SU alumni explore the impact of 9/11 with documentary

In 'We Were Quiet Once,' a community grapples with the aftershocks of a tragedy that unfolded right in their backyard.

Somerset County is a quiet, small community located in southwest Pennsylvania. It was relatively unknown to the world until the events on September 11, 2001, when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into an open field in the community. Hijacked by terrorists, the plane was reportedly headed to Washington, D.C., but passengers fought to take back to the aircraft, ultimately crashing and killing all 44 passengers on board.

Photo: Courtesy of Ryan Balton
Ryan Balton shoots footage outside Rick Flick's taxidermy shop in Listie. Rick was one of the volunteer firefighters who responded to the call on Sept. 11, and he now helps coordinate an annual motorcycle ride among the three crash sites.

The events would not only shock the country and the world, but also change Somerset County forever. As national news media infiltrated the community in search of coverage and stories, Somerset County’s inhabitants developed a sense of unease. Their town would forever be associated with a national tragedy.

But the community gathered together to find different ways to memorialize the tragic events that occurred right in their backyard.

These personal stories of struggle and commemoration are told in We Were Quiet Once, a documentary directed by Laura Beachy, an alumna of Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

After three years of work, the documentary, whose debut was originally slated for January, is nearing completion.

Beachy, who grew up in Somerset County, interviewed more than 30 people from her community. They all had unique stories about the crash of United 93.

“It was my hometown,” she said. “People were making this town a soundbyte.”

The idea originally came from an essay Beachy wrote for her application to Syracuse University's Remembrance Scholarship, an annual $5,000 prize awarded to 35 seniors in memory of the SU students who died in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. Beachy was later among the 35 chosen to receive a Remembrance Scholarship.

When she felt the need to do more with the essay she had written, she enlisted the help of Cory Sage, a fellow Newhouse classmate studying television, radio and film. Together, they began filming a documentary in April 2011.

The Newhouse School was very supportive of the project, Beachy said. It provided all the equipment she needed throughout the summer, as well as grants to help fund it.

“If it weren’t for Newhouse believing in me, this would not have happened,” Beachy said.

Beachy and Sage filmed until early 2012, when they brought in another Newhouse alum and friend, Ryan Balton, to help with the post-production editing. Balton, who now works at ESPN as a studio operator, had previous experience as the general manager of CitrusTV.

“[Laura’s] been working on it for like three years now,” Balton said. “I’m here to polish it up and get a fresh pair of eyes on it.”

Balton grew up in Milford, Pa., a small town near New York City that is similar in size and composition to Somerset County. The events on September 11 also impacted his local community.

“It could have happened just as easily in my town,” Balton said.

When the team finished with a rough cut of the film in late April, they held a screening in the Newhouse School. They also held a screening for the people of Somerset County, who helped provide helpful feedback.

Balton, who helped with the editing but did not initially meet the people in the film, finally got the chance to talk to them during the screening.

“They were just like normal, everyday people,” he said. “It was surreal but it also an honor to meet these people because they worked on memorializing Sept. 11 in their own way.”

Beachy had many memorable moments while filming the documentary. One of them was the 9/11 motorcycle ride, where people from her hometown rode down to Ground Zero and raised money to honor those who passed away in the tragedy.

“We’re riding to New York City and I was crying and I couldn’t explain it,” Beachy said. “It was an overwhelming feeling of being around people with a common goal and a good cause.”

During the ride, a stranger paid for her food and walked away.

“It was really motivating and moving,” she said.

To offset the cost of post-production, Beachy and Balton began an online Kickstarter campaign, which ran for 45 days last fall and helped raise several thousand dollars.

Now the documentary is in its final stage. It was sent to a post-production facility, where two former CNN executives are looking through it for free. They are examining minor visual effects, color and sound, said Balton.

Although the former Newhouse alumni did not meet their goal of releasing it in January, they are optimistic about finishing.

“At this point, we’re in pretty good shape,” Balton said.

Both Beachy and Balton mentioned that this was a side project on top of full-time jobs. At one point during the post-production process, Beachy lived with Balton in Bristol, Conn. After coming home from work, they would go right into editing.

“We need some cooling-off time after working on this,” Balton said.

Despite the obstacles they faced, both filmmakers found the process of creating the documentary rewarding. 

“It was the love and the compassion from this group of people,” Beachy said. “When some tragic happens, we all have this human instinct that we have to do something. We need to have an outlet of sympathy.”

Balton also took away valuable lessons from the project.

“It’s not just a story about people but a call to action about how precious life can be and how important it is to remember a significant tragedy,” he said. “It’s important to remember these kinds of things and be thankful for what you do have.”

As they reflected on their final product, both Beachy and Balton continually emphasized the contribution of the Newhouse School to their work.

“Newhouse provides an environment that fosters your creativity,” Beachy said. “They push you and encourage you to do better and be better.”

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