Busy Route 30 recedes in the rearview mirror.
Ahead, the rolling landscape and distant vistas of the Laurel Mountains beckon, drawing you in.
The 3.5-mile route taken at leisurely 25 mph isn’t merely a drive, it’s a procession. Not unlike that for a funeral.
Silence settles in. Solemnity, too.
And then, at last, the view opens up:
A black wall and winding walking path meander like a coal seam across this former strip-mining site, now consecrated ground.
And there in the windswept distance, surrounded by wild flowers and beneath a brilliant blue sky, a white marble wall points south toward an untouched, open field.
At the feet of a jagged row of Hemlocks is the unremarkable — and unmarked — final resting place for Flight 93 and its 40 heroes.
The plane that plunged from a clear blue sky has always been at the root of this remote place’s undeniable drawing power. The public out-pouring for the passengers and crew who helped thwart the terrorists’ fourth attack on 9/11 was as spontaneous as it was immediate.
The raw, ugly impact crater still smoldered when the first Shanksville residents and Flight 93 family members began bringing flowers, ribbons and flags.
Later, Americans from all over — and people from around the world — came carrying angels, military hats, first-responder patches and hand-scrawled messages of thanks, respect and awe.
Flight 93 has always been the people’s memorial, an everyman’s tribute to 40 ordinary souls who made an extraordinary difference on one of the darkest days in American history.
The passengers’ uprising against four hijackers hell-bent on slamming the fourth jetliner bomb into a high-value Washington, D.C., target — presumably the U.S. Capitol — might have never made it into the cockpit. But they surely caused the terrorists to scuttle their attack.
Ever since, this unlikeliest of places has become known as the first battlefield in the “War on Terror.” Fittingly, some 1,500 acres of this sprawling, strangely peaceful place now comprise the official, federal Flight 93 National Memorial.
A place to reflect
Dedicated last year on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, the memorial is on pace to draw some 350,000 to 400,000 visitors to this once-forgotten Somerset County outpost, according to the National Park Service. That’s a three-fold increase in annual visits, compared with the old make-shift memorial.
All told, some 2 million people have made pilgrimage to this place since 9/11.
They come by car, by bus, by motorcycle to pay homage to the heroes. To teach their younger children about the sacrifice of strangers. To simply reflect and remember — and, yes, to share their own stories from that day.
The epicenter of the $62 million memorial is the marble wall of honor, consisting of 40 separate panels towering at least 10 feet in height. Each panel is inscribed with a single name. They stand separate — and together.
The wall they form points out the final flight path.
Immediately south, in a still-restricted area, is Flight 93’s communal grave site. So little was recovered of both the plane and the passengers that the coroner ordered the crash crater filled in and covered over, following the pain-staking investigation.
A common field would be their final resting place for all eternity. And the ground remains undisturbed, never to be so much as walked upon, except by the families.
The closest thing to a grave marker is a boulder just beyond where the crater once gouged the ground. The backdrop, a tree line still jagged from jet fuel-fed fires and debris spray.
Some say providence brought the plane down here, where it would do no more harm. The site’s remoteness has always been part of the tragically triumphant outcome.
It also makes coming here to pay tribute somewhat of a challenge. It has always required a little extra effort.
The national memorial’s new Route 30 entrance, along with several large signs, makes it far easier to find. But there’s that 3.5-mile drive to the actual memorial. And once there, it’s a quarter-mile walk to the wall.
This distance and isolation somehow work to transport visitors back to that day — the last in America when things still seemed simpler, saner, safe.
A work in progress
It’s a place of grand scale, yet intense intimacy. The stark landscape — not the architectural adornments of the memorial — dominates the experience. And it’s a living thing.
This place changes personality with the seasons — the renewal of spring, the endlessness of summer, the color, yet decline of fall, and the coming coldness and letting go of winter.
In other words, it mirrors life.
“It’s a place that you have to be here to understand,” says Jeffrey P. Reinbold, the Park Service’s Western Pennsylvania superintendent. “It’s meant to be experienced.”
A visitors and education center are scheduled to break ground in 2013 and be ready by Sept. 2014. There are also plans for a 93-foot “Tower of Voices” that would feature 40 wind chimes to be heard across the grounds. But a memorial fund still needs about $5 million more in donations to design and build the tower.
It remains a work in progress. And nearly everyone, it seems, has an opinion on what’s needed to complete the tribute.
The scores who flocked here Thursday, in the run up to yet-another 9/11 anniversary, weren’t uniformly sold on its features and charms — or the lack thereof.
For one thing, there’s no running water. Using the outhouses can be a breath-holding, fly-swatting experience, especially on a hot, humid late summer day.
There are no conveniences of any kind — no vending machines, no gift shop, no water fountain, not even trash cans. Patrons must cart away their own waste.
Several elderly visitors shook their heads and took a pass on the long walk to the memorial wall and crash site. However, park rangers will provide wheelchairs if asked.
Others would have liked to see a grave marker over the crash site, perhaps with an American flag starched straight in the stiff wind.
And for those who recall the hodgepodge, but heartfelt spontaneity of the “people’s memorial,” the sparse, spare design meant to mimic the stark landscape can leave some cold.
Park rangers are routinely peppered with questions on what happened to all those artifacts left behind by family, friends — and complete strangers. The 40,000 items have been cleaned, cataloged and stored. Plans call for rotating displays of some of the artifacts once the visitor’s center is up and running.
As it is now, visitors can scratch their sentiments on postcards and pin them to a bulletin board in a small enclosure. In addition, there are little nooks in the walking path wall where people leave behind flowers, flags and first-responder patches.
“It’s a work of art,” gushed Linda Ashbey of Metairie, Louisiana, just outside New Orleans. “It’s plain. It’s reserved. It’s not flamboyant. It’s just perfect.”
Rebecca Columbo of San Diego begs to differ. Making her third visit to the site, but her first to the official memorial, she was saddened to see it stripped of the life brought by the unruly mix of angels, carved benches and engraved stones from the original public tribute.
“The emotional impact was more intense before,” she argued. “Those were things left by the families and by ordinary Americans. Now, it’s nice, but it’s cold. Too cold.”
Gary Anderson’s blood boiled hot as he made the long walk to the crash site, the insult and injury of that day returning with his every step.
“Who in their right mind would do something like that?” pleaded the Pittsburgh resident. “It’s too bad it couldn’t be stopped before this turned into a memorial.”
‘The spirit of America’
Nona Pagano never made it to the wall, etched with the names. Not because the walk was too long, but rather her emotions were running too close to the surface.
For the southern New Jersey resident, Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer, who famously said, “Let’s Roll,” was a local hero. And many of those lost in the Twin Towers hailed from her home state.
In a field in Somerset, all of it came rushing back.
“I don’t want to read the names,” Pagano said, shaking her head sternly. “It’s too much. My emotions are up to here. They knew they were going to die. They knew it.”
Her voice trails off. She turns her head to the distance. The wall of names is a white line on the horizon.
“It’s good they fought,” Pagano concluded, nodding as if in agreement with herself.
The passengers did so in a moment’s decision. An impulse, really.
A similar force seems to draw many to the memorial.
Ron Andrus and Carrie Barton were on Route 30 when they saw the sign. Something just clicked, and the Galeton, Potter County, couple turned in.
“We knew it was out here somewhere,” Andrus explained of a decision he still doesn’t quite understand. “We just wanted to stop.”
And their feelings after silently walking along the wall in the windswept field?
“Sad,” said Barton. “Just sad.”
The long walk out into a field that seems to swallow sound leaves each visitor alone with his or her thoughts. Many times, minds turn to an unanswerable question:
What would they have done in the passengers’ place?
Chuck Schohn ponders this following a visit to the wall. Would he have misread the terrorists’ plot as merely a hijacking — as he puts it, to some inconvenient diversion to Cuba?
Or would he have acted, determining his own destiny — and making a difference for the ages?
“These people were just not going to take it,” the Westmoreland County 72-year-old said. “It’s a tragedy of course. But they were the very first to stand up.”
“It shows you the spirit of America,” added Allen Ashbey of Louisiana, summing up the memorial’s meaning.
Perhaps, this is why Robert Moody of Atlanta, Ga., couldn’t resist the memorial’s pull. He abruptly turned from Route 30, interrupting his drive to Pittsburgh in order to visit the site.
“It’s an opportunity to pay homage,” he explained, feeling as if he owed the 40 ordinary heroes a deep debt of gratitude. He wasn’t about to pass up his chance.
“I’m just amazed at everyday people who did whatever they could do,” Moody added. “Everything changed that day. This is a great, solemn place to come and remember what these people did and the price they paid.”
That’s the story that whispers on the wind in this Somerset County field.
Eleven years later, it still speaks to anyone who stops to listen