Stories from the Road: Flight 93 Memorial - Stoystown, PA (April 29, 2017)
Mrs. Reynolds hung up the phone and came back to where we were all sitting cross-legged on the floor. I remember it as seconds between the click of the phone and the words come out of her mouth. But it must’ve taken longer than that. Unless she too was in shock. She sat in her place in the circle, looked around at her fourth grade class and told us that it was her daughter on the phone. She worked in D.C. and was calling to let her mom know she was ok. Mrs. Reynolds didn’t know much else, but apparently a plane had crashed into the Pentagon building. Her daughter thought that there was a plane crash in New York as well. Someone asked if they would catch the people who did it. I remember it being me, but I can’t be sure. I am sure that she answered the question, shaking her head and saying she didn’t know.
Fourth grade was probably the youngest I could’ve been where I understood what was happening on 9/11, but not enough to know how it would irrevocably alter my life. I remember that day in the classroom. I remember sitting on my bed and watching the news coverage, replaying the videos over and over. I remember wondering if I was even allowed to watch the news that day. I had never wondered that before. My parents took me to New York City the following June. There are pictures, in an album somewhere, that I took of Ground Zero. A picture of me in an American flag bandana and a ‘Proud to be an American Girl’ shirt that, before 9/11, was more of a reference to the doll company than the state of the country. To this day I cannot get on a plane without wondering if something will happen. I cannot watch the film footage of the plane hitting the second tower without feeling like I am 8years old all over again.
On September 11, 2001, I lived in Massachusetts. The crash in New York seemed so close and the Pentagon was a building that I at least understood to be important, if only on an intangible level. However, Pennsylvania seemed like it should’ve been an ocean away for all I knew about it. Maybe that’s why I never really knew that much about Flight 93, other than a group of brave passengers rerouted the plan to crash in a field in PA. The image of a group of passengers running at the cockpit door, which I think comes from the 2006 movie trailer. The infamous phrase ‘Let’s Roll’.
The morning I visited the crash site, which is now a National Park, a storm had just blown through. The rock walls seemed to flow straight out of the greyish fog and tower over me. Walking through the gap in the wall, I couldn’t help but look up. Almost as if I squinted hard enough, I could see the ghost of the plane overhead. Large black doors help to create a barrier between the memorial and the museum inside the visitors center. The mental break between a space for remembering and a space for learning. A few huge panels inside recount the events of 9/11, almost minute by minute. At first I found myself wondering why anyone needed this, how could anyone forget this day? Slowly, I remembered that, in the almost 16 years since that fateful morning, children have been born. They have lived a life that I cannot begin to fathom. A memory without planes crashing. Without President Bush declaring war. Without the feeling that America could only be safe if we were fighting back.
The video of the second plane crashing into the South Tower plays on repeat in one of the exhibits. Every time I see that video I tell myself to look away, but I can never force my eyes closed in time. Seeing that plane disappear into the building is a gut punch to the stomach. I know it’s coming, but it’s almost as if I watch it in vain. Hoping that if I watch it enough times, the ending will change. If I stare hard enough at that blue sky, maybe the second plane will never come.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned bits and pieces about Flight 93. But what has always kept me from exploring too far is that so much of what we know comes from the phone calls of those on board. Calls from people who knew they were facing extraordinary circumstances. People who saw those circumstances and decided that, in the face of certain death, it was the time to fight. I cannot imagine telling someone that I loved them, knowing it was the last time, and then having the courage to turn around and storm the enemy. There is a panel about these calls in the visitors center. You can pick up a phone and listen to a smattering of the ones that were recorded. There is a part of me that wants to listen, to hear what true courage sounds like. But I know that I ever heard them, I would never be able to stop.
What I never realized about the timeline of Flight 93, is how quickly everything occurred. The timeline at the memorial has the terrorist takeover timed at about 9:30 am. The revolt begins at 9:57am and the plane crashes at 10:03 am. Just a little over a half hour. 27 minutes to say goodbye to those you love and take a vote in favor of courage. 6 minutes to irrevocably change history. 6 minutes to save an incalculable number of lives. 6 minutes to protect the future of American democracy. We don’t know where Flight 93 was headed. I’ve read suggestions of both the Capital or the White House. It seems impossible to imagine any more devastation than what we faced that day, but the threat was imminent.
When we talk about American bravery or determination, rarely can we all agree. There are historical debates, cultural clashes and other aspects that keep debates over heroism raging. The events that have unfolded since 9/11 will continue to be argued by the recorders of history for many years to come. The legacy is inescapable, except for this one place. Here the argument over the forthcoming wars does not matter. How you feel about George W. Bush does not matter. Standing in front of the white marble wall, with the name of each passenger engraved, I can’t imagine anyone arguing. What matters is that few acts are so uniquely pure as what took place on Flight 93. This is the place where we can all stand and hope that, in future situations, we can uphold that same level of bravery.
Yet, even as I write this, the debate is raging in D.C. over the sanctity of this very place, and others. An initiative from the Trump administration could allow drilling in and around some National Parks and Flight 93 is on the list. Flight 93 is on the list. The field just beyond the wall, marked by a boulder, is where the flight cratered into the ground going 563 miles per hour. Everyone on board died on impact, which makes that field not only a memorial, but also a final resting place. After visiting, I can’t imagine it with oil rigs and other equipment disturbing the silence of the sloping hills. It’s almost as if their silence allows us the space to attend to a compilation of memories, both ours and those of others. Most of us still bring our own experience with us to the memorial, but some day that will not be the case. Someday people will come with only inherited impressions of what that day was like. They will need the informational panels. They will need the time to walk through the memorial groves. They will need to look at the sky as they follow the invisible flight path from the visitors center to the boulder. And we owe it to the heroes, and those who do not yet know, to make sure that all of this is still there to tell the story.