By KIRK SWAUGER
SHANKSVILLE — If a picture’s worth a thousand words, Val McClatchey’s is the Da Vinci Code.
Her photograph of a mushroom cloud of gray smoke rising above the bucolic countryside – snapped just moments after the crash of Flight 93 – has become a target for 9/11 conspiracy theorists.
Five years later, the 50-year-old Indian Lake woman is frustrated by allegations the photo is a masterful hoax.
“It’s extremely disturbing,” said McClatchey, owner of Mtn. Lakes Realty near Indian Lake.
“My main focus,” she added, “is to protect the integrity of the photo.”
Conspiracy theorists, specifically the blog Killtown, contend the photo is an elaborate fraud that starts with McClatchey and winds up to the highest levels of the federal government.
Killtown suggests the photograph is a fake, claiming the gray smoke looks more like a plume from an ord-nance blast than the black cloud from a jet crash.
“If it really was an ordnance blast not too far beyond the white barn and white farm house, then this would be a true smoking gun and one of the clearest examples of complicity in the 9/11 attacks by the U.S. government, because what else could have caused such a large explosion and who else would have been behind it?” Killtown wrote.
McClatchey is incensed at the allegation.
“These people are making all these conspiracy theories about the very country that fought to give them the freedom to write the garbage they do,” McClatchey said. “They’re the biggest hypocrites in the world.”
McClatchey says she will not respond directly on the blogs.
“The more fuel you add to it, the worse it gets,” she said. “Sooner or later, like a fire if you don’t put oxygen in it, it’s going to die.”
Joanne Hanley, Flight 93 superintendent for the National Park Service, agreed.
“I think what Val is going through is shameful,” Hanley said.
“Just because something is on a blog doesn’t make it true. People need to realize that.
“It’s also hurtful to the families. They’re discrediting the heroes and what they did. I think it’s unnecessary, and I think people should focus their energies on something positive.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, McClatchey said, she was watching the “Today” show when reports broke of planes hitting the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
As she was trying to call her husband from an area with spotty cell-phone coverage, she said, she heard the sudden surge of a jet plane and saw a silver flash outside.
“All of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ ” McClatchey said. “The house shook, my electricity went out. I was sitting on the edge of the sofa at the time, and it knocked me off balance. You could tell something happened outside.”
McClatchey said she ran a short distance to the door, saw smoke and instinctively grabbed her month-old digital camera from nearby.
She said she managed to snap just one photo.
“I didn’t realize any of the significance,” she said.
Her photo has come to symbolize the crash, specifically how the war on terror began in the rolling hills of Somerset County.
An enlarged version is on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, and it has appeared in U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Time and newspapers across the country.
Through all the controversy, McClatchey said, she cherishes the bonds she has forged with Flight 93 families.
“They are the most wonderful people I’ve met,” she said. “I admire their strength and courage.
“It restores your faith.”