Last September, after terrorists attacked the United States, most of the focus centered on the destruction and lives lost at New York's World Trade Center and at the Pentagon. But outside the small agricultural town of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, a fourth hijacked plane crashed into an open field, killing all 44 people aboard. That story of heroism continues to unfold. The passengers of Flight 93 overtook the hijackers and foiled their plot to kill perhaps thousands more. When people from all over the country starting arriving in Shanksville to pay homage to the crash victims, the community quickly established a temporary memorial. In the past year, thousands of people have visited the site, including VOA's Robin Rupli.
It's very quiet here at the memorial site, on a grassy hill overlooking a vast field in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. The only sound that breaks the peace and quiet is the wind that whips through the flags surrounding the memorial. That, and the conversations of visitors who have come to sign their names, leave behind personal items, or simply contemplate the site about a 100 meters away, marked with a single American flag, where a Boeing 757 slammed into the ground.
There are flowers, wreaths and 40 little "Angels of Freedom" made of slate that stand in a row, bearing the name of every passenger who died aboard the United Airlines flight. The passengers on Flight 93 were the only hijacked victims of September 11 who had prior knowledge of the attacks in New York and Washington. They fought the hijackers to prevent them from killing more civilians. Wendy Hartnett, a Pennsylvania teacher, reflects on their bravery as she visits the memorial with her children.
"One of the things that I think about is just God's sovereignty," she said. "That plane could have crashed anywhere. And yet, it came down in a field where no one else was injured, hurt, and it just gives me goose-bumps thinking about the bravery of the people on the flight, them bringing the plane down and the further disaster it prevented."
In the last year, 4,000-6,000 visitors a week from around the country and the world have made the pilgrimage to Shanksville. Most of them leave small gifts and other personal items at the memorial as a way of honoring the victims. Today, those gifts number in the thousands.
It is the responsibility of Barbara Black, curator of the local historical society, to collect and archive them. Among the mementos are key chains, business cards, clothing, American flags made of different fabrics or wood and hats with insignias from various organizations. There are even bottles of beer that say, 'have a drink on us, for all those who gave their lives for the land of the free.' Ms. Black says among the items is a uniform left at the crash site by a United Airlines flight attendant.
"And she left it in tribute to her coworkers and friends who she lost on September 11," said Ms. Black. "And the sight of this dress, this dark navy blue dress with its obvious United Airlines tag on the neck, was extremely emotional for most people. Even the strongest broke down when they saw this. And it quickly became a place that people reverently stood around and placed candles near it and roses lying on the dress and it was very much a focus of a very strong tribute."
Barbara Black says she believes people will continue to visit the Flight 93 memorial long after the first September 11 anniversary. Especially family members of the victims who will return to visit their loved ones' final resting place.
"They do consider it a sacred place. And there will be private places for them to be. Because it is a cemetery."
Volunteer guides at the memorial site answer visitors' questions or tell their own stories about what it was like to be near there on September 11. Volunteer Roxanne Sullivan, whose house stands just meters away from where the plane came down, says she lived surrounded by police and the FBI for weeks, who prohibited her from leaving her property.
"They said, since there's a tree line between you and the crash site, we're going to let you stay but you have three rules and you must abide by them: Number one, you have to check in and out with the police at all times, you can have no visitors and you can not leave your property line." Ms. Sullivan said that went on for two weeks. "You can't even imagine what that was like. I cried the first three days. Because of all the excitement - all the helicopters in the air and the police running everywhere - I didn't know what to do."
Ms. Sullivan described the changes in the neighborhood over the past year. "he biggest difference is traffic. Traffic, traffic, traffic! We used to get five cars a day ... and it was very, very peaceful, very quiet," she recalled. "And now, it's gone. Our peace and quiet is totally gone. I can't walk to the mailbox without somebody stopping me, asking me directions to get here, what it's like to live here."
But in spite of the disruptions that have affected her life and community in the last year, Roxanne Sullivan says she feels honored to share her story and the story of the passengers of Flight 93, whose bravery in the air may have saved her life and countless others.
A permanent memorial, still in the planning stages, will include ideas from the crash victims' families. It will stand on the same grassy hill as the current one, overlooking a peaceful vista in the hills of western Pennsylvania.