The Flight 93 National Memorial in southwestern Pennsylvania gets a final, poignant touch this September.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, news programs had just started speculating about the bizarre 8:46 crash of a plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City when the 9:03 crash into the South Tower put things in a very different light. President George Bush quickly labelled the crashes “an apparent terrorist attack.”
That news was filtering into offices across the eastern U.S. and waking homes in the west when a third plane crashed—into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. For the first time ever, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all flights to land.
Then, as Americans struggled to make sense of the brazen, high-profile assaults, a fourth plane struck at 10:03 in a place that made even less sense than the first three: a field in southwestern Pennsylvania.
That unintended crash site less than two hours’ drive from Morgantown was declared a national memorial by Congress in 2002. This September, the memorial will be complete.
A Field of Honor
Flight 93 smashed into the ground at nearly 600 miles per hour, shattering the plane and its contents and spreading debris over a vast area. The Flight 93 National Memorial is not a stone monument marking a spot or a series of plaques at an overlook, but a park memorial laid across the landscape, giving visitors the scale and perspective they need to take in the enormity of the event.
Entry to the site is on the Flight Path Walkway, a gash of black granite that follows the northwest-to-southeast path the plane flew as it dropped hard toward the ground. Markers along the path document the times of the three earlier crashes. The walkway passes through breaks in two high walls, then ends abruptly at a wide window overlooking the crash site and debris field a quarter-mile away below the ridge. It’s architecture and design in service of the experience: Following the flight path, recalling the timeline, crashing symbolically through the walls, then stopping suddenly works as an analog for the last moments of the lives of the passengers of Flight 93.
Beside the walkway, the Visitor Center gives a multimedia presentation of the moments leading up to that end.
United Airlines Flight 93, en route from Newark to San Francisco, had already been hijacked when the president addressed the nation at 9:30. It turned hard southeast at Cleveland, Ohio, back toward Washington, D.C. It stayed in the air when the FAA grounded all planes at 9:42. Huddled at the rear of the plane, passengers and crew called loved ones and emergency services, learned of the other crashes, and hatched a plan to storm the cockpit. Flight 93 fell out of the sky just 18 minutes’ flight time short of its apparent target. All 40 passengers and crew died, along with four hijacking terrorists.
We can’t know everything that happened on that plane. But through interviews with ground control and passengers’ families and the information from the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, investigators pieced together a fairly detailed picture. The museum exhibits let visitors assemble their own views of the events.
It’s possible to drive, in a mile-long arc, from the visitor center to the crash site. For those who have the time and are able, though, there’s a parallel, tree-lined gravel path. It passes by 40 groves of 40 trees planted in tribute to each of the victims. At a contemplative stroll, the walk could take about the 35 minutes from the time the hijackers rushed the cockpit to the time the plane crashed. That gives time to think about what must have happened on the plane and to take in the landscape it was heading toward.
The last couple hundred feet of the flight path make up Memorial Plaza. A Wall of Names identifies each of the victims. The path ends at the debris field and looks toward a boulder that marks the spot where the nose of the plane hit the ground.
As a landscape memorial, the 2,200-acre national park lets visitors take the crash in in their own ways: emotionally or intellectually; from a distance or up close; as a singular event, as part of a national tragedy, or in the context of global tensions.
The final touch
The Flight 93 National Memorial is not yet quite complete. This September, the National Park Service will dedicate the Tower of Voices, a 93-foot monument containing 40 wind chimes meant to echo the voices of the passengers and crew—a lasting tribute in sound. The tones are chosen to convey the serenity and nobility of the site, according to the National Park Service website, “while also through dissonance recalling the event that consecrated the site.”
The tower will be dedicated on Sunday, September 9 at 1 p.m. To hear a Tower of Voices wind chime simulation, visit goo.gl/DqFncd.
6424 Lincoln Highway, Stoystown, PA, 814.893.6550, www.nps.gov/flni/index
written and photographed by Pam Kasey