Telling Stories

Visiting the 9/11 Memorial at Shanksville, PA

Shanksville, PA, Sept. 7, 2003—About ten miles off the Pennsylvania Turnpike (about 80 miles before you get to Pittsburgh), Shanksville is small town America incarnate. It must be the mostly unlikely place imaginable for the U.S. to come face-to-face with Al Qaeda.

But that happened here on September 11, 2001, when United Flight 93, angling down at high speed, turned and hit a field outside town with such force that there was no piece left of it larger than the cab of a pickup truck. A plume of black smoke hung over the town. Pieces of the aircraft were thrown back into the air, some landing as far away as the other side of the mountain.

Tending to the memory
Local people told me this when I came to visit the temporary memorial for United Flight 93 . They tend to the plaques, signs, posters, logos, small monuments, and the graffiti marked into the rocks and over fabric on a chain-link fence. All this has sprung up across the field from the crash site or been transported here from other locations. The National Park Service has plans for a permanent memorial.

Schools leave their logos and grade numbers on pegged signs (clubs and firehouses too). There is a brass marker with the names of all the victims. And someone has planted painted wooden angels for each of the 40 men and women who gave their lives that day. I stop to peer at one of the angels—Flight Attendant Deborah Welsh. Debbie was a friend of mine who perished on that flight. Someone has pinned her flight attendant’s wings on the angel.

I have wanted to see this place for a long time.

The tale of one crew member
Debbie and I weren’t the best of friends. We didn’t meet weekly for coffee or know each other’s families. But we had good friends in common, and we enjoyed each other’s company.

I remember New Year’s Eve 1999 she convinced me that we should take a photo wearing each other shoes and see if anyone would notice (they did—this tall woman had large feet and these were three inch heels). She was someone with incredible zest for life. She made everyone laugh.

The tale of them all
They say the actions of her and the people on her flight probably saved the White House, perhaps hundreds, maybe thousands of people. Some theorize the Capitol building was the intended target instead, which—if hit full of senators and representatives—could not only have decimated the government but could have provoked a constitutional crisis never before imagined.

At the memorial
Back in Shanksville today one of the local men is talking. His name is Nevin and he looks to be a bit developmentally disabled. About 25 or 30 of us have assembled at the site (when I arrived there were only five), and he tells us that what happened there September 11 changed his life forever. He watched the plane go down in the field, and the town’s efforts to remember the fate of Flight 93 ever since have taken possession of him.

Nevin says this quietly and slowly, a man who knows the story well and believes in it. One of the local people has told me that his mother died some years ago, and before all this happened he was like a living ghost. Today he seems more alive than half the people I know.

I realize talking to these people from the town that tell me their stories, that give me directions to the memorial chapel, that talk to me of the fate of my friend’s flight, I see that they are here nearly every day through the seasons.

Because of them, an important story goes on being told. And they tell it poignantly, humanly, with honor—a tale of sacrifice, woe, and of death that somehow brings with it new life.

A beautiful story that feels like it honors my friend a great deal.