listen.When Ms. Glessner interacts with visitors, a mix of sadness and anger sometimes creeps up on her, she says. "I think, 'Why am I, this little person in this little town, talking about Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta? Why did they invade my space?'"Her children, ages 17 and 20, are proud of her work on the memorial but have little interest in Flight 93 anymore, she says. "They see it as something that has taken me away from the family." Though two-thirds of the ambassadors are senior citizens, there is optimism in Shanksville that the younger generation eventually will step up when called on. Ms. Glessner says: "It's a story that will be told as long as stories are told."Ben Wainio, who lost his daughter on the flight, has visited the crash site on the coldest, windiest days of winter. At times, he has been alone there -- except for the ambassador on duty. Ambassadors have helped him wipe snow off a bench that bears his daughter's name, and they have sat next to him in the cold, saying little. "We just look out at the field together," Mr. Wainio says.Shanksville's embrace has led him to look at his loss in new ways. There is a thought that never would have occurred to him five years ago, but now he feels comfortable saying it aloud: Americans were murdered on four planes on Sept. 11, and if Elizabeth was fated to be on one of them, he says, "I'm so glad it was Flight 93."