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A journey and a search within

  • Susan Stine, Tamaqua, displays a Flight 93 memorial flag inside her Dutch Hill house. Stine, a certified nurse's aide, has traveled to the Shanksville crash site on 9-11 for the past ten years.
    Susan Stine, Tamaqua, displays a Flight 93 memorial flag inside her Dutch Hill house. Stine, a certified nurse's aide, has traveled to the Shanksville crash site on 9-11 for the past ten years.
Published September 30. 2011 05:02PM

Every year around September 11, Susan Stine leaves her warm, cozy house on Dutch Hill and makes a 200-mile pilgrimage to a grassy field in western Pennsylvania.

There, she spends a few days sorting through thoughts and feelings deep inside.

She's been doing it for a decade, and never misses the trip, regardless of what might be happening in her busy life.

Stine is drawn to the serene setting where she ponders a sequence of events that challenge the imagination.

Ten years after the worst terrorist attack on American soil, Stine, 52, remains captivated by the drama aboard what was to be a routine passenger jet flight. She draws strength from tales of bravery and courage, and is moved by how turmoil up in the sky and the resulting horrific crash have been silenced by nature.

Of four aircraft hijacked on September 11, 2001, one airplane - United Airlines Flight 93 - is the only one that did not reach its intended target, believed to be the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The reason it failed an evil mission was due to the courage of those aboard.

Though held at gunpoint and knifepoint, passengers and crew managed to make phone calls while in flight and learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

As a result, some braved-hearted souls decided to mount an assault against the hijackers to gain control of the aircraft. Nobody is quite sure of the exact sequence of events that took place afterward, but the plane crashed in a field in Stonycreek Township about 150 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., killing all 44 people aboard. (For the sake of accuracy, there might have been a few passengers or crew already dead, killed by the four hijackers.) The crash was like a bomb blast. No intact bodies were recovered.

The crash site is located west of Skyline Road, about 2.5 miles south of U.S. Route 30, Lincoln Highway, approximately two miles north of Shanksville, population 245.

For Stine, the acts of heroism and the events aboard the plane hit a nerve.

"Some of them called their family," she says. She marvels at their courage to sneak a cell phone call to their loved ones.

Stine is finely attuned to the importance of family and the needs of others. After spending many years employed at J.E. Morgan Knitting Mills, Hometown, she was forced to reinvent herself when the plant closed. Stine became a CNA and is now employed by Genesis HealthCare, Schuylkill Center, Pottsville.

There, she works with Alzheimers patients, dealing with great respect on a daily basis with many who struggle to move forward.

Similarly, she has great respect for those aboard Flight 93 and the unexpected struggle of their noble mission.

Although she describes herself as not especially religious, she believes there are some things in life greater than all of us.

Whatever the calling is, it manifests itself in Stine with an urge to travel to Shanksville and pay respects.

"It is my religious belief that I need to be there for 9-11," she says.

She actually visited the site twice in 2002, the year after the crash, first in July, then again in September. Since then, she's returned every year.

"It's amazing to be there," she says, always in wonder about the small, Norman Rockwell town that became thrust into the world spotlight, a distinction it will hold forever.

An improbable place

Investigators say the heroes aboard Flight 93 decided to take control of the plane just as the jet soared over an unpopulated area. Their strategy was to minimize potential danger to other innocent people.

As a result, the impact site turned out to be a rural setting just outside the tiny town in the Allegheny Mountains, where many unsuspecting townsfolk saw the low-flying 757 overhead, ultimately hearing the crash and seeing the smoke.

Today, however, all is quiet.

"It's so peaceful there," says Stine. "and the people are so friendly. It's such a little town. They have a little mom-and-pop store, a fire company, an elementary school," she says. "It happened so close to the town. It was as if the tree line stopped it."

Stine says the experience is a moving one, and varies from year to year. This year's event was special due to the 10th anniversary and a formal ceremony, she says. She was interviewed by the Associated Press about her devotion.

"This year was more personal; there were speakers. Everyone cried."

A memorial was unveiled around the crash site. It follows the plane's flight path and protects the area of impact, now considered sacred ground. The exact impact area is accessible only to family members of the passengers and crew. In fact, the impact area still contains thousands of unrecovered bits of the plane

Stine says one year the place was surprisingly silent and empty, something that continues to haunt her.

"The third year, there was hardly anyone there. How could you forget," she asks.

Stine is moved by all of the individual stories of courage. One passenger, Todd Beamer, will forever be remembered for issuing the call to action, "Let's roll." Those were among his last words.

"When his wife got remarried, I was mad at her," says Stine, feeling at the time that the new marriage somehow dishonored his memory. Stine understands, of course, that surviving family members still have lives to lead, but her early thoughts were simply a manifestation of the deep emotions surrounding 9-11.

Stine also has visited the World Trade Center site and feels great reverence for it, as she does with the tragedy at the Pentagon.

But the grassy field 200 miles from her house speaks to Stine in a special way.

"It was amazing what they did," she says.

For Stine, Flight 93 speaks of brave, unsuspecting souls who reached deep inside themselves to muster up courage they may not have known they had.

And in other ways, Flight 93 poses questions.

"Would the government have shot it down?" Stine asks.

Interestingly, some around Shanksville think that's what happened. Some say they heard explosions before the crash. Results of an investigation refute that theory, but the stories persist.

Another question in Stine's mind is the larger issue of what Flight 93 means to everyone. It's a tragedy that touched all.

Its flight path actually took the jet over airspace above Stine's hometown of Tamaqua. Too close for comfort.

Plus, the plane was filled with regular citizens. But those folks turned out to be heroes. Stine wonders what she, herself, might have done if placed in the same situation.

And what would others have done? Do most average, everyday people have the makings of a hero inside?

"It could have been us," she reflects. "Would you have had the courage to do that? I don't think I would. But I hope I would."

Stine reaches deep within, and the thoughts linger. The questions are hard to answer. Do any of us really know ourselves? Under what circumstances do people rise to heroism?

Stine says her regular trips to Shanksville are therapeutic; a way to honor others and a chance to look deep inside.

"When I get home, I'm thankful that I was able to go," she says. "My heart feels at peace."

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