The Civil War Institute will be celebrating the National Park Service Centennial this spring with its brand new “Find Your Park Friday” series. Inspired by the NPS #FindYourPark campaign, the series will challenge our fellows to share their experiences exploring America’s national historical, cultural, and natural resources through trips and internships with the NPS. In our fourth post, Savannah talks about the emotional experience of visiting Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania.
The story of 9/11 will be forever ingrained in the history of America. On September 11, 2001, al-Queda terrorists hijacked American planes, flying them into national symbols including the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. However, many people often forget that there was a fourth plane heading toward the nation’s capital that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania when the thirty-three passengers and seven crew members tried to regain control of the flight. In the frenzied attack to stop the plane from hitting its intended target, the passengers sacrificed their lives to thwart terrorism and fear. Immediately following the crash, a temporary memorial was created as government officials scrambled to find and remove pieces of the disintegrated plane. In 2002, the land was designated as a National Memorial by the United States government; it was the beginning of the Flight 93 National Memorial Site, the only National Park Service site dedicated to the events of the 9/11 attacks. In the years following, the Flight 93 National Memorial was created, allowing the American public to visit the site of the thwarted attack and remember the brave passengers of United Airline Flight 93.
My best friend from high school attends college in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, so I take Route 30 from Gettysburg to visit her. Every time I visited, I saw the brown sign noting the Flight 93 National Memorial, just off the highway. Because I always wanted to reach my destination, I never stopped but always swore I would next time. I finally decided to make the stop, though I didn’t know what to expect, as I was not knowledgeable about Flight 93. A three mile long winding road took me from Route 30 to the Visitors Center, giving me a sense of uncertainty as I longed to find an end around each turn but only found more road surrounded by empty field. I arrived at the Visitor Center, taking a black walkway from the parking lot, but initially passed the doors to the exhibits to follow the walkway to an overlook. The walkway followed the flight path of Flight 93, leading me to a view of the crash site. Before seeing the exhibits or grabbing the pamphlets, I was face-to-face with the impact site and the mass grave of forty people; a landscape that was once an ordinary field in Pennsylvania was transformed into a field of honor.
I moved back into the Visitors Center and read the exhibition panels which placed Flight 93 in the broader context of the 9/11 attacks, all the while telling the story of the flight itself. Audio from newscasts reporting from New York City can be heard from every part of the museum, a constant reminder of the tragedy that affected the country. The exhibits are moving and emotional, as they remember those who perished in the 9/11 attacks, focusing on the forty passengers and crew who were aboard Flight 93 that dreadful day. I was brought to tears in the middle of the exhibits, holding an audio device to my head and listening to the passengers and crew call their families to say their final goodbyes. Hearing the fear and sadness in their voices as they talked to their loved ones, I realized not only how hard it was for them to say goodbye for the last time but how difficult it must have been for their families to listen, as they knew they were helpless in the situation. The rest of the exhibition panels explained the crash itself, the memorialization process immediately following the crash, and the creation of the National Memorial.
Wiping away tears, I grabbed a pamphlet and got back into my car, following the signs to the crash site. Passing forty groves of trees–each a living memorial to the victims–I arrived at the walkway that leads to the debris field and crash site. The long walkway was bound by a sloping black wall that prohibited everyone except family members of the victims from walking on the debris field and crash site. Along the wall were flowers, cards, American flags, and other mementos brought by people as their own additions to the memorial. From the beginning of the walkway, I saw a large boulder laying in the distant field. This boulder marked the impact site of Flight 93, near the now filled-in crater created by the crash; damaged trees continue to surround the field. The walkway ends with the Wall of Names, which consists of forty white marble tablets, each bearing the name of a passenger or crew member who perished in the crash; their final resting place is just a few meters away behind the sloping wall.
The memorial is silent, simple, and peaceful, juxtaposing the environment that no doubt immediately followed the crash. A tower of wind chimes is expected to be constructed at the entrance of the park, giving visitors a subtle reminder of the voices lost in the crash of Flight 93. During my visit, the silence was ever present in the Memorial Plaza, as mourners walked up and down the walkway, keeping their eyes constantly on the boulder. The part of the memorial that impacted me the most was the boulder, on which my own eyes were constantly fixed as I walked toward the end of the walkway. The boulder doesn’t move, and it doesn’t change, but it stands strong as a reminder of the tragedy that occurred, all the while commenting on the strength of the nation following the attacks. As I walked away from the Wall of Names back to my car, I found myself continuously looking back over my shoulder to catch another glimpse of the boulder, a monument to forty heroes that thwarted an attack on the nation’s capital. The Flight 93 National Memorial reminded me that when it came to life, I can’t focus on my destination like I had when visiting my friend, swearing I would stop and experience things next time. I have to stop every time, as I may not have the chance to do it again and see something truly amazing.