A Wrong Turn to the Flight 93 Memorial

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There’s something wrong with the Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania.

I had taken a wrong turn and was trapped on the wrong highway through the endless forests of Pennsylvania when I passed a brown sign for the memorial. Oh, that’s right! I’m near where the plane crashed on 9-11. I’m always on the lookout for those brown signs. No app is as valuable.

You approach the building on the edge of the hill on a perfectly straight sidewalk that feels a little like a runway and it leads you to a gap in the high white walls ahead and then to an overlook so you can stand above a field, the actual crash site not far beyond and below.

You are standing not so much on a runway, it turns out, but upon a flight line of Flight 93, perhaps even upon its shadow. Inscribed on darker bands across the runway are the take-off times of each of four planes from that day, a designation indicating the order and target, the airline’s name, and their flight number. I’m saying there is a band for each plane but perhaps there are only three–one band for each of the other planes not memorialized here? I can’t recall now. The bands appear at erratic intervals, representing take-off times or perhaps crash times. I’m not sure of this. I’m not sure of a lot of things.

There is an inscription at the end of the runway, white lettering on the clear acrylic panel at the end of the overlook. “A common field one day. A field of honor forever.” The cadence of the words is off, like a mistranslation. The phrasing is militaristic, suggestive of a battlefield, not a crash site.

The large white wall is a building, created in a sweeping style reminiscent of flight or of an airport. There’s a door, largely hidden, and when you enter it you come first to a gift shop, then beyond is the museum. The museum is closed.

The memorial has two basic parts. An upper area with the white building and a lower area that we could see below. A dirt trail takes you down, the beginning of the trail marked by a small sign located just behind the restroom building, back aways along the runway. There were no other signs guiding you to it. The sign, when you find it, simply reads “Hiking Trail” with the universal symbol of a person with a backpack and walking stick. Like you were going hiking.

The dirt trail winds its way down, with lots of sharp switchbacks.

Eventually you come to the memorial itself, a series of white marble panels, arrayed vertically in a way to suggest an accordion-folded strip of paper. The ones on the right all have names inscribed on them, the names of the passengers and crew and the crew panels have an additional engraving, very faint, indicating their job title. The panels to the left are inexplicably blank.

The wall is lined up directly under the flight path of the airplane, just a few feet above in 2001, though the plane must have flown in a straight line, not the jiggly line of the wall.

The stones, as I said, are white but they are not really white. It’s marble after all and maybe it is the nature of marble or maybe there has been a flood, but the bottom few feet of each of the panels is stained-looking, ugly and dirty looking.

A sign elsewhere notes that the “Wall of Names is made of unique marble panels which symbolize each person’s individuality.” Each panel looks the same.

The is more to the memorial, lots more, but there is nothing there. For a quarter of a mile, far more it seems when you walk it, a black stone pathway, suggestive of asphalt, leads along the edge of the field where the plane first struck and the crash debris still no doubt lies scattered. The black path, wide enough for a crowd, skirts the field with an angled embankment to the right and overly large platforms on the left, platforms which could be used for sitting, though some are large enough to picnic upon.

About halfway down along the path there is a small shelf built into the wall. On it are mementos from relatives of the dead, a baseball cap with the words “U.S. Air Force” embroidered on the brim, a stone painted blue with “Believe” upon it in yellow, a Lexington police badge, numerous bracelets. A sign nearby indicates there are several of these shelves but there is only the one.

There used to be a makeshift memorial here, full of private left-behinds. This is a nod to that earlier, spontaneous shrine.

The black stone path goes on and on, without adornment. I keep thinking that in the design software this must have taken about five minutes to draw. Ten for the Wall of Names. Five for the black path. Done.

Out in the debris field there is a large boulder, set there before the memorial was designed to indicate the location of the crater, now filled in, created by the impact of the fast-flying jet. Entry to the debris field is prohibited except for crash victim families on certain days. Back at the wall a heavy, serious wooden gate blocks the path into the field, the right side of the gate up against the Wall of Names, the right side up against a short, second white marble wall, matching the other. I wonder what that second white wall might symbolize. I can think of nothing.

I walk back to the Wall itself, back to the flight line and try to put the memorial out of my mind. I try to imagine what it would have been like standing here when the plane came screaming out of the sky, tried to imagine the explosion, the rain of debris, the noise and the shake of the Earth. I try to imagine what it would have been like on board, to be amongst the passengers, to be talking, voting, to attack the attackers. I try to imagine what my own vote would have been, what my own actions would have been. I try to be honest. I breathe in deeply, tipping my head back toward that oncoming plane, the sun on my face, my eyes blinded.

This post is from a series of articles chronicling a 2020 cross-country trip with my wife and two daughters and a boyfriend, from California to Ohio (to visit family) and Pennsylvania (to drop off my oldest daughter at grad school), and then back. We spent over five weeks on the road during the pandemic.

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