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SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — A year after she began what she considers the most important work of her professional life as oral historian for the Flight 93 National Memorial, Kathie Shaffer had already interviewed nearly a hundred people about Sept. 11, 2001.
The agent in charge of the FBI's Pittsburgh office told her how a Maryland state trooper, without being asked, escorted his car across the state as he sped to Pittsburgh from Washington that day to oversee the Flight 93 investigation.
A Florida martial arts instructor told her how he trained the terrorists in close-quarter fighting.
An arborist called in by investigators described to her how he pulled plane and body parts from the trees at the crash.
After doing so many interviews — most of them lasting more than two hours — Mrs. Shaffer has about as much intimate knowledge of the events near Shanksville, Pa., as anyone alive outside of the criminal investigators on the case and members of the federal 9/11 Commission.
But one day in 2006, she found herself in Somerset Dry Cleaners dropping off her mother's drapes for cleaning when she noticed a plaque on the wall behind the counter honoring the owner for the role he played in those events.
"I asked him what it was for and he said, ‘Well, the FBI brought all the clothing here, the things they picked up from the plane.' He cleaned all of those things," said Mrs. Shaffer. "So I knew then, that's another interview."
The story he tells, now part of the memorial's growing oral history collection, may not be the most important interview in the archive, but it adds an emotional chord to a narrative so many believe they already know well.
"I believe it was close to 900 pounds of clothing there," Samuel Locher told Mrs. Shaffer in 2006. "And that was heartbreaking to do, because in some cases there was pieces of clothing that all that was there was like the collar of the shirt and the sleeve. There was one man's pair of pants, I remember; they were polyester pants and the legs were actually melted together on them. They were actually melted.
"During this process of doing all of these clothing, we came across [passenger] Nicole Miller's driver's license, and there's her picture right there looking at you. It was sad," he added.
His story, Mrs. Shaffer said, proved yet again: "You can never think you've talked to everyone, because you never know. You just don't know."
The interview with Mr. Locher, who sold his business five years ago, is one of nearly 700 Mrs. Shaffer and fellow National Park Service staff members Donna Glessner and Barbara Black have completed since 2005, when the project began. Mrs. Shaffer has done 85 percent of them.
Though the project is still in its development stage — only 150 of the interviews have been fully transcribed and reviewed so far — and won't be ready for public use until the Flight 93 National Memorial's visitor center is complete in the next few years, its value is unquestioned to historians.
"It's the voices that give real content and context to the story you're telling," said Mark Schaming, director of exhibitions at the New York State Museum in Albany, N.Y., which has a permanent exhibit on 9/11 that includes some oral histories it has done from people connected to the events in New York City.
Joanne Hanley, the former National Park Service general superintendent for Western Pennsylvania who oversaw creation of the memorial from 2002 until earlier this year, recognized that early on.
"It's important to us now. But you look to the future and it will be even more important," said Ms. Hanley, now president of the Gettysburg Foundation, a private group that runs the Civil War battlefield's visitor center in Gettysburg.
"Just think if we had this many first-person accounts of the Civil War?"
The list of those they still hope to interview for the project currently sits at about 200. It includes former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, President George W. Bush, and his wife, Barbara, who told Ms. Hanley last year she's interested in participating.
A few have turned Mrs. Shaffer down, and others are reluctant. But once Mrs. Shaffer gets someone to agree to an interview, she reads everything she can about the person from media accounts, and, if it's a member of a victim's family or a friend, she tries to study an in-house file kept on each victim.
For historic purposes, she follows a general outline of questions for the major groups of subjects, such as first-responders and family of victims. Every interview starts with the same biographical questions, followed by the main question: "Can you tell me how your day began on Sept. 11?"
By the end of the interviews, which usually conclude with questions specific to the subject, Mrs. Shaffer said, "They're spent and you're spent."
Some of her subjects have noticed the impact her job has had on her.
"My concern for Kathie has been that she relives it every time she does an interview," said Pastor Bob Way of St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in Buckstown, who was interviewed by Mrs. Shaffer. "I know as a minister that every time someone in my parish goes through a death, I go through a death myself. It takes a toll."
Mrs. Shaffer, who was a nurse in a private practice clinic for 15 years before she began her park service work, said she hasn't regularly sought to unload her emotions on anyone, other than occasionally sharing stories with her husband, Terry, chief of the Shanksville Fire Department.
"But I do know when to take a day off, a day away," she said.
With calm, empathetic eyes, and a personality that matches them, Mrs. Shaffer is praised by those she has interviewed for her tact, insight, and listening ability.
"Kathie Shaffer is a wonderful person," said Mark Trautman, the arborist who gave his first-ever interview to Mrs. Shaffer. "They should present her with something really special because for years she's heard all these stories and there's grown men breaking down with her. Yeah, she's a nurse, but it has to be really hard on her."
Ms. Hanley, who hired Mrs. Shaffer, agrees she's the right person for the job.
"She had all the professional qualities, plus commitment, plus compassion and sensitivity," Ms. Hanley said.
Mrs. Shaffer said she appreciates the job now more than ever.
"This is probably the most important work of my life, other than being a mother and making sure my children are good citizens and good people," she said.
Even 700 interviews later, the oral history project has work to do, she said.
"Every one of these stories is like a little tile in a mosaic. Every one of them could stand alone," she said. "But when you assemble them, it presents this more detailed picture, a more complete picture. And I don't think we're done yet."
Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Sean D. Hamill is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette; contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579.