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.