SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — The Flight 93 National Memorial isn’t really a place people stumble into. Tucked off of Route 30 in Somerset County, the memorial mostly draws visitors with ties to victims of 9/11 or — this year in particular — with a purposeful desire to remember what happened there.
“To walk back in the stillness of it, yet to know what violence happened here that day,” said Vicki Emig, of Beaver County. “Your heart still breaks for those people and the terror they must have been in. And then you think, ‘Wow, their children are grown now.’”
On a recent late summer afternoon, visitors from New Jersey, Delaware, and across Pennsylvania walked through the sprawling fields, along a pathway that marks the flight path United 93 took as it plummeted toward Shanksville. The fourth plane weaponized by terrorists never reached its intended target in Washington, crashing into the ground after passengers banded together to fight back.
The memorial, which took 14 years to build and opened in 2015, is a cemetery for the victims of the crash and a memorial site and museum that gets about 300,000 visitors every year. This Saturday it will take center stage again for a 20th anniversary ceremony attended by President Joe Biden.
The 2,200 acres include a visitor center with a powerful photo display of the crash and recordings of the last phone calls people made from the plane. Outside, the field, buzzing with grasshoppers and dotted with wildflowers, becomes a part of the memorial, leading to a marble wall with the names of the 40 passengers and crew.
People are particularly introspective here. They marvel at the courage of the passengers and then their minds immediately go to where they were on that Tuesday morning.
“It’s been 20 years, but it’s still the day that everything changed,” said Kathy Beltz, who visited from New Castle, Pa. “Every time you get on a plane, you think about it. ‘Are we safe? Who is sitting beside me?’”
Don Newman is an ambassador at the memorial with his wife. He’s one of about 40 residents of Shanksville or the nearby area who volunteer to talk to visitors about the crash and the indelible connection with the town. It’s a rewarding job, but also an emotionally draining one.
He’s met the families of those who died and helped escort them to the grave site.
Just 8% of human remains found after the crash were identifiable, but Somerset County Coroner Wally Miller, with help from state and federal teams working with DNA and dental records, was able to identify every one of the 40 passengers and crew and send some remains, however small, home to families. Unidentified remains are buried in three caskets at the memorial site marked by a 16-ton boulder. Only family members and their invited guests can visit the grave.
Even those without a personal loss on 9/11 often come with a heart-wrenching story, Newman said.
“You get people who say, ‘I worked in the World Trade Center, but I went to the doctor that day and all my colleagues were killed,’” Newman said. “We listen as much as we talk.”
Newman does get occasional conspiracy theorists who want to argue that the plane was shot down by the government or that the crash never happened at all. He’s also heard more arguments erupt than in years past.
“I’ve noticed the last two years, people are more divided, left and right, and people are much more vocal, so we’ve sensed the anger.”
Visitors recalling the post-9/11 unity reflected on those divisions, too.
“We’ve fallen apart,” said Natalie Amores, a ninth-grade science teacher from Springfield, N.J., who visited with her husband and two kids. “We’re divided between you’re masking and I’m not masking. You’re vaccinating and I’m not vaccinating, and I’m yelling at you and the other side is yelling.”
“I don’t understand why people bicker about such small stuff when things like this occur,” Amores said, gesturing to the field. “Like, this is big.”
Among those headed to the site is retired United Airlines flight attendant Theresa Tyksinski, 78, of Langhorne, whose close friend and fellow flight attendant Lorraine Bay died on United 93. Bay was a Philadelphia native with 32 years with United. Tyksinski will travel with a bus full of flight attendants from Newark to Shanksville.
After 9/11, Tyksinski, mourning her friend’s death, volunteered to fly troops into Iraq. She’d collect letters from the soldiers onboard to mail home for them. Soldiers who told her they didn’t have any family got her home address.
“I said I’ll be your mom while you’re down there.”
While the memorial is remote, some do come upon it unexpectedly. James Bennett hit a traffic jam on I-76 last month heading back to his Army base in Mount Laurel when he saw a sign for the Flight 93 memorial. He decided to take a detour.
Bennett has done seven tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He joined the Army in July 2001 before the nation’s sense of security shattered. Back then, with a baby on the way, he thought his specialty — disarming bombs — would make for fewer deployments. “We didn’t have a lot of terrorists back then,” he said.
He was on delayed enlistment when he watched the planes smash into the twin towers.
At the memorial, he thought about the courage of the people on Flight 93 and what might have happened if someone trained in explosives, able to identify a fake bomb, had been on board. It’s widely suspected that the terrorists used fake bombs to control the passengers.
“Just one guy, that’s all they needed to stop that,” he said.
For most of the time Bennett has been in the Army, the United States has been at war.
He walked the pathway down to the memorial as monarch butterflies and bees flitted among brown-eyed Susans in the meadow that had been Flight 93′s debris field.
“I got about halfway down there and I turned into a blabbering little crybaby,” he said. “It’s pretty heavy, especially with all the stuff going on recently.”
For him, the memorial symbolizes the start of a war that has finally ended, but not in the way he’d expected.
“This is the second time I’ve watched terrorists take back countries that I was in,” he said of the withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq.
He has four months before he retires. He wants to spend more time with his wife and two children, who are 19 and 7, in Erie.
“I’m ready to get out,” he said. “Twenty years is a long time.”