Flight 93

Saturday was a beautiful fall day, much like that other one, a little more than 21 years ago.

We had an open schedule and had wrapped up our programming at WVU, so we drove from our campground in West Virginia, through a corner of Maryland and into the hills near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to the site of the Flight 93 Memorial.

7 crew members, 33 passengers and 4 terrorists on board. It’s planned route was from Newark to San Francisco, but somewhere over Ohio, the terrorists overpowered the crew and took control of the plane. It changed its course and headed toward Washington DC.

The passengers on the plane pieced together the significance of their situation. Through phone calls to loved ones, they understood that two planes had already been flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. And they decided to act. A group of them stormed the cockpit, struggled over control of the plane and it crashed into this field, short of its presumed target of the White House or US Capitol.

Everyone aboard died.

The memorial sits in a large open field. A crescent of memorial groves surrounds the site. Forty trees for each of the forty victims. 1,600 trees total.

Soaring concrete walls on a ridge indicate the path of the plane’s final descent. A walkway follows that flight line to an overlook of the crash site below, which is essentially left as it was, a large sandstone boulder marking the place of impact.

A wall leading to the crash site holds the names of each of the victims, including Tom Burnett, who was born in Bloomington, Minnesota, where we used to live. He graduated from the same high school our children did. Our local post office is named after him.

The visitor’s center recounts the timeline and tells a human story of the day. There are recordings of news broadcasts, reminding us of the disbelief. You can hear the commentators trying to piece it all together as our collective understanding shifted from freak accident to intentional attack. You can read an account from one of the first emergency responders to arrive at the scene.

There is a minute by minute account of the planes in the air and the horrors that unfolded that day.

There are voice recordings that passengers left their loved ones from the flight. Three of them. I almost didn’t listen, but then I did. They are devastating, the last words of people trying to say goodbye in an unthinkable situation.

There was a collection of momentos people had left at the memorial. Flags. Prayers. Combat boots worn in Afghanistan. And there was one hand-written note that caught my eye, written to people who would never read the words. Photography isn’t allowed inside the visitor center, so this is a paraphrase from memory, but it is very close…

“I was across the street from the Capitol that morning…on the top floor of the tallest building in the area. The way I figure it, you all saved my life that day. I won’t waste it. I promise.”

It was signed with just initials. I wondered what that person was doing now…how that moment changed their life.

21 years. 

I remember there was a moment when it felt like the world came together after 9-11. We tend to do that in the wake of disasters. But then it turned into something else.

There are rare moments in life when we can see vividly the humanity of all those around us. Every once in a while it happens even without a disaster. Don’t waste that.

2 thoughts on “Flight 93

  1. Thanks John & Karen for visiting the Flight 93 National Memorial site. And then, John thank you for the words you shared of the experience.
    I got chills, goosebumps & tears in my eyes, from your descriptions of the Memorial. My sister was in the JHS Class of 1981 too, classmate & friend of Tom Burnett.
    I may visit there some day, but if not, again thank you for your words.

    1. Thanks Donna…I’ve been to the Pentagon and the Twin Towers memorials as well… but also the Bay of Pigs in Cuba…Dachau concentration camp in Germany…the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Dr. King was assassinated…there’s something about being present at the places that hold such a large place in our history.

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