By MICHAEL COWDEN
Associated Press Writer
SHANKSVILLE, Pa.- Those first to arrive at the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 five years ago found only a smoking crater, singed trees and an eerie silence.
Most of the horror was left to their imagination.
First responders and family members who visited the site in the hours and days after the disaster say this void is one of their starkest memories.
"My first thought was, where's the plane crash?" says state police Lt. Patrick Madigan. "All there was was a hole in the ground and a smoking debris pile."
Five years later, relatives near this small town in western Pennsylvania plan to gather at a memorial to hear the names read of the 33 passengers and seven crew members killed that day. Gov. Ed Rendell and former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor, were also to make remarks.
Allison Vadhan, of Atlantic Beach, N.Y., lost her mother, Kristin White-Gould, on Flight 93. About a week after the disaster, she and other family members were bused to the site.
"It was scary to look at and horrible to imagine what happened to everybody, what happened to that big plane," she said. "It was all left to our imagination, and maybe that's for the best."
Flight 93 was en route from Newark, N.J. to San Francisco when the hijackers took over, likely with the goal of crashing the plane into the White House or the Capitol. The plane crashed after passengers apparently rushed the cockpit in an effort to wrest control from the terrorists.
Since the crash, a group of volunteers, known now as the Flight 93 ambassadors, point visitors to the crash site and to describe what happened aboard the plane on Sept. 11, 2001.
Forty-five volunteers now take turns working two-hour shifts each day at the Flight 93 Memorial. Some months they guide more than 25,000 visitors.
Organizers hope to raise $30 million in private funding to build a permanent memorial on a 1,700-acre site in Shanksville; the total cost is estimated to be $58 million. Congress has passed the Flight 93 Memorial Act, which established a new national park to honor the victims of the hijacked plane.
That terrible day, it didn't take first responders long to realize there would be no survivors: Combing the site, all they could find at first were small pieces of a commercial aircraft _ and bits of a United Airlines in-flight magazine.
"It was a pretty scary time," says a former assistant fire chief, Rick King, whose truck was the first to arrive. "I just remember driving down the road, wondering what we were about to see."
Searchers recovered only about 8 percent of the potential human remains but were able to identify everyone from the fragments they did find, said Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller.
"Most of the material was vaporized," he says.
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