Unit #15 / 412 - Flight 93 National Memorial
Do you remember where you were on September 11, 2001, when you first heard of the planes hitting the Twin Towers?
It's one of those cultural moments that, like the Kennedy Assassination, has become ingrained in our collective memory.
I was a 15-year-old sophomore at the time, and had just walked into 3rd period choir at my high school in Lincoln, Nebraska (aka, far from the East Coast). Having read an interesting bit of news in the newspaper's sports section that morning, I was quick to reply to my classmate Brittany when I took my seat and she calmly whispered, "Did you hear the Twin Towers were hit?"
"Who cares! Michael Jordan's coming back to basketball!"
Of course in the ensuing hour I learned what the Twin Towers actually were--and their cultural significance, and realized for the rest of my life I would recall my brazen naiveté when sharing this moment.
15 years after a 2001 that forever changed the world, I was a little more prepared for the moment when I would visit Flight 93 National Memorial in southwestern Pennsylvania.
I was fortunate in that just three weeks before attending, I was able to sit down with National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis and discuss this specific unit.
He mentioned that Flight 93 was a park he had put much work into during his tenure, and I could tell that included a lot of thought into what story it told.
That's something I'm learning on this trip that I didn't expect: the National Park Service focuses on much more than just "Is this vista beautiful?" or "Is this trail functioning."
They really desire to make sure every park tells a story, and tells it well.
Director Jarvis spoke about other historical monuments, and how it was easier for us as a country to hear both sides of, say, the bombing at Pearl Harbor than Flight 93. In long past national tragedies, we can handle reading about Japanese motivations or Nazi beliefs. Or even the personal stories of the airmen who completed that mission.
However, as with more recent events like Flight 93, the wounds are too fresh.
"I don't know when we'll be ready to hear the terrorists side of the story, or the backgrounds of the hijackers. Not yet," Director Jarvis shared with a wisdom that understood only time will tell when visitors will be able to digest that aspect of this historical event.
And for the time being, this National Monument, opened and dedicated on September 10, 2011, does a solid job of telling the story of this perhaps least recognized of the four flights hijacked on September 11, 2001.
The reason it may be less known is that, unlike the other three planes, this one never reached its intended destination.
As was explained in lurid detail--including three actual voicemail messages from passengers on the plane--the patrons on United Flight 93 helped prevent what was later presumed to be an attack on the U.S. Capitol.
After being told by the hijackers they would be held for ransom after landing, the 40 passengers and airline staff of United 93 determined this flight was part of the larger conspiracy. Through phone calls made to those on the ground from back-of-seat phones common at the time, they pieced together what limited information was available and took a bold vote to overtake the plane and prevent it from carrying out its planned mission.
What struck me about this the most was how brave these people were to make such a decision. With limited facts, they risked their own lives--and the potential that the plane really would land and they'd be traded for ransom--to help others.
These individuals are honored in pictures, stories, a wall of names, and a grove of hemlock trees near their unforeseen gravesite.
As we've come to expect from memorials, these remembrances are all poignant, but perhaps the most profound tribute covers the entire ground of this memorial.
Wildflowers have been given the space to flourish across the entire site.
Just as the goal of the county coroner was to return the field to its pre-crash presence (and thus requiring this boulder to satisfy visitors' desires to know where the plane hit), so too have these native species, in a small sense, returned our humanity.
These wildflowers, for me, represent life triumphing over death. In a field made famous by its gruesome plane crash, they are an annual reminder that evil will never conquer good. That hope springs eternal. And that darkness, whether cloud of smoke from a crashing plane or a cloud of memories over September 11, 2001, cannot overcome light.
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5 Flight 93 Highlights (You Can Do)
1. Overlook View
Since this event had so much to do with the field where the plane landed, an overlook allows visitors to grasp all parts of this spread out memorial.
2. Take a Moment to Reflect
It was very calm and somber when I visited. Locals who had visited the area before the memorial was made said it was similar immediately after the crash, with people bringing items to remember the victims and creating a makeshift memorial on the fence.
The expansive space allows plenteous opportunities for introspective moments.
3. Tour the Visitors Center
A wealth of information and artifacts are available here. I highly recommend listening to the voicemails from the passengers. Very emotional and powerful.
4. Walk the Perimeter
A tree lined circle takes visitors on a relatively flat and easy path connecting the two major memorial sites.
The 1+ mile path provides many opportunities to view the buildings from interesting angles.
5. Wind Through the Wildflowers
A winding trail leads from the Visitors Center to the second major memorial site. It's a great chance to view the native wildflowers.
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Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations please! What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
(Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota)
-Isle Royale National Park
-Keweenaw National Historical Park
-Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
-River Raisin National Battlefield Park
-Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
-Grand Portage National Monument
-Mississippi National River & Recreation Area
-Pipestone National Monument
-Voyageurs National Park
-Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site
-Theodore Roosevelt National Park
-Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site
-Apostle Island National Lakeshore
-Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway