James Rada, Jr.
As the world remembers the tragedy of September 11, 2001, I am filled with memories of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and my experiences there.
I was off work that Tuesday, so normally, I wouldn’t have heard about the day that changed the world because I didn’t have television in my house. Instead, I had a “honey, do” list to finish, and I was in the car driving around Cumberland on various errands.
I was listening to a CD on my car stereo, so I didn’t hear the first reports of the plane crashes on September 11. It was a beautiful fall morning, and I was enjoying the day. However, when I stopped at a pharmacy to pick up a prescription, the pharmacist asked, “What do you think about the plane crash?”
When I told her I had heard nothing, she explained a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center tower in New York City. I hurried back to my car and turned on the radio. The reporter was talking about the crash. I quickly realized it was about a second crash into the World Trade Center.
I drove to the next place on my errand list, listening to the radio reports as news came in. I didn’t want to get out of my car when I parked at the store where I needed to pick up some things. I went in and bought what I needed as quickly as I could. When I got back into my car, the news reports were talking about a third crash into the Pentagon.
‘CumberlanFiguring things were probably crazy at the Cumberland Times-News where I worked, I headed in to see if I could help.
I was wrong. Things weren’t crazy. Everyone seemed glued to the television as the video played over and over of the planes crashing into the towers.
I had barely seen the footage when my city editor saw me and sent me and a photographer off to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to search for another plane that had supposedly crashed. No one was sure what to make of this. Why would a plane crash in a town of fewer than 250 people? It wasn’t a well-known target like the World Trade Center or Pentagon. As the photographer and I neared Shanksville, we wondered where to go. We saw no smoke or anything that could lead us to the crash site.
Then, a Pennsylvania State Trooper car passed us with its lights flashing.
“Follow him,” I said. “If a plane crashed up here, that’s where he’s got to be going.”
So, the photographer sped up and followed the police car up the highway. It had gone about a mile when it suddenly made a U-turn in the middle of the road and headed toward us. Diane let the car pass and did her own U-turn to follow. The police weren’t even sure where the crash site was.
The car began snaking through some back roads until it reached another group of police cars with flashing lights. The police had barricaded all entrances to the site of the crash and pointed us to a field across the street as a place to wait. Only a handful of reporters were there.
I walked to the nearest house and interviewed the woman who answered the door. Paula Pluta had seen the plane come down in the quarry across the street. I stood with her for a few minutes and drew out her story. When I left her, I felt a little shaken myself. To have seen such a crash, what would that be like?
In the next house, a man had been driving home when he heard the crash. He had been to the crash site and seen nothing but smoke and small pieces of debris, “nothing bigger than the size of a car door.”
After I had interviewed anyone I could find within walking distance of the site, I headed back. I waited for hours in a hot, open field with no shade. As the day wore on, more and more reporters showed up, and we took cover from the sun in the shade of vehicles.
I was too afraid to leave the site in search of food or water, although I was hungry. What if we were allowed into the site and I was snacking at a diner? I ignored my rumbling stomach and dry mouth and waited.
After a couple of false alarms that we would be allowed back to see the site, a tour bus arrived around 4:00 p.m. The bus drove the media through lines of vehicles that made up mobile stations for federal teams, the Red Cross, biohazard teams, and cadaver dogs. Then, it stopped in a clearing, and we got off.
There wasn’t anything to see. An amazing statement considering a passenger jet had crashed there just a few hours earlier.
Some state troopers stood watch at the edge of the perimeter where the media was allowed. You could see a pile of earth and smoke coming out a couple hundred feet away. That was it. That was all that was left of Flight 93.
After a press conference wth Governor Tom Ridge, there wasn’t anything left to do but to head home and file my story. It was a quiet ride. I tried to gather my thoughts and write out my story. It was hard to write objectively, though, when I felt so unsettled.
I guess the world has felt that way ever since.
Picture shows debris from Flight 93 at the crash site.