Monday, June 14, 2010

FLIGHT 93 MEMORIAL, SHANKSVILLE, PA

Odel studies the makeshift memorial wall. 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. 

Memorial marker Individual angel markers

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. 

Flight 93 Memorial site 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.

Wall closeup

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.

13 comments:

  1. Fantastic pictures!! And a good writeup of the memorial. I really get a sense of it. You may want to repost this on 9/11/10. Thank you.

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  2. got goosebumps reading your account, what a wonderful memorial, hope we get to go sometime later in the year.
    Ali (touringbrits.blogspot)

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  3. I do hope to get to Shanksville someday, Laurie. After reading your post I find it even more interesting to me. I lost a cousin in the Pentagon on Sept. 11 so I think this shrine would mean a lot to me. Remembering all of the brave souls that lost their lives in that pasture on 9/11 is important for all of us.

    Thanks for taking me to Pennsylvania.

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  4. What a beautiful post about a very sad event. Thanks for sharing and reminding us what these heros did so we can enjoy our freedom.

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  5. What a sobering reflection,I hope this isn't spoiled someday by commercialism, what you guys saw is the real American way to recognize heroism, and not make a buck out of it, I will always remember the one young man's last words to his wife as they rallied to attack the terrorist on the plane. " Let's Roll" that says it all as far as I am concerned about the American spirit, when our freedom is challenged, most Americans roll up there sleeves and pitch in together to defend it. It is good you and Odell got to see this and live it. Be safe out there. Sam & Donna.

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  6. Your moving writeup brought back our visit from a few years ago and I was overcome once again. In a way I'm happy to see that the memorial is still in it's original, spontaneous form. So much more dramatic and touching than an architect designed, official memorial.
    Thanks so much.
    Fred

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  7. Yes, my daughter went there a year or so ago. She felt it was very sobering and makes one think.. and get angry at the foolish people who caused this... and the innocent people hurt by it. So sad.

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  8. Laurie,
    What a beautiful post. Seeing the fence brought back a flood of memories of the Oklahoma City Bombing. Somehow the fence brought the community and the nation together. People still come 15 years later and leave messages and mementos. Hopefully when they get the memorial built it will be as serene and beautiful as the one here in OKC. We plan to go to Shanksville and see the Flight 93 Memorial when we start to full-time.

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  9. Great post, Laurie. It gave me chills.

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  10. I think this was one of your best posts, Laurie. I hope we are able to visit before the area is turned into an "official" memorial too.

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  11. Thanks so much for your poignant post. As Fred said, it brought back memories of our visit there. Like you, we thought the simple spontaneous nature of what is there is so much more moving and honoring than a big fancy memorial. I hope they keep it simple.

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  12. Thanks for this post - I believe I would have cried during the ranger's presentation.

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