They fought back.
Visitors to the Flight 93 National Memorial may not know exactly what happened in this stretch of rural Pennsylvania on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, but they know this much: The passengers and crew of United 93 fought back that day.
That single act, marked with violent clarity by an impact crater left in the crash’s wake, has drawn 350,000 visitors to the memorial site near Shanksville, PA, over the past year alone — a total of 1.8 million visitors since September 2001.
Visitors from all walks of life come here: leather-clad bikers, Amish from the surrounding countryside, retirees from the Midwest, families with small children. Once a year, a woman from Japan visits to remember her 20-year-old son Toshiya Kuge — one of 40 individuals who perished onboard United 93 that morning at 10:03 a.m., when the Boeing 757 careened from the sky and came crashing to the earth, having flipped on its belly, at 563 miles per hour.
On a morning when millions of Americans had turned on their TVs to see the Twin Towers smoldering in NYC, the passengers and crew of hijacked Flight 93 were learning of these unfolding events through calls to and from family members, like this message from Flight 93 passenger Mark Bingham’s mother:
“Mark, this is your mom, the news is that it’s been hijacked by terrorists, they are planning to probably use the plane as a target to hit some site on the ground,” she said. “If you possibly can,” she told her 6-foot-4 son, “try to overpower these guys …”
With United 93, the intended target was the US Capitol, less than 20 minutes away. A packed, joint session of Congress was getting underway that morning.
So they fought back. Everyday Americans like Bingham, a 31-year-old gay man from San Francisco; Todd Beamer, a young family man from New Jersey; Sandra Bradshaw, a 38-year-old flight attendant; Tom Burnett, a healthcare exec from the Bay Area … Jeremy Glick … Lou Nacke … but not before the passengers had taken a vote about whether to storm the cockpit.
This field in Somerset County, PA, speaks to their collective answer, waged at 9:57 a.m. that Tuesday morning.
The Fight to Remember
Setting aside this land for a memorial didn’t come easily. A congressional bill was introduced in 2002 calling for the establishment of a national memorial here, and a design competition was finalized in 2005. But that still left the question of ownership of the grounds — a former strip-mining field, owned primarily by PBS Coal.
The families of Flight 93, along with US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, worked to ensure that the crash site and surrounding countryside could become a national memorial, under the care of the National Park Service. Those efforts entailed raising private funds to purchase the 2,200-acre grounds, half of which was owned by the coal company, the other half by private individuals. The bulk of those land acquisition efforts were realized in 2009.
So far, more than 100,000 donors — from every state and more than 2 dozen foreign countries — have donated over $30 million in private funds for the memorial. This includes film director Paul Greengrass, who donated 10% of the box-office gross from the 3-day opening weekend of United 93. And in what is a public-private partnership, Congress and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania have provided millions in funding. A 4,000-square-foot Visitor Center will break ground this coming spring, directly beneath what was the plane’s flight path.
Funds Left to Be Raised
$5 million still remains to be raised for a 3,400-square-foot Learning Center and “Tower of Voices” — a 93-foot-tall tower that will include 40 wind chimes in remembrance of each of the victims.
The memorial’s design, with its grey neutral tones of granite, slate and concrete, aims to blend in with the surrounding countryside of sugar maples and white oaks. The effort is also about remembering all 40 victims, in collective unison. Gordon Felt, whose 41-year-old brother Ed perished on Flight 93, sums it up: “My brother was like all the 40 … a very unique guy, a wonderful family man,” says Felt.
The memorial is also about reclaiming and rebuilding, as symbolized by reforestation and pond rehabilitation of land that had been polluted by years of mining.
Last September, the first phase of the memorial design was realized: An open walkway leads visitors to a wall, with a series of white marble tablets upon which the names of the 33 passengers and 7 flight crew members are engraved. The wall is directly aligned with United 93’s flight path. To the left of the wall, beyond a wooden gate, is the crash site itself, now capped with a 17-ton boulder. The area, the final resting place for the passengers and crew, is reserved for family.
- Photography by Lisa Singh
The overall site is simple; the emotion it conjures tangible. Visitors glide their hands along the wall’s letters. Others speak with an “ambassador,” one of more than 50 local residents who volunteer in 2-hour shifts, throughout the week, to walk visitors through United 93’s events.
Flight 93 Families
There was a time when Lori Guadagno, who lost her 38-year-old brother Richard on Flight 93, didn’t want to talk.
“The first year I came here was so traumatic,” said Guadagno, speaking Saturday at a dedication ceremony for the upcoming visitor center. “I didn’t want to share my experience with anyone.”
With time Guadagno has come to see the memorial site as a place that can “resonate with future generations,” and offer a “wonderful teaching moment” — to appreciate the present and, in her case, to establish a nonprofit to provide art to terminally ill children.
That sense of collective ownership is palpable. “A huge part of my heart is here,” says Guadagno, who calls NPS “part of my extended family.” This includes NPS rangers such as Adam Shaffer who works at the memorial site, and whose father was the Shanksville area’s fire chief when the attacks of Sept. 11 occurred.
As Guadagno spoke Saturday underneath a makeshift tent, which sheltered the small audience from the day’s thunderstorms, a victim’s family member, Patrick White, sat listening. White lost his younger cousin, Louis Nacke on Flight 93, and now serves as current president of Families of Flight 93.
“When you’re president,” he said, “there’s this umbrella [of uncertainty] you carry … and what I heard today was …”
White grew silent, overcome with emotion. “I’m not going to need that umbrella long-term,” said White, after a moment’s silence, “because there’s sunshine ahead of us — with the dedication of this memorial.”
See pictures of the New York City, Pentagon and Shanksville memorials.
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the opening of NYC’s extraordinary tribute to 9/11 victims.