The day 18 years ago started out a lot like it did Tuesday, said Terry Shaffer, now-retired fire chief of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department.
It would be the longest day of his life, he told the audience outside the Bedford County courthouse Tuesday evening as they gathered to remember Sept. 11, 2001 and honor first responders and the nation’s servicemen and women.
The ceremony followed the 9/11 Promise Bike Ride in which 14 bicycylists and their support team of 11 more finished a two-day ride from Washington, D.C., to Bedford on their way to the Flight 93 ceremony at Shanksville today.
Shaffer, who first became a firefighter in 1977, told the audience he was working in Johnstown when it’s believed the 40 passengers of Flight 93 fought to wrest control of the doomed aircraft from hijackers. The jet, downed in a field near Shanksville just after 10 a.m., ingrained the town into U.S. history as the place where civilians were the first to fight the war on terror.
“It was a horrific sight,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer said following the initial chaos at the scene, he and fellow firefighters were tasked with protection and preservation of the crash site for three weeks following the crash. The care of the site and for the families of those who died aboard the plane was tantamount, Shaffer said.
“For us, it’s always been about the families, about the surviving members of the families that were killed on the plane that day,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer said he told his firefighters to put their best foot forward, to cooperate and assist the agencies that came in — 174 of them — to assist with the aftermath. As Shaffer pointed out, it was the longest-held crime scene ever established in Pennsylvania.
Bedford County Emergency Services hosted the ceremony. Director Dave Cubbison said he started working on the event after he learned the organizers of the first 911 Promise Bike Ride to Flight 93 wanted to stop in Bedford.
The bike ride raises funds to support a scholarship for qualified children of first responders and military service members who have been killed or injured and are unable to hold employment.
Teams of two to three cyclists with support crew person riding in a vehicle, covered nearly 200 miles, traversing trails, crossing the rivers and traveling through historic towns like Frederick, Maryland. They were hosted by several fire departments along the way as they stopped to regain strength.
Today, they will caravan in team vehicles to Flight 93.
They spent the night on cots at the Bedford Moose Lodge where Jeff Onstead, who assisted Cubbison, is a member.
Onstead said when Cubbison sent out the word to first responders he was working on hosting the riders, Onstead, a member of Chestnut Ridge Ambulance, said he drew up a proposal to the Moose officials who agreed to house the riders.
The Red Cross provided the cots, he said.
The commander of the bike ride, Mark Mehle, thanked Bedford Moose Lodge and the county commissioners who approved the use of showers for the riders.
Mehle noted the greatest challenge of the ride was the Insterstate 70 overpass at Crystal Springs.
A family from Virginia was one of the teams on the ride. Laura and Greg Taylor, triathletes, and their daughter, Taylor, all of Dunn Loring, said the route kept to backroads as much as possible.
The Taylors, who did the run last year from the Pentagon to New York City, biked “to honor those Americans who saved that last fight from going into the capital,” Laura said.
Kelly Montesano, a Hamilton, New Jersey, firefighter, convinced two of her fellow firefighters to do the ride.
“Kelly got us into it. She asked if we wanted to do something crazy,” said Thomas Hargraves, a Monteclair, New Jersey, firefighter.
The three said Pennsylvania’s hills were tough.
“During the high hills, we just thought about everyone (on Flight 93) who saved the lives of others,” Harold Summers Jr., also a Hamilton firefighter, said.
“The hills we did were nothing compared to what they did,” Montesano said.
The Sept. 11 attacks launched the war in Afghanistan, a conflict still unresolved.
Bedford County Commissioner Josh Lang told the audience he was a ninth grader on the day of the attacks.
“I remember 2001 like it was yesterday,” he said. When he saw the towers of the Wolrd Trade Center were attacked, “my stomach dropped and at that point I knew I wanted to serve.” Lang would later serve in Afghanistan.
“Many still choose to serve some years later. Some have wounds of war when they return. Some have the pain inside we can’t see,” Lang said. Some gave the ulatimate sacrifice, he said.
State Rep. Jesse Topper said he and Cubbison were at the Bedford United Methodist Church working when the attacks began. He thought about the first responders who ran toward the towers and the Pentagon to save people.
“It’s takes a special kind of caring to run toward something that everything in your body is telling you to run from,” Topper said.
Commissioner Barry Dallara, also a veteran, said ceremonies to mark Sept. 11 are needed “to make sure we never forget about 9/11.”
Cubbison paid tribute to first responders, who give “everything that lives within their humanity to safeguard and defend their families, their neighbors and even total strangers,” said Cubbison, a former volunteer with Bedford.
“Our call tonight is to encourage, to support and to give great affirmation to these folks from our community, of our community and in our community.”