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Flight 93 National Memorial: ‘A common field one day. A field of honor forever’

One week shy of the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, I visited the Flight 93 National Memorial for the first time.

Located along Route 30 (the Lincoln Highway), this “common field” became a “field of honor” on Sept. 11.

United Airlines Flight 93 left the Newark International Airport in New Jersey at 8:42 a.m. en route to the San Francisco International Airport. The flight was originally scheduled to depart at 8 a.m. It pushed back away from the gate at 8:01 a.m., but, due to the amount of flight traffic, had been delayed in departure.

Forty-six minutes after takeoff — just over the Ohio line from Pennsylvania — hijackers stormed the cockpit, eventually taking control.

Passengers and crew had learned, through phone calls, what had already transpired in New York City and Washington, D.C.

After flying over the Pittsburgh region, passengers and crew attempt to take over the flight at 9:57 a.m.

Just moments later — at 10:03 a.m. — Flight 93 crashed into a Stoneycreek Township, Somerset County, field.

Though the exact destination is unknown, experts and published reports suggest the hijackers were ultimately aiming for the Capitol. The crash site is just 18 minutes in air from Washington, D.C.

The actions of the Flight 93 passengers and crew are at the heart of everything within the Flight 93 National Memorial.

Upon entering the site, visitors come upon the Tower of Voices, soaring 93 feet into the air. This unique monument holds 40 wind chimes, representing each of the passengers and crew onboard Flight 93.

“The Tower of Voices provides a living memorial in sound to remember the forty through their ongoing voices,” the National Park Service says of the tower on its website.

After viewing the tower, visitors can get back into their vehicle and take a roughly 3.5-mile drive to the visitor’s center.

Inside, visitors can gain a better understanding of the day’s events, timeline of the flight and other related pieces of history through a permanent exhibition featuring audio and visual artifacts.

I offer a warning that the exhibit can trigger memories of that morning and might be difficult for some visitors.

The National Park Service recommends budgeting at least 45 minutes to view the exhibit. It’s important to note that no photography is permitted inside the exhibit, according to signs posted in early September 2021.

And, as of September 2021, for health and safety measures, face masks are required inside the visitor’s center.

In addition, a bookstore offers books and other items relating to the site.

Outside of the visitor’s center, visitors can see an overview of the crash site, Memorial Plaza, Wall of Names and the boulder denoting the impact site.

After stopping there, visitors have a choice between walking a path or driving to Memorial Plaza.

Two trails — the 1.2-mile Allée Trail and the 0.7-mile Western Overlook Trail — allow visitors to walk to Memorial Plaza. The Western Overlook Trail follows the path the plane took.

At Memorial Plaza, visitors can walk to Wall of Names, which lists the names of passengers and crew members.

On the walk to the plaza with the Wall of Names, visitors will see the large boulder.

While the impact and legacy of Flight 93 is the focal point of this national site, other work continues to reforest what once was a coal mine.

After visiting the national memorial, I recommend a short drive to an unsuspecting Sept. 11, 2001, memorial.

Just about 9 miles from the entrance to the national memorial site is the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel & United Airlines Crew Monument.

This little white church sits just outside of the small, rural town of Shanksville, which became the epicenter of emergency response crews, journalists and others in the days and weeks following Sept. 11.

The church is located at a quiet intersection, near a cemetery and surrounded by corn fields. If you’re driving too fast and not paying attention to your GPS device, you’ll miss it. Look for the large bell tower.

There is little information online about this memorial site but a friend who had been working on 20th anniversary special coverage for a Western Pennsylvania newspaper suggested I visit.

On my visit, a family of three was making their way through the tiny chapel-turned-museum.

Chapel volunteer Connie Hay so graciously took her time to explain items inside the chapel, providing details about how the items arrived and a brief story behind them. She showed me a small room off of the main space that provides a photo and short biography of each passenger and crew member, and allows people to light a candle in their memory.

One of the items on display includes what became the first memorial of Flight 93.

Outside of the chapel is a monument dedicated to the Flight 93 crew members. The plaza is flanked by flags from each state. Off to the side is a piece of steel from the World Trade Center — etched in the shape of “UA 93.”

Connie told me the site sees an increase in visitors as Sept. 11 nears each year, including visits from United crew members. On the Saturday before the 20th anniversary of the attacks, Connie told me they anticipated a bigger increase.

The site is a short drive that is certainly worth the trip. If you’ve got time, take a gander around the tiny town of Shanksville and head to the elementary school to see an outdoor statue given to the school after the attacks.