Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Visiting the Flight 93 Memorial a Memorable Experience

Walkway to Visitors Center and  Overlook Credit: Bill Rockwell

As dramatically horrible the events of September 11, 2001 were, the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Somerset County, Pa. really hit home on a personal level. The last of four terrorist attacks on the nation that day took place just 80 miles from my Southwestern Pennsylvania home.

I’d already visited the crash site eight years ago, when there was hardly anything to see. But after learning that a new $20 million visitors center opened in September 10 last year, I made a vow to return for a look around.

Last week, I finally made the trek to Shanksville, not only to see the memorial but to enjoy the fall foliage in the lofty elevation of Somerset County. What I discovered at the memorial was an emotionally moving experience.

In their design for the site, Paul Murdoch Architects of Los Angeles created a flight path walkway directly underneath the route taken over the fields by the downed aircraft. 
With high walls intentionally shielding the view on both sides, the walkway eventually leads to an overlook that opens dramatically onto the crash site and surrounding meadow. Clear panes of Plexiglas that serve as a protective railing at the end of the walkway are imprinted with the words "A Common field one day. A field of honor forever."

Overlook at End of Walkwa
The pathway itself has several inscriptions embedded on its surface, a sort of timeline that chronicles the events of 9/11. The first reads 8:46:30 a.m. 1 WTC hit by American Airlines Flight 11. Lining the walkway, the walls are gray and rough, mimicking the scorched look of the grove of  80 to 100 hemlock trees scorched by the fiery explosion of the plane’s impact.

Inside the visitor center a series of panel walls tell the story of Flight 93 - why it crashed, why it did not hit its intended target (presumably the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC) and the heroic efforts of its 33 passengers and 7 crew.

Panel 1 - An Ordinary Day - starts the exhibits off by relooking at the day’s events with an entry that innocently mentions Rick King opening his store in Shanksville at 7 a.m. Adjacent photos show Captain Jason Dahl early in the day preparing to fly Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco, a cloud of black smoke produced by the crash hovering over a red barn taken by a local resident and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge arriving at the crash site by helicopter.

Rolling footage of planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are augmented by screening the horrific news stories of the day as shown on several networks..

At one panel, visitors can listen to recordings of three of the 37 attempted phone calls 
made by the passengers. Through their contacts, the callers learned about the other airplane attacks, an insight that led them to surmise that their plane had a similar terrorist mission which led them to vote to taking action to stop it.

One display shows the layout of the plane and where the passengers and terrorists were seated. Another shows a map of the U.S. with the location of the nearly 4,500 aircraft in the air the morning of the hijacks. All were subsequently grounded for the sake of national security.

As the exhibits point out, the passengers moved to the back of the plane to plan their attack, and a timeline display shows how they fought back. (Some reports claim the terrorists ordered the passengers and crew to move to the back of the plane). One poignant video shows an animated rendition of the plane’s final six minutes using data obtained from the recovered cockpit voice recorder. It plots the route of the plane rocking from side to side, then banking on its side at a 90-degree angle before turning upside down and crashing into the ground at 553 miles per hour. The time of impact was at 10:03 a.m.

Video clips of the crash site taken by a helicopter shortly after impact and photos of the massive investigation that took place add an eerie postscript to the disaster. At one time over 1,000 people participated in the investigation, the largest ever conducted by the FBI.
Panel with Photos of 33 Passengers and 7 Crew Credit: Bill Rockwell

Throughout the exhibit, displays of recovered artifacts include many parts of the plane, including a section of the tail stabilizer, a driver’s license of one of the passengers and a bank card of one of the terrorists that proved a help in tracing the financial trail of Al-Qaeda.

Perhaps the most important find was the cockpit voice recording (black box) discovered fifteen feet inside the impact crater. It was the only one recovered from the four planes that took part in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Near the end of the exhibits a panel holds the photos of each of the 40 passengers and crew who died as heroes and were awarded a Congressional Gold medal for saving additional lives and preventing a probable destruction of the nation’s Capitol building.

A nearby touch screen allows visitor to read the biographies of the passengers, all of whom were identified during the subsequent investigation via fingerprints, x-ray dental records and DNA research.

Memorial Plaza Credit: Bill Rockwell

From the visitors center, two paths lead down to the Memorial Plaza looking over the crash site. One is three quarters of a mile long and zig-zags down the hill; another is somewhat longer, about a mile, that takes you  past 40 groves (one each for the passengers and crew) of 40 trees native to Pennsylvania that are dedicated to the Flight 93 heroes.

Those who may not want to hike to the Memorial Plaza may drive their vehicles from the visitor center to the plaza, where the Wall of Names consists of a series of marble slabs engraved with the names of each of the passengers and crew. Set for a 2018 opening is the Tower of Voices, a 93-foot tall stone tower with 40 tubular wind pipes that will chime in honor of the deceased heroes.

View of Visitors Center from Near the Memorial Plaza Credit: Bill Rockwell

Visitors can also explore the story of Flight 93 trough outdoor exhibits, a cell phone tour, ranger-led programs and conversations with rangers and park volunteers. For more information, phone 814-893-6322 or visit website

Pine Grill in Somerset Credit: Bill Rockwell
For a place to dine, the Pine Grill, 800 N. Center Avenue in Somerset, is open for lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday. A family run business since 1941, Pam and Mark Miller have been the current owners for the past 29 years. Mark, by the way, is the cousin of county coroner, Wallace Miller, who played a leading role in the crash investigation.

The Grill’s extensive menu includes appetizers, salads, sandwiches, burgers, wraps as well as seafood, grass-fed beef, chicken, pastas and desserts. Full service cocktail bar with wine and beer, including draft and bottled selections from the White Horse Brewery of Berlin, Somerset County’s only brewery. .

Every Thursday evening is Pasta Night which include pastas not normally found on the menu; Friday and Saturday features 6 to 8 chef specials..

Interiro of Pine Grill Credit: Bill Rockwell

My waitress informed me that the pies are made in the Pie Shoppe in Laughlintown, but the signature dessert is a "Skillet Cookie," a large, fresh chocolate chip cookie, warmed in a skillet and topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, caramel sauce and a cherry. It’s served hot in a skillet and costs $6.49.

The restaurant is large, comfortable, cozy and well maintained. Recommended dishes include the mussels in garlic, butter and wine sauce appetizer ($7.99),  the spinach and artichoke hearts dip appetizer ($7.99), the 10 oz. hickory smoked pork chop, cut in-house, char grilled and topped with rosemary Dijon cream sauce ($14.59), the char-grilled, marinated chicken served with fresh-cut, steamed vegetables ($13.99) any of the pies and of course, the Skillet Cookie.

Phone 814-445-2101 or visit website

Smoked Pork Chop Entree Credit: Bill Rockwell

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