Our work here at GRIT affords me the ability on some occasions to visit some really special places and interact with some really inspiring people. Visiting the Flight 93 Memorial outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, was as chilling, moving, and proud of an experience as I’ve ever had.
The idea of visiting this location and how special it would be occurred to me after reading a column by Rick Reilly (the link forwarded to me from my brother Josh), who writes usually sentimental sports articles for ESPN.
In the days leading up to September 11 of this year, he wrote a moving piece in which ESPN published the actual transcript of the audio recovered from the Flight 93 plane. It was the first time I’d ever read it, and it’s really something else.
For those who don’t know, Flight 93 was the fourth plane that never made it to its intended target on September 11, 2001. Heroic passengers stormed the cockpit behind a passenger plane drink cart and caused their aircraft to crash about 18 minutes by air from the most probable intended destination, the U.S. Capitol building.
Photo courtesy Flight 93 National Memorial/U.S. Department of the Interior
From the follow-up trials following that day, we’ve learned that Osama bin Laden most wanted to send the fourth plane into the White House, but other planners and advisors favored the Capitol. Apparently one of the reasons September 11 was chosen was that the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate were both in session that day.
To condense the events (you can read about the events of that day on the Flight 93 Memorial website), the fourth plane was delayed 25 minutes before takeoff, so at the time of the terrorist takeover passengers learned from family and friends about the attacks on the other buildings: the World Trade Center and the U.S. Pentagon.
Trade, military, and government were all targets, and can you imagine today how morale would have been further affected if that fourth plane hit a Congress in session. Eighteen minutes of hesitation, it would have been a completely different and even more devastating day. And this was perhaps the most important plane to the leaders of al-Qaida.
After attending the fall 2011 Mother Earth News Fair in nearby Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, I used the opportunity to drive the 45 minutes to Shanksville along with colleague and Gas Engine Magazine's Christian Williams.
Photo courtesy Christian Williams
The Memorial outside of Shanksville is simple, yet elegant, and it reflects rural America and in some ways GRIT itself.
“From the beginning, our thought was that this memorial needed to be specific to this place, it should be about rural Pennsylvania, so when you are here, visitors should see the sky, and the fields, and the hillsides,” says Flight 93 National Memorial site manager Jeff Reinbold.
Illustration courtesy Flight 93 National Memorial/U.S. Department of the Interior by Paul Murdoch Architects and Biolinia
Rural landscape was a big part of architect Paul Murdoch’s plan. The colors of the memorial structures are grey, black and white, with the landscape of what once was a strip mine offering the brilliant appearance.
One cool notion is that the land is healing itself along with American citizens who experience the Memorial.
Photo by Christian Williams
In fall, all the hillsides are bright in autumn color. Visit in winter, and you’ll see a hardened landscape. Spring is green and really lush, and in summer the fields surrounding the memorial are filled with wildflowers, “yellow wildflowers as far as the eye can see,” in Reinbold’s words.
While I stood there – it was September 26 – early fall felt hopeful on the surrounding pastures, but the large boulder placed directly over the impact site loomed incessantly. I felt extremely visceral emotions of gratitude, sorrow and reverence for those folks on board Flight 93 that day.
Since over 90 percent of the remains of the 40 passengers and crew members who were onboard are still scattered in the field where the plane went down (it was upside-down at the point of impact), the impact site and area immediately surrounding it are at this time closed to the public; only family can go into the field and approach the boulder.
But I stood about 150 yards out staring at it and thinking about what those people went through on that plane. In some ways, it was not a quick death, since passengers took a vote and knew ahead of time what they were about to go through. It begged the question and questioned my own courage standing there: Would you have done the same?
For most of us, I think the answer is probably yes, but seeing this site made me for the first time imagine being on the plane, upside down in these hills in late summer, the al-Qaida terrorists throwing the plane up and down violently, trying to throw the resisting passengers away from the cockpit. Even though we like to think many Americans would have done the same, it’s no less incredible, no less the ultimate sacrifice.
Photo by Christian Williams. The Wall of Names is erected along the exact path that the United Flight 93 Boeing 757 came down in rural Pennsylvania.
At the time of this writing, Flight 93 National Memorial is still about $10 million short of all the funds it needs to finish the project. The actual memorial is in place, but lacks an appropriate visitors’ center and 90-foot wind chime at the entrance with 40 softly speaking chimes (the future Tower of Voices), and the Field of Honor, with 40 memorial groves of trees native to Pennsylvania, “reinforcing this idea that this is not a memorial that you look at, it’s one that you are part of, you inhabit it,” as Reinbold says.
Illustrations courtesy Flight 93 National Memorial/U.S. Department of the Interior by Paul Murdoch Architects (2)
I felt it down to my core, and if you’re ever in the area, I would recommend experiencing this special rural American place; a place of which we should all be very proud.
To become part of this cause, visit www.honorflight93.org, and consider donating whatever you can. For one hour of your wage or salary, you’d be contributing to the memory of a group of regular American passengers who rallied to save hundreds of lives, it not thousands. It was the first victory against terrorism, as the Capitol dome still reaches for the sky in Washington D.C., and 10 years later, we’ve still not completed the memorial for those brave souls.
Image courtesy Flight 93 National Memorial/U.S. Department of the Interior