Long-Awaited Flight 93 Visitor’s Center Offers Detail, Serenity

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

I went to the temporary Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on the third anniversary of Sept. 11. From what I remember, it consisted of a memorial-laden chain-link fence, several boulders used as monuments to the victims, and countless American flags and other tributes lining a walkway that overlooked a grass-coated field.

Items are left in tribute to the victims of Flight 93 along the walkway of the national memorial plaza. DoD photo by William Selby

Items are left in tribute to the victims of Flight 93 along the walkway of the national memorial plaza. DoD photo by William Selby

It was a small-town field that looked like any other, but it certainly was not. Three years before, four terrorists hijacked United Flight 93 as part of a calculated plot and crashed it into that field as its passengers tried to keep it in the air.

While the remains of any wreckage were long gone by my 2004 visit, the incomprehension and sorrow over what happened was still palpable.

It’s been a long time since that day, and wow, how the site has changed. The 14th anniversary of the attacks on America marks the near-end of a long road for the memorial: The opening of its visitor’s center. It was formally dedicated yesterday, while media and families of the victims got a private tour ahead of that.

It was a special moment in the telling of a story that many say is still not quite complete. Gordon Felt, the president of Families of Flight 93, led the tour. He would know better than most the feelings and emotions of that day: His brother, Edward Porter Felt, 41, of Matawan, New Jersey, was seated in first class on Flight 93, directly in front of the hijackers.

“You are seeing an incredible story of heroism, a piece of American history playing out in front of you as you walk through this exhibit that gives perspective on the day,” Felt told the tour group.

Gordon Felt, the president of Families of Flight 93, proudly leads the tour of the memorial's new visitor's center. His brother, Edward Felt, was one of the doomed plane's passengers. DoD photo by William Selby

Gordon Felt, the president of Families of Flight 93, proudly leads the tour of the memorial’s new visitor’s center. His brother, Edward Felt, was one of the doomed plane’s passengers. DoD photo by William Selby

Exhibits Highlight Details, Emotion

Inside the center, 10 chronological displays give vivid details of that fateful flight. News reports detailing the terror as it unfolded play on a TV screen. An airline ticket and other bits of Flight 93′s debris are housed in glass cases, as are details of the investigation that pieced its last moments together.

At one display, a seating chart shows where each passenger sat. In another, a video simulates how one of the hijackers swerved the plane across the sky, trying to deter passengers trying to break into the cockpit. The simulation fades to black just before the plane goes nearly upside-down into the ground.

One of the most emotional parts of the center, however, is on a wall painted to look like the plane’s interior. Handsets on seatbacks are available for visitors to listen to the voices of two passengers and a flight attendant who left messages with their loved ones moments before the crash.

Debris from Flight 93, as well as the other sites that were under attack on Sept. 11, can be found at the visitor's center. DoD photo by William Selby

Debris from Flight 93, as well as the other sites that were under attack on Sept. 11, can be found at the visitor’s center. DoD photo by William Selby

While some of it is hard to handle, they’re details that family members said are important.

“I think it’s just a wonderful representation of everything,” said Emily Shenkle, a relative of 58-year-old flight attendant Lorraine G. Bay. “There’s information that I wasn’t even aware of that I discovered by looking at this.”

Another exhibit highlights some of the 60,000 items left by visitors at the site over the years. The faces of every passenger are displayed, as are the names of all 2,977 people who died on Flight 93, at the Pentagon and at the World Trade Center.

More: FAQs | Virtual tours

At the visitor’s center’s end is a huge picture window that opens onto the memorial plaza in the distance. Doors lead visitors on an optional two-mile walk along a curved path through 40 groves of newly planted trees to get there.

Some of the 60,000 items left in tribute at the Flight 93 memorial over the years are enshrined in glass at the visitor's center. DoD photo by William Selby

Some of the 60,000 items left in tribute at the Flight 93 memorial over the years are enshrined in glass at the visitor’s center. DoD photo by William Selby

The plaza marks the edge of the crash site. It begins with a granite walkway that offers space for visitors to continue the tradition of leaving memorabilia. At its end stand 40 white marble panels – one for each of the victims – that align with the flight’s path. Just in the distance, a boulder native to the area marks where Flight 93 came to an end.

“It was brought there to play the very important role of focal point as people are looking out across the sacred ground,” Felt said.

Keeping the Story Alive for a New Generation

The tranquility that was disrupted that day has returned to the area. Birds chirp, grass sways and a breeze blows through the trees just beyond where the plane made impact.

Felt said the challenge now is to keep the remembrance alive, as well to have children who were too young to remember or born after that day to learn the history and heroism. One way the center does that is by having small models of the two towers and the Pentagon for kids to touch.

Emily Shenkle looks at the photo memorial of the passengers and crew who died on Flight 93. One of the flight attendants, Lorraine G. Bay, was her relative. DoD photo by William Selby

Emily Shenkle looks at the photo memorial of the passengers and crew who died on Flight 93. One of the flight attendants, Lorraine G. Bay, was her relative. DoD photo by William Selby

“Having a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old, I think it’s going to be a great way for them to learn more and visualize,” said Shenkle, who named her daughter after Bay. “I think for kids it’s very important to be able to touch to learn.”

The Shanksville memorial isn’t fully finished yet – the park’s entrance and a few other items are still under construction – but the completed visitor’s center is a huge step forward.  It’s a powerful, beautiful, almost calming legacy to those who gave their lives on Flight 93.

“It’s wonderful to see the site change and grow,” said Debby Borza, the mother of Flight 93′s youngest passenger, 20-year-old Deora Frances Bodley.

“Everybody has a fondness of the temporary site – we all have our special things about that – but for something to stand the test of time, I’m appreciative of the National Park Service, the stewards of this memorial, for making this possible for the visitors,” Borza continued. “For me, it’s all for the visitors – that they have an experience of who these people were and the courage that they had.”

While many appreciated the temporary site’s simplicity, Felt said it best of what it’s become: “The temporary memorial will always have a place in my heart, but this is where the story remains.”

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