Never Breaking Trust With 9-11’s Citizen-Soldiers
The World Trade Center. The Pentagon. A field in Somerset County.
That unlikely triumvirate has invaded the American consciousness as the emotion-packed shorthand known as “9-11.”
Few numerical couplings evoke such a powerful groundswell of emotion in every American who lived through the harrowing events of September 11, 2001.
The memory of the Boeing 757 passenger airplane, on a flight path from Newark, New Jersey to San Francisco, is still as vivid as the cloudless aquamarine skies and golden sunlight of that late summer morning. The silver vessel crashed into the quiet countryside of Shanksville, Somerset County. All 40 passengers and crew perished in the crash, but not before a determined team of heretofore-strangers fought off four Islamic hijackers in an act of unmitigated heroism. These spontaneous heroes no doubt saved dozens, if not hundreds, more lives as they successfully diverted the plane from the hijackers’ intended target—the U.S. Capitol.
Passenger-hero Todd Beamer’s final words, “Let’s roll,” still ring with searing courage and catastrophe.
Henry Cook, President and CEO of Somerset Trust Company, realizes the incongruity of these three sites: the center of international commerce and the center of American democracy, paired with the center of tranquility in small-town Pennsylvania.
“We are middle America,” said Cook, the fifth generation of Cooks to lead Somerset Trust Company. “We were the only place in middle America directly impacted by 9-11.”
“Nothing bad’s supposed to happen here.”
“We are farmers and coal miners… we were living our lives, working hard. Up until then, we were just part of the world they just flew over.”
To have United Airlines Flight 93 crash in southwestern Pennsylvania and serve as the final resting place for 40 innocent passengers and crew, bestows a heavy obligation upon Cook and his family-led bank, one of America’s oldest.
That tragedy forged an unbreakable bond between the grieving family members of the victims, the bank’s employees and customers, and the entire Shanksville area.
Somerset County became an instant support network for the families.
That collective, extended group hug earned Somerset Trust one of Cook’s fondest recollections.
At the first anniversary ceremony, a leader of the Families of Flight 93 rose to his feet and said: “We would never wish this tragedy on anybody. But if it has to happen to anyone, pray it happens in Somerset County.” Those words brought the victims’ families to their feet, and a tidal wave of applause and appreciation washed over the bank leaders and other community leaders present.
The love given was love returned, in multiples.
There is no greater return on investment for community banks than that, Cook believes.
In addition to that reminiscence, the bank’s role in embracing 9-11’s community of grievers and honoring the heroes of Flight 93 also earned them one of PACB’s coveted “Grow Your Community Awards” for 2014. They are no stranger to awards.
The bank won the Governor’s Impact Award in 2013 and was also a finalist in May 2014. In 2000, before 9-11 even shook our nation’s sense of safety, they were recognized as one of the best Internet banks in the U.S. by a New Hampshire-based publication.
That Fateful Day
Cook was in a policy meeting at the bank when someone came in and announced that an airplane had hit one of the iconic towers of Manhattan’s World Trade Center, soon after 8:06 a.m. The group turned on the TV, watched the billowing smoke from the North Tower, and thought it was a tragic accident. When the second plane hit, the suspicion of something more sinister spread like the edges of the hungry flames.
Then a rumor hit that an airplane had crashed on the runway in Somerset. Knowing of a local test pilot, Cook assumed, with horror, that the victim was that familiar resident.
Cook, a volunteer firefighter who was inactive at the time of the crash, had many friends respond to the field and the smoking fire at the crash site. Both Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department and Somerset Fire Department responded within minutes.
Cook recalled the huge emotional drain they sustained.Firefighters are taught to save and protect, and they could do neither. Even the debris was so small, there was little to recover.
Traveling at 580 miles per hour, “The plane just lunged into the ground and exploded into a mushroom cloud,” driving plane pieces deep into the earth, Cook said.
“There was enormous frustration.”
“Our goal is to save property and lives but here there was nothing to save and protect. It was devastating to my brother firefighters,” Cook said.
In the Days and Hours after 9-11
Soon after the crash, as the shell-shocked families of the fallen began responding to the charred remains at the scene, the townspeople knew where the families were staying, but they dared not invade their privacy. Instead, in a poignant show of support, they lined the streets linking the families’ temporary home to the crash site with people, posters, banners, flags, flowers, ribbons and wreaths.
“We created this corridor of honor and good wishes,” Cook recalls.
The Friday after 9-11, the community memorial service at the town’s stately county courthouse attracted thousands of mourners–so many that they had to close the streets of Somerset. It was a collective embrace from a grief-stricken and grateful nation.
On the six-month anniversary of the crash, the families came together again to talk about how to honor the victims and to petition for a national monument. Somerset Trust Company, 125 years strong, opened its restored headquarters building in the heart of Somerset, at the top of a stalwart hill, for their meeting place.
“Tensions, emotions, were running very high,” Cook remembers.
He was the first speaker to address the room, charged with the onerous burden of breaking the ice and setting the tone. He felt enormous pressure. When he spoke about the building in which they were meeting, under the colorful stained glass dome, and what their presence meant to the people of Somerset, he said tensions in the room eased palpably.
“The ambiance of that room helped them to bring down their pain,” he said.
More than serving as a meeting place, the bank played a leading role not only in constructing the Flight 93 National Memorial, but in commissioning a ship known as the U.S.S. Somerset. They led the fundraising campaign to raise $50,000 from the Somerset area.
Many of his employees remain members of the Friends of Flight 93 today and are planting trees to protect the sacred site.
To have a ship named specifically after Somerset County is deeply meaningful to Cook and his bank. The U.S.S. Somerset is capable of embarking a landing force of more than 1,000 Marines, with more than 350 sailors serving as regular crew members.
Cook attended the christening ceremony in New Orleans for the U.S.S. Somerset, which joined the U.S.S. New York and U.S.S. Arlington to honor all the victims of 9-11.
“It was a powerfully moving ceremony.”
After that ceremony, he and the bank began advocating for the commissioning to happen in Pennsylvania because of its unbreakable bond to the Keystone State. They succeeded.
Joined by the Philadelphia Navy League, the bank and others even raised money to sponsor buses to the ship commissioning on March 1, 2014 at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia.
Fifteen hundred people from Somerset County traveled to Philadelphia for the boat’s commissioning.
A long column of uniformed young U.S. sailors and Marines saluted them from the boat’s massive deck.
“I was so honored to be there. It still brings a tear to my eye,” Cook said.
The $1.2 billion ship, stretching to 684 feet in length and weighing almost 25,000 tons, will not only support the U.S. Navy, but will undertake humanitarian relief operations around the world during disasters.
That helping role in particular touches Cook’s heart.
Cook said to a Flight 93 family member, “I am so glad the ship also has a peaceful mission.”
The Flight 93 friend said, “That is the spirit of the people of Somerset, put into that ship.”
9-11 in 2014
Somerset’s role in 9-11 is still bittersweet.
“This is where our fellow citizens fought back. It’s very powerful.”
He is especially touched that the passengers took a vote on what to do.
“They took a vote,” he repeated. “That overwhelms me.
“They met and voted to alter their destiny.”
From the black box and cell phone messages retrieved, we know that the passengers decided to take over the plane, after reaching a site of low housing density.
They rushed the cockpit. “These were citizen-soldiers. This is the essence of how this country started.”
“This needed to be honored. To be respected.”
“This was the first fight back. This is the beginning of the War on Terror.”
Flight 93 National Memorial
Cook is proud that Flight 93 National Memorial was the fastest created national memorial in American history.
President George W. Bush signed into law the bill authorizing the construction of a 2,200-acre park managed by the National Park Service.
The site design features a Circle of Embrace modified by the design team, led by Paul and Milena Murdoch of Los Angeles.
Cook served on the 15-member jury charged with picking the design of the memorial. From 1,500 choices, they narrowed the field down to seven or eight, and then to one.
“It was one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life. You just want to get it right, to honor these people.”
Cook notes that the sixteen-year-olds who come to Somerset today were only two or three years old on that infamous day. Already a generation is growing up without having lived through 9-11.
The foundation started by Fred Rogers, of public television’s Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood fame, is working to create a teaching tool for children that will be instructive without being frightening at the memorial site. Ambassadors also tell tales about each passenger, bringing each individual story to life.
The bank also offered their trust services to the foundation for gratis.
In 2012, the National Park Service completed the planting of 40 Memorial Groves. In April 2013, more than 500 volunteers, many from the bank, planted 15,500 seedlings across 23 acres. These trees will serve as a windbreak for the trees in the Memorial Groves.
In October of this year, tragedy struck at the site again. A small fire broke out, and smoke once again was seen rising from four structures on the hallowed grounds. Some of the artifacts left at the site that were not yet catalogued were lost, including an American flag donated by the U.S. Congress that flew over the U.S. Capitol on 9-11.
That tragedy stings all over again.
And soon after 9-11, another nightmare struck Somerset County, but this one had a jubilant outcome. Nine coal miners trapped in the Quecreek Mine were saved, after a massive, tedious, 77-hour rescue effort in July 2002.
In addition to revering the past, the bank is investing in the future, too. They are working to save elephants and rhinos from the lucrative ivory trade.
To protect dwindling populations of endangered African elephants, officials at the International Conservation Center in southern Somerset County broke ground in October 2013 for an elephant barn. The new facility will house a one-acre indoor space for four female elephants and their calves. The 724-acre site is home to a male elephant named Jackson.
Somerset Trust Co provided a matching grant of up to $50,000 to build the facility. Jackson’s photograph holds a place of honor on the bank’s wall.
“Who would have thought we would be raising elephants in the snow in the Laurel Highlands on the Allegheny Ridge?” Cook quipped.
Pennsylvania as Power Place
Cook reflects upon the singular role of Pennsylvania in United States history. “I find it extraordinary.”
“If you want to learn about the American Revolution, go to Valley Forge. If you want to learn about the Civil War, go to Gettysburg. If you want to see the start of the War on Terror, go to Somerset County.”
“We are the custodians of history.”
“It just happened to us,” Cook said. “We weren’t raising our hand for anything.”
But like the unsuspecting citizens-soldiers on the ill-fated plane, “We did what had to be done.”
“At every level of the bank, we all felt the importance. Everybody stepped up.”
They opened their arms, their wallets, their garden sheds, their calendars, their homes, their hearts.
The bank’s community service record spans the 9-11 Memorial, to a naval vessel, to a mining drama, to an elephant sanctuary on the top of a mountain.
And the message from that unlikely pairing is crystal clear.
“Anything is possible.”
That is one message that Somerset Trust Company will ensure lives on.
This article can be found featured in the December 2014 issue of Transactions. Not a subscriber? Visit the Transactions page on this website or call PACB at 717-231-7447 to start receiving the magazine.