On September 11, 2001 United Airlines flight 93 was bound for San Francisco, California when some passengers rose up against their attackers. Forty passengers and crew as well as four hijackers died when the plane crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Today a temporary memorial, located next to the crash site, honors the victims.
Flight 93 was one of four U.S. airliners hijacked by terrorists. Although the story will never be completely known, the passengers of Flight 93 attacked the four hijackers on the plane. The terrorists had taken the plane off course and it was believed to be headed for Washington, D.C.
Through cell phone calls to their families and emergency operators, the passengers knew the other hijacked planes had crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. Just before Flight 93 went down, an emergency operator heard Todd Beamer telling his fellow passengers, “Let’s roll.”
The crash site doesn’t look like much now. An American flag on top a pile of fenced-in earth. But when Flight 93 plunged into the ground, almost totally disintegrating on impact, it created a fiery crater.
Shanksville resident John Fox was one of the first on the scene. “A big ball of fire flew up in the air up over the tree tops," he said. "And then a little later on, a big smoke stream came up and pieces flew apart from the plane and, you know, different things like that. There was no big, heavy fire.”
Roxanne Sullivan lives in one of the homes closest to the crash. “I was very sad and I was very scared. I sat and cried, that’s what I did. I cried for almost two days straight,” she said. The plane went down just beyond her house, shaking her property but causing no damage.
“There was nothing left really to take pictures of other then a hole in the ground and some debris lying about," said Jim Oliver, editor of the local newspaper, The Daily American said. "So there really were no images, so I think that’s the primary reason this has never received the attention of the other two incidents.”
Eventually, the crater caused by the crash was filled with dirt. The site is still designated a crime scene and is guarded. It is also considered sacred ground where only family members of the passengers are allowed to go.
After the crash, local coroner Wally Miller had to make sense out of the little that was left of the bodies. He’s concerned about the victims’ families, many of whom have become friends.
“They don’t know anybody out here, they don’t have any ties, no relatives," he said. "And I think that long after the attention on September 11 fades into history, these people are still going to be coming out here and I think we need to remember that out here.”
Local politician Pamela Tokar-Ickes says even though people in the community didn’t know the victims, they reached out. “This is just what we do. When all else fails, you cook, you volunteer, you do what you can to help,” she said.
Some of them are volunteering to help visitors at the memorial. “People want to tell you where they were on September 11, and what their feelings are, and we comfort people and do a lot of listening," said Donna Glessner, one of the volunteers. "When I meet family members...I cry with them.”
Visitors to the memorial often leave mementos, such as wreaths, angels, and flags, some from other countries. “I feel we were really violated that day and the people who were on that plane, I think, saved a lot of other people’s lives when they did what they did,” said Cliff Morelzik, a retired police officer from New Jersey, He left an emblem from a law enforcement motorcycle club he belongs to.
The curator at the local historical society, Barbara Black, says a board where visitors write messages was one of the first things left at the memorial. “It has so much meaning for us and it was so visible and you could see it from so far away. It says ‘our prayers are with you’ and it really expressed what a lot of people were thinking.”
Handmade wooden angels represent each passenger on the plane. “Marian Britton was one of the passengers on Flight 93. And one of her relatives came and put a necklace on the angel because he said that she always wore necklaces and he wanted to make her angel wear a necklace too,” she said.
Ms. Black regularly picks up the items left behind by visitors and brings them to the Historical Society. They are being collected so some of them can be put on display at a permanent memorial planned at the crash site. Included is a United Airlines flight attendant’s uniform that was left on the ground.
“It brought many tears to the visitors when they first saw (it)," she said. "and soon people began to lay roses on it, and it was just beautiful with roses all around it.”
She said poems visitors write are especially touching. One of them is from a brother of one of the passengers who died. It says:
“Dear sister Wanda:
We cannot know what lies ahead from day to passing day.
What changes God is planning in his wise and loving way.
We cannot know the reasons we allow both joy and tears.
Why we must lose the precious ones we’ve cherished through the years.”
Ms. Black said the tragedy of Flight 93 has brought Shanksville and the surrounding community closer together. It’s also brought out a lot more American flags displayed in tribute to the passengers who died.