Shanksville, PA: A Place Where Hope Is Stronger Than Death

Written by Tony Mussari
Edited by Kitch Loftus-Mussari
Copyright 2012
Mussari-Loftus Associates
All Rights Reserved
The Face of America Project

Our worth is always determined by our deeds, not by our good intentions, however noble. Og Mandino

An Anniversary Like No Other

When Kitch and I made our first visit to Shanksville, our lives were changed forever.

The genuineness of the People’s Memorial to the Heroes of Flight 93, the welcoming way of the ambassadors we met, the natural beauty of the setting, the poignant reminders of the courage and determination of the passengers and crew of Flight 93 and the heartfelt tributes left by thousands of visitors made an indelible mark on our souls.

This week I opened the door to my memory room.  Once inside, I spent a good deal of time thinking about what I learned during our visits to the People’s Memorial and the annual screenings of our Changed Forever series in Shanksville. Thousands of images flashed through my mind. The rush of emotions accompanying this kaleidoscope was humbling.

These are some of the images that spoke to my heart.

Memorable Quotes

The seven words written on a guard rail, “The peace you find here is eternal,” reminded me that most of the things we think are important don’t give us peace of mind.

The handcrafted note from a child named Shelly, “Thank you for what you did even though you were scared.”  Embedded in these words is the powerful and healing virtue of gratitude. As one of the ancients said, “It is the queen of all virtues.”

The inscription on a tile that read, “A hero is one who keeps trying.” In this world of bigness, most of us feel a sense of overwhelming smallness, yet the child who wrote this note reminds us that perseverance and perspective will help us make it through the distractions and the nights of darkness into the light of understanding.   

The seven words written on the wall of tributes in 2002 by one of our students Chuck Moran: “A piece of us all stays here.”

Those words set the tone for all of our visits that followed.

Another member of our group, Jeff Soles wrote this note: “One nation under God indivisible thanks.”

Jeff Soles was one of the most impressive and courageous people I have ever met. He was battling cancer when he visited the site. He lost his battle shortly after he wrote this note.  His words had special meaning then, and even more meaning today.

Images of Horror and Hope

The black mushroom cloud hovering over the red barn in Val McClatchy’s picture is the classic image of what happened in Shanksville on September 11, 2001.

In another respect, that black cloud is symbolic of the darkness of animosity, hatred and violence that darkens our world to this day.
Val has paid a very heavy price personally and professionally because of her picture. Yet she remained true to her mission. She wanted to share it with the world no matter what her critics said. Today Val’s picture is one of the icons of that place and that day.

For 10 years, the 40 Angels of Freedom watched over the huge debris field as they paid a personal and poignant tribute to the men and women who fought the first battle in the war against terror. These slate angels created by Eric Pierson and his wife Tammy gave the site a quality of comfort and warmth that is difficult to describe.

Chuck Wagner’s captivating picture of the site at sunset may very well be one of the most beautiful pictures of the symbolism of this sacred place.

Chuck is a thoughtful man.  In his world, faith and family set the agenda. He and his wife Jayne have spent countless hours working at the site as Flight 93 Ambassadors.  Chuck has taken more pictures of the site than anyone I know. This picture records the beauty and majesty of this place of hope and heroes.  

This picture of the MacMillans entering the site records a special moment in the life of a family whose friendship and love for Todd Beamer and his family brought them here to celebrate his life. It speaks to the joy of community. It represents friendship, loyalty and love. For Kitch and me all of these things are embedded deep in the soil in Shanksville.

Everything about the People’s Memorial told visitors they were not alone.  They were a part of the Shanksville family, and, in another respect, they were an essential part of the American family.

Joanne Galvin presenting the National 9/11 flag to the students
from North Plainfield High School is a bridge to the next generation of Shanksville storytellers. It is a powerful reminder that we must never forget what happened to our country on September 11, 2001. It represents the fulfillment of a promise Joanne made to her late husband to continue his mission, and the hope that the next generation will keep this important national symbol flying in every state.

Kitch’s impressionistic picture of the shadows cast by the tributes on the chain link fence records the haunting feeling one gets while visiting the site. There are so many questions, and very few answers.  Why did it happen?  Why were so many innocent lives taken in New York, Washington, DC and here without cause? Why do people hate and kill in the name of God? When will we learn to resolve our differences without murdering innocents?

Questions and Answers

In 2009, Clarence Michael looked at the wall of tributes, and
he asked the quintessential question, “I wonder what I would have done?”  In my heart of hearts, I believe that most of the people who visited the site silently asked themselves this question. They know what they would have liked to do, but few are certain about what they would have done.

Chelsea Blue was a freshman at the North Plainfield High School in New Jersey when she defined heroism with these thoughtful words:

“A hero is someone who does great things and you look up to them, and you try to follow in their footsteps. A hero is not a celebrity. A hero is someone who stands up for what’s right, does what’s right, and never breaks the law or does anything bad. You never know your heroes until they are gone.”

Our chance meeting with the cheerleaders from North
PlainfieldHigh School in New Jersey in 2009 opened the door to opportunities for teaching, learning, growing and service we never thought possible. Shanksville was our second home during the past ten years. North Plainfield has become our new second home. We are deeply grateful for the friends we have made in both communities.

The Gift of Friendship

This picture of Janie Kiehl telling the Shanksville story to a group of students from our last class evokes warm and sentimental feelings of gratitude for the gift of friendship.

Janie Kiehl was the first person Kitch met in Shanksville. We did not know it then, but she would become the person who made all of our screenings happen.

On the day we literally bumped into one another, Janie was the Flight 93 Ambassador on duty at the site. Today, Janie is an admired and cherished friend. Every year she arranged the community dinner for our guests, and she secured the Methodist church for our screening. In more ways than I can describe here, she personifies what friendship is all about.

During our last interview, I asked Janie what she would want people to know about Shanksville. She thought for a moment, and then she replied, “Welcome to small town America.”

Today the People’s Memorial is only a memory of a time when citizens of goodwill joined together to remember and pay tribute to 40 heroes and heroines who defined in courageous and heroic ways what America is on its best and worst day. The design came from their hearts, their beliefs and their experiences.  The construction was the work of their hands. The atmosphere reflected their caring hearts.

The temporary memorial was open, honest, welcoming and oh, so memorable. For those of us who experienced its transformational power, it will live in our hearts forever, and it will give us hope.

As one youngster wrote, “Hope is stronger than death.”

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