At 10:05:52 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, Val McClatchey shot a photograph that is arguably one of the most important images taken on the day that simply came to be known as 9/11.
The picture, taken just five seconds after Flight 93 crashed into a vacant field outside Shanksville, shows a mushroom cloud rising into the clear blue sky above a Somerset County farm.
Authenticated by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, the photograph has been printed in hundreds of magazines, books and newspapers and aired on television news programs around the world.
Copies of the photo, that McClatchey titled “End of Serenity” hang at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City, the Flight 93 museum located on the USS Somerset and other sites dedicated to that fateful day.
But bearing witness to history can be a difficult thing.
McClatchey’s life in the two decades since shooting the photo has been marred by attacks on her character and harassment that got so bad she contacted authorities. The family’s privacy was violated numerous times. She was called a fraud and unknown persons tried to extort money from her. To this day, a search of her name on the internet brings up attacks on her reputation. For a real estate agent (she has since retired), it was a difficult hurdle to overcome.
“It’s been an up-and-down journey,” she says of the last 20 years. “Some days a blessing, some days a curse.
“But I still hold out that it truly was meant to be. That I had to take it.”
The attacks came from conspiracy theorists who believe the plane was shot down and that McClatchey’s photo was doctored to back the government’s assertion that the plane crashed after passengers charged the cockpit.
She says she understands why, at first, some could believe the plane was shot down. “The first person on site saw nothing but a hole in the ground,” she says. “And I know there was an F-16 in the sky. I did not see it, but other people saw it.
“But if it had been shot down, there would have been evidence in the sky and that simply was not there.
“If you look at the actual photo, you do not see any vapor trails or any remnants of anything else in the sky.”
How it came to be
Like millions of others, McClatchey was glued to her television that early September morning as events unfolded in New York City and at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.
While she now lives in Johnstown, at the time she and her late husband, Jack, lived in Indian Lake, a resort community near Shanksville in rural Somerset County.
She describes how she was sitting at the edge of her sofa in front of her big front window, when she heard the sound of an engine and saw the brief flash of a plane.
Then, a sudden blast “kind of knocked me off my couch.”
McClatchey says she jumped up and headed outside, grabbing her camera on the way out.
“When I opened the door, I could see the smoke up over the hill,” she said in earlier interviews.
“It was a really crystal blue sky. There was a huge plume of smoke, but it was just silence out there. It was just unreal.”
She took just one shot.
McClatchey says she was so shaken by the event that she accidently dropped and broke the camera.
She tried to call 911, but the electricity was out and there was no phone service. Terrified and alone, she made her way to her husband’s sawmill, where she learned that it was a commercial plane that had crashed.
Some of her husband’s employees saw the plane going down and a couple who were first responders headed to the scene. But McClatchey did not want to see the carnage. She went home, where she and her daughter made food to take to rescue workers in Shanksville.
‘Just a smoke cloud ...’
Later, McClatchey saw a police officer on television asking viewers to bring in any photos that may have captured the plane or the crash.
She didn’t think her image showed much – “just a smoke cloud rising into the air.”
But just in case, she made a printout of the picture and took it to the authorities.
A digital time stamp on the front read 10:05:52 a.m. and, on the back, she wrote her address.
About an hour later, three FBI agents were at her door.
The agents looked at the photo on McClatchey’s computer, took photos of the house and eventually left, taking the camera’s memory card with them.
Not long after, the photo aired on the evening news and from there it “kind of took on a life of its own,” she says.
Conspiracy theorists questioned how she would have a camera conveniently located by the door, but McClatchey has an explanation. She had recently made friends with a U.S. Marine helicopter pilot in Johnstown and the two talked about him flying over her home during training exercises.
McClatchey hoped to get a photo of him doing the flyover and kept a digital camera by the door in case the event happened.
Joanne Hanley, former National Park Service superintendent at the site that eventually became the Flight 93 National Memorial, said in a 2010 interview that those who witnessed the tragedy support what the photograph shows.
“Val’s photo, coupled with the eyewitness accounts from our oral histories, lays to rest any doubt of what happened that day,” Hanley said in the interview.
Stephen Clark, National Park Service superintendent at the Flight 93 National Memorial, says the photo will have a lasting impact.
“The image that Val captured that fateful morning is one that will live in the memory of millions from around the world and those yet to be born … and for that, we are most grateful to her,” he says. “‘End of Serenity’ is indeed a powerful image, but what is even more powerful is the strength in all of us to never forget September 11th and the sacrifice so many gave for our nation and for one other.”
In 2011, a video surfaced that, for most skeptics, laid to rest any remaining doubts about the authenticity of McClatchey’s photo.
While it doesn’t show the moment of impact, a mushroom cloud rising from the site of the crash is plainly visible.
The video was shot by the late Dave Berkebile who lived with his wife, Cathy, on Blue Bird Road in Berlin.
Although the distance between the Berkebile house and the crash site is 8 miles by road, it is just 2 1/2 miles by air and the couple had an unobstructed view of the skies above the crash site.
“Everything was totally visible and he had the presence of mind to grab (the video camera) and go running out the door with it,” Cathy Berkebile said of the video.
The couple did not realize its importance at the time, but the attacks on McClatchey bothered them and they thought the video might help validate her photograph.
McClatchey says she will always be appreciative to the Berkebiles. “I am so grateful that his family gave permission to release that video,” she says. “For the most part, it shut (the skeptics) up.”
Following the video’s release, one of her most vocal critics, a radio host from Canada, even called to apologize for his comments.
For the kids
McClatchey says some good has come her way since the day she shot that photograph. She has met politicians and family members of Flight 93’s passengers and crew and has been a guest speaker at events connected with 9/11.
But, she says, being invited into classrooms to tell her story to children is what she values the most.
“I feel far too much of our history is being erased or pushed aside,” she says. “How will future generations know what to avoid if they don’t know the outcomes?
“America’s history is not always pretty. But it is learning from that history that makes the future better.”
McClatchey says the interview for this article will be her last with members of the media.
“That chapter of my life is done,” she says. “The story is told.
“The history is there; it can’t be changed – no matter what anyone says.”