Somerset County officials remember Flight 93 like it was yesterday

Flight 93 Memorial

Flight 93 Memorial Peter Miller | Flickr | Creative Commons

United Airlines Flight 93 changed a small town in Pennsylvania forever. 

One of four commercial flights hijacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, the aircraft, bound for San Francisco, carried two pilots, five flight attendants and 33 passengers. Four terrorists hijacked the plane, intending to fly it into either the White House or the U.S. Capitol building, but the plan was thwarted when the passengers and crew stormed the cockpit and attempted to regain control. 

The ensuing revolt led the terrorists to crash Flight 93 into an open field near Shanksville, a borough in Somerset County. Everyone on board was killed instantly. These details are now well known, that the decision by the flight’s passengers and crew to fight back against the hijackers foiled their plans, potentially saving thousands more lives in the process.

Elected officials who represent the Shanksville area remember the day like it was yesterday. 

State Sen. Pat Stefano, who represents Somerset County, told City & State that the crash site was an old strip mine reclamation site that few people noticed prior to 9/11. 

“Everyone drove by and never paid any attention to [it],” he said. “And all of a sudden, all the eyes of the world were right there with them.”

Stefano said his wife saw the plane as she ran, panicked, to pick up their children from elementary school. “No one had ever experienced this before. The plane flew right overhead,” he said. “It was very low. They thought that extremely odd.” 

Since that time, Stefano said the Shanksville area has embraced its role in the events of 9/11. With a memorial now present at the crash site, Somerset County welcomes those who wish to pay their respects to those lost in the tragedy.

“Tourism is one of their biggest industries,” Stefano said of the community. “So they know hospitality and they welcome all the guests that come because of the … the hallowed ground there. They love to share the story.”

The crash will forever have a lasting impact in Somerset County, as the site, and the national memorial that lives there, will serve as a constant reminder of the sacrifice made by Flight 93’s passengers. It’s a sacrifice that, Stefano said, is important to remember.

“I think the biggest takeaway is the power of the American spirit to gather together, to vote, as they did, as a group, to vote and to take action,” Stefano said. “There was a plane, they were aware they were going to crash in D.C., and they took action. That is the American spirit, right there in Somerset County.”

Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency Director Randy Padfield was called to help with the New York City response and recovery efforts the days after 9/11. At the time, he was a rescue specialist with the Pennsylvania Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue team.

Padfield and his team were working to clear debris while looking for survivors amid the destruction on Sept. 12, 2001. He described the scene as “overwhelming,” but said the team was able to stay organized.

“That was obviously an extremely catastrophic situation, but there you have the right people in the right place with the right mindset to be able to get some sort of order out of chaos,” he said.

When asked about preparing for future emergencies, Padfield said teams have to be responsive to not just developing situations on the ground, but potential threats in other parts of the state.

“We need to be nimble and flexible and be able to adapt our training and response tactics to whatever the current threat happens to be,” he said. “Currently, we’re looking at domestic violence and extremism, we’re looking at cyber issues and the consequence management associated with cyberattacks.”

In his first public appearance since suffering a stroke earlier this year, former Gov. Tom Ridge said that what he remembers most about 9/11 was observing the scene in Shanksville. He shared a video message which he said, in part, the following:

“What I remember most about 9/11 is stepping off the helicopter at Shanksville, Pennsylvania and being met by the brutal sound of silence. Emergency personnel searched the fields. Ambulances were at the ready. Rescue workers wanted someone to save. But, you see, the passengers and crew of Flight 93 were 40 heroes strong. They were, in fact, the first responders on the scene … But I would ask you to remember: Our shared values, our shared responsibility to one another and the country we all cherish – that’s been the hallmark of the American story writ large for the last 20 years."