Flight 93 Memorial, Shanksville, PA


 


  

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  Pennsylvania becomes a battleground - again

The old temporary visitor center.
A Ranger talk at the temporary visitor center.  The benches face the impact area several hundred yards away and are engraved with the names of the passengers and crew of Flight 93. This visitor center has been closed due to road construction related to the new memorial. A new temporary center is open down the road while the new one is built. Traffic has been re-routed. Just follow the signs.

My native Pennsylvania has been a battleground in five of this country's wars - the French and Indian War, Pontiac's War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. On September 11, 2001, a sixth war came to Pennsylvania. The savage fight aboard Flight 93 and its subsequent crash in rural Somerset County was the first engagement in the War on Terror, which continues to this day.

After the crash and investigation, the good people of Shanksville took it upon themselves to create a place overlooking the site where people could come to view the grounds, learn what happened and pay their respects. The site was manned 24 hours a day by volunteers, law enforcement and security guards. People came from all over and started leaving markers, tokens, plaques and other memorabilia in remembrance. I was raised in the immediate area and have been to the site many times when I visit home. My parents' neighborhood heard and felt the impact and saw the smoke, which was shaped like a mushroom cloud.

Every time I go back, the operation is bigger and better. When I first went there in 2003, it was a shoestring operation all the way, with a single three ring binder and a small house trailer. Now it has been taken over by the National Park Service and a new memorial is scheduled to be dedicated on the 10th anniversary of the crash. Rangers give talks on the events of that day and also the aftermath. The crash site itself has healed with time leaving no sign of the disintegrated plane and pulverized bodies which became part of the earth and still are.

The last seconds of Flight 93

An annotated picture showing the last seconds of Flight 93.

1. The plane clears the ridgeline by 50 feet.  It is upside down and flying at almost the speed of sound.

2.  It continues to accelerate while descending.

3.  Impact.  The debris is scattered all over this hillside and beyond.  There are no known eye witnesses to the crash.  This picture was taken from the old visitor center. The new (temporary) visitor center is behind the pile of dirt near item #2 on the picture.

 

 

 

The other thing that has developed over the years is a better understanding of what happened on board Flight 93 and how it fit into the scheme of things that day. Through cell phone conversations, cockpit recordings, radar tracks and other analysis, authorities have a pretty good picture of what went on, along with some happenstance that can only be described as miraculous. Although everyone knows the general story of Flight 93, the information presented at the site is chilling and riveting. However, some things remain a mystery.

Primary among them is the target for that day. Speculation has always been that it was either the Capitol or the White House. When Flight 93 crashed, it was 18 minutes away from the Washington Mall. The World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon had already been hit. Here's where the happenstance comes in. Flight 93 was an hour and a half late taking off. When the hijacking occurred, people started calling on their cell phones and found out what was happening elsewhere. This led directly to their decision to fight back. Had the plane left on time and had the passengers not resisted, Flight 93 would have been the first to reach its target. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate were in session that day. The only way to get all of them was to hit there first. The image of an airliner crashing into the dome of the Capitol Building is too terrible to imagine. But according to the Park Service, that's what the terrorists had planned for us that day.

Some of the many memorials.
Several of the many memorials. The skyline in the background is the flight path of the last few seconds from a different angle. These meorials have since been put in storage until the new park and monument are finished.

 

We'll also never know exactly what happened during the actual fight. We know that six minutes elapsed between Todd Beamer's "Let's roll" and the impact. We also know that a flight attendant boiled water in the back galley for use as a weapon. The passengers waited until they were over a rural area before launching their assault. After that, cockpit recordings and open phone lines give us a glimpse of a violent hand to hand struggle. Screaming and pounding. Panicked voices from the terrorists flying the plane. They can't believe what's happening.  Rock the plane. Use the axe. Don't let them enter. Finally, take it in. Allah Akbar.

The plane came in upside down at a 45 degree angle flying northwest to southeast. It was doing almost 600 miles per hour and carrying 7,000 gallons of jet fuel when it hit. The biggest piece of the plane recovered would have fit in a shoe box. The area of impact was an old strip mine which had been back filled with dirt and trees. Although there was an impact trench, much of the remains of everything simply became one with the loose ground.

Unbelievably, enough human remains were recovered to positively identify everyone through DNA, including the hijackers.

A view of the impact area from the old visitor center.
Another memorial and a clear view of the impact area in the far tree line. The benches in the above picture face this way.  The new memorial will be down at the impact point. The "last seconds" picture above was taken from the bend in the road on the left side of this picture.

An interesting side story that you won't hear from the Park Rangers is about hauntings at the site. In the early days when private security guards were on duty all night, they reported knocks on the trailer door and hearing voices in the distant mist along with feelings of someone being nearby but unseen. Nowadays, the Rangers kind of laugh it off.  But I can tell you that even though the site is wide open and straddles a public road, nobody goes out there at night.

The Flight 93 Memorial is a must see for anyone who has the chance. This is hallowed ground, much like Gettysburg and Normandy.  You can view transcripts of the cockpit recordings and phone conversations with accompanying time lines down to the second.  They are bone chilling. The courage and sacrifice of these 40 people are beyond words. I was a career Marine with combat experience and it far exceeds anything that was ever demanded of me.

The National Park Service Flight 93 Memorial website has all the information you need to plan your visit.  It also has information on the impressive new memorial.  It is currently under construction and scheduled for dedication on September 11, 2011

The GPS coordinates of the Visitor Center are N40.05552º, W78.90019º.  Click on the coordinates to bring up an interactive Google map.

Semper Fi and God Bless....Out here....Alpha6 and KidsRN