Sept. 11, 2001, conjures up myriad gut-wrenching memories for Americans - and we in the fire service in particular. On that dreadful day, while the eyes of the world were focused on the two disasters that took place in our nation's largest city and the seat of our country's power, another...
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Sept. 11, 2001, conjures up myriad gut-wrenching memories for Americans - and we in the fire service in particular. On that dreadful day, while the eyes of the world were focused on the two disasters that took place in our nation's largest city and the seat of our country's power, another devastating incident took place at 10:06 A.M., when United Airlines Flight 93 augured into the Pennsylvania soil.
Photo Courtesy of Shanksville VFD
Members of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department pose with their "Memorial Tanker."
In that instant, something big happened someplace small.
The plane crashed two miles from Shanksville, PA, a borough of 250 people with a surrounding rural population of around 2,500 people. Shanksville Assistant Fire Chief Rick King was on the telephone with his sister, talking about events that had already happened 250 miles away in New York and 150 miles away in Washington, D.C., when he and his sister both heard a plane go over. King's house suddenly shook.
"Oh my God, it crashed!" his sister exclaimed.
"I saw the fireball go up in the sky and I knew I had to go," said King.
King responded to the station and hopped into the department's engine. He knew he would be the initial incident commander. Chief Terry Shaffer, who works for Pepsi-Cola 30 miles away in Johnstown, would not get on scene for at least half an hour. Shaffer's wife contacted him at work, telling him he needed to get home because there had been a very bad accident.
Extra Aid Called
"I started to get myself together as we responded, started thinking about things like rescue and using foam to put out aircraft fuel fires," King recalled. He also radioed for assistance from four additional fire departments and all ambulance crews in Somerset County plus ambulances from the neighboring county. That call gave him eight fire departments and a total of 20 fire and ambulance units plus the county's hazardous materials unit.
"Knowing what was going on in New York and Washington, D.C., in the back of my mind I thought somehow this was related," said King.
Kevin Huzsek, a medic for the Somerset Area Ambulance, was on board the first ambulance heading to the scene.
"We were watching news about the other events. When the alarm came in for a large aircraft down, our first thoughts were, this can't be," said Huzsek, who explained that the plane went down in an area where there have been numerous alarms for accidents involving smaller two- or three-passenger aircraft
"When we pulled out of the ambulance garage and saw the black mushroom cloud, we knew this was indeed something big," Huzsek said. "Our first thoughts were about setting up triage and transport operations and making certain we had enough ambulances."
Shaffer remembers listening to radio conversations of the responding units as he made his way toward the black cloud on the horizon and hearing responders tell each other to prepare themselves. "This will be like nothing we have ever seen before," he heard responders say over the radio.
"I kept thinking about my people, wondering what kind of a crew we'd get at this time of day and praying that we had the strength to get through this," Shaffer said.
The all-volunteer fire department's 27 active members respond to 130 alarms annually, with half the alarms being EMS calls and 90% of the fire calls involving motor vehicle accidents. Until 9/11, the kind of atrocity the community and its volunteer firefighters found themselves embroiled in was something unheard of, certainly not the kind of thing one thinks of happening in rural America.
Once on scene, rather than a mangled aircraft fuselage, King found a huge crater with a lot of debris scattered around it. Smoldering trees and brush ringed the crater. The largest intact piece of wreckage he remembered seeing was a wheel. "My thought when I jumped from the engine was, where is it?" said King.