The third park I visited on my mini road trip to Pennsylvania was the Flight 93 National Memorial. Unlike the Allegheny Portage National Historic Site (link to my blog post) or the Johnstown Flood National Memorial (link to my blog post), Flight 93 serves as a memorial to something that happened during my living memory.
“So… where were you on September 11?”
When someone says that to almost any American older than about 22, we know what they’re referring to. (Unless it’s your boss asking and it’s late September, then you might have missed a day of work.) For most of us, September 11, 2001 is a date carved into our memories. A terrorist attack, fear, and the beginning of a war. The feeling of being unsafe in our own country, our own homes, our own schools.
I was wearing all black on September 11, 2001. It was my 6th grade science teacher’s 50th birthday and our whole class had conspired to wear black to ‘celebrate’ her reaching that milestone. My memory is a little fuzzy but a classmate’s father was supposed to be at a meeting at the World Trade Center- the same World Trade Center that we were called to the auditorium to hear about a plane crashing into. Fortunately, her dad hadn’t made his meeting for some reason. School was dismissed early and my parents came to walk my brother and I home. We almost never watched the news on TV, but we did that day. Planes crashing into buildings, evil men taking over flights of random citizens, and somewhere, some field relatively close to Washington, DC, a plane crashing in a field because the passengers stood up to the hijackers. Those brave random citizens stopped the plane from hitting its target, the Capitol. That was Flight 93, and almost 17 years after that all-black science teacher birthday, I was in Pennsylvania to visit that field.
Flight 93 National Memorial is located in Stoystown, PA, about 3 hours driving northwest from Washington, DC or 1.5 hours driving east from Pittsburgh. It is really ‘in the middle of nowhere,’ when I was Googling to confirm the location the Memorial was listed as “#1 of 2 things to do in Stoystown” (the #2 of 2 is a gift store.) When visiting Flight 93 to learn more about this tragic and heroic event, you may want to bring snacks and water, as you will be at least 45 minutes from fast food or a grocery store.
I’m not going to focus on the events of Flight 93 itself, because there are many (better-written) sources for that. This post will just be about my visit and the memorial itself.
The visitor center is a striking building that looms over the landscape. The area where Flight 93 crashed was near a reclaimed coal strip mine, which is full of grasses and wildflowers today. I didn’t take any pictures inside the visitor center, but it is essentially set up as a museum, with displays of evidence and memorials, challenge coins and patches from the many emergency crews who responded, and heartbreaking audio recordings of passengers’ final calls.
The visitor center has a platform where visitors can see the landing site, or they can walk or drive down to a memorial area. I chose to walk, and I don’t really know how to describe the feeling of hearing birds chirping and seeing beautiful flowers while walking along the flight path from such a horrifying event. On one hand, a calming sense of renewal: this space was a strip mine, then a tragedy, and now it’s home to a family of red-winged blackbirds. On the other hand, thinking about the tragedy and heroism put me in too somber of a mood to appreciate the flowers. I did have my camera, though, so I tried.
The Memorial Plaza contains a wall with all the victims names. The plane’s crew are noted (but in this picture ‘flight attendant’ has been worn to invisibility.) Nearby is the crash site itself, marked by a large boulder. It is fenced off and only accessible to the victims’ families.
I could have returned to the visitor center the same way I came, but the crowds were starting to bother me. For a non “National Park” NPS site in the middle of nowhere, this is a popular location, and I can see why.
The “Allée,” or formal walking path, travels around the long way (if the Visitor Center is at 12 o’clock, the Memorial Plaza is at 9-ish) and contains 40 groves of trees. It’s about 2 miles long, so I thought that would be enough to clear my head and get ready for the drive home.
The Allée is beautiful. When I had gotten far enough from the Memorial Plaza, I checked my phone- good, I had reception. Going to YouTube, I pulled up a song…
I know you know it’s true
I’ve got to put the phone down
And do what we gotta do
One’s standing in the aisleway
Two more at the door
We’ve got to get inside there
Before they kill some more
This song by Neil Young was inspired by some of Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer’s last, and it was on one of the CDs played as a soundtrack in my parents’ house when I was younger. I was so familiar with the song, and vaguely aware that it was inspired by 9/11, that listening to it as I walked along the memorial to Mr. Beamer and 39 others sent shivers down my spine. I took a last look back at the field and flight path, hopped back in my car, and headed home.
Flight 93 National Memorial isn’t a fun or delightful place to visit. But it’s important. 9/11 was a major milestone in my life and in this country’s modern history. This memorial tells the story of ordinary humans taking the last few moments of their lives into their own hands, knowing they most likely wouldn’t survive, to prevent further horror and bloodshed. If you are able to visit, I recommend it. I do, however, recommend visiting with friends and family. I think processing the emotions and thoughts inspired by a place like this would be easier with others.
Another addition is planned for the Memorial, a “tower of voices” installation with 40 windchimes to represent the 40 lives lost. It will be completed sometime this year (2018) and dedicated in September. I’m hoping to return.