Honoring the dead, seeking meaning

United Flight 93

September 11, 2005|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. - Johncie and Ronald Guerin have just driven five hours from their home in Charleston, W.Va. They've come to place two lawn ornament angels here at the site dedicated to the memory of the 40 passengers and crew members of United Airlines Flight 93 who died Sept. 11, 2001, when their hijacked jet slammed into the ground.

One of their angels stands upright. The other is prone and oozes what looks like water. "I don't know where the moisture came from," Johncie, 56, says in a gravelly voice. "It was like she was crying, and probably she was."

After spending 15 minutes at the temporary memorial created by volunteers and local officials, they'll hop in their car and drive the 300 miles back to West Virginia.

"Look at her, Ron," Johncie tells Ron, a wiry 61-year-old Vietnam veteran. "The water is still coming. She's shedding tears for the brave." Then the couple is gone, leaving the angels in their stead.

Today, on the anniversary of the shattering day now known as 9/11, the public and relatives of those who died on Flight 93 will gather in the Shanksville field where the plane crashed for a commemorative service.

They will also learn more about the design chosen last week for a permanent National Park Service memorial on the 2,200-acre site. The memorial, anchored by a "Tower of Voices" filled with 40 wind chimes, is expected to cost $30 million and be completed in four years.

The new memorial will replace the grassroots shrine that has drawn more than 130,000 pilgrims from around the world in the four years since 9/11. But the Tower of Voices, and the carefully researched, official account of Flight 93 that visitors will hear there, might never replace the story that has evolved at this remote reclaimed strip mine.

Fueled as much by emotion as facts, the story of Flight 93 has become a consummately American myth of faith, liberty and selfless heroism.

`Let's roll!'

The story, adorned with patriotic and religious imagery, is seared in the popular imagination: Through cell phone calls, Flight 93 passengers learned of the other hijackings and voted to storm the cockpit. Todd Beamer cried "Let's roll!" He and others forced the hijackers to take the plane down before it could crash into a Washington, D.C., target. In this story, the passengers deliberately chose an empty field to avoid killing anyone on the ground.

The Guerins are among those eager for a connection to the Flight 93 narrative, an unfolding saga that shimmers, Lourdes-like, with weeping angels and other miracles.

Tales of one Flight 93 passenger's Bible, found unscathed on a pile of charred debris; the sudden halt of a constant breeze during the last two 9/11 memorial services; the fateful, last-minute decision made by some passengers to board the doomed flight. All are framed in countless retellings to suggest a divine presence at work in Shanksville.

There is the story of pilot Jason Dahl, who, rumor has it, wrote to his mother to say that if his plane ever failed, he would put it down in the trees. It's an apocryphal tale with scant proof of truth. Dahl also might have been dead before the plane crashed. Yet, this and other remarkable providences and premonitions spread quickly among the throngs hungry for the people's version of the Flight 93 tragedy.

In the people's version, certain findings of the official 9/11 Commission Report have been overlooked. The commission found, for instance, no definitive evidence that passengers fully understood the hijackers' intent to attack Washington. But notes left at the Shanksville site tell a different story: "Thanks for saving us," one says. "Thank you for saving our seat of government," says another.

"I needed to come up here and see where these people lost their lives to try to save others," says Ed Newcomer, a 42-year-old truck driver from Dubuque, Iowa, as he stands near a flock of 40 slate angels, each bearing a Flight 93 victim's name.

Other telling details have also been bypassed. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, a passenger yelled, "Roll it!" But in Shanksville, Todd Beamer's "Let's roll!" is a constant refrain on tributes, in stories and in the visitors log, where someone has entered, "We will roll."

Fact and myth

This idealized story flourishes elsewhere as well. In December 2001, Congress designated Sept. 11 as Patriot Day, in part to honor the passengers who "tried to take control of the aircraft in order to prevent the hijackers from crashing the aircraft into an important symbol of democracy and freedom."

Tonight, a Discovery Channel documentary, The Flight that Fought Back, makes the same conclusion when family members are asked on camera to "share their personal beliefs as to how their loved ones spent their last moments."

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