“Did you save any doughnuts for me?” the large gentleman wearing a green hat emblazoned with “Army Veteran Korean War” on the front, asked with a laugh.
Brenda and I were sitting in the Fishersville, Va. Hampton Inn a couple of weeks ago when the man rolled his wheelchair-bound wife into the breakfast area of the hotel a few tables away from ours.
The man had a ruddy complexion, like someone who had spent a great deal of time in the sun and wind, and had a hearty laugh, one that made people look over at him when he began to chortle in a low rumble that ended in a loud crescendo.
His wife was disabled, but had a cheery, agreeable personality, and frequently exchanged loving glances with her husband who often rubbed her thin, pale hands. It was obvious the man was gregarious and outgoing. He liked people.
“That snowstorm was something, wasn’t it?” he asked us.
He was referring to the “freak” snowstorm that had unexpectedly descended upon the Shenandoah Valley, leaving 8.5 inches of snow on the mountainsides. He said they had almost 15 inches of snow when they had left Johnstown.
I asked the man if they were from Johnstown, Pa. “Yes. Born, bred, and buttered in the area,” he laughed.
The man’s tone then turned serious.
“I saw the crash, you know,” he said, as his wife’s eyes began to moisten.
It was a story you could tell the man had told many times before.
He said he lives and farms outside Shanksville, Pa., about 15 miles south of Johnstown, and was riding on a tractor mowing field grass the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He said he had started mowing early to avoid the heat later that warm afternoon in September and had just looked at his watch before he heard a thundering noise above his head. He said the time was about 10:05 a.m.
“I looked up and saw a large plane swaying from side-to-side tearing the sky open as it roared toward a hill and a stand of pines on a neighboring farm,” he said. “I heard several loud booms and then a deafening explosion.”
He went on to say that within 10 minutes the county road near his farm was filled with emergency personnel responding to the hills on the neighboring farm. He could see dark, black smoke and a cloud rising toward the sky near him.
“My heart was pounding, and I was scared,” he said. “I thought the last day of judgment had arrived. I didn’t know what to do other than pray. I didn’t have a cell phone then, so I took off on the tractor toward the house.”
He had no idea the airplane was Flight 93, a plane commandeered by four terrorists, and defended by several brave Americans who had fought the hijacking in vain.
He said he and his wife turned on the television, watching and listening as the commentators revealed the doomed flight may have gotten as far west as Ohio before turning east toward Pennsylvania.
According to officials, an airplane in distress had passed through Cleveland-area airspace before the plane had turned east heading toward Pittsburgh at a remarkably high rate of speed. The air traffic controllers in Pittsburgh said they had lost contact with the plane when it entered their airspace.
The man said although he had been in the war, he had never heard anything as loud as the exploding plane when it returned to earth. “It sounded like a million tons of dynamite,” he said. “A giant wave of fire shot towards the heavens, and a big cloud of smoke soon followed.”
The man went on to tell us how we all learned the facts of the crash later. “We heard everything imaginable,” he said. “Someone at our local McDonald’s breakfast table even said the military had shot the plane down.”
He went on to say he has dreamed many times since he has seen the hand of God reach into that field and gently raise the souls of the Americans to the Heavens.
“That’s the way I’d like to believe it happened, anyway,” he said, as tears slowly formed in his eyes.
“I may have been the last man on earth to see those 44 people on the plane alive, don’t you know,” he said quietly.
“How could a man not remember something like that?”
Pat Haley is former Clinton County commissioner and former Clinton County sheriff.