The Flight 93 Memorial’s Natural Harmony and Simple Beauty

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The Flight 93 memorial near Shanksville, Pa., fits in well with the natural landscape that surrounds it. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, I remember there was some confusion as to the exact location of where United Flight 93, which was heading toward Washington, D.C., had crashed. I recall some reports that it was “near Pittsburgh.” Others played it safe with a vague description as “in Pennsylvania.” Later, the pinpointed location of the crash was said to be “near Somerset.”

It didn’t really matter at the time. Most eyes were glued to television coverage of what was happening in Lower Manhattan, so the precise location of the Flight 93 crash wasn’t of major concern, except to those to may have thought momentarily that something had happened to Pittsburgh, too.

As the geographic ambiguity remained, official statements of grief and condolence poured in from around the world. I distinctly recall a few statements reacting to the horrific tragedies in New York, Washington “and Pittsburgh.”

Eventually, the chosen reference point for the remote crash site was Shanksville, a tiny borough off the Lincoln Highway in Somerset County.

In the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks while on roadtrips between Michigan and Washington, D.C., I simply sped by on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. There weren’t any turnpike exits in the immediate area of where a national Flight 93 memorial would take shape, a site previously used for surface mining.

While there still isn’t convenient turnpike access to the Flight 93 memorial, it’s only about 3 miles from the Lincoln Highway, so it made sense to visit the site since I was passing through on U.S. 30.

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Understanding the geography of the site of the Flight 93 memorial is critical to understanding the tragedy that happened here. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

Although I had followed the debates over the design of the World Trade Center memorial and was familiar with the design of the Pentagon’s 9/11 memorial, I don’t recall ever hearing much about the Flight 93 memorial design. My bet is that most Americans had tuned out the site near Shanksville just as I had.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect at the memorial when I approached it on the long and winding access road up from the Lincoln Highway.

When I arrived at the memorial plaza, I discovered a beautifully simple and dignified site commemorating the 40 passengers and crew members who died when the plane slammed into the ground at more than 560 mph, nearly upside down and at a 40 degree angle.

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