As we made our way south from Michigan to Virginia, we stopped for a couple nights in Bedford, Pennsylvania which allowed me a day to visit the Flight 93 Memorial in Somerset County.
It was odd to visit a memorial for an event I lived through and was personally affected by. So many of the places we visit capture events from before our time. They are always interesting, but rarely do they feel visceral.
This place felt visceral.
I also found this memorial startling because of its location. This region of Pennsylvania countryside is what you think of when you think of “Pennsylvania countryside.” Rolling green hills, bucolic farms, views that go on forever. It is peaceful, calm, and serene – the polar opposite of September 11.
The Memorial is thoughtful, beautiful, and jarring.
After driving through the countryside, visitors turn onto a long drive up to the memorial. On the left, arising from a hill, is the currently unfinished “Tower of Voices,” a 93 foot tall, cylindrical cement structure that will, eventually, contain an individual wind chime for each of the forty victims. The individual chimes will be different lengths which will create unique sounds as they catch the breeze. So far, only eight of the chimes have been installed and those eight have been secured so as to not make any sounds. However, one of the chimes happened to sound a couple times while I was walking around. Given what I heard, I am sure the completed tower’s music will be both beautiful and haunting.
After visiting the Tower, I got back in my car and drove up to the main parking area.
The approach to the museum and visitor center, along this black granite sidewalk, mirrors the approach of the doomed flight.
At the end of the path, visitors walk through a set of two large walls.
On the far side of the walls, is a raised overlook which allows visitors to view the crash site – where the green lawn is out in the distance.
Right in front of that green lawn is the Memorial Plaza, which visitors can access by driving to another parking lot or walking along a path through the fields. Before heading down to the plaza, I went to the museum.
The museum contains a recitation of events from that day, in New York, D.C., and Pennsylvania, including media reports as they happened.
I was interested to see this quote because I have specific recollections of hearing this erroneous report as I was walking out of Washington that day. I had been working at a federal office building near the Capitol. After we were all evacuated, I met up with a friend and we walked all the way out to Arlington. We’d heard mixed reports about whether the subway system was operating but, regardless, neither of us felt comfortable getting on a train underground. So, along with thousands of others, we just walked out of the city.
It is interesting to look back now and consider how everything unfolded in real time. In hindsight, everyone knows what happened: terrorists hijacked 4 planes, flew 2 into the WTC in NY, one into the Pentagon, and crashed one in Pennsylvania. But when we were walking out of D.C. at 10:30 in the morning, no one knew anything. No one knew how many planes had been hijacked, no one knew if there were going to be more attacks, more crashes, more explosions, more of anything. In the meantime, the entire cellular system was overloaded, so it was nearly impossible to make calls. In that environment, especially while walking in mass groups of people, misinformation spread quickly. And I specifically remember hearing about car bombs going off outside the State Department as we were walking just blocks from that building.
The museum did a good job of capturing that confusion by showing footage of news anchors processing the information in real time, and recordings of Air Traffic Controllers struggling to figure out which planes were involved.
The main focus, however, was on Flight 93:
including an attempt to capture what went on with the passengers inside the plane.
There are listening stations, complete with warnings about the difficult content, for those who want to hear some of the voice messages left by passengers for their loved ones.
Additionally, the museum contains displays about the First Responders and law enforcement personnel who combed every inch of the crash site looking for remains and evidence:
as well as mementos left at the site…
Finally, there is a wall containing the names of every one of the day’s victims.
After exploring the visitor center, I headed down to the Memorial Plaza. It was a beautiful, warm day, so I opted to walk along the three quarter mile meandering path that connects the Visitor’s Center to the Memorial Plaza.
The path winds through tall grasses that sway in the breeze. The silence is overwhelming as there is nothing but farmland surrounding the memorial. It is eerily quiet and utterly peaceful and it is completely impossible to wrap your mind around any of it.
Information panels are located along the path and describe the investigation as well as the original makeshift memorial that was created by friends, family, and other visitors following the tragedy.
At the bottom is a large plaza with a wall memorializing the victims. The victims’ names are listed in alphabetical order and the flight’s crew members are identified.
This is the view looking back up toward the Visitor’s Center:
This is the view in the opposite direction, toward the field where the plane crashed:
Looking through the gate, you can see a large boulder in the center of the field. That boulder marks the exact location of the crash.
Visitors can also see the field and boulder from the Memorial Plaza:
The NPS and the foundation that built this memorial did a wonderful job of preserving the area’s natural beauty, memorializing what happened that day, and honoring the victims of the attack. It was a difficult place to visit and an experience I will not forget.
Wow. This is so powerful. I remember that day like yesterday and it still makes me emotional. Reading this is both giving me goosebumps and making me misty-eyed. I remember being on a business trip to DC that day. You, Kev my boss and I had had dinner at Sequoia’s when we got to DC. That was before smart phone. I had a dinky early age cell phone at the time. In the morning, our class had watched a short video. Our instructor came in and was completely pale. “A plane crashed into the Pentagon,” he said. Having flown over it 2 days earlier myself and with my extreme fear of flying all I could think was “Oh, how awful!” It’s my worst nightmare. But then he said that one of the World Trade towers collapsed. I couldn’t process it. They wheeled in TVs (again, the days before smart phones! ) and we started to see the coverage. I, too, heard about the car bombs at the State Department and knew you were near there. I remember being so scared and desperately trying to reach you – even needing to use a quarter in pay phone to try to get through to you. I remember the chaos in the city, and then even worse – the complete silence. I’ve never seen DC shut down. It was eerie. To this day, my boss from that time and I connect every September 11th. It’s a horrific day in our history and I’ll never forget it. Jeremy and I have been to the memorial and museum in NYC. Also very powerful and well done. I think what bothered me the most, and I don’t know if you experienced it in PA, were the people treating it like any other tourist destination. I have no problem taking pictures of the actual memorial. It was the irreverence of those who were smiling in the pictures that bothered me. People died there. On that very spot. It is a cemetery. You wouldn’t have a “Kodak moment” in a cemetery, the same respect should be given to those who lost their lives and their grieving families. I’m glad this memorial honored the brave men and women of Flight 93 so we’ll and hope all who go there pay proper respects for the innocent, senseless loss of life. Thanks for posting this.
We have definitely seen our fair share of clueless tourists not respecting the places they are visiting. In this case, there was just one woman who was prattling on about nonsense to her friends while we were standing at the overlook. She got plenty of dirty looks from others, but it didn’t seem to phase her in the least. Fortunately, everyone else was respectful. But we’ve seen numerous instances of poor, immature, thoughtless conduct at similar memorials and cemeteries. It really is unbelievable how disrespectful people can be. Like I said, though, it’s usually the exception rather than the rule. I might lose it, otherwise.
Among all the ever-ragged emotions that haunt me from that day, the incongruity of the clear-blue beautiful skies ripped apart by such horror…I can barely breathe even now.
It’s such a well-done tribute. Thank you for sharing your journey ❤️
That is exactly what is so striking about this place. Just like the violence of that day did not fit with the beautiful sunny weather, the horror that happened in this field does not fit with the peaceful, idyllic surroundings. Nothing fits.
Visceral is the right word. Reading about these memorials cannot begin to capture the feelings they evoke. Standing in the spot, the beauty and silence around you, the sunshine above, raises goosebumps and chokes the throat.
That’s exactly right. Being physically present in these places brings back all the memories and all the feelings that rarely bubble up. Being there on a day with equivalently gorgeous weather? Even more so. These places will never lose their power, nor should they.
Oh, Laura, I had no idea that you were so close to the tragedy that took place on that terrible day. I can only imagine how terrifying and surreal it must have been for you. It felt that way to me, and I was on the other side of the country, in Oregon. It still brings me anguish to think of the attacks, and of the far-reaching changes created in our country as a result of those acts of terrorism.
The memorial is a beautiful tribute to the incredibly courageous souls who willingly gave their lives to save so many others. So heartbreaking, and so inspirational. I hope, somehow, that it brings some measure of healing to the people who were directly affected and to our country as a whole.
It’s funny because, on a day to day basis, it doesn’t occur to us how different our experiences were from most people’s. Every American knows where they were when they heard, everyone watched in horror as it unfolded, but both of us had very distinct 9/11 experiences because we lived in the area. For me, it was what I wrote about. For Kevin, he used to drive right by the Pentagon on his way to work, so for months afterwards, he would drive by the damaged side every day. And for several weeks, the smell of smoke hung in the air. But, just like everyone else, time goes by and you start to forget that stuff, until you visit a memorial like this and it’s all brought back.
I, too, hope it brings a measure of comfort to the friends and families of the victims. The designers and builders did everything they could to honor the victims and I hope it brings some peace to their loved ones.
I read another blog a few days ago about the Flight 93 memorial and I had so many overwhelming and sad feelings but Laura you have added the feeling and emotions of someone who lived through that day where a real impact was felt. I remember watching it unfold on television but to see the memorial in person and with your experience when it happened was very emotional to read. Thank you for the pictures and the insite into how people so close to the event felt that day.
I’ve seen several posts written in recent months about visits to the various 9/11 memorials and each has been a bit different. Everyone who goes focuses on slightly different things, all informed by their own experiences at the time or subsequently. This museum’s efforts to capture the confusion of the day really struck me because we were hearing it in real time and trying to make decisions based on this barrage of information. Other people have recognized that they used to fly those same routes, or they had loved ones who worked in lower Manhattan. It is amazing how we all relate to places like these. All so different, but linked by this awful thread.
We have not yet been to any of the Sept. 11 memorials, but I can only imagine how you must have felt. When Steve and I visited Pearl Harbor, it was different for me as my grandfather had been there. I agree with what Jen wrote about being bothered by people laughing and taking selfies. It felt so disrespectful. Thank you for writing what had to be a difficult post.
It’s funny you mention both Pearl Harbor and Jen… that’s another place she and my brother have visited and they specifically mentioned how many obnoxious tourists there were there. That one makes a bit more sense – it’s not acceptable, but I understand why it happens – because the attack was so long ago. The bad behavior at the 9/11 memorials is more shocking to me. It wasn’t that long ago and most people visiting these places have some significant recollection of that day. But… people are just clueless at times.
Speechless and teary eyed! Gay
It was a powerful reminder of an unforgettable event.
This is a very moving post. The memorial is hauntingly beautiful. I remember that day well. I called Kevin’s work place and they said he wasn’t there. I tried calling his cell and home number. There was no answer. I was frantic. Dad and I had no idea where he or you were. When we found out you had to walk all the way out of D.C. we were shocked.
Yes. Kevin had slept in late and had no idea what was going on until one of us (I can’t remember if it was you or me), told him to turn his (damned) TV on. He was the only person on the planet who had no clue what was going on. (Insert eye-roll here…) Today, his phone would be buzzing like crazy, but we weren’t nearly as “connected” as we are now.
Wow, such a beautiful memorial honoring those lost. I remember that day well, unfortunately. Thank you for the lovely and thought provoking tour.
The memorial is definitely worth a visit if you guys ever make your way east.
I am so glad that the NPS has made yet another outstanding interpretive site for such an important event in recent history. It sounds as if they have really collected an incredible variety of materials and presented them in a very compelling way. And Flight 93 is such an incredible story of ordinary people stepping up under pressure, so it deserves to be told well.
From your description, I’m not sure I could handle a visit because it would be so visceral, as you say. I was at my firm’s Miami office — located in the tallest and most recognizable building in Miami — for training when the towers were hit, and heard about it from the secretaries rushing around. (The attorneys definitely do not roll in before 10 in Miami!) I called my supervising attorney in the Palm Beach office and she basically ordered me to get out of there ASAP, since no one knew if iconic buildings in other cities might be targeted. Barreling out of the high rise and driving north up I-95 for several hours listening to the confusing, horrifying, panicky live coverage from NYC and DC on news radio was one of the most terrifying few hours of my life. And also surreal, because traffic was completely normal yet the audio in my car was full of helpless screaming and crying.
I guess people of our generation have some idea of what people felt when they heard that Pearl Harbor was bombed. In any case, it makes sense that it’s so much more powerful when a memorial triggers your own emotionally-laden memories.
You’re exactly right. That one notation about the erroneous report from the A.P. really brought me back. It’s funny how we compartmentalize events like these in our minds. It all makes sense now and we remember with perfect clarity what happened, but when it was actually going on, there was so much confusion and fear. Hell, remember the weeks after when everyone was buying plastic sheeting to line their windows to protect against a biological weapons attack, and when there were all kinds of concerns terrorists were going to steal crop dusters and dump chemical agents on the Vegas strip? It all sounds crazy now, but at the time, everyone was living in constant fear, unsure what the next target would be. The actual day of 9/11 was that – but on steroids.
Thank you Laura. A beautiful tribute.
Thank you for reading it, Tami!
I have to step away first and take a walk before commenting. This is a heart-wrenching post and I know exactly where I was that day. But for you, it must be hitting you hard since you actually were in the midst of the chaos and fear of that day.
It does look like a well-done tribute based on your personal experience and the photos. Thank you for this very moving post I felt I was there with you.
Thanks Mona Liza. I think it’s a tough thing to do – build a memorial that honors the victims but also tells the story of what happened, in a way that doesn’t patronize the many people who lived through it, but also informs those who did not. It’s hard to believe, but there are now millions of people living in this country that have no independent recollection of that day. So, building a memorial that ticks all the various boxes is tough, and I think the folks that designed this one, did an excellent job.
Those of us old enough remember where we were that day, but for most of us, it all unfolded on tv and not around us. Thank you for sharing your story. It appears the NPS has done a respectful memorial, teaching and telling the story that too many now don’t remember.
Thank you. They really did do a great job of capturing all of it – for those of us who remember and those who will only learn about it by visiting these types of museums.
We were up that way about this time last year when we were visiting our daughter but we missed the memorial!
That’s too bad. I know it’s a pretty long haul for you guys at this point, but if you’re back in the area visiting, it is absolutely worth a visit.
I went to the exhibit at the Newseum in DC, all shivered the entire time. I imagine I’d have a very difficult time in Bedford. My brother’s best friend’s mother was on that flight. Thank you for sharing this!
Oh wow, I’m sorry to hear that. I can understand why it would be that much more difficult to visit with a personal connection like that. I, too, have seen the 9/11 exhibit at the Newseum and found it incredibly powerful. Actually, I’ve always found that whole museum incredibly powerful and am so sad it’s closing down. I hope they reopen elsewhere or transfer their collections to a reputable museum. This stuff is just too important to be locked away in a storage facility.
I had no idea this memorial even existed, through your words its now a place we must visit in the near future, thanks for a great post.
Yes, whenever you all make it back east, it is absolutely worth checking out. There is also a memorial at the Pentagon and, obviously, at the site of the WTC.
Thank you for sharing the monument and your experience. It looks very moving and well done. I hope to visit one day, though it won’t be an easy visit.
Thanks for reading it. I do hope you get to see the memorial at some point. Even though it is difficult, it’s nice to have somewhere for people to pay their respects and just reflect on that insane day and all that followed.
Not sure I could handle visiting the Memorial now. I’m not sure I could carry enough tissues. We did visit shortly after the crash and a make shift memorial was quickly created with fencing put in place to keep visitors back. The fencing was covered in objects, flowers, and notes. That was tough enough to take in. This Memorial seems so well done to create the perfect place for everyone to remember. Thanks for sharing. Your post is lovely.
Thanks, Pam. The designers really did an excellent job with it, but, it’s a tough place to visit and I certainly understand many people choosing not to. On the other hand, it is comforting to know there now exists a permanent structure for people to visit and reflect upon what happened.
What a beautiful memorial. So dramatic and yet peaceful at the same time. I remember everything about that day and how I heard the unbelievable news and how it impacted everyone. We were supposed to leave for Turkey a few days later and yet we cancelled the trip because we didn’t feel comfortable about leaving our children in Chicago and not being there, just in case there were follow on events, which thankfully, there were not. Hearing the messages left for family members has to have been absolutely chilling to listen to. Such a heartbreaking shocking time in history.
It has been so interesting to hear from so many people about their individual experiences and recollections from that awful time. I guess the one consistent thread has been that everyone remembers everything from that day. It was so shocking and terrifying, the events are burned on our collective memory.
I was there this July and it was one of the most moving monuments I’ve visited in my life. I used to fly out of Boston all the time on those planes, so part of me has always thought, it could have been me. And seeing the photos of the crew and passengers, they were just normal people that day, until it happened. Your photos capture the experience of the monument so well, and that inside the bell tower looking up is one fantastic image. Well done.