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Friday, August 1, 2014

June Trip 2014 - Part 8: Honoring a Place I Avoided

I've tried for years to work up the nerve to go to the Flight 93 crash site.  As far as I know I don't have any personal connection to anyone who was killed in the attacks for September 11-- and I'm sure by now I'd know if I were.  Nor was I a first responder or a new recruit or the fulfillment of any other heroic role that was necessary that day.  I was a father, playing with my son in our living room when the attacks happened.
Watching the initial reports in shock like everyone else, I was soon summoned to work-- like many who work in the news business-- and it wasn't until later that it really hit me.  Unlike the viewers at home, glued to their televisions, I'd spent the day watching the uncensored, unfiltered news... and it was horrific.   It was sad.  And as deeply inspirational as the story of Flight 93's passenger uprising is now, it was just another tragedy on top of many tragedies that day.  I had the luxury of avoiding the crash site ever since then-- despite wanting to WANT to go-- and I had availed myself of that luxury for too long.

The attacks of September 11th had been something of a latent obsession ever since they happened.  I've read a lot about them and the investigation.  Personal memoirs and letters to and from the dead.  Anytime I ran across a documentary, special or movie about the attacks I was sure to watch or record it.  I think that's how I process things, by consuming as much information as I can in the hopes it will eventually make sense.

My job had allowed me to indulge that ravenous hunger for meaning with days upon days of new video and reports from the nightmare we'd all seen.  It was my primary role to make sure my station didn't miss anything that might be useful in telling the story and collecting everything I could off raw satellite feeds was a superb way to defer any feelings of loss or fear.  Knowing it would be a landmark moment in American history I was also stockpiling my own assortment of uncensored video, convinced it would disappear from public view and the brutality of that day would become sanitized.  A mere caricature of what that day was really like.  I wanted to make sure to do my part so it could always be remembered for what it was.

Being a Pittsburgh station, we found ourselves immersed in what had-- at first appearances-- been just a New York and Washington event.   I don't remember many of the particulars, but I know we had our helicopter dispatched to the crash site "on a rumor" and were the only news chopper to ever overfly the crash.  You can find the video all over YouTube (unfortunately it is frequently used by the conspiracy theorists) with our reporter candidly saying something along the lines of "Gone. Nothing." while looking into the massive crater left in the dirt.  The rest of the tape is just as compelling if more rarely shown...  debris in the trees, a garage with its door blown off track, papers and airline magazines covering a farm road.

For weeks... and months... and then years after, we'd send crews to the familiar hilltop memorial that had been created first by mourners and then others paying tribute to the men and women of United 93.  The memorial grew from a raw outpouring of emotion to a more and more civilized place.   If ever I wanted to go, really, it was when the display was one of immediate grief-- when it was still REAL-- but I couldn't bring myself to make the short drive over the scenic ridges between us.

Until this trip made it all but unavoidable and inevitable.  It was on the way and for once we weren't going to be rushing by on the Turnpike.
Well.  Here we were.  We'd made a plan and were quite eminently driving right up to new grandiose park that was being constructed.  No backing out, 13 years later I was finally going to see the place with my own eyes.   I pretty much knew what to expect-- after all, we'd done many stories on the construction progress, so I didn't expect any big surprises!
The Memorial is well off the main road in a newly constructed park, there is really nothing to see without exiting your car and walking to the crash site. Once there, it is quiet and difficult to imagine a huge jet-- inverted and traveling at 563 mph-- shattering this otherwise windswept hilltop and making it's awful bore into the fertile earth.  In the picture above, the Boeing would have just missed the crane on the right and the impact crater-- or rather, where the crater was-- is out of frame to the left.  Covering that distance at an impossible to imagine speed...
The crater itself was filled in shortly after the crash.  The jet and its human contents were so incredibly pulverized by the impact that separating the remains from the dirt was an impossible task and the local coroner had the hole filled in to-- presumably-- prevent the possibility of smell and disease.  A large boulder was placed atop the site and if you click the picture full screen you can probably see it in this picture.  The trees have largely rebounded, but I can still see the scar where the jet fuel burned and destroyed a few... again, this was all feeling very familiar to me...  I'd studied it over and over in the course of my duties.
It was fitting that the heroes of Flight 93 be the last visit on our trip.  We'd just come from Washington and it is widely thought that the terrorists' intention was to destroy the US Capitol using that flight.  Having seen the building just before, it was poignant to imagine the city without it... and to again privately thank the passengers for their selfless sacrifice.

Quietly we made our way back to the car... and began the last leg of our trip home, having paid our respects to those who gave so much, so generously.  After all that, all I wanted was to be home again safe, coveting the peace of a home with all its members.  I'd seen enough scenery, my mind was churning over the attacks again and it was time to get some lunch, charge the car, and get back on the Turnpike.  

See the map of this detour and more navigation details by CLICKING HERE.
Click HERE to read about the road trip from the beginning.
Click HERE for Part 9: My Neck of the Woods.

Video clips from the first leg of our road trip-- if you haven't seen them already:
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