I had planned to visit the memorial to United Flight 93 but like visiting the Civil War Battlefield sites, it is so easy to turn away. And I almost did.
But I knew I had to face and embrace it head on, even though it would be intense. If there was any doubt, it came with a chance meeting as I waited to board my flight to Reagan National from SFO.
I saw a family from my school who were about to board a flight at the gate next to mine. I had taught both son and daughter but it it wasn’t for this reason. Their mother was a flight attendant for United Airlines. This was the final push I needed for me to make the two hour and 20 minute drive from Gettysburg to the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, PA.
I left Gettysburg early and most US 30, the Lincoln Highway, was covered in thick ground fog. I hoped that the fog would clear by the time the I reached the Memorial.
After crossing over the Allegheny Mountains I headed down into another valley which was clear of fog to reveal a beautiful fall day with clear blue skies. Much like that day, 20 years ago, that was clear and beautiful, when four flights lifted off from the East Coast. It was September 11, 2001.
Flight 93 was scheduled to depart from Newark, New Jersey to SFO (San Francisco International Airport). The flight was delayed by about 40 minutes because of heavy air traffic. This delay would have important consequences in the near future. Flight 93 took off at 8:42 AM.
Here is a timeline of what followed:
At 8:46 AM, American Airlines Flight 11 strikes the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.
At 9:03 AM, United Airlines Flight 175 strikes the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
At about 9:28 AM, four hijackers take control of United Airlines Flight 93. The flight is diverted from it’s flightpath to San Francisco and turned around on a southeasterly course towards Washington DC.
At 9:37 AM, American Airlines Flight 77 strikes the Pentagon in Virginia.
At this point the passengers of United 93 make phone calls from the flight and find out that two planes have struck the Twin Towers. They now know that Flight 93 is part of this plot. What we know about the final minutes of Flight 93 comes from the black box recording (the other black boxes from the other flights where never recovered) and the calls made by passengers from the flight.
At 9:57 AM the passengers and crew fight to take control of the Flight 93.
At 10:03 AM Flight 93 strikes the ground, at 563 mph, inverted, and at a 40 degree angle in a field in Somerset County, Pa.
The flight was was just 18 minutes from Washington DC. Out of the four hijacked flights on September 11, Flight 93 was the only flight that did not reach it’s intended target. This is a testament to the will power and bravery of it’s crew and passengers.
I turned off the Lincoln Highway and drove to the Flight 93 Memorial Visitor’s Center. Here they had recordings from the flight, an animation of the flight’s last minutes, pieces of the plane and other debris, and memorabilia from the original makeshift memorial.
The visitor’s center was starting to fill up so I headed down the hill to Memorial Plaza and the Wall of Names. The last remains of the passengers and crew of the fight rest in this debris field that is walled off. At the time this was one of the FBI’s largest crime scenes.
When I arrived, I had the memorial to myself so I picked a bench to sketch the hemlock trees and field, including the 17 ton piece of sandstone rock that marks the impact point of the plane (featured sketch). It’s hard to believe what happened here, 20 years ago. Now it was peaceful with bird songs filling the clear blue skies.
This is the final resting place of the passengers of Flight 93. Family members are allowed access to the debris field and they have left personal memorials on the sandstone rock. Visitors, such as myself, can view the area from a walkway that surrounds the debris field and ends at Memorial Plaza and the Wall of Names.
One other reason for visiting the Flight 93 National Memorial was to compare this memorial the hundreds I had been seeing on the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg. How did they honor the fallen, more that 100 years ago and how do honor those who have died today?
Civil War battlefields are full of statues that honor individuals, mostly generals. The individual is placed on a pedestal, literally, over the collective. Most common soldiers who died in the Civil War remain anonymous.
By contrast, the Wall of Names emphasizes the collective over the individual. No name stands out over any other. This seems very fitting for what happened at about 9:57 AM on Flight 93 on September 11, 2001.