Editor’s note: These are my unvarnished thoughts from our visit to the Flight 93 Memorial. I sat down this morning to write about it and other than a few interruptions from the kids just recorded my thoughts. I hope my kids read this when their older and remember the day, a little bit more knowledgeable about history. Please forgive any factual inaccuracies. The pictures I took are included at the bottom. I thought about trying to include them in the body of the post, but the words seemed better on their own.
For my generation, I think we’ll always remember where we were when we first learned of the tragic events unfolding on 9/11. I imagine it’s the equivalent to Pearl Harbor or JFK’s assassination in terms of those phrases that start with, “I was at work in a meeting”, or “I was sitting in a class and the teacher told us there had been a horrible accident.” Not to say 9/11 is more or less important than Pearl Harbor, JFK or any other seminal moment in our country’s history. But, it is etched in the history books in ink that will never fade.
Once we get past the history books, though, life takes over. There aren’t daily updates on 9/11, those lost in the attacks, those surviving. Rarely are we faced with all of the sensory overload that day represented almost 15 years ago.
It’s easy to remember the planes hitting the towers and the Pentagon. Those are strong visual images. But, maybe it’s a little bit easier to overlook the fourth plane that went down in a field in Western Pennsylvania famous only for strip mining prior to September 11, 2001. I can honestly say all of the memories came rushing back during our visit yesterday to the Flight 93 Memorial.
Located in Stoystown, PA, roughly 90 minutes east of Pittsburgh, the memorial commemorates the bravery of those on Flight 93 and also provides a window into the entire timeline of the day. I’m proud to have been involved in the past with raising funds for a charity dedicated to the memory of Captain Jason Dahl, one of the members of the flight crew of 93. But, I’d never actually been to the memorial, so I had little idea what to expect.
There’s a visitor center and a memorial open to the public as well as a large area, now national park land, to walk and contemplate. We arrived at the visitor center on a cold, windy day and walked up the pathway. There were remembrances of the other hijacked flights on the walkway that follows the final path of Flight 93. Walking into the facility, I wasn’t sure what to expect from myself emotionally. 9/11 is still something I remember quite vividly. But, with our kids present, the goal was to educate them about the day a bit more. With that focus, we pulled open the door.
The visitor center has a strong presence when you enter. Made almost entirely of stone and glass, large black and concrete walls guard a history of 9/11 and Flight 93. There are a series of walls that tell the story in different ways. The first wall displayed a timeline of events that day. It was informative and direct, and it gave me the sense that the story would unwind in a way that our children could learn, gain more context on this piece of history.
As I walked around to the back of the first wall, I felt like I was hit by a ton of bricks. There was video playing from the morning of 9/11. There were news anchors talking about the attacks, President Bush giving his first speech before boarding Air Force One and video of the planes hitting the World Trade Center.
Those images ripped open the band-aid and I quickly found tears in my eyes. My daughter watched as one of the towers crumbled and processed it like a 9-year old should, one who didn’t live through the day. Neither happy or sad, she was taking in the history, and I was trying very hard not to cry while I explained some details to her.
A short while later, both my daughter and I were listening to recordings of messages that passengers of Flight 93 left for loved ones. She would remark to me later that the recordings were very sad but she was trying not to get too emotional because she wanted to learn more. Maybe she felt she wasn’t supposed to cry? Again, I was trying hard not to, and not always succeeding. More than once I walked around a corner so my daughter wouldn’t see me crying. And, my 4-year old son would pop up from time to time to lighten the mood, finding something he wanted to show us, proud that he had discovered a piece of the plane but not understanding the context.
I had expected to spend only minutes inside the center. That transformed into almost an hour before we exited to our car to drive to the memorial. As we got into the car, my wife commented, “That was much more emotional than I prepared myself for.”
Our windshield was covered with ice. Wind and rain buffeted the car as we drove the short distance to the memorial. The kids were cold and the walkway was long. But, they were both determined to make it, to experience it. Catherine commented on how she wanted to see it all, to take it in. So, in the freezing cold, with lips turning blue, we ran.
We ran until we were out of breath, thankfully with the winds at our back. Along the way we saw small shelves where people had left objects of their remembrance, whether it be flags, medals or other memorable bits. We arrived at a memorial strong in simplicity, just the names of those 40 brave souls who decided to take back a plane, to prevent further loss of life even though it would likely mean the end of theirs.
We spent a few moments in the cold, alone with our thoughts as dusk settled in, the only people left that evening to pay their respects. The kids took shelter behind a wall briefly, near the massive wooden gate.
When we were ready, we turned into the wind, which was even stronger than before. In pelting rain, we ran. We ran to the shelter of our car, to the warmth and safety that exists in part because of the bravery by so many people that day. We may have been running away from the memorial, but we did so with those memories fresh in our heads. A better sense of history.
Note: In case it wasn’t obvious, I strongly recommend a visit to the Flight 93 Memorial. Even though the memorials in New York and DC may be better located, it’s worth the ride. It’s a part of our history, one that deserves to be recognized. The small parking lot was mostly empty during our visit but the visitor center and memorial are enough to fill a few hours.