Museum speaker addresses memorial that honors heroes of Flight 93

Ken Wallech and Anne Gale pick up literature related to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville. Brendan Wilson, left, National Park Service senior ranger, spoke to area residents about the recently-dedicated memorial, which now has "a place on the nation's honor roll of iconic places, with Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor. What began as an ordinary morning ended as an historic day."

The Flight 93 National Memorial is, above all, a tribute to the passengers of the doomed flight of Sept. 11, 2001. National Park Service ranger Brendan Wilson spoke about the 40 passengers and crew to visitors at Allison-Antrim Museum on Sept. 29. He was a featured speaker as the five week exhibit of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 drew to a close.

"In less than 30 minutes they figured out what was happening on the eastern seaboard, came up with a plan and took action," he said. "The 9/11 Commission ruled the terrorists were defeated by the alerted, unarmed passengers and crew. The terrorists thought it better to crash than to lose control of the plane."

And so the commercial airliner, believed headed to the U.S. Capitol, dove at a 40-degree angle at 563 miles per hour into a field near Shanksville in Somerset County. The old surface coal mine land was in the process of being reclaimed. Only two people are known to have witnessed the event. The men were cutting scrap metal in a nearby yard at 10:03 a.m. when the 757 Boeing went down. The 44 people on board the Newark to San Francisco flight were dead, the debris smashed 40 feet into the ground.

Because one passenger had called 9-11 on the credit card-activated airplane telephone, area fire companies knew what had crashed. When they arrived on the scene, there was nothing to do but put out some fires in the adjoining woods and secure the site for the FBI, state police and other agencies. Their duties helped law enforcement gather valuable evidence, said Wilson.

Most of the information about the flight came from the passengers, he continued. Beginning at 9:28 a.m., they made 37 phone calls. A few people became instant heroes based on their publicized calls, including Todd Beamer. A telephone operator heard him say, "Are you guys ready? Let's roll."

Wilson said authorities believe everyone on board, as a group, decided to do something. They were boiling water, considering possible weapons, waiting until the plane was over a rural area. A Fish and Wildlife officer never made a call, but Wilson thought he would have been making plans. A woman who was district manager of a national retail store told a relative, "It's beginning. I've got to go. I love you. Good-bye." A flight attendant said, "Everyone's running to the front. I have to go."

Wilson reiterated that ordinary people did extraordinary things.

The memorial

The public immediately began coming to the restricted field to pay their respects to the victims. They left patriotic items, messages, medals and photographs. The movement grew, so that a public-private partnership formed to create a permanent memorial. The design features a walkway that parallels the flight path, 40 inscribed marble panels, a plaza and new roads to facilitate the thousands of visitors. The National Park Service owns 1,500 of the 2,220 acres. The first phase was dedicated on Sept. 10. Still coming are a visitor center, groves with 40 rows of 40 trees, and a Tower of Voices along Route 30, which will be windchimes to act as a sentinel.

The park is open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. It is staffed by park rangers.

As Wilson concluded his slide presentation, the names of the pilot, first officer, five flight attendants and 33 passengers scrolled across the screen, to absolute silence from the crowd of 60.

"The memorial is the story of people," he said quietly.