July 2, 2002
The morning dawn filtered through a dense fog covering the soft, green hills around the motel where I stayed my first night on the road trip. I waited until 9:30am for the fog to lift. My time to drive off the beaten path to the tiny community of Shanksville would be cut short if I didn’t leave now. I originally scheduled my time to be at the memorial for United Flight 93 around 10:00am. Stressed by the late morning check out, I wouldn’t be in Shanksville when I planned.
The weather forecast for Pennsylvania the first week of July was predicting sizzling high temperatures in the upper 90s with high humidity and a merciless sun. No afternoon thunderstorms brought any temproary relief during my journey.
Following my map, I headed out of town toward a small dot on the map of Pennsylvania. The morning journey had me talking and reflecting on the reason I traveled this way. I wasn’t paying attention while speaking into my tape recorder and not far from Somerset, I realized I was lost. The roads didn’t connect and I ended up returning to the main highway in town, turning around and starting all over again. Now really stressed!
Why did I take a wrong turn that morning? In my determination to find the right road leading to the small town of Shanksville, I was distracted by my thoughts and memories of September 11, 2001. On an odyssey to go to the field where a commerical airliner crashed on that fateful day. Not just to visit the tragedy of any plane crash–the terrible crash of United Flight 93 was a turning point in American History that unfolded on that unbelievable and horrific day on September 11, 2001.
All across America a normal week day was forever changed by those events. A preconceived plot, deliberately calculated and heartlessly executed by unknown number of terrorists brought America to a standstill. When it was over our country was forever changed. The world I trusted, my American security enjoyed in my homeland had been shattered in the most incredible, unbelievable act of undeclared war against our country I have ever experienced. Horror upon horror unfolded in real time on September 11, 2001–first two airliners crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City, then another airliner dove into the side of the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C. And finally, a fourth airliner crashed into a rural field in southwestern Pennsylvania.
On September 11th, nothing like this in the history of mankind had ever experienced this unbridled destruction of lives and property. Suicide bombers and terrorists hijacking commercial airplanes, filled with innocent passengers and crew, and using them as guided missles to destroy even more innocent people–without warning, without logic or human reason. On that day, no one had any answers.
The drama unfolding in New York City and Washington, D.C. captured my attention at work that day. What we didn’t understand at the time was a fourth plane with an agenda like the other three took off after a delay from the Newark, New Jersey terminal to fly to San Francisco. It headed toward Cleveland, Ohio.
I live in a small community about an hour south of Cleveland. It’s mostly a rural area with farmland dotted with country homes on a few acres of land. While my co-workers and I listened to the drama unfolding in New York, United Flight 93 was overrun by a group of terrorists and the plane’s flight path changed. The terrorist pilot banked the commerical airliner to the left and made a U-turn to head back east. What I learned after the crash of United Flight 93 was the location of the airspace when the plane was turned around–it was over my head in Medina County.
That’s why I have more of a personal involvement with Flight 93. On September 11th, the airplane turned around right above where I lived. What if? If that terrorist made a piloting error when the plane was hijacked, could it have been doomed to crash straight down in Ohio? There, but the grace of God, go I. Instead of flying into Pennsylvania, it could have crashed into a rural field in northeastern Ohio that morning.
I didn’t realize a life or death drama was unfolding in the airspace over my head on that clear blue September day. And there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.
The men and women on that plane tried. They all died trying to prevent another guided missle from making it back to Washington. Because of those passengers and crew, I don’t have the image seared into my brain of a airliner fireball crashing into the dome of the Capitol Building. It’s the probable fourth target the terrorists plotted to destroy on September 11th.
After the tragedy of those events unfolded over the following weeks, our nation changed. What I learned about the passengers and crew of United Flight 93, who bravely rose up and tried to regain control of the plane from the terroists, is why I’m following a wavy red line on a map to visit a makeshift memorial site that honors the innocent lives lost on that fourth plane that crashed.
I’m approaching Shanksville. I can relate to this area. I live in a small community in Ohio. Pennsylvania is our border neighbor state. United Flight 93 crashed outside of town through a wooded area and into a field over an abandoned strip coal mine. I also lived for many years in a rural area surrounded by farms and woods. I relate to the remote location of the crash site because it could have happened in my “backyard”, so to speak.
Why am I driving to Shanksville on July 2, 2002? I feel tremendous sorrow for the tragedy of the doomed plane. The reality of Flight 93’s hijacking unfolded thousands of feet in the sky over my head.
I turned off the main road and was on a road that crested a hill. Houses and other buildings stood close together, meaning I approached a community. Shanksville had a population around 250. On this quiet weekday morning, I felt like an outsider, which I was. Almost embarrassed by my reasons for driving into town with out of state license plates. The townspeople have been thrust into unwarranted exposure to the world. Before September 11th, it really was a location off the beaten path. Less than ten months later, uninvited strangers suddenly appear in town and ask one question, “Where’s the crash site?”
Shanksville is a gracious and understanding community. At the stop sign a sign pointed the way out of town to a temporary memorial site for Flight 93. About two miles out of town the road turns right and I was getting closer to the location of the crash site. Up a narrow road, quite uphill and then the road crested the hill. A broad valley of abandoned strip coal mines lay shallow under the fields. A small pond was in the distance. This country road meandered down the hill, curved across the flat area and disappeared into wooded hills on the other side.
Nine months and three week’s after that fateful morning, I arrived at the turning point of American History. This is where brave Americans learned about the unfolding disasters with the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. They decided that they could not allow their airplane to destroy any landmark buildings in Washington. They wouldn’t sit cowering in fear and become a group of victims whose lives were to be taken by heartless terrorists with a hatred against America and all it represented.
They did not go down without a plan to change the course of history on September 11th. Their brave actions in the face of certain death did not hinder their resolve to stand together and fight in the battle to stop the terrorists. Three airplanes with innocent passengers had no choice in their deaths. A fourth airplane did not crash into any buildings. It was stopped before reaching any targets. The tragedy is everyone on that plane died. The triumph is the passengers and crew of United Flight 93 won the first battle against terrorism. They sacrificed their lives to protect other innocent Americans.
On July 2, 2002 I arrived at the turning point in American History. Events after September 11, 2001 have come to be known as the world BEFORE 9-11 and the world as we experience it now AFTER 9-11. I came to stand alongside other Americans who were somehow touched by Flight 93 and its tragedy. We were in a remote field overlooking the crash site in the distance. The actual area was surrounded by a chain-link fence and the crater of impact was filled with dirt. Grass was growing in the field again.
We came to see, to reflect, to understand, and to grieve at this hallowed place of honor. I was overcome with emotions. Angry that such senseless destruction of innocent lives were taken without warning. Full of sorrow that it did happen here and wonderful men and woman who had families who loved them and lives to live died here. I cried for them. It was emotionally overwhelming to stand at that memorial site and wish with all my heart no such place existed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The passengers and crew of United Flight 93 did not know the outcome of their heroic actions on September 11, 2001. Because they refused to be victims in the face of armed terrorists, other passengers on many other flights have risen up to stop attempted bombings and thwarted terrorists’ agendas of destruction.
The war on terroism began on September 11, 2001 and the world continues to this day to fight an enemy who would curtail and suppress our freedoms. We’ve fought in Iraq and Afghanistan–official warfare. But the first battle against terrorism was fought in the sky over Ohio and Pennsylvania and it was won in the quiet and remote country fields outside Shanksville.
This became more than a vacation road trip for me. I had no idea my reactions to being in this place would trigger a deep, emotional sense of honoring those men and women of Flight 93. I am proud to be an American standing is this area. But compared to their ultimate sacrifice for others, I’ve done nothing for my country. I am humbled and moved to pray for them and their families. Being here is more than a personal odyssey.
I am a pilgrim who journeyed to honor those brave passengers and crew for representing the best character Americans can display under duress and certain death. This is hallowed ground. Every American citizen who loves this country should come here. This will be a memorial to represent and honor the heroes of September 11, 2001. Every American citizen should stand on this ground and search their own hearts for the meaning of this struggle to protect the freedom of our country.
This is indeed a turning point in American History. This place, right here. I have no words to convey the surprise of emotions that rushed over me by gazing over the fields to the area of the crash site. They were all the best that America offers the world. They were heroes. As long as people care and build the memorial for what happened here–we will never forget.