Unlike the crystal clear, warm September day on which United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside, today borders on biting cold. Heavy dark clouds hover and the wind cuts right through us as leave the car and walk toward the flight path of the hijacked airliner, one of four that terrorists brought down on Sept. 11, 2001.
You’ve got to make an effort to visit the Flight 93 Memorial in southwest Pennsylvania; it’s not on the way to anything. We drive an hour-and-a-half from Pittsburgh, and once off the main highway, continue another 10 minutes on a winding, recently constructed two-lane road. Even though it was built out of necessity, the road also provides a time buffer between the rest of the world and this final resting place of Flight 93’s 40 passengers (ages 20 to 79) and its crew.
The four terrorists are part of the earth here, too.
Our first stop is the Visitor Shelter and the signage that offers a timeline of the 9/11 events; photos of the crash victims; the story of events in the cockpit during the last moments of the flight; and a picture taken by a local resident minutes post-crash showing a giant black cloud against a brilliant blue sky.
Inside the Visitor Shelter, people huddle around a counter and bulletin board, leaving messages for the Tribute Collection to be amassed by the National Park Service.
“God bless you. God bless America,” says one scrawled in a young person’s hand. “You are truly brave. Katie Ahlborn”
“Thank you for risking your lives. Seth Allen.” reads another.
From the shelter, we cross the charcoal-black Memorial Plaza and Events Area to the marble Memorial Wall of Names. Forty of the marble slabs are engraved with the names of passengers and crew. One reads “Laura Catuzzi Grandcolas” in dark lettering, which is followed by “and unborn child” in lettering so light I almost miss it.
Now the events of 9/11 seem more real, more personal. I simultaneously try to imagine and not to think about the Boeing 757 hitting the ground upside down at 563 miles an hour.
Despite the temperature, which I’m sure is colder now than when we arrived, the visitors continue to stream in. One woman in flip flops and a flimsy sweatshirt jacket is apparently determined to see the memorial even if she freezes.
Before it was dedicated in September on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, about 5,000 visitors a week came to the memorial, a National Parks ranger tells us. After the dedication, that number has grown to 3,000 to 4,000 a day.
There is a section of the site that can be seen by most visitors only through a set of polished, vertical wooden beams. It is the actual area where the remains of the victims still lie. A boulder with a plaque marks the area and only family are allowed to walk this ground.
The park ranger tells us that only a few artifacts were recovered from the site — “enough to fill two or three shoeboxes,” she says. “We gave these to the families.”
Just how to memorialize the horrendous and historic crash was a challenge met by the Paul Murdoch Architects of Beverly Hills. Phase 1 of the 2,200-acre national park is complete; Phases 2 and 3 are to come. Supporters hope to finance them with a combination of public and private monies.
According to the architects’ Web site, the finished memorial will be “designed as an entire landscape through which visitors experience a sequence of natural features developed to commemorate the actions of the passengers and crew of Flight 93.”
For extensive information on the memorial, Flight 93, a timeline of all the events of Sept. 11, 2001, videos and more, visit nps.gov/flni/index.htm.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.