Pennsylvania Firefighter Honors Flight 93 Victims With Flag

Gene Stilp still chokes up about what it must have been like during those final moments of Flight 93.

SHANKSVILLE, Penn. -- On Sept. 11, passengers aboard Flight 93 joined to fight terrorists. They got onboard in Newark as strangers, but formed a team and made one last play.

Gene Stilp still chokes up about what it must have been like during those final moments of Flight 93. "Think about the raw courage they had. What they did is beyond comprehension..."

Stilp wasn't willing to simply sit and watch TV coverage following the terrorists' attack. He grabbed his helmets, and headed to New York City to volunteer.

He handed out protective masks, and assisted with building searches.

He was so moved by the dedication of the firefighters and first responders, Stilp returned home to Pennsylvania, and joined the Dauphin-Middle Paxton Volunteer Fire Company. He's now a Firefighter II, EMT and has his wildfire firefighting certification.

He was passionate about remembering the heroics of the men and women aboard Flight 93.

Stilp knew memorials would be built, and annual ceremonies would be conducted. "It's not enough. The sacrifice and heroics of the passengers and crew need to be remembered every day."

He created a flag. Fifty stars -- representing the 50 states -- encircle 93 in the upper left hand corner. "Our Nation will Eternally Honor the Heroes of Flight 93" is written on the stripes.

"Just as in Revolutionary times when people stood in the line of fire to start a country, these courageous people faced terrorists to save lives."

Stilp said those actions should be remembered every single day throughout the country. "People should fly this flag, and memorialize those heroes on Flight 93. It should be flying everywhere -- in Miami, Hawaii, Maine, Virginia..."

But he doesn't stop there.

About 10 minutes before the hour, every hour on Sept. 11, the man wearing the blue hat with 93 on it is making way through the crowd at the temporary memorial site adjacent to the crash site.

"Please, come help me with the flag. Would you like to help? Please, we need you, come..."

He gathers 40 people, and lines them up in two rows of 20 each. They stand facing each other about five feet apart. "Now, everyone take two steps forward."

With that, he begins to unfold the flag, instructing people to hold on tight as they pass it down. Once that is done, one row reaches under to take the folds.

The hands belong to children, motorcyclists, an elderly woman, middle-aged men and teens. Men remove their hats. Stilp asks that they look around at the people with them.

"You came here as strangers. Now, you've helped do something together. Think about those people on Flight 93. They were strangers too. But, they worked together and saved the next probable targets in Washington, D.C."

The group then holds a moment of silence. Sometimes, they sing God Bless America. Sometimes, someone in the crowd takes up Stilp's offer to say a few words. Sometimes, the flag holders just listen and look into the field, the final resting place of Flight 93.

Once the flag is ready, he invites veterans to fold it. Before leaving, the participants thank the person on either side of them for helping.

Stilp downplays his ritual. "It's no big deal, really. I just want to do it. It's such a small gesture. But, I think it makes an impact."

The Flight 93 flag made its first debut in Shanksville in the July 4 parade in 2002. It's been part of the Sept. 11 ceremony ever since.

Volunteer firefighters, Flight 93 ambassadors, families of the heroes and local residents show up at sunset on Sept. 10 to participate in the first flag ceremony. The stars and stripes are unfolded again at sunrise on Sept. 11.

"I try to do it on the hour all day from sunrise to sunset. We take a break during official ceremonies, though."

Locals, including responders, always participate in the final ceremony. As the shaded sun was setting above the crash site Thursday evening, every person at the memorial had a hand on the flag.

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