SOMERSET COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ) – On September 11, 2001, the world stood still as terrorists hijacked four planes. One of the planes, United Airlines Flight 93, headed for the U.S. Capitol before passengers fought back, crashed in a field in Stoystown. Just minutes before, the Boeing 757 passed over the town of Friedens and its elementary school.
Home to about 1,000 people, smalltown Friedens, Pa. is typically quiet, the most noise you hear are coal trucks rolling down the streets. But that morning, at just after 10 a.m., the whole town could feel the rumbles of Flight 93 as it passed overhead.
“It put a different level of fear as the day went on, and everything got more unknown,” said Duana Shaffer, a first-grade teacher, Friedens elementary school. The rural farming community would never be the same. “What was going to happen? I remember a lot of people just saying if they were able to hijack that many planes and crash them then when was it going to stop? Is this going to continue?”
The elementary school, which closed in 2012, located on Stoystown Road was home to K-third grade. With classes in session at the time, Pennsylvania State Police alerted school officials of the oncoming aircraft.
“They knew it was coming over our area and they didn’t know what to do with the children,” said Karen Maust, who at the time was principal of the Friedens Elementary School, as well as two others in Somerset County. “Should we take them out for recess should we keep them in? Because nobody knew where the plane was going.”
Unaware of the other attacks across the country at the time, staff within the school simply thought it may have been a plane suffering from mechanical problems that would be making a crash landing.
“We did not realize the magnitude of what was going on because we had not heard about the other planes at that point in time,” Shaffer said.
Soon, however, the horror of the day’s events became all too clear. But as the danger of the situation rapidly unfolded, the staff at Friedens made it a priority to not let their fears show to the young children inside, and focused on keeping them safe.
“Secure your kiddos and keep them safe. Because that was one of my jobs as a teacher was to keep the children in my classroom safe,” Shaffer said.
One of the students in Shaffer’s class was then five-year-old Marissa Mostoller, who is now a teacher herself at the Maple Ridge Elementary School. So young at the time, she can’t recall much from that day.
“My grandparents came to pick me up because they actually lived right down [the street]. So they came over and picked me up,” Mostoller said, as she recalled the day’s events. “And I remember going to their restaurant, which is up the road a little bit and we watched it on the TV.”
The aftermath, she said, is more clear.
“I mean, I remember a lot of memorials and talking. And one thing that I specifically remember is how many times we played the “Proud to be American” song. Like I distinctly remember that pretty vividly,” Mostoller said.
The calming presence, Marissa said, played a role in her becoming a teacher today. And each year she shares with her students what she and her classmates experienced that day.
“I always try to tell them that I was your age whenever this happened so this was a very long time ago. And you know, discussing just what happened and how it made me feel,” Mostoller said.
The heroes onboard United Flight 93, and the first responders on the scene continue to be honored each year at Friedens Elementary School. Students pay tribute by hanging flags and drawings on the fence outside the school.
As first responders and investigators rushed by towards the scene of the crash, Shaffer and the faculty at Friedens kept their children occupied until parents came to pick them up.
“We did not turn on any TVs for any of the children to be seeing anything that was going on because we as adults really didn’t know what was going on and how to handle it at that point for ourselves,” Shaffer said.