By Kelly Haugh
SHANKSVILLE, Pa. – On Saturday, September 10, the temporary Flight 93 memorial was closed for the final time as the first phase of the permanent memorial was unveiled in Shanksville.
The temporary memorial began ten years ago when ordinary citizens flocked to the site in the days after United Flight 93 was brought down by the heroic efforts of the passengers and crew who struck the first blow in America’s new War on Terror. On that day, Americans across the country were desperate for something to do. They wanted to help and to show their patriotism, support and gratitude for the brave men and women of New York City, the Pentagon and Flight 93.
In Pennsylvania, everyday people brought things like the 40 now famous slate American angels, American flags, notes and other personal tributes to honor the heroes of Flight 93. The chain link fence around the site quickly became a shrine not just for the people who lost their lives but for everything America stands for.
That temporary memorial grew and changed over the past ten years as people have continued to leave new monuments and personal remnants of their visit. The simple chain link fence surrounded by benches etched with the names of the fallen seemed to embody the American spirit in a way no professionally constructed memorial can quite capture.
The old entrance to the memorial was in the middle of nowhere. The gravel road seemed to stretch on forever and you could feel a palpable weight bearing down on you as you got closer, as if the passengers’ decision to sacrifice themselves still hung heavy in the air. From the hillside memorial you could look out at the fenced off hallowed ground of the crash site, fittingly marked with an American flag. But it was the personal touches and tributes on and around the temporary memorial that really hit visitors hard.
Visitors had left hats, flags, shirts, signs, banners and license plates from all over the country, proof that every corner of America was tied to this little piece of land. Children had lovingly crafted touching tributes that depicted the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the eagle and the flag. They, like the guardrails on the road leading to the memorial, were covered in quotes and scribbled Sharpie messages. Other visitors had laid stones and small trinkets on their bases, as if the monuments were makeshift headstones for the brave souls interred across the field.
If it hadn’t been for the red, white and blue marked fence around the hallowed ground, no one would have guessed what had happened in that field. The park ranger on duty said that the Somerset County Coroner had ordered that the crash site be filled in as soon as excavations were complete because the upturned earth reminded him of an open grave. And this way, the terrorists wouldn’t be allowed to leave a gaping scar upon our earth. The field, much like the country, had begun to heal. But even though we couldn’t see the physical scar, we as Americans still felt it. And we would never forget.
The large number of visitors and tributes that were still pouring into the site when I was there on a sunny summer afternoon in 2008 reaffirmed that even though the flags were no longer flying on every house and no one still applauded when firemen drove by, we still remembered and appreciated the sacrifice and unity of September 11. And we were still damn proud to be Americans.
On 9/11, we saw both the best and worst humanity had to offer, and we all felt personally connected to the sites in NY, Virginia and Pennsylvania. To me, that connection is what the temporary memorial so poignantly and beautifully represented. To steal a line from Pres. Abraham Lincoln, it was truly a memorial “by the people, for the people.”
But as one chapter of the Flight 93 site comes to a close, another begins as the first phase of the permanent memorial finally opened to the public at the Sept. 10 dedication ceremony. It allows visitors to be much closer to the actual crash site, now marked by a large boulder that serves as a collective headstone for the 40 heroic victims of Flight 93, while still maintaining the sanctity of the hallowed ground.
The boulder is well over a football field away from the winding walkway visitors follow to reach the marble Wall of Names because everything beyond that pathway contained pieces of wreckage, so therefore it is all considered hallowed ground. This gives visitors an up close and personal view of the huge and horrific scale of the crash site.
The meandering path is lined with a slanted black wall that also provides visitors with several alcoves so they can continue to leave small tokens behind. As it appears now, the memorial is a stark and solemn black and white, with these alcoves providing welcomed splashes of red, white and blue and incorporating some of that personal feeling from the temporary memorial.
Tall slabs of ivory marble wait at the end of the path with a hero’s name etched in every slab, forming the edge of the plane’s flight path. A ceremonial wooden gate where the ivory begins gives visitors their closest view of the wreath-draped boulder. As you follow the flight path away from the crash site, a break in the wall marks the end of the names and serves as a private entry for victims’ families to reach the crash site.
Although the memorial is in no way complete, the first phase serves as a touching tribute that allows visitors to see and trace each name in a way that makes that person seem a little more real. It’s a place for solemn reflection complete with wooden benches along the walkway that overlook Flight 93’s final resting place. The small visitor shelter that marks the beginning of the path also provides a bulletin board where visitors can leave their own messages of gratitude and support, something nearly everyone leaving the memorial seemed to do.
While it’s a fitting memorial that deserves our support and funding, I find myself missing the humanity of the temporary one with its seemingly perfect mix of color and emotion. It somehow managed to display the patriotism, heroism, gratitude and general kick-ass American nature while remaining a solemn place to pay your respects and remember those brave citizens who gave up their lives to save their fellow man. It was a vibrant celebration of life and American pride but there was an indescribable sense of honor and awed respect that seemed to permeate the air. From the moment you parked near the site, no one spoke above a hushed whisper, if they spoke at all. Even the kids milling around with their parents innately grasped the subdued grace and tempered their usually exuberant voices.
It was as if the million or so visitors who helped create this testament to everyday heroes and American resilience had somehow imbued the site with all of their emotions. And if you went to pay your respects, you became a part of that legacy too. So while we look forward to the completion of the permanent memorial, we must also acknowledge the loss of a monument that flawlessly embodied the “Americans helping Americans” spirit that so inspired us on 9/11.
We must never forget what happened on September 11, 2001. The extraordinary heroism, supreme sacrifice, and inspiring response of that day should be carried with us and remembered every day, both to honor those who gave their lives and remind ourselves of what’s truly important.
As President George W. Bush said during his memorial dedication speech Sept. 10, “The memorial we dedicate today will ensure our nation always remembers those lost here on 9/11. But we have a duty beyond memory. We have a duty beyond honoring. We have a duty to live our lives in a way that upholds the ideals for which the men and women gave their lives, to build a living memorial to their courage and sacrifice.”
On the most tragic day in American history, heroes like those on Flight 93 showed how one person and one choice can make a difference. Now it’s our turn.
Sadly, the Flight 93 memorial is still $10 million short of the funding needed to complete the memorial, which will include building a visitors center, planting 40 memorial groves of trees and creating an entry portal along the flight path with walls 40-50 feet high to match the approximate altitude of Flight 93. You can help support the project by texting 90999 to make a $10 donation from your cell phone or by donating online at www.honorflight93.org.
There are also plans to add a 93-foot tall Tower of Voices that “will house 40 wind chimes that will serve as an enduring echo of the voices of the passengers and crew,” according to a National Park Service brochure. However, no estimated price or target date has been released yet.
The Flight 93 Memorial: Then And Now