SHANKSVILLE, Pa. - In the field where the fabled airliner fell, the memorial is slowly rising.
Nearly 10 years since hijacked United Flight 93 plunged to earth in a massive fireball, workers are putting the final touches on the first phase of construction of the 2,000-acre national park to honor the 40 victims in what is widely considered the first battle in America's war on terrorism.
The Flight 93 National Memorial, authorized by Congress in 2002, is to be formally dedicated on Sept. 10 by Vice President Biden. President Obama will visit the site and deliver an address during the 10th annual remembrance ceremony on Sept. 11.
The site will be one of three stops that day for the president, who was an Illinois state legislator when America was attacked in 2001. He is to visit the Pentagon and ground zero in Manhattan as well as Shanksville.
In a whirlwind of construction over the last year, crews have gently reshaped the hilly terrain in this former coalfield 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, carrying out the plans of Los Angeles architect Paul Murdoch, who envisioned a place both "solemn and uplifting."
The design focuses visitors on the momentous event that occurred here on Sept. 11, 2001, when passengers and crew overwhelmed four hijackers and forced the plane down 20 minutes before it would have reached the terrorists' intended Washington target, believed to have been the White House or Capitol.
A walkway follows the flight path of the doomed airliner in the final seconds before it struck the ground at 580 miles an hour. The path winds its way to a white marble memorial wall containing the names of the passengers and crew. The pathway opens up to a memorial plaza where visitors can view the crash site, which is to remain untouched.
On Friday, visitors streamed in to the temporary overlook, a small paved area with a chain-link fence, to peer out over the field of wildflowers surrounding the crash site. The expansive sky was a brilliant blue, not unlike on that fateful day. Below, the walls and walkways direct the eye to the point of impact, a grassy field framed by a hemlock grove with a gap in the center caused by the fire the crash touched off.
Beginning Sept. 10, visitors will enter the park on a new two-mile entry roadway that winds through the mountain landscape, offering a sweeping vista of the Laurel Highlands while slowly descending toward the crash site.
At the top of the bowl overlooking the impact point is the future location of the visitors center and museum, where one day will rise two 50-foot walls creating a narrow aperture through which visitors will have their first glimpse of where Flight 93 went down.
From there visitors could walk or drive the last mile to the crash site itself, passing through wetlands reclaimed from the old strip mine on the site, now alive with wildlife.
"It shows the land is healing," said site manager Jeff Reinbold, pointing out the lush ponds where herons and geese gather.
The landscape features that have been completed beside the crash site are rich with historical and natural imagery and references to the 9/11 event. Native plants, chosen to provide seasonal palettes of color, and native stone are used throughout the park. The modest visitors shelter, designed to provide an escape in foul weather, is made from poured concrete scored to resemble hand-hewed hemlock logs. The wide, black concrete benches are meant to echo an airplane's wing, and the brushed aluminum the body of an airliner.
Until the museum opens in the next three years, visitors can learn about 9/11 and what happened here through outdoor interpretive panels and from the dedicated volunteer "ambassadors" who have weathered the mountain's sometimes harsh conditions to provide information to tens of thousands of visitors over the last decade.
A black wall separates the public space from the private cemetery below. "It recognizes the other side of the wall where the [human] remains and debris from the plane were found," Reinbold said.
The culmination of the park experience is the dramatic memorial panels of polished white marble that line the flight path of the Boeing 757 before it hit the earth. The 40 individual panels, which reflect the hillsides and sky, each contain the name of a Flight 93 passenger or crew member - among them one Pennsylvania resident, Louis Nacke of New Hope.
"It's not a memorial that you view, it's a memorial that you inhabit," Reinbold said. "I tell people, 'Don't think of it like you would a memorial on the mall in D.C.' It's very rich landscape, like Gettysburg."
As the 10th anniversary approaches, visitation has doubled to as many as 2,000 people a day, said Reinbold, who expects a quarter million visitors to travel here each year after the park opens.
Dee Frederick is among those who have made regular visits to the site to pay respects to the lost. "It's the same feeling I got when I saw Omaha Beach," said Frederick, formerly of Irwin, Pa., and now a Florida resident, as she gazed out over the crash site from the temporary viewing area. "Heroic acts happened here, and lives were lost standing for liberty."
The final resting place of the victims is marked simply, with a 17-ton boulder.
The National Park Foundation, the National Park Service's fund-raising partner, is still $10 million shy of its goal of providing $30 million in private funding to complete the $72 million project.
The money is being raised to build the primary structures in the park, a bell tower and visitors center. The final phases of construction, most of which is scheduled to be completed in 2014, will feature a permanent visitors center and museum, and a walkway lined with trees encircling the "field of honor" in the bowl that surrounds the crash site.
No completion date has been set for the 93-foot carillon containing 40 bells. The bells are meant to represent the voices of the victims.
Watch a video about the Flight 93 memorial at
Watch a video about the Flight 93 memorial at