The September 11, 2001 wave of terrorism that struck our nation began in perhaps the world's most bustling city, continued in our nation's capital, and ended in a reclaimed strip mine two miles north of the tiny coal mining town of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It was in a peaceful field on the outskirts of this town of 245 people, located in Somerset County 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh that the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 slammed into the ground at 10:03 a.m., killing all 45 people aboard and forever linking Shanksville with the worst terrorist attacks ever orchestrated on United States soil.
The Boeing 757's scheduled departure from Newark, New Jersey to San Francisco, California was delayed 40 minutes before it took off at 8:41 a.m. Forty-five minutes into the airliner's flight, as it headed toward Cleveland, Ohio, it abruptly veered off course and headed southeast toward Washington. All contact was lost with Flight 93 until it was seen careening over the skies of Somerset County, flying very low to the ground.
Citing an eyewitness account, The Somerset Daily American wrote "Bob Blair was completing a routine drive to Shade Creek just after 10 a.m. Tuesday, when he saw a huge silver plane fly past him just above the treetops and crash into the woods along Lambertsville Road. Blair, of Stoystown, a driver with Jim Barron Trucking of Somerset, was traveling in a coal truck along with Doug Miller of Somerset, when they saw the plane spiraling to the ground and then explode." "I saw the plane flying upside down overhead and crash into the nearby trees. My buddy, Doug, and I grabbed our fire extinguishers and ran to the scene," Blair told the Daily American.
The plane flew over a hillside and slammed into the edge of a wooded area at an estimated 550-600 miles an hour, killing all 37 passengers and seven crew members. According to local witnesses, a gigantic mushroom cloud extended into the air immediately after the crash as residents and emergency responders arrived to the scene within minutes. A smoking crater and millions of tiny airplane fragments could be found up to 8 miles from the crash site.
In the days following the crash, with clues provided by the plane's voice recorder and black box, investigators were able to learn of the fascinating events with led to the plane's demise. As the four terrorists, wearing red bandanas, approached the cockpit and took over control, passengers and crew members were able to make phone calls to friends and loved ones. Through these calls they learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and realized that their plane was also a planned victim of terrorism.
These conversations and the cockpit voice recorder then revealed that the passengers collectively decided to attack the cockpit and thwart the terrorists' goals. Led by passenger Todd Beamer with his now famous words "Let's roll," the passengers attacked the cockpit and eventually overpowered the terrorists, with their struggle resulting in the plane crashing. The story of the courageous passengers brought national attention to the town of Shanksville and Flight 93 became a symbol of selflessness and sacrifice.
The residents of Shanksville remained in shock for weeks, as hoards of media, investigators, and tourists descended upon the town. A shocking sense that a town of 245 people survived an international incident with no life lost took hold. "In Shanksville there's a startling awareness that we were close to annihilation," Sylvia Baker, pastor of the Assembly of God church, told the Chicago Tribune a year after the events. "We survived an international incident in our back yard. . . . God did protect our little town."
Thousands of people gathered at the crash site, which became a place of impromptu gathering and remembrance. Flowers, flags, and memorials were placed at the site and locals spent weeks after the crash providing comfort and housing assistance to the families of the victims. A 40-foot long section of fence became a makeshift memorial, as visitors left behind handwritten messages, cards, flowers, baseball caps, flags, photographs, and countless other personal items. Five flags adorn the top of the memorial, which is flanked by plaques honoring the victims. Park benches displaying the names of each victim sit adjacent to the memorial, facing a plaque engraved with the names of all who lost their lives that day.
Shanksville residents began taking turns supervising the site, in large part due to a sense of appreciation of the heroic efforts of the passengers. These residents soon formed a group of 43 people known as the Ambassadors, volunteering time to greet visitors, give accounts of the events of that day, and answer any questions about the site. President Bush visited Shanksville a year after the event, remarking, "Let us also remember that the first victory in this war came on a hijacked plane bound for the nation's capital. Somehow the brave men and women on Flight 93, knowing they would die, found the courage to use their final moments to save the lives of others . . . Few are called to show the kind of valor seen on Flight 93, or on the field of battle. Yet all of us do share a calling: Be strong in adversity and unafraid in danger." Former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani also visited the site, speaking at the Shanksville High School Graduation in May 2002.
As the impromptu memorial continued to grow exponentially with supporters and memorial markers, county and regional leaders as well as the families of the crew and passengers pushed for an official memorial to honor the victims, and within six months federal legislation was introduced to create a national monument. On September 24, 2002, the legislation was passed by a unanimous vote of the House and Senate and signed into law by President George W. Bush, preserving the crash site as a unit of the National Park Service and establishing a 15 member commission to oversee planning and creation of the memorial.
A $57,000,000 memorial project was designed which would include a memorial area, visitor center, and supporting infrastructure. The Flight 93 Advisory Committee outlined the mission statement of the project: "A common field one day. A field of honor forever. May all who visit this place remember the collective acts of courage and sacrifice of the passengers and crew, revere this hallowed ground as the final resting place of those heroes, and reflect on the power of individuals who choose to make a difference." The opening date of the memorial is scheduled for September 11, 2011, the 10-year anniversary of the attacks. Phase 1 was dedicated on September 10, 2011, which included the memorial plaza, arrival court and visitor facilities, ring road and field of honor, and entrance and approach road. Phase 2 is currently under construction.
While the town of Shanksville has long since settled back into normalcy, the temporary memorial still attracts over 130,000 visitors annually with hundreds of organized tours of the site, remembering those who gave their lives to save the lives of others. The Ambassadors still serve at the site and often provide housing to visitors and the families of the victims. The national memorial will honor the lives lost during the events and tragedy of 9/11, and will forever link that day to an open field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.