Although Gordon Felt has racked up thousands of kilometers on the road over the last 14 years, travelling between his home in upstate New York and rural Somerset County, Pennsylvania, he said he has traveled a greater distance searching for healing.
The passage of time hasn’t made it any easier for him to be here.
“It doesn’t ease our pain. But it helps,” said Felt.
Fourteen years ago, there was chaos and horror in this field, when a hijacked Boeing 757 out of Newark, New Jersey headed for San Francisco plummeted to the ground.
A federal investigation into the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 at the edge of a forest near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, lasted weeks beyond September 11, 2001.
It ultimately yielded information that the men and women who boarded the plane on that sunny, clear morning became heroes in the skies somewhere over Pennsylvania as they tried to reclaim the cockpit from the terrorists who hijacked the plane.
Gordon Felt’s brother Edward was one of the passengers.
Although the outcome of their actions remains a personal tragedy for Felt, the collective story of the passengers is at the center of a defining moment in American history.
“It is surreal at times,” Felt said while peering through a window toward the field. “Early on, it became evident to us very quickly that our loved ones … that the events surrounding their deaths, had historical significance to our country.”
The last 30 minutes of Edward Felt’s life and those of the 39 others on the plane with him, is now explained through artifacts and interactive displays in the new Flight 93 National Memorial Visitor Center, situated on a hilltop above the field where the plane’s journey ended.
In displays using facts and information pieced together in the subsequent investigation, family members of those lost on 9/11 hope visitors will understand the full impact of the actions of their loved ones.
“They’ll get a sense of who those 40 heroes were,” said Felt, “as well as what their collective actions did to help save the Capitol building that morning.”
Saving the Capitol
When the hijackers took control of the cockpit on Flight 93, they turned the plane around and headed east. It is believed they intended to crash the plane into either the White House or the nation's Capitol.
“It just amazes me that this aircraft was just 18 minutes away from hitting Washington, D.C.,” said Stephen Clark, superintendent with the National Park Service. “When you think about over 5,000 people inside that Capitol, which is most likely the intended target, just how different this nation would be had we lost every single legislator.”
Clark said the Flight 93 National Memorial, a sprawling 890-hectare complex with a road roughly five kilometers long from the entrance to the location of the memorial, has become a popular tourist attraction in this rural — and before 9/11 remote — part of America.
“We are right around 325,000 a year, but there’s no question with the opening of this particular visitor center and learning center we are scheduled to double if not triple that in a very short period of time” he said.
Felt said the site is a draw for millions, including those born after 9/11. “This is a story that still resonates with people, 14 years later.”
That is why Felt says the families of those lost on Flight 93 banded together soon after the tragedy, even though returning to Shanksville was painful — and still is.
“It’s important for me to be here,” Felt said, fighting back tears. “It’s important, I feel, family members be involved in this process.”
And involved they have been, from a lengthy and difficult process of acquiring the land at the site, to the design of the $26 million Visitors Center, to the stock of coffee cups and t-shirts respectfully sold in the gift shop.
Felt said it is all in the hopes that visitors will be inspired. “I want people to walk out of this memorial and say to themselves, 'If it was me, could I have done what they did?'”
It is a question visitors can ponder while looking out at the final flight path — now set in dark granite stone — of United Airlines Flight 93.