Local resident Donna Glessner remembers seeing visitors navigating Somerset County's rural roads with maps spread out on their dashboards. Many ended up taking pictures of the wrong place.
The visitors bold enough to flag down a local always asked two questions: Where did the plane go down and how close can I get?
"It just felt wrong for us in the community not to be helpful," Glessner said.
In January 2002, four months after the deadliest attacks in history on U.S. soil, a group of local volunteers started staffing the site of an abandoned coal strip mine where United Flight 93, the fourth airliner hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists on 9/11, crashed. The site had become the final resting place of 40 individuals from 11 states and three countries who decided to fight back.
For the last decade the crash site has consisted of a chain-link fence, Porta-Johns, and a makeshift museum housed in a nearby rusted metal shed with concrete floors. The building was last used as the command post for investigators in the weeks after Sept. 11.
Still people came -- an average of 150,000 visitors annually -- to this barely accessible spot in southwest Pennsylvania two miles from Shanksville and about 60 miles from Pittsburgh. To get here, visitors travel streets where American flags decorate the majority of houses.
These visitors have left behind so far about 40,000 tribute items: police badges, fireman's hats, tiny flags with messages written on the white stripes, a purple heart, and even a brick from the seized Afghanistan compound of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. "Placed here in tribute to the first warriors of the Global War on Terror," reads a note attached to the brick.
But now, in time for the 10th anniversary, this homemade shrine has received a National Park Service makeover. Officially opening on Sept. 10, the upgraded 2,220-acre Flight 93 National Memorial includes a two-mile processional drive to a landscaped field of honor. Soon this field will be ringed by 40 groves of trees (one for each victim).
From a paved parking lot near a new shelter, visitors will be able to walk down a circular memorial plaza alongside the woods where the plane crashed. This walk leads to the memorial's focal point: a series of vertical white marble panels inscribed with the names of the victims. This wall of names follows the flight path the plane took as it plowed into this plateau surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains. A 17-ton boulder, put into place in July, now marks the spot among the hemlock trees where Flight 93 exploded at a 40-degree angle into the ground, traveling upside down at 563 mph.
The passengers on that flight, which left from Newark, N.J., headed to San Francisco, ranged from 20 to 79 years old. They included one who had rearranged his flight so he could celebrate his fifth anniversary with his wife and one who had just married three months earlier; a mother of six and a woman expecting her first child; a passenger who had to reschedule her Sept. 10 flight due to thunderstorms and a husband and wife who arrived at the airport early enough to take Flight 93 instead of their later flight; two friends headed for a hiking trip in Yosemite National Park and a gentleman making his last business trip before starting a new job; a lady flying home from her grandmother's funeral and a man flying to the funeral of his stepson.
They were engineers, opera enthusiasts, sales managers, wine lovers, biologists, and people of prayer: A personal Bible was recovered at the crash site that contained a handwritten list of men for whom the victim, Donald Peterson, had been praying. Another victim was Todd Beamer, a Christian man whose last words heard on the phone by an airline operator -- "Let's roll" -- served to inspire a nation.
"I think there was something special about them collectively," said Patrick White, who lost his cousin Joey Nacke in the crash. "It is still amazing to me that in roughly 40 minutes they came together and did something so momentous. They chose to act. That is the most pure aspect of what it means to be an American."
Fred Koch, 52, of Morgantown, W.Va., took his teenage son, Ross, to the site in August: "It makes me ask the question, would I have done the same thing?"
What they did is well-documented. The terrorists had selected flights that were normally under-booked so they would face less resistance, headed west so they would have an abundance of fuel, and scheduled to take off at the same time.
But heavy air traffic delayed Flight 93 for 25 minutes. Four minutes after takeoff, the first hijacked plane struck the World Trade Center's North Tower. The second plane hit the South Tower 25 minutes before the Flight 93 terrorists seized the cockpit.
Flight 93's delay enabled the passengers, forced into the back of the plane, to learn what already had happened in New York -- thanks to 37 cell phone calls they placed to those on the ground. The horrifying news of their likely fate forced them to make a decision.
"Here are 40 people who have nothing in common, but they quickly decide that they are not going to be responsible for another attack," said Jeff Reinbold, site manager with the National Park Service. "So they do a very American thing, they took a vote about how to act. It is very much a 'We The People' story."
The group voted to revolt. But they decided to wait until the plane was above a sparsely populated rural area before launching their counterattack on the cockpit. The recovered cockpit voice recorder captured shouts and sounds of breaking glass in the plane's final minutes. The hijacker piloting the aircraft tried to thwart the attack by rolling the plane up and down and side to side before eventually bringing the plane into the Pennsylvania ground.
The plane was just 20 minutes' flight time from its intended destination: Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Capitol, where Congress was in session. Flight 93 was also on a direct flight path and mere seconds away from hitting a school with 500 students just a mile and a half away. Students there felt the concussion blast and tiles popped out of classroom ceilings.
But the passengers of Flight 93 accomplished their mission: No one on the ground was hurt. And the terrorists failed in theirs: It was the only hijacked plane not to reach its target. "It is not just another meadow now," says recent visitor Catherine Sheehan, 55, of Lake Forest, Ill.
Her travel companion, Juergen Saminy, 63, added that this site reminds him of another hallowed ground in Pennsylvania: Gettysburg. Both battlefields, as he called them, are places of carnage that have been turned into sanctuaries of peace. "You can connect these patriots to patriots of the past," he said.
The memorial will cost $62 million. Congress so far has provided more than $10 million while the state of Pennsylvania has allocated over $18 million. More than 72,000 donors, representing all 50 states and 24 countries, have given a total of about $20 million. The National Park Foundation, the park service's fundraiser, wants to raise an additional $10 million through private donations by the end of 2011.
This would fund later construction phases in the park, including a new visitor's center that will fully tell Flight 93's story. The culmination includes a 93-foot tower with 40 chimes that will stand at the site's entrance. But fundraisers here face unique challenges: The county, which has a population of less than 78,000, lacks the deep pockets of New York's financial district or the Pentagon's defense contractors.
But that is why this site strongly appeals to middle America. Flight 93's tragic journey has become a strong draw to Americans who feel little connection to Wall Street or the military-industrial complex. "I can identify with this place because I lived in a town like this," is a comment the memorial volunteers say they commonly hear.
White, who named his 2-year-old son after his cousin, still battles feelings of indignation and resentment about what happened. He said he wouldn't begin to heal fully until all phases of the project are complete.
He has donated his time and experience as a Florida-based land-use attorney to help acquire the property around the crash site. Many relatives and friends of Flight 93's passengers and crew have lent their talents to make sure the shrine is completed. Over the past decade of working together they've adopted one another, White said, into a much larger extended family.
"We care for each other the same way the people on that plane did in the very brief time that they were together. In a way they understood they were going to spend eternity together. But this isn't so much a memorial for us, the families, as it is for all the people who come and try to make sense of the things that happened that day."
Glessner, one of the original site volunteers, recalled one Michigan family driving to the site on Thanksgiving Day. They ate their turkey dinner near their car in the makeshift parking lot and drove back to Michigan. "This was where they decided as a family they wanted to say thanks on Thanksgiving," she said. Soldiers often bring their families here to say, "This is why I am going overseas."
The memorial's parking lot had cars with license tags from seven different states on a recent mid-August day. Visitors peered past the fence to catch a glimpse of the yet unopened memorial. But more than talking about Flight 93, the visitors more eagerly discussed their own Sept. 11 memories. The crash site is serving as a place for an ongoing dialogue about 9/11 and its aftermath. Visitors often leave messages, especially children:
"When you got on the plane you thought you were regular people but now your heroes," reads one.
"Now I understand why my dady's at war," reads another.
The plane, loaded with 7,000 gallons of jet fuel, ripped in the ground a crater that is about 10 feet deep and nearly 50 feet wide. But the land is already starting to heal: Nestled among ponds and hemlock-covered hills, the memorial has some new additions -- yellow wildflowers cover the impact point and freshly planted sweet gum trees, recently donated by the World Trade Center site planners, dot a path leading from a hill to the memorial. The land seems to speak to everyone who comes here. People look, listen, talk, and leave transformed.
"No one in the world had heard of this place," said recent visitor Paul Seipp, 53, of Pittsburgh as he looked down from an overlook at the memorial. "Now everybody can grieve together here."
Edward Lee Pitts writes for World News Service, where this story first appeared.
Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net