There is a hard truth engrained within the Flight 93 Memorial near Shanksville.
On one hand, there is the beauty of the natural landscape itself, the rolling hills that are part and parcel of the land north of Somerset. There is also the artistry of the memorial, which, over the last 14 years, has slowly risen out of the earth. Every detail here is carefully choreographed, from the monuments to the manner in which visitors interact with the land. And there is the terrible truth of what happened here, a knowledge that is inescapable as one walks the grounds.
It is beautiful and horrible all at once.
This truth is at the core of the new National Park Service welcome center – which will open Thursday – in the heart of the Flight 93 Memorial. From the outside, its angled planes rise from the slowly rolling hill, a study in modern architecture that still feels strangely organic.
Inside, soft light fills a long space. The effect causes the walls and ceiling to melt from one’s perception, leaving only 10 large panels, set in rows that mirror the seating of an airplane.
Each panel tells a part of the story of this place. From the opening panel that depicts Sept. 11, 2001, as “just a typical day,” to the events that took place aboard Flight 93 – the conflict between the passengers, crew and the terrorists who were attempting to turn the aircraft into a flying bomb.
“One of the hardest parts of this, at least for me, is this is a conflict that is still going on,” said Ed Root, whose cousin, Lorraine Bay, was a senior flight attendant on Flight 93. “This is a story that is still going on.
“We feel it does tell the story,” he continued. “It answers a lot of questions, and hopefully it also raises a lot of questions about what happened here.”
The second panel visitors encounter is a timeline of the events of that day, and the all-too familiar live news broadcasts that dominate many people’s memories of the crash in Somerset County and attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
It is a powerful experience; to watch again as the towers fall in New York, to hear the breaking news out of Washington, D.C. It can be overpowering. And yet it is necessary to Gordon Felt, whose brother, Edward, was a passenger. The broadcasts serve to remind those who lived through the events of what took place, as well as explain the gravitas of the situation to a new generation of Americans who learn about Sept. 11 in history class.
It has been two years since ground was broken on the new $26 million center and 14 years since Flight 93 slammed into these hills.
“It may seem like its been a long time,” said Root, “but when you look at it in the scope of history, it has happened remarkably fast.”
Felt offered another viewpoint: “For us, our sacred ground is the [impact site]. Which is why it was so important for us to protect that first and then work on the visitors’ center,” he said.
Both of the men – along with others who lost loved ones when Flight 93 crashed – were involved in the design of the welcome center.
Those lost on the flight are remembered throughout the center: a wall features their names and photos, and a seating chart shows their places on the flight. Every piece of information, Root said, was deliberated over, with sometimes agonizing decisions having to be made.
For example, included in the seating chart are the names of the terrorists who were on board the aircraft. It is a small, but not inconsequential detail, especially for those whose loved ones were on the flight.
“As a family member, I don’t want to know their names,” said Root. “I don’t want to even acknowledge them as human.
“But it’s history. The fact that it’s history has to trump emotion. … That’s the line you have to walk.”
Two of the panels detail not only the plane’s flight path, but also its final moments in the air through written descriptions of the voice data recorded in the cockpit during the struggle for control of the plane. It also includes audio of phone calls made by passengers on the flight.
The final moments and phone calls are set against a backdrop that shows the view of the interior of the aircraft, looking up the central aisle toward the front of the airplane.
“Some people thought it would almost be too much,” Root said. “But we felt it was needed. This really shows you … if you’re in the back of the plane, that moment.
“It makes you ask yourself: ‘What would you have done?'”
The second-to-last panel is a tribute to the temporary memorial that was erected on the site in the days, months and years after 9/11. It includes mementos left behind by visitors.
“For some reason, this memorial, people wanted to stay connected,” Felt said. “They left little things behind.”
Felt was asked if he misses the makeshift memorial that was created by those early visitors.
“I do, but I love this memorial,” he said. “The temporary memorial will always be in my heart.”
At the end of the welcome center, a curious window is cut into the otherwise smooth walls of the building. It projects outward in a glass triangle, cut with two slanted support bars, which at first appear to be a curious touch.
It is only when you stand back that you realize what it is – a rendering of a cockpit, looking out from the hilltop of the welcome center towards the plane crash stretching out below.
The effect is unsettling, to say the least. And it brings home – at least for the moment – the final seconds of that fateful flight.
The memorial of Flight 93 is full of these small details. It is only when you step back, or take a moment to pause, that their meaning, their full purpose comes into view – a series of shocks that can almost overwhelm a visitor, but one that leaves an indelible impression of what happened that sunny day near Shanksville.