Old Glory in One Field, United Flight 93 in Another

The Seattle Times
October 4, 2001
By Alex Tizon

SHANKSVILLE, Pennsylvania  — Before we talk about the grisly work taking place in a field just outside this old mining town, we want to introduce you to Ted Dorfman and his 15,000-pound American flag. Unfurled, it’s 100 feet longer than a football field, covering roughly two acres. Each star is 13 feet tip to tip. Dorfman bought it on e-Bay last summer for $12,500, or 83 cents a pound, which was a steal.

It reportedly cost more than $1 million to make. The previous owners gave up on building a “super-structure” to display it, and the flag sat dormant in storage for five years.

The new owner says it’s the biggest American flag in the world, and no one around here — gawking at it from one end to the other — felt much like challenging his claim. People were glad for the distraction, happy for the symbolism — a patriotic Band-Aid for a nation-sized wound.

The crash of United Flight 93 three weeks ago shook up this rural community of farmers and coalminers. Dorfman thought his flag would rally spirits, and besides, he’d never seen it completely laid out and wanted to. He’s 51, an Army veteran from nearby Greenburg, an hour away. He makes a living as a financial consultant but on this day looked more like a farmer. He wore denim head to toe, and his face had the look of a worn mitt, only handsomer and with glasses. He came across like the kind of guy who is always busy and always apologizing for it. He was congenial, even while shouting orders with a bullhorn.

“No smoking on the flag, please,” he said.

He brought it to the area — a grassy field that seconds as a parking lot for a local race track — soon after the crash. It took a crane and a couple hundred volunteers to unload and unfurl its glory. Local residents held vigils around it for almost two weeks.

On the day we found him, Dorfman was busy trying to fold up his prize and decamp, but it had rained the night before and the flag, made of a heavy nylon polyester, was soaking wet, adding a few tons to its heft. He persuaded a local pilot to use a helicopter as a blow-dryer. The copter made pass after pass just above the flag, making the fabric ripple and roll as it went. Volunteers looked on at the sight, waiting for their cue to begin the epic effort of folding it back into a truck-sized cube.

“No shoes on the flag, people,” Dorfman reminded, as he paced like a football coach on the sidelines.

It was a convivial event overall, with people working shoulder to shoulder, laughing and taking pictures of one another. How often do people get the opportunity to stand in their socks in the middle of a sea of stars? At exactly the same time, six miles away in another field, people worked shoulder to shoulder on a much different task.

Search-and-rescue teams had gone over the crash site numerous times already, of course, but investigators said a recent windstorm might have dislodged debris or exposed remains not found earlier. More than 200 workers from 13 counties were recruited for the effort. The field was owned by a local coal-mining company but rented out to a farmer who used it to grow oats. Oat stubble was all that met the Boeing 757 when it bore into the ground at 500 miles per hour, leaving a burned-out crater 45 feet deep.

The only road to the site was barricaded and guarded by police and state troopers. It’s considered a crime scene, and searchers were told not to talk publicly about what they were finding. Many of the searchers stayed in the same hotel, the Ramada in Somerset, about 12 miles away. In the evenings, they filled the hotel bar.

One night, in the lobby, a beefy guy in a baseball cap and T-shirt that read “Natural Bridge Fire & Rescue — Co. 11,” spent 40 minutes on his cell phone, describing in detail what he’d done that day. He talked loud enough for anybody nearby to hear. He said groups were assigned to comb square sections of the field. He’d spent the entire morning and afternoon on his hands and knees, and found enough human remains to fill two ziplock freezer bags. Most were bone fragments and pieces of skin and flesh. A couple of his colleagues found fingers and toes. One finger still wore a ring. He also found jewelry, purse items, paper and camera film, which will be sent to families when possible.

The largest piece of debris found that day was 6 feet by 2 feet, some unidentified part of the plane. Most was the size of a quarter or smaller. Basically, the plane and the 44 people on board were “vaporized.” Only 12 victims so far had been identified. “It was an interesting day,” the man said. He said he wanted to get to some beer and said goodbye.

Shanksville, in the state’s sleepy southwest corner, isn’t much more than a cluster of houses, home to some 240 souls. The town sits in the middle of farm country — wheat, corn and dairy — in a hilly portion of Somerset County called Laurel Heights. A grocery store on the main road passes as the hub. The Appalachian Mountains to the east act as a barrier against the noise and flux of the big East Coast cities. It’s a different world on this side of the mountains. Nothing big or loud happened here, not in a hundred years, until Sept. 11.

Paula Pluta, 33, lives about a thousand yards from the crash site, “just over the tree line.” She was home that morning watching “Little House on the Prairie” and eating breakfast when she heard a deep rumbling. She rushed outside to see a flash of silver — she thinks it was the underside of the plane — and then heard a ground-shaking explosion. The windows and doors of her house broke open.

Pluta said she spent a week crying, and three weeks later still can’t believe it happened. Her two kids played mud games in that field. “It happened right here, at home. Right here,” she said over and over. On this day, as she does almost every day, she walked over to the police barricades, where a makeshift memorial grows by the hour, as people stop to leave flowers and flags and mural-sized letters signed by entire schools. At the foot of the memorial flapped a crumpled sheet of typing paper held down by a rock. The handwriting was in pencil and smeared from the rain. It carried a message borne of a farmer’s pragmatic wisdom:

“The leaves die in the fall and disappear in the winter, but we all know they’ll be back in the spring. No matter what happens, there will always be spring.”