by James Rada, JR.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Flight 93 crashed into an empty field in Shanksville at 10:03 a.m. The passenger plane was traveling at 580 mph when it hit the ground.
“Upon impact, the 7,000 gallons of jet fuel on board the aircraft exploded, creating a ball of fire that rose higher than the trees,” according to the National Park Service. The force of the impact was so great, it rattled items on shelves and swung doors open at the Shanksville School three miles away.
I was among the first members of the media on the scene in Shanksville that day. When I first arrived, there was nothing to see. The crash site had been blocked off, so I spent the day interviewing area residents, trying to piece together what happened.
Around 4 p.m. that day, a tour bus arrived to take the media back to the scene. The bus drove through lines of vehicles that made up mobile stations for federal investigators, the Red Cross, biohazard teams and cadaver dogs. Then it stopped in a clearing and we exited.
State troopers stood watch at the edge of the perimeter where the media was allowed. You could see a pile of earth, and smoke rising from it, a couple hundred feet away. That was it. That was all that was left of Flight 93.
A year later, I returned to the site. Everything looked pretty much the same, except there were now temporary sections of chain-link fence erected near the crash site. They didn’t block people from the site. The fence was there for people to leave flowers and notes. Along the ground, gifts were strewn — painted rocks, teddy bears and other mementos.
When I went back 12 years later, I saw the Flight 93 National Memorial. The entrance is now off Lincoln Highway about 2½ hours west of Gettysburg.
The memorial was created in phases. The Memorial Plaza opened on Sept. 10, 2011, in time for the 10th anniversary of the crash. The plaza marks the edge of the crash site. It looks out over what is now an empty field, and includes a wall of names and interpretative panels that explain what happened on Sept. 11.
The visitor center opened four years later, in 2015. The center has exhibit areas, including a rotating exhibit of some of the items left at the temporary memorial when it was just a fence.
“Our collection has over 70,000 [items] that were left here at the memorial and continue to be left to this day,” park ranger John
The National Park Service is working on creating a walking trail from the visitor center to the site where the temporary memorial was located. The site already has a walking trail called The Allee that connects the visitor center to memorial groves of trees that were planted in honor of the passengers and crew of Flight 93.
The last element of the memorial, the Tower of Voices, will open on Sept. 9.
“The Tower of Voices is up,” said Bernsteil, “We just haven’t hung the chimes yet to complete it.”
The tower is 93 feet tall and will hold 40 wind chimes, representing the 40 passengers and crewmembers who were on Flight 93. According to the memorial’s website, “The intent is to create a set of forty tones (voices) that can connote through consonance the serenity and nobility of the site while also through dissonance recalling the event that consecrated the site.”
Unlike other memorials and parks, nothing stands out as a reason to mark this land as special. There are no memorials showing where troops once fought, no grand vistas, and no old buildings. There’s just the field where 40 people fought back against terrorists and helped rally a nation.
Bernsteil said that when people visit the site to view the crash site and learn the stories of the passengers and crew, they have different reactions.
“It’s almost generational,” he said.
Those people who are old enough to remember Sept. 11, 2001, react emotionally to the sites. The sight of the field is enough to bring all of those old memories to the surface. They are sad, solemn and angry.
Younger visitors who can’t remember that day are more inquisitive and eager to learn about what happened.
“You can’t force the emotion on them, and we don’t try,” Bernsteil said.
He said that his goal is to celebrate the lives of the passengers and crew, and to remember what they did that day.
“I hope they leave a little more inspired.”
Either way, the Flight 93 National Memorial is an emotional experience for the nearly 400,000 people who visit each year.
The Flight 93 National Memorial is at 6424
Lincoln Highway in Stoystown. It is open 9 a.m.
to 5 p.m. every day except Christmas, New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving.