Today is September 11, 2021, 20 years since the horrible day that changed our world forever. Back in October of 2001, I actually made a pilgrimage of sorts to Lower Manhattan, as I simply had to see what had happened to New York after the events of the prior month.
I remember speaking with police officers directing traffic, still looking exhausted and shell-shocked, yet treating me and others with dozens of questions with the utmost kindness and respect. I parked a couple of blocks from where the Trade Center had stood, gasping as I saw dozens of cars covered in a thick layer of dust and realizing that they’d been sitting there since 9/11, their owners never having come back that day. I remember closed stores along Broadway, their merchandise covered in layers of gray dust that eerily reminded me of Pompeii. And I remember spontaneously bursting into tears when I rounded a corner and saw the wreckage of the front façade of one of the towers looming ahead of me a couple of blocks away.
Earlier this summer, as I made my way west across the U.S. on my annual summer road trip I was driving on some smaller highways in Pennsylvania between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, and I suddenly thought about Flight 93, the plane that was hijacked on 9/11 and whose passengers had stormed the cockpit and forced the plane to crash in a field in rural Pennsylvania near the town of Shanksville before it could reach Washington, its suspected destination where it may well have harmed who knows how many more innocent people. I wondered to myself where exactly the flight had crashed and thought I must be nearby.
Not a half an hour later, there was a sign for the Flight 93 National Memorial, and with a feeling of what I can only describe as obligation, I took a detour from my intended route to pay my respects. The Memorial is located about 1.5 hours southeast of Pittsburgh in lush, rolling countryside. Inside the memorial is a large Visitor’s Center and museum with exhibits that detail the entire timetable of what happened that morning. Outside is a large, ramp-like observation deck which has been built to align with the flight path of the plane as it came down that day. In the distance, a wide pathway has been mown through the fields to again show the flight path of the plane and a 17 ton boulder has been placed to mark the place where the aircraft crashed.
With that perspective, I drove down to Memorial Plaza where you can walk along a path that parallels the debris field where the last remains of those on board the flight were buried, and from where you can get a more close up, intimate look at the exact area where the plane came down. A commemorative Wall of Names lists the passengers and crew members who’d been aboard Flight 93, and along the way information signs describe the heroic efforts of the passengers that thwarted the terror attack. As if it were yesterday, the names of the heroic folks who had taken part in the rebellion came back to me: Tom Burnett, Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Jeremy Glick, Sandra Bradshaw and others who’d learned via cell phone calls to family and authorities what had happened in New York and Washington and decided to try and prevent the terrorists from using their plane as another weapon. Tom Burnett’s last statements to his wife were, “OK. There’s a group of us and we’re going to do something. If they are going to drive this plane into the ground, we’ve got to do something.” After reciting The Lord’s Prayer together with a manager from the telephone switchboard that handled in-flight phone calls, Todd Beamer uttered the famous lines, presumably to Burnett and Glick, “You ready? OK. Let’s roll”
I instantly felt my throat close and my eyes fill with tears as I walked the path and read the information signs that brought the whole ordeal back to my consciousness. Along the path I spoke quietly with many of the visitors who’d come from all over the country, and I was comforted to see that many of them, like me, could barely speak, experiencing the same reaction that I was having as they struggled to comprehend what had happened here. Occasionally, when we just couldn’t speak, we simply put a hand on a shoulder or gave one another a hug and words didn’t have to be spoken.
Another aspect of the Memorial that is due to be finished in the near future is called the Tower of Voices, a huge, 93 foot tall structure that will house 40 different wind chimes, one for each of the passengers and crew members and each weighing over 100 pounds. They will each be tuned to a different tone to represent the voices of those lost on that day.
This may not be a pilgrimage that everyone is eager, willing or able to make, but I was glad I was able to visit this place and pay my respects to those who lost their lives that day trying to save others. It moved me deeply and afterwards I took even more comfort than usual in making stops at an Amish produce stand, marveling at the gorgeous scenery in this part of Pennsylvania, and visiting Pamela’s, my favorite place for pancakes in Pittsburgh. Remembering the passengers and crew of Flight 93 made me more acutely aware of how grateful I am for the life I still have and the freedoms we have in our country. I won’t forget those people and I won’t take a minute of my life for granted.