In Western Pennsylvania, Flight 93 National Memorial opens

The Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County has been 10 years in the making.

Off the turnpike exit at Somerset, past farms and fields, is a gravel lot.  In the middle is a squat building with corrugated aluminum for walls and a line of porta-potties. This used to be a scrap yard. Now there’s an American flag strung up a pole, and a National Park Service sign for the Flight 93 National Memorial.

Rangers stand in the lot directing traffic.  Cars to the right, bikes to the left.

People amble past the flagpole to a paved patio called the Western Overlook. The view up here is spectacular: miles of fields and pockets of trees. Houses and barns dot the middle distance. But people who come here are looking for something just a few hundred yards away.

“So when we drove in, you saw the parking lot off to your right, said Jeff Reinbold of the National Park Service.  “The plane came overhead there.  So if you imagine being there that day, it was a metal scrap yard and recycling operation.  And on September 11th there were guys working outside and Flight 93 came screaming overhead about 600 miles per hour, inverted and then crashed in the fields in front of us here.

Reinbold points at a mound of dirt on the far side of the Western Overlook.

“So the plane came in that direction and then crashed in the tree line that we’re walking towards,” he said.

For years, visitors to this site had to stay hundreds of yards away from the divot in the ground and the tree line that torched by the crash of United Airlines Flight 93.

The new permanent memorial, to the 40 passengers and crew who died on that plane after a struggle with four terrorists, takes visitors down the hill below the Western Overlook–right on eye-level with the crash site.

Ken Nacke’s brother, Louis, was on Flight 93.  He’s smiling and buoyant as he stands on the path alongside the site’s most sacred ground.

Nacke worked on the group that picked a design for the memorial.  He says for years, he doubted it would be done within a decade of the terrorist attacks.

“It’s mindboggling. You know my mom said she’d never see it done.  And I told her before I came up here, I says, September 10th, you’re going to see the dedication of the memorial,” said Nacke.

The memorial, when it’s complete, is expected to cost a total of $62 million.

The first phase that’s already built and will open to the public on September 10th, starts with a road.  It comes down from the gravel lot up by the Westward Overlook and winds around the far side of a hill, for maximum view of the landscape.

“We often say that this is a place that you don’t view, you inhabit,” said Reinbold.  “You are part of the memorial while you’re here. We felt very strongly that this place needed to be about Pennsylvania.  So the challenge to the designers was come up with a design that works for this place.  If you took it out of here and went to Manhattan or went to the Pentagon, this should make no sense.”

The road passes drainage ponds left over from an old mining site.  Then, there’s a black concrete walkway skirting the Flight 93 crash site. It’s lined by a low, sloping wall.

One the other side is maybe 100 yards of untamed field, and a great big boulder marking the approximate spot where the plane went down.

“It hit with such force that basically the place was turned to very small pieces,” said Reinbold.  “We treat this whole area as the final resting place of the passengers and crew.  It is off-limits to the public.  The reason the walkway takes this kind of crazy shapes is that this is the edge that the Somerset county coroner marked the debris from the plane and human remains have been found.”

Keith Newlin is the superintendent of the memorial site.  He offers a grim reminder about what this field was like when the coroner began his work.

“He brought some body dogs in and they started to look for more remains and what happened was, the body dogs just sat down,” said Newlin.  “They said, there are body parts everywhere here.  So then he placed five inches of topsoil over everything that you see there. So we still have human remains present.  So it’s still a cemetery.

It’s believed that the 40 passengers and crew on Flight 93 discussed and voted on a plan to stop the four terrorists aboard from getting to their desired target, which is believed to be the U.S. Capitol.

“Just imagine what it was like at 10:03.  Because when that plane went over, it was screaming loud, you couldn’t have heard anything,” said Newlin.  “Now all you have is this.  Just serene, wind blowing type of atmosphere.”

The plane hit the earth just yards from a hemlock grove–a part of the site that inspired the memorial’s architect, Paul Murdoch.

“These dark trees here are the hemlock that absorbed the entire impact and inferno of the crash,” said Murdoch, “and we value that grove as a very special place.”

Reinbold has a way of talking about those trees: “If you’ve ever been in a hemlock grove, they’re very dark and deep and moody.”

From the path, you can stand, or sit on a bench, or lean low on the wall, and look into the tree line. 

“People often say to us, it almost looks as if people could come back out of this,” said Reinbold.

To the right, there’s more path.  At the end, 40 free standing individual slabs of white marble are engraved with the names of the 40 passengers and crew of Flight 93.  They make a wall of names that’s been kind of off-limits.  Family are supposed to get the first look at them, up close.

But Newlin tells this story about seeing them one evening.  He was here with some volunteers, planning an upcoming event.  It was getting darker out, but these new lamps had just been installed at the memorial.  And they turned on.

“All of a sudden the lights came on, and they all stopped work,” said Newlin.  “It is a very just–I mean those are the kind of things that just rip you, because you’re sitting there going oh, man.  Something new.”

The memorial is minimalistic.  A road, a path, a boulder, a wall of names.

They’re all infused with meaning, but they are mere accents on a striking landscape and whatever memories people bring to the site.

Jeff Reinbold says that’s all part of the design of the memorial’s architect.

“He’s not tried to represent the passengers and crew anywhere.  It’s this void,” he said.

There are two portions of the memorial that have yet to be built.  And Flight 93 fund-raising foundation still needs to raise another $10 million to cover the project’s cost.

Gordon Felt is the head of the Families of Flight 93 group.  His brother, Edward, was on the plane.  Felt says having the beginning of such a memorial within 10 years is unprecedented.

“We’ve worked very diligently over the last 10 years to find just the right design and secure the property and raise the funds from both the public and private sector and its happening,” said Felt.

Ken Nacke says the memorial’s simplicity helps him think.  And he hopes that’s what it’ll do for visitors.

“You can walk through the memorial plaza on your way up here, you know what I mean? You can ask yourself questions,” said Nacke.  “What would I do that day?  What would I have done if I was aboard that flight?  Would I have done what they did?  Could I have done what they did?  And it makes you think that.  I think this is making you think about them, putting you in their shoes, and I think that is a proper way of paying your respects to the heroes of Flight 93.”

Past anniversaries of the September 11th attacks have been marked by speeches, services, gatherings, documentaries.  This year, for the families of the heroes of Flight 93, there is something new.

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