Fewer than 10 people actually witnessed the plane go down in rural southwestern PA on Sept. 11th. Those who were in Shanksville that day don’t want the world to forget what happened on Flight 93.
Editor’s note: This story originally ran in advance of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Sept. 10, 2021.
SHANKSVILLE — Cameras captured the planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but there is no video footage of the Flight 93 crash.
The world didn’t watch it happen live on the morning news.
Fewer than 10 people actually saw the plane go down.
For those reasons, the crash is “often forgotten in the conversation, but I always remember that that was literally our only victory on 9/11,” said Joe Little, one of the journalists who reported on the crash on Sept. 11, 2001. “Some brave, brave men and women, just regular people, they fought back and sacrificed themselves to protect dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people in probably Washington, DC.”
Flight 93, headed from Newark to San Francisco, was the fourth plane Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked from East Coast airports that morning. US authorities believe that terrorists were flying the plane towards the US Capitol, although no one really knows.
Joe Little was a reporter working at WATM-TV in Johnstown. He first heard about the terrorist attacks in New York and DC on the radio as he drove to an interview in Somerset County, which was outside of his coverage area, for a special assignment. He was just 4 miles away from where Flight 93 would soon crash. Little says he was talking to a man in his backyard when the volunteer fire siren began to sound and didn’t stop.
“We’re like, we have to stop this interview and go see what’s going on,” he said.
He jumped in his truck to find the car phone ringing and his boss saying, “There’s a plane down! There’s a plane crash right where you are!”
“We’re like, this has got to be a coincidence, we’re in the middle of nowhere,” Little said. “We had no idea this was tied to 9/11.”
He followed firetrucks to a field near Shanksville in Somerset County. It took Little a while to actually find the crash site, and then he found a swarm of media, investigators, and first responders.
“It was like the whole world had descended on Shanksville, Pennsylvania,” he said.
Jim Clark, first assistant fire chief for Somerset Volunteer Fire Co., was already on scene when Little arrived. He said it reeked of jet fuel.
“I’ll never forget that smell, and I knew that this was going to be a recovery because it was just literally pieces everywhere,” Clark said.
He remembers working with other local fire departments to secure the scene when the FBI and state police showed up and they learned it was related to the terrorist attacks.
“It was heartbreaking. It was terrible,” Clark said. “I mean what do you do?”
Clark was proud of the volunteers who worked about 12 hours per day with federal officials and did their best to preserve the victims’ personal items for their families. He led the county’s hazmat team.
“Everybody responded very, very professionally and we just worked together for the next two weeks, everybody had a job to do,” he said.
Little, now a reporter at NBC7 in San Diego, was one of the journalists out there in the days that followed, bringing more details of what happened that day to the world.
“Every day I was in that field doing French baths with wet wipes and eating out of a cooler, and using whatever restroom nature provided.”
Phone records helped investigators piece together what happened with Flight 93. Because the flight was delayed, hijackers commandeered the plane later than they had planned. When passengers on the flight learned of the terrorist attacks, they frantically called loved ones and made plans to overtake the hijackers. Their efforts forced the plane to crash in Shanksville, preventing it from reaching its intended target.
“I really made a point to celebrate the passengers when we started hearing about the phone calls,” he said. “We started hearing about the sacrifices and the names, and who they were and that they were just average Americans.”