By Daniel Lovering
PITTSBURGH (Reuters) - Before the September 11 attacks, the arrival of a car with out-of-state license plates was all it took to capture the attention of residents in Shanksville, a close-knit rural community in southwestern Pennsylvania.
A visitor to the country store, stopping to ask for directions in a foreign accent, might have drawn scrutiny, if not suspicion, residents say.
"All that's changed," said Clay Mankamyer, 65, a longtime resident and former state police officer who runs a private security firm.
"Now we see a lot of out-of-state license plates, a lot of people from other cultures, even a few that don't speak English as a first language, or at all."
The September 11, 2001 crash of United Flight 93 in a field near Shanksville, a town of 237 people, transformed the area and many of its residents, prompting a surge of volunteerism, tourism and international media attention.
The airliner -- which had been scheduled to fly to San Francisco from Newark, New Jersey -- plunged from the sky amid a struggle between passengers and hijackers over control. All 40 passengers and crew members were killed.
"We learned of the heroic deeds of the 40 heroes of Flight 93 and realized that their persistence and their sacrifice may have saved our little town, which was right over the ridge and only a few seconds away at the speed that aircraft was traveling," Mankamyer said.
The plane might otherwise have destroyed a school, he said, "so we felt a special obligation to see that their story was told, and that they were not forgotten."
He and his wife, Mary Alice, volunteered as Flight 93 Ambassadors, or guides, who assist visitors at the crash site.
As the story of Flight 93 unfolded through the recovery of the cockpit voice recorder, data recorder, transcripts and phone conversations, "that just verified that we were on the right track," he said.
They also volunteered to help establish a rose garden next to the crash site, featuring one rose for each September 11 victim, as a place for visitors to "see that beauty can be raised up out of the ashes, good can come out of tremendous tragedy."
Nearly 1.5 million people have visited the temporary memorial at the crash site since 2001, and residents who were unprepared for the attention "have handled it with the utmost grace," said Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93 group.
"You won't find a more genuine, dear, just wonderful group of people than the people in this part of the country," said Felt, whose brother Edward Porter Felt, died on Flight 93.
"Their dedication and outpouring of love has certainly made this process easier for all of us."
Terry Shaffer, Shanksville's fire chief for 25 years, helped plan the national memorial to be dedicated this weekend.
"Over 10 years, that's been the whole story," he said. "It hasn't been about the town or the fire department or anything. For me, anyhow, the story is about the people who were on that plane and what they saved our nation from."
Some members of the community "wish it would just sort of go away and would have never happened," Shaffer said.
'WHO WE ARE NOW'
"But unfortunately that's who we are now, and that's what we're remembered for and you can't change that," he said. "So you just got to do the best you can."
But September 11 did little to alter the character of Shanksville, its residents say.
"I'd love to tell you there was a big major impact on us here, but there really (wasn't)," said Sam Romesburg, principal of Shanksville-Stonycreek High School. "This is a very sensible, hard-working community. They're a faith-based community. It takes a lot to rattle this crew."
Local students have learned to be proud of their hometown in the wake of September 11, he said.
"They know a lot of their family members were first responders, whether it be through ambulance service or fire service or whatever," said Romesburg.
Students also know one of the schools was in the path of Flight 93 and that "a few seconds could have made a huge difference," he said.
September 11 taught the local community "to see the world in a different way, to have a larger world view, that we're not just an isolated mountain community, that we're affected by what happens in the world," said Jay Shaffer (no relation to fire chief Terry Shaffer), pastor of the 310-member Unity United Church of Christ for 21 years.
Mankamyer, the retired state trooper, said he moved from Pittsburgh 25 years ago "to get my kids out of the city, to get them away from drugs and into a good school and introduce them to country life, thinking that Shanksville was the perfect place to hide out."
"The lesson is indeed that there is no place to hide in this world today that is totally safe from the effects of terrorism," he said.
"So you may as well roll up your sleeves and find out how you can get engaged in a way that can help make things better."
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton)