Veneto's 'Heroes': Massachusetts man's long trek in memory of Flight 175 crew friends

Sep. 8—SCHELLSBURG, Pa. — Confined to a narrow, winding section of U.S. Route 30, Paul Veneto had a Blue Knob ridge line at his left and guardrail to his right.

With a line of cars behind him, the only way to go was up — three miles up through Juniata Township toward the Somerset County line.

"My legs are a little sore — and the path is straight up right now," Veneto, of Boston, said in a weathered Massachusetts accent, while leaning against his old airline beverage cart. "But this is nothing compared to what they did."

"They" are the nine fellow Flight 175 crew mates Veneto honors with the 50-pound airline beverage cart he's pushing across Pennsylvania. They were men and women from across the country who died working aboard the United airliner on Sept. 11, 2001.

For a single guy living in a one-bedroom apartment at the time, the sight of their plane crashing into the World Trade Center's south tower was like losing family in a brutal, televised "instant," he said.

And this summer marks the third year in a row he's crisscrossed the mid-Atlantic in their memory.

Veneto has been carrying a laminated picture of the nine — two pilots and seven flight attendants — every step of the way.

He started his latest journey last month in Newark, New Jersey, and plans to arrive at the Flight 93 National Memorial by Monday, the 22nd anniversary of that jetliner's crash.

Veneto is honoring the passengers and crew of Flight 93 as heroes — but said his greater mission is to ensure all of the "original heroes" are never forgotten.

He noted that flight attendants aboard Flight 175 were the first to pick up their airphones in the face of danger and provide crucial information about the doomed flight. Those details ended up becoming key pieces in an investigation to solve the crash investigation that followed.

"I don't know how they did it — with so little time to act. They knew what to do and what to say," Veneto said of his Flight 175 friends.

And, equipped with the knowledge another plane had been hijacked, the passengers and crew of Flight 93 were able to put words into inspiring action approximately 40 minutes later, "banding together as strangers," Veneto said.

He said too few understand that the people who serve on commercial flights "aren't just there to get you coffee — "they're there to keep you safe. Safety is always the number one thing."

Their role in the 9/11 story must be preserved that way, he said.

Veneto said he was worried the moment the World Trade Center collapsed that day, the horrific sight would overshadow the pilots and flight attendants who also died.

"We can't let them be forgotten. From the moment it happened, I didn't know how I was going to do it — but I knew it had to be done," he said.

Veneto said he simmered with anger for years about 9/11.

He wished he was on board and had the chance to fight back against the terrorists who also died that day — or that his own flight would be hijacked so that he could lash out.

But time, signs of compassion and conversations with friends and colleagues helped steer him down another path.

He decided to retrace the routes they took, with the beverage cart in front of him.

Over the last three years, that journey has shown him people haven't forgotten — or want to remember.

An RV a friend donated gives Veneto somewhere to sleep each night. but it's the personal moments — roadside handshakes, horn beeps and encouraging welcome banners that help keep him going.

"It's inspirational," said James "J.D." Rollason, of Newville, Cumberland County, whose family pulled over on Route 30 in Juniata Township to say hello to Veneto.

Rollason, at 15, wasn't born until seven years after the "moment the world changed" — Sept. 11, 2001.

But his father, Eric, said he's tried to stress to his sons the importance of that day. It's a reason they decided to take a detour to Flight 93 on Friday before an Eric Clapton concert in Pittsburgh.

"Life goes on," Eric said. "But we can't forget."

"All of our lives are affected by it," Veneto responded. "Whether we were born or not — that's why I'm out here doing this."