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Pa. town where plane crashed on Sept. 11 takes seriously its responsibility to honour dead

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SHANKSVILLE, Pa. - Off a tiny country road with old wooden farmhouses that could fit in a Norman Rockwell painting is the site of the Flight 93 National Memorial. It's shielded by trees, but much of the park is open.

A decade ago, on Sept. 11, the former strip mine was a much more devastating sight, strewn with wreckage from the crash. For early responders like Rick King, the assistant fire chief in Shanksville, some memories are haunting.

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"I remember walking through the woods, walking through the hemlocks, and I remember seeing tennis shoes lying on the ground ... empty," King said, his voice cracking. "I couldn't imagine what it was like there."

United Flight 93 was travelling from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco on Sept. 11, 2001, when it was hijacked. The four terrorists likely wanted to crash the Boeing 757-222 into the White House or Capitol building but downed the jet in Pennsylvania as passengers fought back, just 20 minutes away from Washington, the 9-11 Commission found.

The high heat and speed of the crash — the plane was travelling 580 mph at impact — caused 92 per cent of the human remains to vaporize, coroner Wallace Miller said, leaving little to work with.

"The devastation was really incredible," he said. "Obviously something I'd never seen before, or since."

Shanksville wasn't a target of the 9-11 hijackers, but fate and the fighting tenacity of the passengers aboard Flight 93 left the small town irrevocably part of the fabric of the calamity. The town has embraced its status as a sudden American landmark, and it takes seriously the responsibility to honour the dead.

King and other townspeople developed connections with responders from the Pentagon and World Trade Center crash sites. In 2008 members of the New York City Fire Department brought a piece of steel from the World Trade Center to Shanksville, and it was placed next to the volunteer fire department.

"It's in honour of all the victims of 9-11. It's just a special honour to have this in our town," King said.

Many rose to the occasion, in part by keeping small-town traditions: getting to know victims' families, and respecting people's privacy.

"I see them about every year and reflect on their loved ones' lives," King said. "Hopefully we've helped them grieve as they've helped us get through this also."

For Miller, the experience reinforced his basic beliefs on how to treat a victim's family, which he learned running his business — a funeral home. That is to remember that all bodies are someone's favourite loved one, no matter what the situation, said Miller, who worked closely with family members and medical specialists from federal agencies to use DNA testing to identify all 40 victims, plus four sets of remains from the terrorists.

"I know the importance of people being able to have some type of a service, with something palpable there that they can inter in whatever manner they see fit," Miller said.

Flight 93 always occupied a unique part of 9-11. It hit no monumental target, and those aboard the plane are seen as heroes who may have saved one. Amid the stories of sorrow and heroism from the day, said Brent Glass, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, is the more uplifting tale connected to Flight 93: Faced with an extremely distressful situation, the passengers decided to take a vote on what to do and chose to revolt against the hijackers.

"That has really impressed me, about the cultural tradition they came out of," Glass said.

"They really created a meeting house in the sky. In 15 or 20 minutes, they created a small government."

That decision to take a vote "transcends religion, and politics" and many of the other flashpoints around 9-11, Glass said.

Their decision "tells you a lot about humanity," Glass said, as does the response to the crash by the people of Shanksville. The tiny town is more representative of large parts of America than Washington, D.C., or New York City, Glass said. For example, Shanksville has farms, mining operations, hunting — all traditional occupations.

"It's not a political or military target, but it stands for a big chapter of American history and American life. Even though it's a remote site, it's a very accessible story," he said.

Flight 93 was a magnet for the frustration felt that day. By the time it was aloft, the World Trade Center had been struck. After it was hijacked, at least 10 passengers, including Edward Felt, and 2 crew had called family, friends and colleagues on the ground using cellphones and GTE air phones before the plane crashed.

Relatives of the victims were deeply grateful for how local people responded to their loss, said Patrick White, vice-president of Families of Flight 93.

"The rural character of Shanksville and the people ... are the taproot of American values. They are the heart of our traditions," White said.

For a time, victims' relatives worried about the lack of progress on a Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, which is far from big business and established tourist attractions.

"We would have loved to have seen this memorial built in five years. But I think the reality has set in," said Gordon Felt, whose brother, Edward, died in the crash.

About $50 million in public and private money has been raised for the project, the Families of Flight 93 say. The dedication of the first phase is scheduled for Sept. 10, a day before the 10th anniversary of the crash.

More private funding is still needed to finish the remaining elements of the memorial, including a grove of trees, a visitor centre and an entry portal with high walls framing the plane's flight path.

Before the crash, no one could have envisioned a national memorial rising in the woods and fields of western Pennsylvania. Felt, who is also president of Families of Flight 93, praised the partnership for the memorial among local people, family members and the National Park Service.

"We've been able to overcome hurdles," he told The Associated Press.

And the numbers of people who've sought out the site show the public desire to remember the victims. About 150,000 people annually have visited Shanksville in recent years, said Glass, who called the total "impressive."

"It's become one of those destinations that people want to experience firsthand," he said.

Residents expect even more visitors, said Ron Aldom, director of the Somerset County Chamber of Commerce. Next month, more signs are to be added along the Pennsylvania Turnpike directing travellers to the site, about a 20-minute drive off the highway.

And visitors are discovering a rich variety of historical and natural sites nearby, including Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural masterpiece Fallingwater, state and national parks, and attractions such as the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, about 70 miles away.

In the end, perhaps it is fitting that part of the 9-11 story ended up in Shanksville, said Glass, of the Smithsonian.

"Every chapter of American history has a few pages written in Pennsylvania," he said. "Ironically, Flight 93 will be part of American history."

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