Posts Tagged ‘Flight 93’

Shanksville: Where Hope Is Stronger Than Death

Monday, September 10th, 2012

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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Four Days in North Plainfield, NJ, Part 3

Friday, December 9th, 2011

Teaching Moments

Written By Tony Mussari
Photographs By Kitch Mussari
Copyright 2011
Mussari-Loftus Associates
The Face of America Project,

Teaching Moments

“Nine-tenths of education is encouragement.” Anatole France

Doc 05: the Challenge

Prior to my visit to the North Plainfield High School for two presentations to the student body, I spent many restless nights conceptualizing the nature, objectives and tone for this unique teaching opportunity.

I wanted to connect with the students. I wanted to engage the students in a series of exercises that would reinvigorate the seeds of optimism and opportunity planted by their teachers. I wanted to inform the students about the material in our documentary about Shanksville and transformation. I wanted to define the word hero in a way they would not forget. I wanted to leave these students with positive memories about themselves and what they learned.

It was a tall order for a person who is old enough to be their grandfather. It was a challenging for someone who had not spoken to an audience of 500 students in a high school setting in more than 30 years.

For three weeks, I had been thinking, reading, planning and mulling over in my mind what I would say, and how I would say it.

To be very honest, I was somewhat apprehensive about the situation I had gotten myself into, but I was determined to make the best of it.

Several things worked to my advantage. I like these students. I admire the educational leaders in their school district. I respect their teachers. I know a good deal about the history and culture of the school district.  My wife and I have been here several times, and I taught small groups of students in their classrooms during our visits. I was a guest speaker at two athletic awards banquets, and I recorded a number of public service trips taken by the cheerleaders and their coach Skip Pulcrano.

When the light of discovery and direction finally went on in my mind, it was simple, understandable and very practical. I would do something my mother always encouraged me to do. I would be myself. I would teach in much the same way I taught in my own classroom, from my heart as well as my head. I would apply the information I learned from a teacher at Kent State University: “Effective teaching is as much about good performance as it is about good information.”

Doc 05: the Content

Now that I had a strategy, I could spend time thinking about content, examples and a theme.

The main event for the assembly was a screening of our documentary Shanksville, PA: A Place of Transformation. The film features 12 Cheerleaders from North Plainfield who visited the people’s memorial in Shanksville in 2010 during our Face of America Journey, three Flight 93 Ambassadors who helped us during our ten year What is America? project in Shanksville, the woman who took the only picture of Flight 93’s ending, Val McClatchey and the woman who created the 9/11 National Remembrance Flag, Joanne Galvin.

The film addresses several questions about America at its best, American heroes and American values. It begins with the North Plainfield High School Concert Band playing Flight of Valor.  It ends with a montage of images summarizing the events of September 11, to the music of Jo Ann Biviano’s I’ll Always Remember.   

This screening provided an excellent opportunity to talk about the person who inspired our Face of America Journey, 2LT Emily Perez, the first Black/Hispanic honors graduate to lose her life in Iraq. I could tie Emily’s Legacy into the life work of another inspirational American, Professor George N. Parks, the teacher who built a national reputation for the Minuteman Marching Band at the University of Massachusetts. His work with students could be linked with another motivational teacher and coach, Herb Brooks and his 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team.

The documentary films Kitch and I produced about Coach Brooks and Professor Parks and the short films we edited about Emily Perez, gave me all the material I needed to tell their stores in what I hoped would be a compelling and interesting way to the students in North Plainfield.

The narratives of each of these American heroes gave me an opportunity to address the question, What is a hero? I could make the significant distinction between a hero and a celebrity. That would open the door to the matter I wanted to emphasize for the students, the impressive examples of industry and service Kitch and I found in North Plainfield, the genuine goodness of this place and the radiant Face of America it projects.

Doc 05: The Moment

The first assembly began sometime after 9 a.m. on a beautiful Monday morning. After introductions by the principal, Jerard Stevenson and the Supervisor of Fine Arts, Tom Mazur, I climbed the steps to the stage. Standing behind the podium, I waited for a few seconds, and then I enthusiastically greeted the students.   

They responded and we were off to a very good start.

After a few moments, I made a costume change.

The year I retired from teaching, Kitch and I worked with twenty students on a documentary project about the 25th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice. It was designed to teach the students life lessons and work values by studying Coach Herb Brooks and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. During my final night as a teacher, the students gave me what they called a “Miracle Shirt.” It is one of my most treasured possessions. I wore it under my academic gown at graduation and one other time during a guest lecturer at St. Mary’s College in Moraga California.

I explained the importance of the shirt, and its symbolism.  Then, I walked to the easel next to the podium. I removed the shirt uncovering a framed picture of a smiling Emily Perez. Just before I put the shirt on, I told the students I was going to wear this shirt for the third time to honor them. The comment resonated with the audience.

For the next few minutes we did some exercises that got the students out of their seats and enabled them to have some fun, learn some lessons about life, success, coping with disappointment, pursuing excellence and accepting themselves.

Whatever I asked the students to do they did with zest and involvement. It was such a joyful experience.  We were working together, learning together, celebrating together and having a good time together.

To be honest, it felt good to be in a classroom with so many students who were enthusiastically participating.

My segue to the film was a short story about Emily Perez: her background; her accomplishments in the classroom, on the athletic field and her impressive record of selfless service to others. I compared her courage and heroism to the actions of the heroes of flight 93. I asked the students to watch the film with their hearts as well as their eyes. I asked them to listen with their ears and their hearts to the things their classmates would say about their hopes, their dreams and their country.

The room grew silent, the lights went out and the film began. I made my way to the back of the auditorium. My heart was pumping in overdrive, and my spirits were about as high as the azure blue sky above. It was one of the best teaching opportunities of my lifetime.
In my heart of hearts, I believed that I connected with the students. I did what I came here to do.   I reinforced my strong belief that this is a place where one finds the Face of America’s tomorrow today.

When the film ended, I had a few moments with the students, and then they left the auditorium to attend their regularly scheduled classes. As they filed out of the room, several students offered encouraging comments about their experience. When I was about to leave, I was greeted by a substitute teacher who, with tears in her eyes, hugged me and expressed her thanks.

Later in the day she wrote these words:

I wanted to thank you once again for all your incredible dedication and work in such a necessary area, that of reaffirming the goodness of our wonderful country and its young people, and that of honoring our fallen.

I cannot begin to describe to you how profound and cathartic an effect your work had upon me. I felt certain that I had composed myself long prior to approaching you, yet upon our handshake I felt this overwhelming wave of emotion come back over me.  Call it gratitude, call it inspiration, respect, etc. but I was very shocked at the depth and range of feelings I experienced. 

I feel your documentary does exactly what any great documentary is supposed to do:  it informs and extols while getting people to think and REACT to what they are learning.  I can’t call it anything less than a spiritual experience. 

It definitely has everything to do with the fact that I am so very proud of my brother, a current civilian private contractor, post-military officer who was presented a bronze medal and now works actively in the wage for peace in counter-terrorism intelligence. 

Please take my words with you as an additional level of affirmation and inspiration that you and your wife so richly deserve, as you have inspired so many. 

God has Blessed You, Dr. Mussari and your lovely wife… may your work never stop moving forward to inspire everyone

On Tuesday morning at 8:30 we returned to the auditorium for another assembly. It was a memorable beginning to a very long day that would culminate in a public screening at 7:00 p.m.

Throughout the day two thoughts reverberated in my mind:

The best teachers teach from the heart, not from the book. Author Unknown

It’s not what is poured into a student that counts, but what is planted. Linda Conway

Thank You, Tom Mazur.

Thank you, Skip Pulcrano.

Thank You, Jerard Stephenson.

Thank You, Marilyn Birnbaum.

Thank you, North Plainfield students for giving an old teacher a new classroom and memories that will last a lifetime.

Tony & Kitch Mussari
The Face of America Project
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Shanksville: A Place of Transformation

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Final Cut: Teaching the “Shanksville Standard” with Help from Our Friends in North Plainfield, New Jersey

Written by Tony Mussari
Copyright 2011
Mussari Loftus Associates, LTD

Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.  Kevin Arnold The Wonder Years

Shortly after we returned from our final visit and screening in Shanksville, Kitch and I received a very kind note. It began with these words:

I am still in a state of euphoria about the entire trip. Thank you for everything that you did this past weekend.  I know that there was so much work involved, and that you both were exhausted by Sunday, but do know that every single person’s life was affected for the better.  I will never forget it!

What did we do in Shanksville on September 24?  It’s a fair question, and it has a simple answer.

We tried to teach a group of students from North Plainfield, New Jersey, what it means to be an American, what it means to reach up for the best edition of themselves, what it means to celebrate death in order to live a better life, what it takes to navigate the bumps in the road of life, and what it means to emulate what I like to call “the Shanksville Standard.”

Kitch and I met the students from North Plainfield on a bleak, rainy day at the People’s Memorial to the Heroes of Flight 93 in September 2009.  Dressed in their bright cheerleader uniforms, the students were carefully placing American flags on each of the 40 Angels of Freedom.  Instinctively, I knew there was something very special about these students and their thoughtful act of remembrance.

Since that day two years ago, North Plainfield has become like a second home for me. I enjoy working with the students. I admire the administrators, teachers and staff. I find the atmosphere in the high school to be infectious in all the ways that matter. Simply put, good things are happening in North Plainfield.

On this Saturday in September, we began our day with a visit to the permanent memorial. Then, we drove to Shanksville where Sue Strohm and Chuck Wagner, Flight 93 Ambassadors, talked about their experiences at the People’s Memorial to the Heroes of Flight 93.

During the afternoon break, the cheerleaders visited the only privately owned memorial in the Shanksville area.  In the peace and quiet of this renovated chapel, they left 40 American flags to honor the Heroes of Flight 93.

Kitch and I managed to find time to make our way to Ida’s Store. It is a gathering place at the entrance to the town.  While we were sitting on the bench in front of Ida’s, we received a welcoming wave from an Amish woman and her husband as they made their way along Main Street to the farm where they live.  It was a quintessential Shanksville moment.

Late in the afternoon, the cheerleaders returned to this town of 250 people. They joined friends, family, and former students for dinner.  Watching out of the corner of my eye, I saw people talking, laughing, sharing and listening to the sweet sounds of camaraderie.

After dinner, we talked about life, death and everything in between. It was a teaching moment, and an opportunity to help the students tie everything together.

Earlier in the day, I asked the students and their elders to think about the final moments of Flight 93. I asked them to think about what they would do if they were in a similar situation. A few members of our group shared their responses, and one person, Doug MacMillan, made it very clear that he did not know what he would have done. The honesty of his comment touched the heart of everyone in the room.

At the appointed time, we walked to the United Methodist Church for the screening of Shanksville, PA: A Place of Transformation.

Before the lights were dimmed, I shared two letters that celebrated Kitch’s courageous and successful battle with cancer.  Then, I read an article I wrote on September 11, 2011, specifically for the screening. It is titled “Thinking About America.”

It began with these words.

Standing in this place where I have been nine times before, I am filled with emotions I cannot explain.  It‘s a mixture of apprehension, exhilaration, gratitude, melancholy, and wonder.

On this day, we came here to celebrate death to learn about life. We came here to honor heroes who knew they were going to die. Heroes who refused to give up and give in. Heroes who used their final minutes of life to protect sacred national symbols and hundreds of people who would have died without their intervention.

The memory of their heroic revolt evokes admiration, affection and amazement.  It also evokes anger, dismay and a kind of emptiness that eats away at my soul.  It produces questions without answers and anguish without resolution.

“Thinking About America” ends with a challenge for the students from North Plainfield and Americans everywhere:

Ten years ago, we made a promise to tell the Shanksville story with dignity and class. For 3,650 days, we have remained true to that promise. In doing that, we have been changed in ways we never thought possible.

Today, Kitch and I look at our county through a different lens, and we measure ourselves and the people we meet against the “Shanksville Standard.”

Do we have the courage to do the right thing?

Do we have the will to do the honorable thing?

Do we have the fortitude to do the difficult thing with grace?

Do we have the insight necessary to understand that service to others is more rewarding than service to self?

Do we have the strength to pick ourselves up when we fall, and move forward with hope?

Do we have the wisdom to remember the everyday heroes of Flight 93?

Will we live a life of “loving kindness?”

These are difficult questions.  These are transformational questions.  The answers to these questions are deeply rooted in the heart, not the mind.

These are questions that have a high priority in the North Plainfield School District. Shanksville PA: A Place of Transformation documents this in the words spoken by the students about their country. More importantly, it records it in the actions of the cheerleaders who are taught the significance of service to others.

With the familiar music of the opening scene of the documentary resonating off the walls of the church, I walked to the back of the room. In my mind, the words of the father of Greek tragedy summarized what the students were about to see:

“Memory is the mother of all wisdom.”  Aeschylus

Digital photographs provided by Frank Pizzani, Skip Pulcrano, Chuck Wagner.

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A Poignant Face of America Moment

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Flight of Valor: a Poignant Face of America Moment in North Plainfield, New Jersey

By Tony Mussari
Copyright 2011
The Face of America Project
Mussari-Loftus Associates, LTD

Music is the medicine of the breaking heart. Leigh Hunt

North Plainfield High School

Some of the most priceless memories of our Face of America journey are deeply rooted in the high school in North Plainfield, New Jersey. This is the place where Kitch and I first discovered the Face of America’s tomorrow today.  It’s the place where the seeds of our project germinated. It’s a place where good things are happening for students, teachers, parents and administrators who reap the benefits of diversity.

In many ways, going to North Plainfield is like going home. It happened again this week when I visited the high school to interview students for a documentary we will screen in Shanksville later this year.

The visit was suggested by Tom Mazur, Supervisor of Fine, Practical and Performing Arts. Tom invited me to attend the spring concert. When I was told the concert band under the direction of Heather Fencik would play Flight of Valor, James Swearingen’s inspirational composition dedicated to the Heroes of Flight 93, I requested permission to record the event.

As has always been the case, everyone at the high school who was involved in arranging my visit did what had to be done to create a welcoming environment. Skip Pulcrano, the coach of the North Plainfield cheerleaders, went out of his way to make this location shoot a success.

Prior to the concert I interviewed four students and one teacher from North Plainfield, and a mother and her daughter from Point Pleasant, New Jersey.

Yamna Anwar is one of North Plainfield’s most accomplished students. Recently she distinguished herself with a perfect score on the state mandated test for juniors. During our conversation she shared her thoughts about America and her dream of becoming a medical doctor.

Maximiliano Torres is a member of the wrestling team, and the owner of a golden voice.  Kitch and I were taken by his rendition of God Bless America, prior to our screening of Visiting Shanksville in the Rain. During our conversation he spoke passionately about his love for America.

Guedis Cardenas is president of the senior class, and a member of the tennis team. He is a cheerleader who commands the respect of everyone on the squad. Sitting in front of the Healing Field Flag of Honor, he talked about the things he learned during his visit to Shanksville. Three days after our interview Guedis was selected as the outstanding male cheerleader in the country at a national competition in North Carolina.

Amber Henderson and her fifth grade teacher, Megan Hendrickson, shared their story of rescue, hope, inspiration and friendship.

Anna Norcia and her mother, Marie, talked about their visits to Shanksville with Skip Pulcrano when he was a teacher in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. That is where this marvelous public service tradition started. All these years later, it has been developed to its highest potential in North Plainfield.

As you can well imagine, these wonderful and uplifting stories added a special dimension to our Face of America project.

The Back Story

A few moments before the concert began, I read an interesting comment in the program. It told everyone in attendance that the composer of Flight of Valor drew upon a well-known hymn, It Is Well with My Soul. That piqued my curiosity, and I made a mental note to check out the back story to the music.

When the appointed moment arrived for the performance, I was located high above the stage in a control room where I could get a good shot of the concert band and audio to match.

The students performed Flight of Valor with dignity and class. It had all of the emotion, intensity and inspiration associated with this very special composition. Without question, Flight of Valor was the high point of the concert.

You can watch our production of Flight of Valor at this address:

On my way home, I thought about the back story, and as soon as I reached a computer I began my search for information about It Is Well with My Soul.  What I discovered is heart wrenching and inspirational.

Horatio G. Spafford, Jr., was a prominent Chicago lawyer. He and his wife, Anna, were the parents of four girls: Annie, Maggie, Bessie and Tanetta. In 1870, their only son was killed by Scarlett Fever.  In 1871, they lost all of their real estate properties in the Chicago fire. In 1873, they lost their four daughters in an accident at sea.

Spafford learned about the tragedy in a telegram from his wife.  It read” “Saved alone. What Shall I do?”

After the telegram arrived, Spafford left for England to join his wife.  He wrote the lyrics for It Is Well with My Soul shortly after the ship that was taking him to England passed the spot where the accident occurred. The opening stanza summarizes his feelings and speaks to his great faith:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Many believe It Is Well with My Soul is one of the most comforting Christian hymns. It speaks to faith and hope in the face of unimaginable pain and sorrow. It is the perfect model for Flight of Valor which celebrates the courage, determination, heroism and patriotism of the passengers and crew of United Flight 93. On May 17, the North Plainfield Concert Band captured all of the emotions expressed in Spafford’s hymn and Swearingen’s composition. It was an extraordinary Face of America moment and a proud memory for everyone in North Plainfield, New Jersey.

On this Memorial Day weekend it is well for our soul to remember all those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001, and the 1,007,448 men and women who have given their lives for our country since 1775. They are the face of American freedom. Their courage, honor, sacrifice and valor must never be forgotten. They paid the price for our freedom, and we are in their debt.

Tony & Kitch Mussari




Flight of Valor

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011