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A personal look at the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville

Flight 93 crash site Visitors stop to view a portion of the memorial in Shanksville

I’ve relived the events of Sept. 11, 2001, over and over in my head as much as the rest of America has. I took it personally; I wept, I became angry, I ran the gamut of emotions associated with such a horrific occurrence.
I’ve seen the video coverage of the day countless times, have taken in the different History Channel specials on how and why the Twin Towers collapsed as they did. I watched as Americans of all races and creeds came together in harmony, waving a collective flag of patriotism immediately following the attacks on our soil … and I’ve watched as, over the years, those strong emotions faded in most; and sadly with some, it’s even gotten to the point where it just doesn’t really matter anymore.
Still, with all of this, nothing in recent years has shaken me back to a sense of reality as did the visit my wife, Shelly, and I paid to the small, secluded village of Shanksville this past Tuesday. We decided just before lunchtime that day to point our vehicle south, being that it was the sixth anniversary of the attacks and that neither of us had ever been to the Flight 93 crash site. There, the 40 brave passengers and crew members of Flight 93 are eternally enshrined with what has to be the most unique national monument the United States has to offer.
What’s being called the “Temporary Flight 93 Memorial” is truly a living monument in that it continues to change and grow. With each passing day, momentos are placed at the site, ranging from professionally made plaques to small rocks with hand-written messages, some inscribed by children, thanking the “Flight 93 forty” for their sacrifice.
As Shelly and I drove along Route 30, closing in on the hallowed site, the rain poured as if a tropical storm had moved in. However, within a mile of the site, the clouds parted and the sun shone, as if some divine influence intervened. What was strange, even before we reached the crash site, was just how similar the topography of the area was to Huntingdon County; a reminder that this could’ve happened anywhere, even in our “own back yard.”
There are homes within several hundred yards of the spot where Flight 93 smashed into the ground; another reminder that history is sometimes made in the most obscure of places.
Seeing the open field for the first time was awe-inspiring, mostly due to the fact that it was so simple, quiet and serene. A light breeze blew over the rolling hills as people from as far away as Indiana, Michigan and Iowa took in all that was there to see.
At the memorial, volunteers are on hand to tell the story of Flight 93, and one such volunteer, Brian Brandt, shared pictures and a detailed account of that tragic day with the visitors. Brandt said still to this day, over 5,000 people each week from everywhere visit the quiet field to pay homage to the brave heroes.
He pointed out the flight path of the plane, coming from the west over a small hill and turning dramatically toward the ground, where it impacted at over 500 mph. After his description of the crash was given, I could actually see it in my mind’s eye, which gave me chills.
About 3 p.m. that afternoon, the gathering of visitors was invited by Gene Stilp, the designer of the Flight 93 Memorial flag, to share in a special ceremony. Stilp said that each year on the anniversary of the crash, every hour on the hour, the memorial flag is unfurled, held by its edges by those visitors in attendance, as a reminder that, on that most tragic day, 40 strangers came together on that flight to make a difference. Stilp said the ceremony is symbolic in that “we are all strangers here today, but we’ve come together for same reason; to remember these heroes.”
A song was shared, “God Bless America”, and following the song, a special guest spoke.
“Todd Beamer was my best friend,” said Doug McMillen, who was there Tuesday to remember his buddy, the Flight 93 passenger who uttered the now famous words, ‘Let’s roll.’
“As I see young children here today, I am reminded of how much Todd loved his children, that they are our future and that those who died on Flight 93 did what they did so our children would have a future.
“I miss my friend dearly.”
We spent some more time there following the ceremony, watching as people were stricken with renewed emotion, gazing into the field in disbelief.
As new storm clouds began to move in, we made our way to the car and though no words were spoken, Shel and I shared several glances, reassuring each other that it was OK to feel sad again.
As we departed, we each took several more opportunities to inspect that simple field that, prior to Sept. 11, 2001, was nothing more than a reclaimed mine. To me, the simplicity of the “temporary” memorial is what makes it so special and no matter what happens with the plans for a permanent memorial, it’s my hope that the natural appeal of the site is somehow preserved.
As I think back on our trip to Shanksville, one thing’s for sure: The memory of our visit will surely live with us forever and our personal gratitude to the passengers and crew of Flight 93 shall certainly live eternal.