If you study a map of Pennsylvania, you may have a difficult time finding the tiny village of Shanksville. With an estimated population of about 225 people, it isn’t what you would call a bustling town. Although it was first laid out in 1829, it did not merit serious attention from the rest of America until September 11, 2001. On that fateful day, United Airlines Flight 93, which had been hijacked by four Al Qaeda suicide terrorists, crashed into a nearby reclaimed mine site killing all 40 civilian passengers and crew. It was the only one of four hijacked aircraft that failed to reach its intended destination, which was the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC. That was the day and event that brought Shanksville, PA to the attention of every American.
Because its scheduled departure time was delayed, the passengers of Flight 93 had an opportunity to learn what was happening and collectively decided to risk their own lives in a desperate attempt to seize control of the aircraft from the hijackers. They stormed the cockpit and managed to convince the terrorists that their control of the plane was in jeopardy. On-flight voice recorders captured the hijackers’ decision to intentionally crash the plane because they knew they couldn’t complete their mission. When the plane finally hit the ground at full speed, it left a relatively small impact crater and a debris field that covered a mile of ground along the flight path. All aboard were killed instantly.
We had discussed visiting the Flight 93 memorial that was eventually built on the site a number of times, but we didn’t actually do it until this past Monday, January 25. The monument was reopened that day after the recent partial government shutdown. We visited the 93-foot tall memorial tower, with its carillon of wind chimes to represent the muffled voices of the 40 brave civilians who died in the crash. We also toured the visitors center with its videos and recordings of the events of that day and a wall of pictures of the victims. The starkness of the buildings and memorial tower epitomizes the utter shock that captured the nation’s attention that day and the dramatic changes that the event eventually brought to our daily lives.
Those of us who lived through that incident remember exactly what we were doing when they learned of these unfolding events. We were living in the Anniston/Oxford, AL area at the time, and I remember hearing that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers as I approached my office from my car after driving in to work. My wife was working for a nearby Credit Union that served employees and service men and women who worked at the Anniston Ordinance Depot. My first thought was that the crash was some kind of crazy accident and the pilot would be to blame. However, as time passed, we all learned the truth that it was an organized terrorist attack on our nation, and that it cost the lives of nearly 3,000 innocent people.
I guess all of us think about that day and event whenever it is mentioned. Many people probably recall personal friends and family who lost their lives. Although the incident still occasionally haunts my mind, it’s not because I lost any friends or relatives. It’s because of the car I was trying to sell at that time. That car represents my only potential link to the September 11 terrorist attacks. It is a strange story indeed, so I will explain it to you.
In the month prior to the September 11 attack, Barb and I decided to sell a 1994 Mazda Protégé that we had been driving. The car’s mileage had reached a point where we could receive the best resale value for the use we had obtained from it. To minimize the cost of buying a new replacement car, I decided that we would try to sell it ourselves, so that we would receive the full resale value and could approach the car dealership with a cash deposit rather than a trade-in. We felt we could work a better deal on the price of a new car that way. To further minimize our cost for a new car, we decided to buy it in September, when we could get a good deal on a prior year (2001) model the dealer would be motivated to sell to make way for the new 2002 model cars. That’s why we were trying to sell the car at that point in time.
I decided to list our Mazda on the Internet, as it was a brand of car that would garner a lot of attention from prospective buyers. Barb, who was working in the banking field at that time, researched the Blue Book value and determined that it was worth $2,800. I listed it at that price to ensure a quick sale. As it turned out, I received a call from an interested buyer the next morning, which was a Saturday. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact date, because it wouldn’t stand out in my mind until the days following September 11.
The person who inquired about the car was living in the Atlanta area, which was a 90-mile drive via Interstate 20 to our home in Oxford, AL. I had a difficult time understanding what he was saying because he was speaking with a very thick accent that I recognized as Middle Eastern. He asked if he could see the car that day, so I gave him driving directions to our home. He arrived early that afternoon in a rental car with three “friends.” They were all roughly the same age and of Middle Eastern descent. I showed them the car I had to sell, and one of them climbed into it and studied the interior. I had recently cleaned it and it was in very good appearance. The four men conversed with each other in Arabic as I watched them.
After about 15 minutes of discussion, one of them turned to me and said they wanted to buy it, if I would accept $2,000 in cash for it. He produced from his front pocket a wad of $100 bills, which he unfolded and fanned before me. This took me by surprise and I replied, “don’t you at least want to test drive it?” He smiled at me, then looked at his friends, each of whom were looking at each other as if they were surprised that I didn’t immediately accept their offer. The man with the money turned back to me and said, “sure, that would be fine.”
I then climbed into the middle of the back seat as all four of them got into the car with me. I gave the money man the key and he started the car. I gave him directions as we drove down the hill from our house onto U.S. Route 78, which he drove along for a couple of miles before turning around and returning to the house. After the tour, he reiterated his cash offer and drew the wad of bills from his pocket. They all stared at me as I thought for a moment of what to say. He was offering me cash, but it was $800 less than we had hoped we could get for it. I told him that the book value was $2,800 and that I would appreciate a little more for it. He said that was all he had to offer and that he was ready to buy it now. We negotiated a little more, but I finally told him I’d rather wait a little while to see if I could get a better offer. It had only been listed for one day.
I asked for his telephone number in case I decided later to accept his offer, but he refused to give it to me. He said he would look for another car. He then collected his friends and they drove away in their rental car. That was the last I saw them or heard from them. I eventually sold the car a couple of weeks later to a local nurse who agreed to pay me $2,500 for it. We then went to a dealer and bought a 2001 Chevy Malibu, which I drove to work on the morning of September 11, 2001.
However, in the weeks following the September 11 attack, I saw news stories documenting that some of the Al Qaeda terrorists had been staying in the Atlanta area within the final months before the attack. One of them was Mohammed Atta, one of the ringleaders in planning the coordinated attack. He and one of his cohorts were taking practice flights at a local airport. After hearing these stories in the news, I began to think back to the day the group of four Middle Eastern men tried to buy my car. Although I never knew their names and could never recognize their faces, I had to wonder if I might have sold my car to some of the terrorists who carried out that brazen, despicable act. That lingering thought, which came to mind every time I have heard the event discussed, was my strongest motivation to visit the Flight 93 Memorial. I guess I’ll always wonder if my car might have been one of many tools that supported them and their activities. However, it always reminds me of how small the world can become and how even the smallest incidents can have huge consequences and ramifications. That’s probably a good thing for all of us to think about from time to time.
This remains my only potential link to the September 11 attacks.