A 9/11 pilgrimage

Seventeen years ago, when the planes hit and the towers fell, I was on a day off from all three of my part-time jobs.

One of them was as a freelance travel writer. But, after 9/11, no one wanted – and I had no desire to write – stories about fabulous destinations, fine dining, great bars and spas.

So, over the next year, besides reporting on high anxiety and heightened security, I made pilgrimages to the sites of the attacks.

Here is an edited version of one of those stories, published in the Toronto Star in the early spring of 2002.

I’ve always liked western Pennsylvania. Rugged hills. DeNiro in The Deer Hunter. Birthplace of all those NFL quarterbacks: Unitis, Namath, Montana, Marino.

But now the word Pennsylvania evoked something else: September 11th, United Airlines Flight 93, “Let’s roll.” The plane that didn’t make it to its target – unless its target was a field outside Shanksville (pop. 245).

I studied the road atlas. Shanksville was near Johnstown, a city synonymous with a killer flood. From there I could drive to Gettysburg, scene of the bloodiest battle of the U.S. Civil War.

(A theme was developing, what the Star headlined as A Tragical History Tour.)

* * *

I left my home in Mississauga at first light, barreling west on the QEW. The day broke cool and clear, until I crossed the border at Buffalo – and ran into a blizzard.

Buffalo reminds me of that Li’l Abner character, Joe Btfsplk, the one who always has a dark cloud over his head. As soon as I passed the city’s western suburbs, the sun came out.

I followed the Interstates toward Pittsburgh, veered east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, exiting at Somerset, and stopped at the Somerset Discount Store.

Inside, a table was stacked with 9/11 merchandise. I briefly considered a Flight 93 sweatshirt ($19.99). Got directions to Shanksville instead.

I had burned a CD for the trip. On the back roads to Shanksville, I cranked up Leaving on a Jet Plane, followed by Neil Young’s Let’s Roll, and Dylan crooning Knocking on Heaven’s Door.

My first stop was the ramshackle headquarters of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Company, where I met assistant chief Rick King.

“I can still hear the plane,” said King, one of the first people at the crash scene on September 11th. “I can still feel the ground shake.”

We drove to the site, and turned into a small parking lot. A makeshift memorial was covered with hand-written messages, flowers, and flags.

Shanksville memorial

A tombstone-sized hunk of granite listed most of the 37 passengers and seven crew who took off that morning from Newark bound for San Francisco. Not included were Saeed Alghamdi, Ahmed Ibrahim Al Haznawi, Ahmed Alnami, and Ziad Samir Jarrah.

Etched in bronze were the “Let’s Roll” guy, Todd Beamer; Mark Bingham, who phoned his mom in California from the plane to say goodbye, and flight attendant CeeCee Lyles, who called her husband in Florida to say she loved him and their kids.

“I know all the names now,” said King. “It’s like I’ve known them forever.”

The crash site was about 500 yards away, near a line of trees, across a rocky field. “When I got here, just a few minutes after the crash, there was a huge crater, but you couldn’t even tell it was a plane. There was nothing left.”

Flight_93_Crater

We walked a few steps, toward a sign that read: Restricted Area, No Trespassing.

“You’re not allowed to go out there – that’s hallowed ground,” said King. “And there’s a sheriff’s deputy on duty 24-7.”

* * *

On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam broke, unleashing a tidal wave that roared down the Conemaugh River Valley toward Johnstown.

It swept up trees, houses, railway freight cars, and factories. It took 45 minutes for the wall of water and debris to reach the steel-making city of Johnstown.

When day was done, most of Johnstown was wrecked and more than 2,200 people were dead.

Johnstown Flood

I arrived at dusk, after the short drive from Shanksville. The next morning, I drove to the South Fork Dam site.

There’s not much to see, but there’s a lot to think about, looking over the valley that was once covered by a man-made lake, imagining that lake emptying in one enormous rush – 20 million tons of water, a wave 30-feet high cascading down the narrow valley at 40 mph, crashing into the city of 30,000 in the middle of the afternoon.

I drove through the tiny town of St. Michael. It didn’t exist in 1889. If it had, it would have been named Atlantis, since it would have been under the lake.

A sign advertised: Pancake Breakfast on Sunday. One annual celebration features “That Dam Duck Race” – little blue, pink and yellow plastic ducks floating down the same river that was once dammed to create the lake that disappeared.

* * *

I checked into the Gettysburg Hotel, opened in 1796, now a Best Western with king-sized beds and cable TV. Lincoln bunked in a house across the street when he came to deliver his famous address.

The Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863. Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee were winning the war. Two days later, they were in retreat, more than 50,000 men on both sides were dead or wounded, and the republic was saved.

I arrived with a sketchy knowledge, familiar with such terms as Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top and Pickett’s Charge.

Sue Boardman, my guide for a two-hour tour along the auto route through the vast National Military Park, filled in the details as we explored the fields, hills, forests and boulders where the events unfolded – and the hundreds of monuments, memorials, and statues that populate the battlefield.

But like many things these days, there is a new context. “A lot of people stop here,” Boardman said as we looked up at the monument to the Second Fire Zouaves, a regiment recruited from New York City firefighters.

Gettysburg - Monument1

Half the regiment, more than 150 men, died in the Peach Orchard on the second day of the battle. (More than 300 NYC firefighters died on 9/11.)

We moved on to another site with an agricultural name and another grim comparison to more recent history.

“There were 6,000 casualties on the 22 acres of the Wheatfield in two and a half hours – many more than on September 11th,” said Boardman, as we surveyed the fallow ground on a perfect spring afternoon.

“That night, after the battle, you could hear the cries of the dying, as wild pigs foraged on the dead.”

My post-9/11 pilgrimages to New York and Washington are recounted in my book, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

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