Shanksville Chief Reflects on 9/11 Plane Crash

The plane crash changed the small Pa. town forever.


Big planes seldom fall out of the sky, especially in a rural Pennsylvania community where Ida's Store has the best and only ice cream in town.

But one did 10 years ago and changed Shanksville forever.

Terry Shaffer, chief of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department, says there's no amount of training and no amount of equipment that could possibly prepare firefighters for the kind of event that happened when America was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001 and Shanksville became the crash site of Flight 93. Terrorists intended to crash the plane in Washington, D.C. and to kill as many people there as possible, but passengers brought the plane down early to thwart that threat.

Ten years after the incident, Shaffer can recall details as if they were yesterday -- like the smell of burning jet fuel, billowing smoke, the debris field and the sense of hopelessness that there was nothing responders could do to reverse or help the situation.

At Firehouse Expo in Baltimore this summer, Shaffer spoke about the facts, like how the Boeing 757 aircraft was loaded with 21 tons of fuel, enough to travel coast to coast from Newark, N.J. to San Francisco, Calif. About how it hit a reclaimed coal mine in Stonycreek Township in a tiny community near Shanksville while traveling at 563 miles per hour, and how it essentially vaporized in a 15-foot deep, 30-foot round crater, killing all souls on board.

Shaffer, who has been chief of Shanksville for 25 years and a member for 34 years, was working at Pepsico, about 30 miles away when the crash happened.

It was 10:06 a.m.

"My wife called me and said I had better get home," Shaffer said. So, he left work wondering what had happened on such a beautiful late summer morning. Little did he know that he was about to spend the next two weeks on the site and become part of a six-week investigation of an event that would become forever woven into the nation's history.

Crews responding to the scene reported heavy black smoke visible for miles, and upon arriving, they realized there were no survivors. There would be no medical response.

Shaffer said he and his men spent the initial response to the crash putting out spot fires that had ignited in the woods around the crash site and securing the perimeter, knowing it was likely a crime scene. They wanted to keep people out to preserve evidence, but also to protect them.

"We had a hazmat scene with jet fuel and human remains and the bits and pieces of the plane scattered about," Shaffer said. "... The smell of jet fuel and human remains is not something you ever forget."

As more units responded, the local volunteers suddenly found themselves in the spotlight and the incident commanders of a scene that was far bigger than the community they normally protect. Almost by the hour, more and more people showed up to investigate and help with the site management.

At its height the scene had more than 1,500 people representing 74 local, state and federal agencies, Shaffer said.

A small city was built on the field and helicopters came and went with regularity, as did dignitaries. Shaffer was the host for most of these events.

It was the early hours of the event that were grueling, Shaffer said. Being out in the middle of a field in rural Pennsylvania was very isolating and most of the responders did not have a clear grasp of the bigger picture of what had happened on 9/11, Shaffer said.

"We had heard some things about a plane into the Pentagon and the planes that had crashed into the towers, but we didn't know much more than that," the chief said.

That's why everyone's nerves were rattled when a large commercial jet flew low over the site and circled later in the day on Sept. 11, 2001.

"We didn't know if we were under attack again or what it was," Shaffer said, recalling that he thought all aircraft had been grounded. "It scared the crap out of us."

It turns out to be federal authorities out of Chicago who were retracing the route Flight 93 had taken from Newark to the crash site. The jet later landed elsewhere in Pennsylvania and those officials drove to the site to continue their investigation.

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