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Shanksville teacher remembers Flight 93 with lessons from his classroom near crash site

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — As we remember the September 11th attacks and Flight 93, everyone has a story from that day -- especially those living in and around Stonycreek.

“Everything has changed because of 9/11,” said JP O’Connor. “And that’s why it needs taught in every school and the country needs to teach it.”

>>RELATED STORY: Family members celebrate heroism of Flight 93 passengers

O’Connor is a Shanksville-Stonycreek teacher who was in the classroom that day as the plane crashed just a few miles from the school, and he uses his unique perspective to teach students about the day that changed our country. Inside his fourth-grade classroom, he starts the school year teaching his social studies class about the day that changed his small community of Shanksville.

“I want to show the kids how things were before and after, like over here,” said O’Connor while pointing to a bulletin board. “This is a lot of things in New York.”

O’Connor was in this very same classroom 20 years ago, set up the same exact way when he learned of the first attack in New York on TV.

“When I turn the TV on the second time from coming back, the second tower had already been hit. So, I knew at that point, this is no accident,” he said.

His fifth-grade class watched the news unfold for about 25 minutes before he moved on with his lesson -- just around the same time Flight 93 was hijacked in the air.

>>RELATED STORY: Westmoreland County 911 director remembers fateful call from Flight 93 on 9/11/2001

“I said, ‘I don’t really know what’s going on,’ but I told them not to worry about anything because we live out here in the boonies and that’s what happened to us out here,” O’Connor recalled telling his class.

Then, just 20 minutes later, as the passengers aboard were fighting the terrorists, O’Connor said the strangest thing happened.

“Then, at 10:03, we hear a big boom. There’s a boom, the building shook a little and all my ceiling tiles went up, came down,” said O’Connor. “And I said to myself, ‘holy smokes, what is going on?’”

Located near an exit, O’Connor couldn’t believe what he saw.

“I looked out the outside doors and then I could see this big black puff of smoke that looked like it was right below the playground,” said O’Connor.

O’Connor returned to class not knowing the connection that smoke would have, as Flight 93 crashed just four miles from the school. By the end of the school day, only six students remained in elementary school and this community was now thrust into the national spotlight and connected to that tragic day. In the days and weeks following the attacks, this school district felt the nation’s generosity as people donated teddy bears and other items to the students.

“That day changed the lives of everyday people in the whole world forever,” said O’Connor. “I don’t know about any other event in history that does that.”

And while 20 years have passed since that very day, it’s a memory burned into O’Connor’s mind. He said he finds it so important to teach about 9/11, as many of his current students are unaware what happened in their community.

“A lot of them come in, and very few visited the site,” said O’Connor. “Very few. I mean, if I find to have a class of 15, I’d be lucky if two or three ever went there. I do my best to personalize it and make it real.”

He uses videos and pictures of the passengers to teach the lesson of what it means to be an everyday hero -- like the 40 passengers on board.