By Victoria Williams
September 11, 2001 will always be a day that lives in infamy. The terrorist attacks on New York, Shanksville, and the Pentagon have been remembered each year since and will be for every year to come. But what remains is still the heartache, grief, and scarred landscapes from that day. However, as humans do, we get up, rebuild and pay tribute to those that sacrificed all. Now, approximately 20 years from 9/11, memorials stand in New York City, New York and Shanksville, Pennsylvania to honor the almost 3,000 lives lost on that day.
One of the planes used in the terrorists’ plot, United Flight 93, had departed Newark Airport in New Jersey on a planned trip to San Francisco, California before four hijackers attacked and gained control of the cockpit. After learning of the other hijackings and attacks on U.S. soil that day, the 33 passengers and seven crew members aboard the flight quickly formulated a plan to keep the attack on Washington D.C. from taking place. As they stormed the cockpit, the plane crashed into a vacant surface mine field in quiet Shanksville, forever changing the small town.
One year and 13 days after 9/11 on September 24, 2002, President George W. Bush and Congress signed into legislation that the site become a national park, Flight 93 National Memorial, which is the fastest turnaround time for any national memorial to come to fruition from the date of its event. For several years, the development of the memorial was on hold as land was acquired and for donations to be received to begin construction. However, groups of volunteers formed almost immediately.
“For almost 20 years now, our special group of volunteers have acted as Ambassadors to the site, for the passengers and crew members and their families, telling the story of what happened here,” shared Katherine Cordek, Public Information Officer at Flight 93 National Park. “They organized themselves before it was even considered a national park, and they have carried forward their duties ever since.”
Ten years after September 11, 2001, Memorial Plaza opened to the public on September 10, 2011, which comprises the crash site, the Wall of Names, and the debris field. The Memorial Plaza borders the crash site, the final resting place of the passengers and crew members, and sits along the quarter-mile northern boundary to the crash site. Visitors who walk along Memorial Plaza can get several views of the memorial, including the 17 ton sandstone boulder that was placed in 2011 to indicate the edge of the impact site. Hemlock Grove is also clearly visible from this plaza that sits directly behind the impact site, in which nearly a hundred trees were damaged from the crash and later removed. A visible gap in the tree line serves as a lasting “scar” from this day.
“The hemlock grove was what was most devastated by the impact of Flight 93,” explained Katie. “Several thousand gallons of jet fuel got thrown on this tree line, causing a large explosion and fire. However, the hemlocks yielded a lot of evidence and they truly are the silent witnesses of what happened here on September 11th.”
The hemlock trees located around the site are also symbolized in the design of the memorial. With textured concrete to resemble wooden beams made of hemlock, which construct many of the local barns in the area, and diagonal lines throughout the memorial that symbolizes the hemlocks as the silent witnesses of the crash, there is symbolism throughout the entire memorial of these “silent witnesses.”
The Wall of Names, a part of Memorial Plaza, is located underneath the flight path and is the final approach of Flight 93. Constructed of white marble, 40 individually selected and polished marble stones are inscribed with each of the passengers and crew member names. Beside the Wall of Names is a Ceremonial Gate, constructed of hemlock wood, that allows visitors to look down the flight path, denoted with black granite, to the last piece of granite etched with the time of the crash and the sandstone boulder, marking the impact site.
Construction for the Visitors Center began after the Memorial Plaza was completed and opened on September 10, 2015. The Visitors Center welcomes visitors in and tells the story of what happened on 9/11 with Flight 93, before visitors reach the Memorial Plaza and see the crash site physically. The exhibit features the story of the passengers and crew members and describes the response and investigation following the crash.
Then, the third phase of construction began for the Tower of Voices, a 93-foot tall (representing Flight 93) wind chime tower constructed of 270 tons of concrete that contains 40 windchimes to represent the 33 passengers and 7 crew members on the flight. The Tower of Voices was dedicated on September 9, 2018 and the wind chimes were installed on September 10, 2020.
“The Tower of Voices is the only structure like it in the entire world,” said Katie. “As the wind blows through the chimes and changes directions, it hits different chimes at different times. Each chime is individual, just like the 40 individuals aboard Flight 93. Each of them made their own choices, just like each wind chime is going to sound at different times. You will never hear all 40 chimes at once.”
The wind chimes, all suspended at varying heights inside the tower, sound as the wind blows and changes direction.
“You think of the phone calls that were made on Flight 93; the people aboard Flight 93 changed history because they placed these phone calls and they figured out what was going on,” explained Katie. “And in a short amount of time, they worked together and decided to do something. Those phone calls and those last words that they said were their goodbyes to their loved ones, and symbolically these wind chimes are their voices, forever echoing throughout the memorial.”
The Tower of Voices is the first thing visitors see as they enter the memorial and serves as a landmark feature that is visible by travelers on Route 30. The Tower serves as a living memorial, forever changing and forever remembering the 40 voices lost on September 11th.
Another living aspect of the memorial is the Memorial Groves of trees that hug the memorial’s perimeter, with 40 memorial groves of 40 trees. “There’s rows and rows of trees planted between the Visitors Center and the Memorial Plaza, and they circle and embrace the entire crash site and debris field. This is also another living memorial that will continue to grow and change for generations to come.”
In 2012, reforestation efforts at the memorial began, making the site what it once was. “For almost three full decades from the 1960s to the 1990s, the site was a surface mine, so there wasn’t much here and it was very bare. The memorial has truly changed the area’s landscape and how it looks for the better, especially with our reforestation efforts,” explained Katie.
Beginning the reforestation efforts in 2012 with a goal of 150,000 trees, this year’s reforestation efforts in honor of the passengers and crew members aboard Flight 93 is only approximately 20,000 trees from reaching that goal.
“We’ve done reforestation every year, but with this year being the 20th Anniversary of the event and we’re intending on reaching our goal of 150,000 trees. It’s just amazing,” said Katie.
For this year’s reforestation efforts, a three-day event will be planned with approximately 500 volunteers in attendance. In the three-day period, several thousand trees will be planted in honor of the lives lost on September 11th, adding to the evergrowing living memorial in their names.
The memory and honor of the 33 passengers and 7 crew members live on at the Flight 93 National Memorial as we approach the 20th Anniversary of September 11, 2001. The memorial strives to be not only a memorial of what happened that day, but an opportunity to tell the story of the lives lost.
“September 11th doesn’t define them as people,” said Katie. “It’s every moment leading up to that day and what their actions were on September 11th. We honor their lives every single day.”
To learn more information about the Flight 93 National Memorial, or to become a volunteer, visit www.nps.gov/flni/index.htm or call (814) 893-6548 and ask for the Volunteer Coordinator.