Where were you September 11, 2001? Everyone old enough to have memories twenty years ago, has a story to tell. No matter where you lived or worked, you remember the sight of three planes slamming into buildings, two World Trade Center skyscrapers in New York City and the low-slung Pentagon building in Washington, DC. Maybe you saw them in person or just over and over and over again on television, but you remember. To this day, when I see a plane in the sky, I have a moment where I wonder if it is going to explode in the air. For our generation, 9/11 is our Pearl Harbor, the day that our Nation was attacked and went to war. And we remember.
But, one hijacked plane did not reach its target, either the US Capitol or the White House in Washington, DC. Few people saw its explosion. That plane and its passengers missed its intended target because of timing and the courage to fight back. Unlike the other flights, Flight 93 was delayed getting into the air. After the hijackers took control of the plane, once passengers started surreptitiously communicating with loved ones by phone, they learned of the events already unfolding that day. Understanding that they were likely headed to the next target in Washington, DC, only 18 minutes away, they voted to storm the cockpit and the hijackers. Fearing that the passengers would overcome them, the hijackers turned the plane upside down and crashed it into an abandoned strip mine at 563 miles per hour instead of its target at the seat of our country’s government.
The Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania tells how “A Common Field One Day…. (became) A Field of Honor Forever.” Designated by Congress as a National Memorial in 2002, the crash site and surrounding fields memorialize the forty lives lost and their bravery. Designed by Paul Murdoch Architects and Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, the memorial is a mix of modern architecture and lush native plantings. Where ground was once excavated for minerals, flowers and grasses grow. A forest of hemlocks tower over the impact site where a large boulder rests marking point of impact.
The Visitor Center itself, made of concrete and glass is positioned on the flight path and reminds visitors of the view passengers might have had if they were not absorbed in their task of stopping the terrorists’ plan. Also on the Flight Path is a wall of marble consisting of forty panels each engraved with one name of the thirty passengers and seven crew members. The panels are separate but when viewed appear as one complete wall symbolizing their individuality yet strength in numbers.
The newest addition to the Memorial is the Tower of Voices, a 93-foot-tall concrete tower with forty windchimes of differing tones. Again, a reminder not only that the voices of Flight 93 heroes still echo, but of their bond created in a desperate time.
Over the last twenty years, I have watched the Memorial’s creation and growth through news reports. Last year’s Big Dogs Road Trip included a stop at the Memorial, but when many of our plans changed due to Covid, it was deleted from our itinerary. This year, I determined that we would go. And the timing seemed right to be there on September 11. When it was announced that due to Covid, the 9-11 ceremonies would be closed to the public, we decided to go earlier in the week.
On a cool, windy day, we navigated the rolling terrain and finally arrived at the site. We passed the Tower of Voices to go directly to the Visitors Center. We were surprised to see the parking lot almost full, but a kind ranger helped us find a place to park truck and trailer. We noticed that most of the rangers were National Park Service law enforcement officers wearing bullet proof vests. A chilling reminder that our nation is still at war even if we have withdrawn our troops from foreign lands.
The Visitors Center immersed us into the events of 9-11 through recordings made by passengers, photographs, and artifacts. One section was dedicated to the items left by visitors over the last two decades. A sob caught in my throat when I read a letter that said, “On 9-11, I was on the top floor of the highest building near the White House. The way I look at it, you guys saved my life. I won’t waste it. I promise.”
From the Visitors Center and its glass observation deck, we walked a trail down to the Memorial Plaza, the crash site, and the Wall of Names. The Big Dogs could have accompanied us as this area is dog friendly, but both Glen and I were so emotional, we knew we couldn’t handle the dogs. Besides, it was sacred land. Only family members are allowed onto the crash site, but we could stand at a low black wall and for a moment, consider what might have happened to our country if not for the bravery of the passengers and crew of Flight 93. We also watched three jet helicopters and a single helicopter practice landing beyond the trees as they prepared for President Biden’s arrival at the upcoming memorial service.
As we turned to climb the hill to the Visitors Center, we saw a storm approaching very quickly.
We hurried back to the truck and trailer with the waiting Big Dogs and raced to the Tower of Voices. Despite heavy rain and blowing wind, I jumped out of the truck and ran to its base hoping to hear the chimes ring. I did. It was a beautiful, melodious yet solemn sound. A perfect way to honor those who died. And to remember the words of the anonymous letter writer from Washington, DC. We’ve been given freedom and a bountiful life. Don’t waste it.