Maybe like a lot of people you remember exactly where you were at the onset of the events of 9/11. I was doing morning nursing rounds in a small rural hospital in Western Pennsylvania when one of my patients pointed to his television and said, incredulously: “Hey. Look at that. A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center”.
The news stations in New York already had cameras on the North tower sending live images of the black smoke billowing from the gaping hole made by the initial crash, so when the second plane blasted into the South Tower (literally out of the blue) the images were in real time and momentarily too stunning to comprehend. The news anchor gasped and then scrambled to provide commentary (until that point, it sounded like the first crash was a small private plane that had just made a really bad error). A short time later the third plane hit the Pentagon (my youngest sister lives just south of the Pentagon and felt the impact as a resounding BOOM beneath her feet). On the heels of the information about the Pentagon, we heard rumors that there was a hijacked plane flying toward Pittsburgh, and soon afterward, our hospital was notified that a flight had crashed in farmland closeby and that we were being placed on alert to receive a possible influx of patients and/or bodies for morgue services. Suddenly, the catastrophe was on our doorstep.
For us, as perhaps for the whole nation, it seemed as though something like the end of the world might be in progress. Although the hospital staff stayed diligent and calm, there was panic in the communities related to getting children home from the schools because no one really knew what was coming next. The information trickling in from Shanksville and on the news from the other sites was heartbreaking. There would be no patients and no bodies arriving because there were none.
Fast-forward nearly 14 years. Our little family has dinner together on Sunday evenings and this past Sunday we headed further into the mountains to eat at an old inn many miles away. As we were already out on the backroads on a brilliant Spring day, we took the detour to visit the Flight 93 Memorial, now a federally-run park, as my husband hadn’t seen it.
The drive into the park curves through a breathtaking panorama of fields and blue mountains. An ultra-modern concrete “learning center” is being built on a hilltop overlooking the crash site. The road curves past 105 acres of newly-planted trees, ending at a modest visitors’ center of wood and glass. Beyond that, at the end of a long walkway, there’s a sleek polished-stone Memorial Wall where the names of those aboard the plane are inscribed. Beside the Memorial Wall is the crash site itself – a fenced-off area of open field at the edge of a thick forest.
The timeline of the flight is given on signboards outside the visitors’ center as well as information and photos of the crew and passengers. The hijackers are not named and scarcely mentioned anywhere at the site.
For those who may have been young when this happened and don’t remember much about this day, the flight left Newark, New Jersey bound for San Francisco, California. It was hijacked and turned back around over eastern Ohio and flew back over Pittsburgh. The target was thought to be either the Capitol or the White House in Washington, D.C.
The passengers and crew were from all across the United States, Germany and Japan, and were of many different ethnicities and ages. After the pilots were killed and the plane taken over, the passengers called their loved ones from the plane’s Airfones and learned what had happened to the other flights. A passenger named Todd Beamer got ahold of an Airfone operator, calmly gave her information about what was had transpired, and told her of the passengers’ plan to take the plane back by overpowering the hijackers, as by then they knew there was no hope. He then asked the operator to pray with him, which she did. At the end of the call, he was heard saying to the others “Are you ready? OK, Let’s roll”.
Although buses and carloads of visitors to the Memorial come and go, there is little superfluous conversation and the general tone is one of gravity and respect. There is little to indicate the horror of what happened there. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine a place of more peace and beauty.
Three hours after the crash, one of the first FBI agents to arrive at the site reported seeing, to the left of the smoldering crater, shimmering lights which became a mist from which emerged hundreds of angels in lined formation with their wings stretched upward toward the sky, lead by what she believed was the archangel Michael.