Pennsylvania Firefighters Share Bond With Flight 93 Families

Firefighters and first responders from Somerset County share a bond with the families of the passengers and crew of Flight 93.

SHANKSVILLE, Penn. -- Firefighters and first responders from Somerset County share a bond with the families of the passengers and crew of Flight 93.

They've wrapped their arms around the families and friends of those aboard the airliner that crashed in a nearby field on Sept. 11.

Little did they know when they responded to the call for an "aircraft down," they would be thrust into an international spotlight.

On Thursday, there was a strong showing of fire and rescue personnel at the seventh annual memorial service honoring Flight 93 heroes.

"It's the least we can do," said Rodney Pile Sr., of the Central City Volunteer Fire Company. "Everyone is so pleasant here..."

The U.S. flag and Pennsylvania flags at half staff whipped in the brisk breeze under a bright, but cloudy sky as more than 1,000 gathered at the temporary memorial site.

At 9:55 a.m., family members of those who fought back against the terrorists on Flight 93 began reading the names of the heroes. A bell and echo bell were rung for each.

After the speeches were over and the dignitaries had departed, family members and the public took pictures. They gazed into a field where an American flag stands as a focal point to show where the plane crashed.

Dave Andolina, who drove the Central City fire engine to the crash, said it was a hopeless feeling when he arrived. "There was nothing. There were a few spot fires. There were no big pieces, nothing."

Shanksville Chief Terry Shaffer said the earth literally opened, swallowed the aircraft and closed up. He said the ground at the site was soft because it had been a strip mine.

Andolina was watching the events of in New York City and Virginia when his pager went off about a plane down outside of Shanksville. "We never dreamed it had anything to do with the others. But, then again, that day nothing was making sense."

Shaffer was at work when his wife called, telling him about the plane crash. "I asked her if it was a small plane, she told me: 'No, it was an airliner, and it went down in your district. You need to come home now...' "

In addition to Shanksville, the initial response to the incident included Stoystown, Central City, Listie, Friedens, Berlin, Hooversville and Somerset. Several EMS crews also were dispatched.

But, it was evident from the onset there would be no rescue involved. Firefighters were quickly deployed to set up perimeters to keep civilians from wandering into the area. They said narrow roads quickly jammed as word of the crash spread. People tried a number of unique ploys to get to crash site. But, the volunteers prevailed.

Shaffer said it didn't take long for the FBI and other federal officials to make it to the scene.

"We set up command post in the mining buildings that were on the site. They were perfect."

The chief said he and his department were included from the onset. "We were there with them every step of the way. They kept us posted. We attended the two daily briefings, and we helped wherever and whenever we could. After a few weeks, we went back to the station. If they needed us, they knew they just had to call."

The community responded the only way they knew how. "We cooked, prayed and offered shoulders."

,P> The local crews also were called upon to assist with sifting through the earth looking for personal effects as well as body and plane parts, said Central City Chief William Russian.

"When you see a plane crash in the movies or on TV, you see these big plane parts. That's not what this was. There were no large pieces of wing. There was nothing," Russian said.

The items found during the sifting operation were placed in buckets. "From what was found, every family had closure," Shaffer said. "The coroner wanted that, and we wanted that for the families."

Thomas Chipchosky, a Central City firefighter, heard Flight 93 coming. "It was loud..."

He found a charred Bible near the crater.

The impact of Sept. 11 is still being felt by the local firefighters, especially those in Shanksville. "Those other departments(FDNY and Alexandria) had PIOs. We don't," Shaffer said. "We weren't used to the media or the crowds."

Shaffer said he understands the public's curiosity. "People stop, and want to know about it. Some firefighters seem to be shying away. Others, however, realize that we need to be here for the people, especially the families."

In turn, the families and firefighters have struck up strong relationships. The sisters of the co-pilot always stop by the fire house during their annual pilgrimage to the site.

Shanksville's new tanker, a Kenworth chassis with a New Lexington body, is dedicated to the heroes of Flight 93. There are flags and logo on the rig as well as red, white and blue hose. A plague above one of the pump panels lists the names of the 9/11 heroes.

A local woman made a black cover for one side of the rig. "United We Stand" is sewn into the tarp type material. Forty American flags surround the words. Some family members have written little messages on the flags. However, the elements have left many smudged.

Shaffer said he was astounded when he received a call from APATSCO, an organization representing rural communicators. "They gave us $60,000 toward the purchase of that tanker."

Members said they wanted to give the money to a department that was in need, and Shanksville fit the bill just right. The group flew Shaffer and his family to Hawaii to accept the donation and make a presentation about the rural fire company's story.

The local crews also have forged new relationships with firefighters from across the nation. Last month, FDNY firefighters donated and erected a monument of WTC steel in Shanksville.

On Thursday, firefighters from Michigan, Chicago, Maryland, Ohio, Washington, D.C. and others stopped by the station. Some traded patches, while others checked out the equipment, snapped a few pictures and said prayers at the monument.

Shaffer said the exposure to other departments has been beneficial to members of his department.

Brad Zearfoss, a member at Shanksville, said the memorial site is inspiring. "Every year, hearing those stories gives me chills..."

Shanksville Deputy Chief Brad Shober said he hoped the people who attended the ceremonies Thursday did so for the families of Flight 93, not for John McCain.

"People come here to pay their respects," he said. "If I can make that trip a little bit easier, that's good..."

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