September 11, 2001. Four U.S. commercial airliners were hijacked by terrorists and crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a remote field in Pennsylvania killing nearly 3,000 people in a matter of minutes. What lies behind the unprecedented loss of life from an attack on U.S. soil are the individual people, each one left behind family, friends and colleagues who have experienced this sad national tragedy on a distinctly personal level.
In March of this year N. and I traveled around America for a little holiday. We had arranged to visit my hometown - Somerset Pennsylvania, New York City, and Washington D.C.
When I realized that we would be visiting the three areas physically hit by the tragedy of 9/11, I took a deep breath and decided to set out to visit each of the locations, hopefully to come to terms with just a little bit of what happened and how it might be avoided in the future.
What I wasn't really prepared for was the toll the attacks had on the PEOPLE. NYC meant a visit to the World Trade Center area and a small, impromptu museum close to the site. After half an hour of walking through the displays of scorched fireman's hats, melted phones, and name badges with no owners we went below to the basement. In this small, cramped and extremely solemn area visitors could listen to recorded messages as first responders and survivors tell their stories. The sounds of desperation and grief in their voices as they described the deaths of loved ones and friends... heart wrenching. I cried. And I was not alone. Each person in that room had tears in their eyes as they listened to first-hand accounts of what happened.
As we walked back out of that basement there was a picture of the proposed memorials to be erected at the other two sites, both Shanksville Pennsylvania and The Pentagon in D.C. It reminded me that our travels would take us to the other sites very soon... and saddened me even further.
Since I know that most everyone reading this has never been and probably will never get to the area, I will try to paint a picture of the third landing site for you. The passengers on Flight 93 lost their lives at the edge of a strip-mined piece of land (meaning that there were no trees) which was at that time a fallow grassland. Shanksville is the closest village to that lonely Pennsylvania field out in the middle of nowhere. Directly over the hill of the impact site and through the woods is a small town high school where in the 70's my oldest brother graduated the same year my youngest brother started Kindergarten. If I remember correctly, the whole school had only 300 kids at that time.
As you drive down country roads on the way to the site you get the feeling that this is the REAL America. The people living on these dairy farms and in these ramshackle two story wooden houses are the ones that give America its heart. To me it is fitting that the third plane struck here... Where the "Average Joe" lives.
Those glorious twin towers in NYC were nice and all, and I'm sure they were well-chosen targets, but to me they symbolize the America which is presented for the rest of the world. My European friends are always happy to tell me that they visited the towers when they were still standing and marvel at the fact that I had never been there. To them NYC, Florida, and California make up America (with some of Texas - Dallas specifically - thrown in for those who watch trash TV). But to the families living in the Pennsylvania highlands or on the Kansas plains... NYC and California are a whole different world.
The Somerset County "country roads" are roughly paved blacktop with a hump in the center of the lane offering drainage and very often they have no lane paint. Signs other than STOP indicators are few and far between, thus the occasional tourist must navigate to the crash site by seeking out small signs sporting a red white and blue "Flight 93" printed on laminated paper attached to a wooden stake which is pounded into the gravel alongside the road.
The crash site itself sits half a mile away from the traditional memorial location, but unless they are lucky enough to be there while one of the volunteers is manning the memorial or are with a local, no one will be the wiser. All the knowledgeable visitor can see anyway is a tree line far off in the distance, the crash site itself is fenced off. The memorial site was set up in the early days as a safe vantage point for people to come to see the clean-up of the crash site... and from that overlook sprung the memorial as more and more people began dropping by and leaving a little memento of their stay.
As visitors arrive they are welcomed by a small metal outbuilding, many benches displaying names of the victims, a large plaque, a row of small crosses near a two story wooden cross, and a 40 foot chain-link fence which was erected for people to attach small remembrances and of course... flags - lots of them.
The fence usually looks almost alive. It stands on a hill buffeted by constant breezes shaking all of the memorial items, and making the flags flap and snap at attention. My first visit was in early 2002 when they really didn't know what to do with the thousands of items. Now they put them in storage, waiting for a museum or a permanent memorial in which to put them.
March of 2008 was my third visit to the site, and I assume that it will not be my last. It is interesting to see the evolution of the memorial, every year there is something new. One brother and one sister still live in the area, everyone else has scattered to the winds.
The wind. It is the only thing you will hear up there on that hill. The occasional visitor is quite somber, barely making any noise or disrupting the general feeling of heaviness at the temporary memorial. One can sit on the benches facing the direction of the crash site, pondering the senseless deaths of over 3,000 people.
The fence is always the hardest for me. This last time we went I saw a piece of paper with many colors and what looked like a picture peeking out at me. Cautiously I moved a few other items aside so that I could see the image on the laminated paper. What I uncovered was a picture of a girl, not more than ten years old in a pretty yellow dress. Beside the picture, written in a child's scrawl were the words, "I miss you daddy".
Cue the waterworks.
Ahem... um... watch this video at your own risk...
... or if you need to clear your sinuses... you know... like I do...