American spirit reflected in the brave deeds on Flight 93

July 06, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. - I made my long-delayed Flight 93 pilgrimage a week before July 4 this year.

This is where the United Airlines plane crashed on 9/11. It's the final resting place of 40 passengers and crew, some of whom apparently overwhelmed a group of terrorists - in all likelihood saving lives and national treasure in Washington, D.C., the terrorists' target destination.

I've always marveled at the story: the image of ordinary people accepting what surely they feared would be a fatal challenge. On my brief visit, I learned there was even more to the story.

Before they acted, they made a plan - and then they voted on it. That's what we do in our country. We vote. That's what we've fought and died for from the beginning.

I wasn't thinking about the Fourth of July when I got here, but the acts of the Flight 93 passengers are the kinds of brave, selfless acts we remember on this holiday.

"We've decided we're going to do something," one passenger told his wife on the phone. "We're not going to just sit here."

"What can I do?" she asked.

"Just pray," he said.

"This doesn't look good," another passenger told his father by phone. "I don't think we're going to get out of this."

As many know, Todd Beamer, one of the passengers, shouted, "Let's roll," as the counterassault began. I would add that two-word battle cry to the nation's list of defiant refusals to live in thrall to any threat - whether king or dictator or terrorist.

The passengers had learned of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. They also learned that their own plane, Flight 93, was on its way to Washington.

No one knows exactly where the hijacked plane was headed. One of the terrorist planners had delayed and delayed, apparently waiting for Congress to resume its business. Was the Capitol their third target? Or was it the White House?

"We know it wasn't a field in Pennsylvania," says "Ambassador Kathi" (she declined to give her last name), one of the U.S. Park Service volunteer guides who, every hour or so, take visitors through the final minutes of Flight 93 for visitors. Transcripts of phone conversations and other material were used to re-create the drama.

Every passenger's name can be found etched into benches or on other memorabilia at the temporary memorial. In a sense, these men and women had been deputized by the fates to defend their countrymen and their country's national monuments.

One passenger had been a stewardess. On the phone with her husband, she spoke calmly, as if all her disaster training had kicked into action. One of the callers spoke as if he were dealing with a problem at the office.

Another was a pilot. He'd never flown a jumbo jet, but he would try. If the others could get him into the cockpit, he would do his best. He would need a lot of hand-holding from the air controllers, he said - as if he'd get his chance to work a miracle.

Kathi, a nurse, now spends most of her time describing the last minutes of Flight 93 to visitors and recording oral histories from everyone involved in the events that followed the plane's crash. Some 385 of these accounts have been compiled so far. Two men at a nearby scrap heap felt a large shadow passing overhead just before the crash.

Assuming that many Americans would want to visit the site, some in Shanksville decided to be part of the remembrances. "There needed to be a point of human contact," Kathi said.

More than 125,000 people have come to the still largely barren site every year. They and their children leave an assortment of tributes: religious medals, crosses, toy cars, dolls and peace signs. Schoolchildren built benches for the visitors, engraving them with the names of the 40 passengers.

As part of the memorial, there will be a walkway approximating the final descent of the plane. Visitors will be able to walk where the plane struck the ground. There will be wind chimes and a 93-foot "Tower of Voices."

From the day of the crash, this land has been consecrated - hallowed and preserved as a memorial to those who voted, perished and rolled into history.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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