A visit to the Flight 93 National Memorial
Friends often ask me “Where’s your next trip?” Since I began to take retirement seriously a few years ago, I’ve used my newly available free time to visit places I’ve never been before. However, responding “Pittsburgh” to the destination inquiry usually produced a follow-up question: “Why Pittsburgh?” The question was usually accompanied by a look of bewilderment, which I must admit I fully understood. Many of us have long associated Pittsburgh with pollution, industrial decay and historical “robber barons.” Friends nodded their heads in understanding when I said I would visit a high school friend. I didn’t add, but could have, that I had always wondered why she lived there after growing up on Mercer Island in Washington State. Adding to my puzzlement about the trip, my friend Sue suggested we spend our time together at the Flight 93 National Memorial, 80 miles Southeast of Pittsburgh, a 90 minute drive from our hotel in the city. To make sure we saw the highlights of the city, we signed up for a six-day city tour with Road Scholar, which we completed before meeting up with Sue. I describe that program in a separate blog post.
The drive to the memorial site was an experience in itself. There was no direct route to get there from Pittsburgh and we used all available resources to find our way. The hijacked airplane that crashed on that fateful day in 2001 did not land near a major (or minor) city. The 40 passengers on board voted on and implemented a plan to charge the hijackers, who intended to fly into a building in our nation’s capital. Their heroic actions cost them their lives, but prevented a larger tragedy, which would have occurred if the plane had flown into its intended target, possibly the White House or the U.S. Capitol Building. The plane crashed into a grassy field, which had previously been the site of coal-mining, but which was not now in use.
Sue explained that she had picked this destination because it was not easy for tourists to get to, but she had visited before, so she was confident she would be able to find it again, and we could enjoy the drive through the countryside over and back. On her previous visit to the site, only the memorial was completed, not the Visitor Center, which was opened in 2015. Reminiscing about our high school days, I knew that Sue was always up for a drive somewhere. Sue is also an experienced racecar driver, which also helped explain her willingness to drive. While I enjoyed the scenery on the drive and was curious about the memorial, there was still a somber mood in the car as I tried to anticipate how I would react to being reminded of the details of the 9/11 attack.
The rolling hills we drove past were sometimes grassy, sometimes covered in newly green deciduous trees, and dotted with occasional farms and villages, providing attractive scenery, in between map-reading and looking for directional signs to make sure we did not miss a turn. When we arrived at the Visitor Center we found a large, mostly empty parking lot. When we got out of the car, the brisk wind and cold temperature caught us off guard and helped to explain the absence of visitors. It had been a week of warm, comfortable weather and now the wind and cold were accompanied by a light rain. We were unprepared for the weather, without warm clothes or raingear, which contributed to a feeling of unease about this visit.
From the parking lot, the Visitor Center has a stark appearance – giant walls of gray concrete. We soon learned that the concrete walls were placed as markers of the flight path of the plane, which crashed at an estimated speed of 563 miles per hour, with the nose of the plane creating a crater 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep. The overlook of the Visitor Center allows visitors to view the 40 acre site below over which debris from the plane was scattered. A 17 ton sandstone boulder was placed in the field to mark the approximate point of impact.
The Flight 93 National Memorial Visitor Center and Learning Center contains exhibits about the passengers and crew of the plane, what is known about the plans and intentions of the hijackers, audio of phone calls made by the passengers just before the crash, information about the plane and the process of reclaiming what was found at the crash scene. The flight had taken off from Newark, N. J., and was headed for San Francisco. It was 25 minutes late taking off, probably delaying the take-over by the hijackers and allowing time for the passengers to learn through news sources about the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
Boxes of tissues were placed throughout the exhibits. It was difficult to read all the details provided about the passengers and crew and I couldn’t bring myself to listen to their phone conversations. The plane had been in the air for 46 minutes when it was hijacked. It crashed thirty-five minutes later. The passengers planned and implemented their assault on the hijackers within minutes of learning what was happening, after being forced to the rear of the plane by the hijackers and surreptitiously using cellphones and seatback phones to contact families, friends and authorities. Had they not acted when they did, the plane would have reached its DC target in about 20 minutes.
When we left the Visitor Center, we walked to the patio viewpoint despite the cold and severe wind. There’s an attractive path for walking from the Visitor Center to the memorial site near the point of impact, but the weather prevented us from taking that route. Instead we drove to the memorial site and viewed the memorial wall, with the inscribed names of the victims, and the sandstone rock which marks the point of impact. Due to the weather, we didn’t stay long. Even so, the visit had a big emotional impact.
We had a quiet ride back to Pittsburgh as we each thought about the motivations and planning of the attack on our country, the randomness of who got killed, the impact of the 9/11 events on all Americans and the world, and the hope that we never experience another similar event. In addition, we felt gratitude for the courageous actions of the passengers who aborted the hijackers’ plans. We had to wonder how we might have responded had we been on that plane. It was a somber way to end our visit to Pittsburgh and wasn’t a cheery time of high school reminiscing, but it was a visit we will never forget and left us with questions to ponder for a long time in the future.
The Flight 93 National Memorial is maintained by the U.S. National Park Service and was funded by U.S. taxpayers and private donations. The first phase of the memorial was dedicated on September 10, 2011. The concrete and glass Visitor Center was opened September 10, 2015. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The design and construction of the memorial was authorized by Congress in a bill signed by President George W. Bush on September 24, 2002. The protected memorial site is 2200 acres, of which 1000 acres is privately owned but protected through partnership agreements.