We’ve seen many historic sites this year as we have traveled through the southeast, most of them “interpreted” in ways that caught us up in drama and brought to life these turning points in our history. Yet because of the vast difference between my life experience and the lives of these long ago generations, I’ve not been able to imagine myself living these events of distant history.
The crash site of United Flight 93 and the current (temporary) memorial there touched me in a much deeper way. I can understand, and relate to, these people, the 37 passengers and 7 crew aboard Flight 93 when it was the fourth plane hijacked on 9/11/2001.
I can imagine myself innocently boarding a plane, anticipating my upcoming visit to California, happy to see so many empty seats. I would have brought a good book to read, and maybe moved to a window seat in an empty row. I would have been annoyed by the 40 minute delay in our departure.
I can imagine the shock of realizing my plane had been hijacked, and I can imagine the fear. Maybe I would have used the plane’s air phone to call Odel, to hear the unbelievable news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
That is as far as my imagination can take me.
The crash site is in the pasture, close to the trees in the distance.
One angel marker for each person aboard (except the terrorists), some with photos.
It probably didn’t take long for the passengers and crew aboard flight 93 to realize that their plane was intended as another missile in the terrorists’ attack, and to reach the inescapable conclusion that they had precious little time left to live. How they chose to use that time was heroic, indeed.
We four drove to the crash site on a gentle June morning, a highway through rolling green hills leading to a smaller road winding past farms with big red barns. Turn down this lane, over that hill… and there is it, in a rural area, far from any visitor center, gift shops, Starbucks, or tours of any kind. No tourist services have sprouted. In the midst of farmland, on a dirt and gravel lot, with a small parking area and a tiny National Park Service shed, is the temporary memorial to the heroic people who changed the course of the terrorists’ plans on September 11th.
More than anything, the memorial reminds me of the roadside shrines and crosses we see so often in the southwest, the visible reminders placed by family and friends at roadside accident sites, reminders that say “a tragedy happened in this place”. Though the National Park Service now maintains this site, it began spontaneously as visitors left notes, flags, pins, flowers, all sorts of mementos in recognition of the tragedy that happed in this place.
The small area occupied by the memorial site holds around twenty benches, each inscribed with the names of those aboard flight 93 (excluding the terrorists). We settled into the seats and listened to a somber young NPS ranger interpret what we were seeing. In her hands, she held a binder with photographs of each of the passengers and crew, and she told us a bit of background on several of the people on board – a crew member who only flew 2-3 times a month so she could be home with her young children, for instance. Poignant stories of people very much like our friends, our families - people very much like us.
She walked us through their final minutes – the takeover of the plane, their phone calls, the news they received of the three planes that had been used as flying bombs, and their realization that their flight was headed back to the east coast, towards an unknown fourth target.
And then they made the decision to bring the plane down, minimizing loss of life on the ground to the extent they could. Waiting until the plane had cleared the Pittsburgh urban area, they rushed the cockpit, struggled, and the hijackers downed the plane. Flight 93 was traveling over 500 miles per hour, upside down, which it impacted a quiet pasture on a quiet Pennsylvania farm. Debris was found a mile from the crash site.
I don’t have occasion to use the word “patriotic” often, as it is so frequently co-opted by people with an agenda I can’t support. These people, though, these 40 people… they were patriotic in the best sense, sparing our country from an even more horrific loss than we suffered on September 11. To me, it was true heroism, and it made a real difference.
The National Park Service is undertaking a permanent memorial for Flight 93, and the ranger’s description of the plans sound impressive. I’m glad, though, that we saw this site as we did: a tribute from the heart, a grassroots reminder that we know what happened, that we care what happened, and that the actions of these people made a memorable difference.
Go, if you have the chance.