On the way home from my high school reunion in Michigan, I decided to visit the Flight 93 National Memorial in western Pennsylvania near the town of Shanksville. Sunday, October 9, was a beautiful sunny day for my drive home. I had located the memorial site on a map on Route 30 between the Bedford and Somerset exits of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
I have driven the length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike on many occasions both before and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. From news reports I was aware of the protracted efforts to acquire the land surrounding the crash site and the necessary political and financial commitments. I had assumed, because the site was under construction, that there might not be much to see, or that the site might be inaccessible. But the 10th anniversary ceremonies at the site showed me that while construction continues, the national memorial is clearly ready to receive visitors.
Every time I drive through western Pennsylvania in daylight I’m struck by how beautiful that part of the country is. That’s especially true in the fall when the mountains seem to explode with bright colors. And I was again in awe at the natural beauty of the area as I approached the memorial site.
The land acquired for the national memorial is simply gorgeous, and I rejoice that it will forever be preserved as a tribute to the heroes of Flight 93. A memorial plaza has been created near the crash site, and a visitor center, walkways, and memorial groves are planned.
The site still under construction was crowded on the Sunday I visited. The parking lot was jammed with cars and motorcycles. A shuttle bus runs between the parking lot and the memorial plaza, and the driver said that there were so many visitors that day because of the perfect weather.
We are all drawn to the site to pay tribute to the 33 passengers and 7 crew members who were the first to fight back against the terrorists who attacked America on that terrible day in September.
What makes someone a hero? Heroism is not the absence of fear, but the ability to think clearly and act accordingly even when you are afraid, as the passengers and crew must have been when their plane was hijacked and they learned of the other hijacked planes which had been crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
A hero is someone who acts in difficult circumstances as we hope we would act if we were in that situation. We have no way of knowing for sure how we would act if so challenged. But we know how the people acted on Flight 93.
We know that they made a plan and joined together to fight for their lives and the lives of their fellow Americans on the ground. They found themselves involuntarily drafted as the first combatants in America’s war on terrorism. And they responded with the creativity, boldness and courage that we hope we might find in ourselves in that terrifying situation.
They fought for us in the sky over western Pennsylvania. Although they were unable to save their own lives, they succeeded in thwarting the terrorist plan to use their plane against another iconic American target. Through their actions they saved countless American lives.
So it is gratifying to see the beautiful national memorial to Flight 93 take shape. Americans and free people from all over the world will be drawn to this site in tribute to the heroes who fought and died there. The national memorial insures that future generations will join in the tribute as long as the American republic endures.