Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Common Field

It looks like so many other fields scattered throughout the rolling hills of southwestern Pennsylvania.  But this field has become a solemn place and so it will always remain.  It was here, on the morning of September 11, 2001, that a commercial jet - United Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco - fell out of a clear and quiet autumn sky killing its 33  passengers and seven crew.  Also killed were the four young men who had hijacked the plane as it passed over northeastern Ohio, turning it in the direction of Washington, DC.

No one of a certain age who was alive on that September morning will ever forget the images of the two commercial jets flying wanton into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, in New York City, or the thick pall of black smoke rising from the Pentagon after a third airliner flew into its western elevation.  But few seem to remember the fourth jet, the one that never reached its destination or its intended target.  I hope I can rectify that overnight.

Personally, I will never forget the fate of United Flight 93, and for over a decade I have wanted to visit this solemn place near rural Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  The reason for this being the fact that had it made its way to its intended target, which was rumored to have been either the White House or the Capitol Building, I might not be sitting here writing this today.  That fateful morning I was at my desk  just three short blocks from the White House.  Despite the fear in Washington that day, I did not, at the time, consider myself in imminent danger.  I joined my colleagues as we followed the unfolding of those tragic events and the confusion that ensued.  We heard reports that other jets were headed our way.  There were reports of fires and explosions throughout the city, none of which turned out to be true.  Finally, I joined thousands of others as we crowded the streets and sidewalks and made our way out of the city on foot, the smoke of the burning Pentagon profaning what was otherwise a cloudless, robin egg blue sky.  It was not until I watched the unfolding news reports at home that afternoon that I heard for the first time the fate of the fourth jet that crashed before it reached Washington.  It was only then that I realized my day could have ended very differently than it did. 

We will never know with absolute certainty what happened on board United Flight 93 on that tragic morning. It departed from Newark at 8:42am, almost 25 minutes late due to heavy traffic in the area that morning.  Four minutes after it took off American Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.  Seventeen minutes later United Flight 175 struck the south tower.  Roughly a half hour after that, at 9:37am, American Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon.  Following the first three hijackings, the FAA and individual airlines began to warn their planes in flight to be aware of possible “cockpit intrusions” while the FAA ordered all civilian aircraft in American skies - approximately 45,000 planes - to land immediately, the first and only time that this has occurred in US aviation history.  United 93 received the cockpit intrusion warning at 9:24am, just four minutes before the hijackers went into action and the flight deck declared a “Mayday” distress call as the plane was approaching Cleveland.  In the background air traffic controllers could hear the sounds of a physical struggle in the cockpit as the crew repeatedly said “get out of here.”   Four minutes later the hijackers informed the passengers, who had been moved to the rear of the cabin, that they had a bomb and that the plane was returning to Newark.  Some of the passengers contacted family and friends by phone.  Thirteen passengers placed a total of 37 separate calls, describing what was happening, telling that the hijackers were armed with knives and claimed to have a bomb, and that some of the crew might already be dead.  The passengers also learned for the first time that three jets had already crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  They quickly realized that their plane was also destined for an unknown target.  They were doomed unless they decided to act and take control of their own fate.

It was also during these phone conversation that people on the ground learned that the passengers had discussed and voted on whether to rush the hijackers in an attempt to regain control of the plane. They decided, and acted, and shortly before 10 am, a half hour after the hijacking and as the plane passed near the Pittsburgh airport, a group of passengers rushed the front of the cabin.  The air traffic controllers in Cleveland heard, and the cockpit recorder picked up, the sounds of the struggle, a series of loud thumps, crashes, shouts, and breaking glasses and plates as the passengers and hijackers fought and the hijacker pilot pitched and rolled the aircraft in an attempt to knock the  passengers off their feet.  The sounds of fighting continued outside the cockpit until the very end.  Realizing that they were losing control of the aircraft, one of the hijackers asked, “Is that it? I mean, shall we put it down?”   Another answered, “Yes, put it in it, and pull it down.”  Shortly after 10am, as the struggle for control of the aircraft continued, the hijackers rolled the plane on it back.  Again a hijacker ordered, “Put it down.”  That was it.  United Flight 93 plowed into an empty field 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh and 124 miles from Washington, DC . . . just 20 minutes’ flying time from the target in Washington it never reached.  It was traveling 580 miles per hour at the time of impact and left a crater almost ten feet deep and 30 to 50 feet wide and surrounded by an extensive 70-acre debris field.  All 40 passengers and crew, as well as the four hijackers, were killed instantly.  The four hijacked aircraft strikes killed nearly 3000 people that morning, the deadliest foreign attack on American soil. 

The destruction of the two airplanes in New York, and the aftermath of the Pentagon attack, are well-documented in photographs and film footage.  The crash of United Flight 93, however, had few witnesses.  People on the ground observed the plane flying very low and fast and moving about erratically. Shortly before impact, a number of residents in the small hamlet of Lambertsville, just northwest of the crash site, witnessed the plane’s final moments.  One told of a “horrific” and “deafening” noise as it passed overhead.  Others told how their houses and windows vibrated violently.  They ran outside to watch the inverted plane disappear over a ridge to the southeast, there was a huge explosion, and a mushrooming fireball rose into the sky followed by a thick cloud  of black smoke glittering with the metallic debris reflecting the morning sunlight.  One of the residents took a photograph of the smoke as it rose over the crash site.

The first responders arrived approximately fifteen minutes after the crash but there was nothing they could do.  All they found was a smoldering crater, some burning trees, and a broad expanse of largely unrecognizable debris.  A very small section of the fuselage was the only evidence that a plane had crashed, while some debris was found as far as eight miles from the crash site.  There was nothing else.  Much of the aftermath and clean-up was completed far from the prying eyes of the public and the media, all of which added to the legend surrounding the fate of the jet and those who died.  The FBI launched the largest investigation in its history as the site, thanks to its isolated setting, was the only one of the three that day that would offer up valuable evidence as to who planned and executed the attack.

A week ago my wife and I traveled to Columbus, Ohio to visit family, and on the return trip to Maryland we took a slight detour off the Pennsylvania Turnpike to visit this common field that will forever be a memorial to those who died here on September 11, 2001.  There are small memorials to United Flight 93 located at the turnpike rest stops near the Somerset exit, but I wanted to visit the actual site which is located 18 miles from Somerset, near rural hamlets of Shanksville and Lambertsville.

The area was first settled in the late 18th century.  Then it was mostly wooded with a scattering of small farms and their cultivated fields and pastures.  Surface strip mining for coal began to transform this landscape in the 1950s, a practice which lasted into the mid-1990s.  Abandoned mining machinery still litters the area.  Events on that September morning almost twelve years ago have forever changed this area as it has been seared into the American conscience. This common field will tell the lasting and compelling story of courage.

There were a number of makeshift memorials to United Flight 93 in the early years after the tragedy.  Even while the FBI was conducting its investigation, there was a long row of hay bales festooned with signs, flags, balloons, stuffed animals and other memorabilia.   Congress designated the site a National Memorial, in 2002, and since then there has been an ongoing effort to restore the area by reforestation and the planting of memorial groves of trees and wild flowers, as well as to design and construct a lasting memorial to the brave crew and passengers who stood up to terrorism the only way they could . . . by standing together. 

It opened to the public last year and it is still very much a work in progress.  There is a small visitors shelter adjacent the parking area which sits atop a broad, wind-swept hill offering a broad panorama of the surrounding Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania.  A permanent visitors center is in the works.  After viewing a number of information panels telling the story of September 11 and United Flight 93, one walks along a long sloping black wall which demarcates the northern edge of the debris field which is closed to the public.  Following the completion of the lengthy FBI investigation, the Somerset County coroner, who along with the FBI was able to positively identify all of the victims, ordered the site filled in and it now constitutes the final resting place of the 40 passengers and crew who died here. The identifiable remains of the hijackers were removed and turned over to the FBI.  Across this field, along the southern edge of the crash site, is a stand of hemlock partially destroyed by fire.  There is a single large boulder which now marks where the impact occurred.  At the end of the long walkway is the Wall of Names, a series of 40 white marble panels, each inscribed with the name of one of the passengers and crew.  

It was a difficult, emotional and sobering moment for me to stand there alone.   Had these brave women and men not banded together in a final moment of courage before they died, I could have very well been one of the thousands who were killed and wounded on that otherwise peaceful late summer morning.  Blessed be their memories.  I, for one, will never forget them.

[*] The information on the actual hijacking and crash of United Flight 93 is a summary of what appears in the official 9/11 Commission Report - Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States - released on July 22, 2004 following a two year investigation of all available data. Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more photos.

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