Visiting the Flight 93 National Memorial

An overview of the Flight 93 crash site with some of the trees planted in honor of those who died.

Each time we visit our grandson and his parents in upstate New York, we try to stop at a new place on the way up or back, sometimes both. Returning home on our latest trip, we decided to visit the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

I had been to the Flight 93 crash site about a year after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. There wasn’t much to see back then. Visitors were required to view the crash site from afar. Consequently, you couldn’t see much.

A short chain link fence held memorials to the 40 victims and first responders. A firefighter’s turnout coat and helmet were the most apparent objects. Relatives and friends had attached photos of the deceased and fresh and plastic flowers that hung askew from the woven wire fence.

A photo taken seconds after Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

A long, single wooden bench sat tangent to the makeshift memorial fence. It served as both a resting place and a reminder not to go any farther. The plane had crashed into an old strip mine, which appeared to have been haphazardly reclaimed. You entered the area from the west on the old dirt pit road formerly used by coal trucks and excavating equipment. A small graveled parking lot had been developed north of the temporary memorial area.

I remember standing there in silence out of respect for these brave folks who deserved to be recognized and honored better than this. The desolate setting seemed to mock the tragedy. An abandoned rusting steam shovel sat overlooking it all. The starkness of the scene shocked me.

This visit was much different, however. The Flight 93 National Memorial was established in 2005 as a tribute to the passengers and crew of the fateful flight. The federal government bought up the land around the sacred site, which the National Park Service maintains. Creating the national memorial was a coordinated public-private effort that included the Families of Flight 93, Friends of Flight 93, the National Park Foundation, and the National Park Service.

We drove in and out of rain showers on our way to the site. The entrance is now off U.S. 30, the Lincoln Highway. A black-topped roadway winds three miles to the Visitors Center Complex. The road’s length allows visitors to respectfully transition from the present time back to that fateful day. The Visitors Center is located on a rise overlooking the crash site near the old parking lot. Exhibits recap the unfolding events of that terrible day through videos, photographs, newspaper clippings, and maps. The building itself is plain, unremarkable in design, and positioned to mark the final path of the flight.

The center also includes a bookstore, a viewing window, the Flight Path Walkway, and an Overlook. Since the crash left nothing more than a crater, a 17-ton bolder from the property was moved to mark the spot of the debris field. Visitors can walk or drive to the Memorial Plaza, located just north of the impact area. A Wall of Names points to the victims’ final resting place.

My wife and I arrived right after a school group did. Ranger Greg gave the youngsters and their chaperones an overview as we walked by them. Soon, they caught up to us in the exhibition room. We couldn’t help but hear Ranger Greg’s booming voice as we viewed the different displays. He certainly had the students’ attention as he told the story of Flight 93. He caught ours when he mentioned that the plane had veered off its scheduled path by abruptly turning southeast-bound over Canton, Ohio. My wife and I were both born in that blue-collar city. We walked closer to the group and listened as he told one aspect of the story after the other, most of which we had never heard before.

We drove to the Memorial Plaza, and volunteer ambassadors welcomed us. The rain intensity increased as Neva and I walked together quietly under a small blue umbrella, a fitting color for the place and mood. We stopped in front of the Wall of Names, an alphabetical listing of the flight’s crew and passengers. As I had experienced at the chain link fence two decades ago, memorial items had been left at some of the names. A wooden angel, fresh flowers, and a wine corkscrew rested beneath the first name on the black walkway. A volunteer explained why.

Christian Adams, a German citizen, worked for a German wine association. He was on his way to a wine convention in California that morning. The corkscrew served as yet another poignant symbol.

Items left at the Wall of Names in memory of Christian Adams

The dark walkway tiles represent the many cedar trees burned by the explosion and ensuing fire when Flight 93 dove into the ground upside down. A ceremonial gate of hewn cedar planks marks the way to the flight’s demise and the final resting place of those on board.

The radical changes I experienced gripped me. The 40 groves of 40 oak and maple trees planted in honor of the brave passengers and crew added a splash of russet to the fading fall landscape. Other volunteer trees sprouted from seeds planted by squirrels or blue jays or after lying dormant in the spoils of the old strip mine field. Today, they also serve as living memorials to the souls who lost their lives on that pleasant September day that turned so horrid.

We left with a new appreciation and a deeper understanding of what transpired on and to Flight 93. More than that, I was grateful for the simple, appropriate memorial that honored those brave, doomed souls.

The Visitors Center as viewed from Memorial Plaza.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

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