On Sept. 11, 2001, a 911 call from a United Flight 93 passenger over Mount Pleasant was the first indication that terror had leached into rural Pennsylvania.
The caller told a Westmoreland County 911 dispatcher the plane was hijacked. Lt. Jerry Ryan tried to make sense of the call at the state police barracks in Greensburg.
About five to 10 minutes later, the plane crashed into an abandoned strip mine in Stoneycreek Township near Shanksville, Somerset County.
The news of the terror attacks didn’t hit the Greensburg station until someone turned on a TV in another room, and the gravity of that 911 call hit.
“When the second plane went down, I think everyone in America put it together: This was no accident,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s troop commander, Capt. Frank Monaco, was at the State Police Academy in Hershey teaching a class when someone asked him if he heard what happened.
“I got to the TV just in time to see the second plane hit,” he said.
Meanwhile, at the state police Uniontown station, Trooper Jim Custer got a phone call from his wife. He and partner Jerome Venick were members of the crime unit at the time. They rushed into a room with a TV, and saw smoke billowing from gaping holes in the World Trade Center buildings.
“Everyone was in a state of shock, dismay, couldn’t believe something like this was actually happening on American soil,” said Custer, who now serves at Fayette County’s sheriff.
As news of the Flight 93 crash hit, troopers from across the state converged on Shanksville.
“People start rushing up there. Cops are like that. A lot of people are like that. When something happens, they run to the source of something,” Ryan said.
His biggest challenge at the outset, he said, was keeping some people back at the station to handle local calls.
“We realized we need people up there, but not everyone in three troops up there,” he said. “I think the most vital service I provided that day was standing at the back of the station and saying, ‘You can’t go.’”
Custer and Venick, along with other Uniontown-based troopers, packed bags and formed a caravan headed toward Shanksville. Monaco dismissed his class and left Hershey. Ryan began the drive from Greensburg on what would become a 19-day assignment.
Venick arrived at the scene and braced himself for what he was about to see.
“I went over there and I took a deep breath. I looked over in that knoll,” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Where is it?’ I was expecting to see carnage, and all I saw was singed trees.”
It wasn’t the first commercial airline crash for many of the troopers, but the scene appeared significantly different from the massive pieces of debris and butchery they saw at previous crash scenes.
“There was nothing there. Flight 93 just drove straight into the ground,” Custer said. “If you didn’t know it was an airplane crash, you would have never known what it was.”
Debris was in flames when Ryan arrived.
“You didn’t have to be a coroner to know there wouldn’t be any survivors in that type of plane crash,” he said.
The crater and debris field left by the crash showed its ferocity, he said.
“From above, you can actually see an outline of a plane – fuselage, wings,” he said. “Over the course of the investigation, we found debris eight miles away.”
Capt. Joseph A. Holmberg and Lt. Robert Weaver were the first commissioned officers to arrive on the scene.
“They immediately began to make order out of chaos,” Ryan said.
Monaco, Weaver, Holmberg, and other high-ranking state police members took control of the scene and coordinated efforts, said Ryan, who wrote the Flight 93 after-action report.
A total of 618 state police members were assigned to the scene, with about 4,000 total members in the state police at the time.
“They knew the immensity of the story in front of them, so to speak. They knew there would be federal agencies, in this case the FBI. There would be huge ramifications,” Ryan said.
Troopers entered the scene with the perspective of crime investigation, he said.
“We’re thinking ‘crime,’ but it was a massive conspiracy, a worldwide conspiracy,” he said.
Much of the evidence the federal government used to inform their response came from Shanksville, Ryan said. The role of state police was to form a perimeter to preserve evidence and contain the scene in support of the FBI investigation. They formed two concentric circles, preventing curious onlookers from taking souvenirs, and made 11 arrests, Ryan said.
No one made it through the perimeter, Ryan recalled, except for a black bear that made a brief trek through the heavily wooded, massive crime scene.
Troopers were assigned 12-hour shifts. Many stayed day and night until the FBI and other federal agencies closed the investigation. Monaco commanded the day shift and served as the public information officer for reporters.
“The first 48 hours were just insanely busy,” Monaco said. “I was there for 13 days. We had to stay there until we got that black box.”
A trooper from the Washington station found the license of one of the hijackers, Ryan said.
“It was a heck of a find. It was just amazing to find a piece like that,” he said.
Dozens of government and civilian agencies responded. The American Red Cross and Salvation Army provided food and other necessities, along with local organizations, businesses and restaurants.
Neighbors in the area gave troopers keys to their homes. Dry cleaners washed their uniforms. Community members chopped wood so troopers could keep warm by fires on the cold nights. Locals made signs and elementary school children wrote letters and drew pictures, which greeted troopers as they arrived for their shifts.
“They treated us like gold,” Monaco said.
On Sept. 17, family members of those who died in the crash arrived. Monaco organized the troopers to form lines and salute.
“I think we all felt like we were doing something,” Ryan said. “We’re not fighting the war on terrorism, but we’re doing something. The guys did a good job, and I’m proud of that.”
The troopers visited the memorial years later, and recalled the stark difference between their recollections of the scene and the public memorial.
“It gives you chills. It was a little surreal,” Custer said.
He also noted a stark cultural difference in the 20 years since the terror attacks.
“It made America united again. Everyone was flying the American flag,” he said. “Memories fade. We’re divided again.”
Custer said he hopes the lessons learned are not forgotten by future generations.
“Read the history. Be aware of the sacrifices that were made for the freedom you have today,” Custer said.
The retired troopers said they were dismayed by the chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the close of a 20-year war that, for them, began on a field in Shanksville.
“People act like it’s never going to happen again. I think that’s misinformed,” Monaco said.
Venick said the loss of life he saw that day deepened its sanctity.
“Life is precious,” he said. “You never know how it’s going to end or when it’s going to end.”
Ryan recalled a surreal moment as he was fueling up his car in Somerset soon after the crash. A couple approached him and said they were just married and had a honeymoon planned. They asked him what they should do.
“’You’re starting a new life together,’” he recalled telling them. “‘Don’t let them rob you.’”