This past Saturday, while on my way back from a conference north of Pittsburgh, I decided to stop at the (still-temporary) memorial at the Flight 93 crash site outside Shanksville, PA.
If my Rand McNally road atlas hadn't had the location marked, I'd have had a hard time finding it. As far as I could tell, there were no signs on the PA Turnpike at the Somerset interchange to indicate the way to the site.
I traversed a couple back roads northward to Rt. 30 (Old Lincoln Highway) and headed east. There was a sign pointing to the Flight 93 site off that road.
To reach the site, I had to drive up atop a somewhat steep hill. Then off to the left, I saw the makeshift memorial. The actual crash site is almost a mile south toward the tree line in the distance.
The plane reportedly plowed into the ground upside down between the flag on that distant fence and those trees. The area is considered a grave for the 40 passengers and crew who perished, but not without a struggle.
The memorial site consists of a chain-link fence with various items attached to it, a group of benches bearing the names of the 40 passengers and crew of United Flight 93, and various monuments left by others.
Here's some of what's on the fence:
This Shanksville VFD coat caught my eye. What an overwhelming event for them to respond to on 9/11/01, having seen and heard what was going on in New York.
At the bottom of the fence I spotted this volleyball, left by the team from Walkersville High near us:
Here are some of the other memorials around the site:
And here are the benches.
- Flight 93 left Newark International late for San Francisco at 8:42 AM. Had it been a few minutes longer, the flight wouldn't have left at all because of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center at 8:46. It was supposed to be coordinated with the other aircraft.
- The hijacking of the Boeing 757 took place somewhere near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. By that time, the passengers had heard about the second plane attack on the WTC, and were about to learn of the Pentagon attack as well.
- The passengers gathered in the back of the plane and decided to attempt a takeover once they were over a sparsely populated area.
- Todd Beamer was heard to say "Let's roll" (a line he used with his kids) because he had called an operator in Chicago on an Airfone. This operator asked Beamer not to hang up. Of course, Beamer was far from the only hero: read more here.
- The passengers struggled to get into the cockpit where the terrorists had taken over the plane. As they did so, the terrorists pitched the plane up to 40 degrees in either direction to throw them off balance. Read the flight voice recorder transcript here.
- The terrorists had the order to crash the plane if they couldn't reach their objective, which Osama bin Laden determined would be the Capitol because Congress was in joint session that day. He decided that the White House was too difficult to spot from the air.
- North of Shanksville, the employees of this scrap metal company, which is being relocated because of the permanent memorial, heard and saw the plane coming in toward them, reportedly even upside down (although is that physically possible?), at close to 600 mph. They said it was so low, they felt they had to duck.
- The impact of the crash meant there were few remaining pieces of debris; the 757 all but buried itself following a fireball explosion that seared the nearby trees (they're still that way today).
That being said, I don't think the proposed memorial, with a walkway, groves of trees, and a monument wall, is heroic enough. Why not a statue of some of the passengers starting out from the back of the plane to rush the cockpit? These are HEROES, and while they indeed gave their lives on this ground and it must be hallowed, they deserve more than a simple gravesite. It was not mere tragedy; it was a triumph.
Just before sunset, I traveled a couple miles south to the town itself.
As of 9/11/01, it was no longer a town where Nothing Ever Happened. Reminders of that day abound.
Most houses and businesses have flags flying in the yards.
The Shanksville VFD forgets not its own.
All in all, it was a sobering experience for me to visit the site.
I then drove through more of the hilly central Pennsylvania countryside where "bitter people cling to their religion and guns" and headed home.