Shanksville was the story of my life

Published 6:04 am Sunday, September 11, 2011

Former Tribune editor worked at daily newspaper closest to crash in Pennsylvania

It looked like it would be a nice day in Somerset County, Pa., on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I was the editor of the 13,819 circulation Daily American of Somerset. The newspaper was published mornings Monday through Saturday.

Our editorial staff included me, the city editor, community news editor, lifestyles editor, sports editor, a full-time sportswriter, a part-time sports writer and five reporters: three full-time, one half-time reporter and half time webmistress, and one half-time reporter and half-time page designer.

My normal routine was to head into the office somewhere around 9:30 a.m., take a long dinner hour and then stay around as long as needed into the evening.

Jim Oliver

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I walked past the TV set in the living room as I headed outside with the dog for her morning constitutional. CNN had a “Breaking News” banner across the bottom of the screen and there was a live shot of some smoke coming out of a building. I didn’t wait around for details. In those days, terrorism was not something we thought about in the United States; terrorism was something that happened in the Middle East.

When I returned to start getting ready for work, CNN was showing video of a plane flying into what was then being identified as the World Trade Center in New York City. And then, a second plane was shown crashing into the Twin Towers. Obviously, this was going to be a major story. As I made the 15-minute drive into the newspaper office, I was envisioning a large color photo of the smoking building on Page 1 with at least one photo page on the inside. I also began to think about how to find local people with ties to New York City or someone from Somerset County who happened to be in New York at the critical time.

When I arrived in the Daily American’s newsroom, I found people from throughout the building gathered around the TV set. By that time, the networks were reporting “an explosion” at the Pentagon; that, of course, turned out to be the third aircraft that had been hijacked.

Our normal newsroom staffing at that hour of the day was two reporters and the lifestyles editor. I was somewhat handicapped as I had broken my right arm in a bicycle accident a couple of weeks earlier, and the cast I was wearing prevented me from doing any significant writing. I could use a keyboard using the touch method with my left hand and the hunt-and-peck method with one finger on my right.

Before everything started happening, one reporter had left for the county courthouse to cover the regular meeting of the Somerset County commissioners. The second reporter had left for a scheduled interview at the unemployment office. The lifestyles editor had not arrived.

Shortly before 10 a.m., the siren sounded for the Somerset Volunteer Fire Department, which is across the street behind the newspaper building. Then the scanner that monitored 911 calls in the newsroom sounded and the dispatcher called the number for the Somerset fire station saying “large aircraft down.”

While no connection had yet been made with the airline crashes in New York and at the Pentagon, I started to feel a sense of panic as I realized that we were on the verge of a major story. I was alone in the newsroom with a bunch of people from the advertising and circulation departments and the business office. As I mentioned, I was unable to write legibly so note-taking was out of the question, and I even had trouble operating a camera.

I called the courthouse and was able to track down our reporter there. I asked her to go to the 911 center to find out where the plane came down and to be prepared to head for the crash site. She quickly called back and said the crash was in Stony Creek Township near the Borough of Shanksville. She came back to the office, picked up a camera and film, changed into sensible shoes and headed for Shanksville.

By that time, the second reporter had returned, and I had her go to the courthouse and stakeout a makeshift command center that had been established by the emergency management director. One of the nightside reporters called in and asked what he could do. I told him to head for the newspaper, and I would figure out something by the time he got there. In the back of my mind, I expected to send him to the Somerset Hospital, assuming the emergency room would be swamped. By the time he got to the newspaper office, it was apparent that there would be no survivors. Instead, I sent him to the crash site where he ran into Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and his entourage. He later wrote a story about the governor’s visit. A week or so later, Ridge was appointed the first Secretary of Homeland Security by President George W. Bush.

The lifestyles editor lived a few miles south of the crash site and after seeing media reports of events, drove directly to the crash site where she was able to get eyewitness accounts of the plane coming down from some coal truck drivers.

The community news editor, who lives about a half-hour away, called from her home. She was responsible for special sections. A senior citizens section was scheduled to be printed Tuesday evening for distribution on Thursday. I asked her to head in and complete the special section so it could be taken care of early permitting the production staff to concentrate on the daily edition. She was the only regular staff person who did not work on crash coverage that day. Ten years have passed, and she still has not forgiven me for that.

A second nightside reporter went to the Johnstown-Cambria County Airport. The airport staff talked to reporters about how it had tracked the path of United Airlines Flight 93 from near Cleveland where it had been turned around by the hijackers and headed east toward Washington, D.C., where the passengers and crew were able to disrupt the hijackers’ plans and bring the aircraft down near Shanksville.

Our third nightside reporter, who maintained our website, arrived at noon and started posting local stories by 2 p.m. Information about events was already available on our website through a service provided by the Associated Press.

During all that time, the newsroom telephones were ringing constantly. The city editor and I were busy responding to calls from newspaper reporters from around the state who were trying to get information about what was going on. We posted our first local story on the Web by 2 p.m.

I should mention here that as unlikely as it seems today, parents with children in school were fearful in the early hours following the crash of United Flight 93. It came down within sight of the Shanksville school building. And while the federal government had ordered all aircraft to land, there were still planes in the air that afternoon. And parents feared that schools were being targeted. All nine school districts in Somerset County dismissed their students at 1 p.m., or as soon as they could get transportation arranged.

To shorten the story a bit, we got all our stories finished; photos, such as they were, processed; and we went to press 10 minutes early. The crash of Flight 93 did not result in any spectacular photos like the fall of the World Trade Center. The aircraft came down in an open area that was a restored coal strip mine. A woman whose husband was a free-lance photographer and lived near the site saw the bottom of the plane as it passed over house and headed for the ground. She grabbed a simple point and shoot camera and took a photo of the crash scene. It appeared at the top of our front page the next morning. It shows little except for a large open area with some trees in the background covered with debris from the crash. An amateur photographer happened to be in the area was able to take some photos before authorities secured the area. We used some of his photos and gave some to one of the Pittsburgh newspapers.

In the days following Sept. 11, much of our coverage involved talking to victims’ family members who came to Somerset County to view the crash site. It was a moving experience for everyone. None of the crash victims had any ties to Somerset County. Before Sept. 11, 2001, no one in the county knew any of the victims existed. Yet, the people of the county literally adopted the family members when they came to Somerset and to Shanksville. I later received numerous letters from family members who felt moved to acknowledge the love and support they received from complete strangers.

Almost overnight, a makeshift memorial began to take shape near the site as people left objects and wrote messages of respect and sympathy as the story of the passengers efforts to thwart the efforts of the radical Muslim hijackers to crash Flight 93 into the White House or the U.S. Capitol depending upon which theory you select.

There has been some controversy about the permanent memorial that is planned for the area. I can’t imagine it will be any more moving than the temporary memorial that developed over time. The Somerset County Historical Society has preserved the more perishable items like teddy bears and the like. A group of volunteers from Shanksville organized themselves as volunteer tour guides at the site to help visitors.

In the months following Sept. 11, 2001, the Daily American was constantly serving as an information service for reporters from around the world seeking to write about how the events of Sept. 11 had changed Somerset. My response was that Somerset, located at one of the exits on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, hasn’t changed much. It has been a stopping point for travelers ever since the turnpike was completed in 1940.

Shanksville (population 245), on the other hand, has been changed forever. The Borough of Shanksville is not on a main highway. You really have to want to go to Shanksville. You can’t just stop on a whim as you pass through on a main highway. I knew some people who lived in the area who sold their homes and moved because they grew weary of travelers stopping to get directions to the crash site.

Someone asked me after the dust had settled around the events of 9/11, whether it had been the story of my life. I responded that it probably was. Over the years, I was involved in the coverage of tornadoes, fires and labor disputes, but Sept. 11, 2001, resulted in the longest continuing story of my life in newspapers, and it obviously continues today, eight years after I retired.

Jim Oliver was the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune editor from 1970 to 1985. He now resides in Eau Claire, Wis. He lived in Somerset, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001.