Flight 93 National Memorial
It was an afterthought, really. During the drive to meet friends for The March in Washington D.C., there was extra time to do a little sightseeing. I noticed that Shanksville, PA, was on the way, so I thought I’d stop by to see that once obscure, now (in)famous field.
The memorial I encountered there was nothing less than brilliant.
You are welcomed by the National Park Service sign at the turn off Lambertsville Road. You wend your way uphill, edging up along the contour for awhile. A turnout beckons, and you peer to the right, down to the modest settlement below. You read how the plane came in fast and low over the valley, just barely skimming the meadowed top of the rise off to the left. The roar and crash and plume of black smoke jolted the locals away from watching the news out of New York and Washington that blue-sky September 11, 2001 morning.
You proceed, and soon the visitor center comes into view. There are long, high concrete walls, and a black strip of a walkway to them from the parking lot. Soon, you realize the black strip represents the plane’s final flight path.
You bypass the entrance into the visitor’s center that goes off to the left, the black strip drawing you inexorably between those tall, concrete walls to the glass ending.
The overlook reveals the sloping meadow below. There, Flight 93 augured in at a 40-degree angle, nearly upside down, and blasted a crater that left the flight data recorder buried under 15 feet of debris, the cockpit voice recorder ten feet further into the earth. The plane was basically obliterated, although some lightweight debris was ultimately retrieved from as far as eight miles away.
Inside, the Visitor Center is impressively thoughtful and respectful and informative. It isn’t large; I visited each of the sections and was done in about 45 minutes. That day in 2001 remains so vivid to anyone then alive; this memorial brings it here, to this place, to these people, to their story. It is, yes, brilliant.
I later learned that the design was chosen in a 2005 competition that drew 1,000 submissions from 48 states and 27 countries. The winning design team was Paul and Milena Murdoch of Los Angeles, CA, with Nelson Byrd Woltz of Charlottesville, VA.
Friday, January 20, 2017, was a cold, grey, sodden day in Somerset County, PA, two miles outside of Shanksville. But to witness this scene fully, I was compelled to bundle up and walk the 1.7 mile loop down to the meadow below and back again. A cinder path led down some switchbacks near the parking lot, where I was able to see the visitor’s center from a different perspective, the end of the black flight-line stark against the soaring concrete walls that looked as if they wanted to take flight.
At the bottom, I was alone on the plaza. A sloping black wall lies positioned along the edge of the crash site, following the fence line established by the County Coroner. At the far end was the final black slash of flight-line, with eight-foot panels of white marble bearing the names of the passengers and crew who died there that day. A wooden gate looked across the grassy meadow to a large boulder that was there to signify the location of the crater itself.
It was exceedingly dignified, and calm, and respectful, and deep. I stood there on the lower plaza, alone in the misty cold day. I savored the quiet, which was disturbed only by a murder of crows cawing from the grove of evergreens at the edge of the meadow. The trees are already 16 years old; they have grown quickly, replacing the hardwoods destroyed by the crash.
I couldn’t help but think that, at that very moment, worldwide attention was largely focused on the very building those hijackers probably intended to hit: the United States Capitol. Just 170 miles away, one president was ending his tenure; another was saying the oath of office. And there I was, alone in the quiet aftermath of a dreadful time, wondering what now lies ahead for us all.
This memorial is a must-see, if you’re ever in the neighborhood. The scar of the strip mine where the plane came down is now in the capable hands of the NPS, being nicely reclaimed. The lessons of history are here for us. Among them are the courageous stories of the actions of the people of Flight 93. As Todd Beamer said, “Okay. Let’s roll!” Indeed.