‘After the plane crash, just about every day was Flight 93 in one form or another’
Shanksville Chief Terry Shaffer reflects on how his family is inextricably linked to the tragedy – and how they continue to honor the victims and the community
When tragedy strikes, people cook. Community members take to their kitchens to feed victims, first responders, anyone in need of a home-cooked meal.
On September 11, 2001, the kitchens in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, were working overtime. Flight 93 was down in a field with no survivors – part of a massive attack on the homeland. And with upwards of 75 agencies’ representatives descending upon the area, there were plenty of mouths to feed.
But not everyone could accept the meal.
FBI agents working what would ultimately become the longest-held crime scene in commonwealth history could not accept meals from an unknown source. Terrorists had just used airliners as bombs; who knew how they would infiltrate next. But as tensions subsided and the canteens ran short on food, many of the agents gladly began accepting the offerings.
This intersection of small-town life and a world-altering event would play out again and again in the weeks following 9/11, with local fire departments and federal agencies working in concert to manage an unthinkable situation. They needed each other – the support, the staffing, the solidarity.
“We just did whatever we could to help whoever needed help,” explained then-Shanksville Fire Chief Terry Shaffer.
This included FBI agents, investigators, firefighters and other workers stopping by the fire station or even the chief’s home for sustenance, equipment, anything they needed. But surely, the fire department’s involvement went well beyond community support and meals served. Shanksville Fire proved to be a formidable partner – a department suddenly on the fire service map, with a new legacy ahead.
An unimaginable scene: ‘Everybody was just stunned’
Shaffer had 14 years on the job as the fire chief in Shanksville, a town of approximately 250 people, when he suddenly found himself thrust into a national spotlight. Prior to 9/11, the department’s biggest call was a motor vehicle collision, as its coverage area includes the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Allegheny Tunnel. “We always thought our ‘big one’ would be a charter bus on the Turnpike with mass casualties,” he said.
Shaffer was working his standard shift at his full-time job at Pepsi when he got word about the situation in New York City. But when his wife called to tell him about a plane crash near Shanksville, he thought she was joking. “I said something like, ‘It’s not funny’ or ‘Don’t kid like that,’” he said, adding that he even called 911 to confirm. Shaffer’s job was 30 miles away from Shanksville, so he had not felt the aftershock of the plane strike, like so many in town.
Shaffer rushed home to get his gear and headed to the scene. His assistant chief, Rick King, responded with three members and were first on the scene from the fire department.
Upon his arrival, Shaffer saw the crater, smoking. It was clearly a plane crash. There was a jet engine on the ground in the woods, plane tires smoldering there, too.
He began looking for King: “When I finally did find him, he had this really blank look on his face. Everybody was just stunned. At that point, we weren’t sure how many people were on this plane, let alone where the plane was. We knew it went into the ground, but we didn’t know if it all did or part of it did. … Looking around and seeing this hemlock grove and half of it is burned up – and all the aircraft material that was strewn through those trees and the personal effects lodged into the wood of the tree. It was just a horrific scene.”
Beyond all the snapshots in time, Shaffer recalls most deeply the smell – the jet fuel, burning hemlock grove and human remains.
The entire scene was unimaginable: “How do you prepare for that? You just can’t. There’s no way.”
Taking action: ‘They wanted us there for everything’
Crews got to work, first focusing their immediate efforts on the search for survivors. There was no one.
The fire situation, Shaffer recalled, was less serious, more nuisance. The smoldering crater would occasionally reignite from the jet fuel. And fire had reached the hemlock grove’s root system, making it difficult to extinguish. Complicating matters, fire departments couldn’t bring their apparatus too close to the area for fear of damaging potential evidence, so crews armed themselves with portable water packs, rakes and shovels to battle the stubborn, smoldering fire.
Fire and police personnel prioritized site security, taping off the area to keep press or other prying eyes away from the site. After that, Shaffer said, several crews were sent home for the day, as they simply needed to wait for the FBI to arrive to provide further direction. The Bureau would serve as the lead investigator.
Shaffer recalls thinking the FBI would arrive day two and say, “You did a good job, thanks for your help; we’ll take it from here,” dismissing the local teams. “But they wanted us there for everything we could do to help them. It was good to be included.”
The Bureau held two briefings each day, with Shaffer and his assistant chief typically attending both, a spotlight neither had ever anticipated for their careers.
“I don’t know how many days Rick and I would look at each other and say, ‘This is big’; we are sitting here with the FBI the FAA and all these other big agencies,” Shaffer reflected. “Is this really happening?”
Shaffer also noted the difference between the press occurring in New York and at the Pentagon: “Those guys have public information officers, and here it was Rick and me. It was relentless sometimes, but we handled it the best we could. It was all about putting our best foot forward.”
As the days marched on, the fire department continued to help in any way possible. One assignment: Firefighters flagged everything they found in the field and woods – different color flags used for plane parts, human remains and personal effects. They assisted with tree and brush removal, allowing investigators better access to areas of the crime scene. And one day, the FBI requested the fire department bring their spreaders to the scene to pry open the nose cone of the plane, another attempt to find remains and evidence.
After 17 days, the FBI’s work concluded and the site was released to the coroner, who kept it sealed for many weeks. He wanted to continue searching to collect additional artifacts from the crash site – and the fire department helped in those efforts as well, Shaffer said.
What they saw: ‘My brain can’t forget what my eyes have seen’
Such intimate involvement in these operations weighed heavily on community members’ and first responders’ hearts and minds. Shaffer worried about his members and other firefighters, including his son, who was away at college but immediately wanted to come home to help.
“I said, ‘No way. You don’t need to be here,’” Shaffer remembered of his attempts to shield his son, but he came regardless and helped at the scene.
Crisis intervention teams were established at the site for all the agencies, and the volunteers did engage, Shaffer said: “It’s tough when you’re a volunteer to say, ‘You have to go and sit through this,’ but we had pretty good participation. People coming and sitting, not everybody talked, but at least they listened and made sure that they all had the information they needed, so if they felt they needed help, they could either call me or they could reach out to the crisis intervention team.”
As for his own mental health, “I’ve had my moments,” Shaffer said. “I just have to step aside and have time to myself.”
Proving help can come at any time, Shaffer was recently accepted as a member of the World Trade Center Health Program, opened to first responders from the other two attack sites just in the last couple years. “I encouraged my guys that were there to apply,” he added. “You never know. It’s helping me.”
As we approach 20 years from the attack, some elements of the day are difficult for Shaffer to shed: “I like to say that my brain can’t forget what my eyes have seen.” But other aspects of the day are embraced: “I sometimes forget how moved and emotional it was to come home and be with my family that night. I need to remember that more.”
Families forever changed: ‘Before the plane crash and after the plane crash’
While 9/11 forever altered the lives of every first responder who worked the crash site, it also redirected the lives of countless first responder families.
“It has changed the lives of those who have experienced it in one way or another, but some of us more so than others,” he said.
Shaffer’s wife, Kathie, and son Adam are both involved with ongoing efforts to remember the Flight 93 crew and passengers. Kathie has served as a lead primary interviewer on the Flight 93 oral history project, capturing the stories of all those involved in the Flight 93 story. She has completed over 800 interviews in the past 16 years. And in 2002, Adam accepted a position with the Student Conservation Association at the Flight 93 National Memorial. He’s now the Chief of Interpretation there.
“We talk about before the plane crash and after the plane crash,” Chief Shaffer said. “After the plane crash, just about every day was Flight 93 in one form or another.”
While the Shaffer family is now inextricably linked to Flight 93, it is certainly not lost on the chief that so too are the families of the victims – in an entirely different, even more tragic way.
One memory firmly ingrained in Shaffer’s mind is the day the victims’ families were brought to the crash site via chartered buses: “We were all standing at attention like in a line, saluting them as they drove by. When they got off the buses, instead of going to look at where the plane crashed, they came to see us and thank us. They were so thankful for what we felt was just doing our job; we didn’t do anything special.”
Ongoing community support and honor: ‘I was a helper’
It’s important to Shaffer to continue to honor the victims and their families, in all aspects of his life. In 2002, the department built a tanker that was dedicated to the passengers and crew of Flight 93. And Shaffer, his wife and his son were involved in the creation of the Flight 93 National Memorial – “the first time a national park has ever developed a memorial with the local community and the family members involved,” he noted.
The moments of remembrance, the retelling of the day, continue to this day: “All these young people who are coming to the Memorial now, they weren’t even born when this happened; they don’t know anything about it. The park rangers share a lesson from Mister Rogers, who said, when bad things are happening, ‘look for the helpers.’”
“I was a helper.”
Shaffer continues to help, in different ways now.
Every September 11, while a few members from the department go to the ceremony at the national memorial, the department gives families another way to mark the day. Years ago, Shaffer realized that the fire station could be a safe, comforting meeting spot for families and first responders alike, particularly with the media swarming the area each year. So, the fire hall began hosting a quiet gathering – a simple affair with burgers and hotdogs. “We would close the doors to keep the public away so the families could have a little time together,” Shaffer said.
The gathering has since progressed to the point where the department will feed whoever shows up. “We have motorcycle groups and family members that come year after year,” Shaffer said. “A lot of people will stop by and we invite them to go ahead through the food line and visit with the people there. That’s what we do at the station now.”
The comforting, connecting power of cooking at work again.