Mt. Pleasant Borough prepares for 9/11 tribute
Memories of the Shanksville few ever saw are forever seared into the mind of Alan Baumgardner.
As a longtime Somerset County 911 official, Baumgardner said he still finds it hard to escape the mental imagery of airplane wreckage, human carnage and anguished faces of those who eventually came to mourn lost loved ones there following the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“It definitely is never far from you,” he said.
On that day, United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked by al Qaeda terrorists, crashed deep within the jurisdiction of Somerset 911 at a time when Baumgardner was the agency's coordinator.
Thirty-three passengers, five flight attendants, and two pilots who lost their lives that day are credited with fighting back and preventing the plane from crashing into landmarks in Washington D.C.
In all, nearly 3,000 people were killed in the largest ever loss of life due to a terrorist attack on American soil, which also took place at the Pentagon in Washington and at the World Trade Center towers in New York City.
Twelve years later, random reminders of that day, and the weeks and months that followed, will occasionally trigger still-powerful emotions in Baumgardner, he said.
“I'll just be driving down the road, look up and see a plane, and remember,” Baumgardner said. “I don't think that will ever go away.”
For years, Baumgardner has been invited to speak before groups large and small, far and wide, about what he experienced while working every day for more than a month at the site following that dark day in American history.
The memories he chooses to reflect upon, above all others, are associated more with the spirit of cooperation which arose in the wake of the tragedy.
“I don't go into too much detail on the incident itself,” Baumgardner said. “But when an incident like this occurs in our area, I like to stress the cooperation I've seen that takes place between the emergency response agencies, the businesses and the residents to get through it.”
Baumgardner said he will focus on such a subject when he serves Wednesday as the featured speaker at Mt. Pleasant Borough's 9/11 Tribute.
The event will take place at 6:30 p.m. at Veteran's Park.
A day unlike any other
Just after 10 a.m. the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Baumgardner said he and his fellow dispatchers were watching coverage of the attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. when the phones at the agency's headquarters began ringing “off the hook” with word of the crash nearby.
“I left work and I drove straight to the scene; I was there within 20 minutes,” he said.
What he witnessed upon his arrival at Shanksville was unlike anything he'd experienced before, he said.
“I thought ‘I'm not seeing anything that looks like a plane,' and I've been on multiple aircraft accidents,” Baumgardner said.
As state police and local police and fire departments began to arrive, the knowledge that the plane had been hijacked was just becoming known, Baumgardner said.
“We didn't know for the longest time that the plane had been hijacked,” he said.
When that fact had been established, Baumgardner was granted security clearance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to assist in evolving emergency management efforts.
Aiding in the aftermath
For roughly 16 hours a day Baumgardner worked for more than a month straight at the Shanksville crash site, collecting human remains and airplane parts and providing logistical resources for the multiple federal, state and local agencies on hand.
“I'd go back to my house about seven miles away at 3 a.m., take a shower, change my clothes and try to get some sleep before heading back,” he said.
Working at Baumgardner's side over that time were Rick Lohr, the county's emergency management coordinator, and Wallace Miller, the county's coroner.
Several months after the investigation began, officials of the federal government agencies determined the identities of the Flight 93 victims via DNA analysis of remains collected, and moved on to conduct similar work in New York and Washington, Baumgardner said.
For the next 18 months, Miller led local officials in continuing to scour the site for additional human remains, Baumgardner said.
“It was pretty much trial and error on how we would find remains,” he said.
A message of mutual aid
Today, Baumgardner continues to work at Somerset 911 as a shift supervisor.
He has been asked to speak at countless events for various groups around the country about what his Sept. 11 experience.
“At times like that, it's not about the money or who gets the recognition, it's about doing the right thing and helping in any way possible,” he said.
“I'm thankful to live in this area. It's good to know that, when something goes wrong, people are there to back you up.”
Borough Council President Joe Bauer, who will serve as the tribute's master of ceremonies, feels that it's important for the borough to continue to mark the anniversary of Sept. 11, he said.
“The whole point is to make people remember what happened so we can try not to let it happen again,” Bauer said.
Borough Mayor Jerry Lucia, who is also the borough's volunteer fire chief and its emergency management coordinator, feels fortunate that Baumgardner will be on hand to speak, he said.
“In our (Sept. 11) tributes, we want the people of Mt. Pleasant and surrounding communities to actually have that feeling of what happened there, and he will give them that,” Lucia said.
Diamond Street from Main Street to Washington Street will close from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday for the Mt. Pleasant 9/11 Tribute.
• The Norvelt Historical Society will host a “Salute to our Veterans” at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
The service will be held at the Norvelt Union Church, located at 2339 Mt. Pleasant Road in Mt. Pleasant Township.
All veterans are encouraged to attend.
Light refreshments will be served afterward.
For more information, please call the Rev. David L. Greer, the church's pastor, at 724-423-3260.
A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.