The tattered American flags whipped in the winter wind. Snow flurries stung my face, and the only other sound in the rural Pennsylvania field was the sound of a bulldozer pushing earth into the crater.
I stood silently, choked up at times and stared. Small tributes were everywhere and there were tattered photographs and clippings. It had been three months since the attacks of Sept. 11, and somehow I felt I was on hallowed ground as I gazed into the field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
It was Dec. 11, 2001. I was on assignment for the newspaper I worked for in the eastern part of Pennsylvania. I stood looking over a field where three months earlier 40 passengers and crew had died as heroes aboard United Flight 93 as it crashed into this remote pasture.
Before Sept. 11, I knew where Shanksville was. Nestled in the Laurel Highlands near Somerset, Pennsylvania, and about 90 miles from Pittsburgh, it was not a place you would hear about much. I knew of the town because of my then-wife’s family. Her parents were from the area and we had frequented the Somerset region over the years.
But on that day, things were different. I found myself unable to speak and was moved to tears as I read the tributes on the wall from all over the world. “God bless Flight 93,” read a stone, hastily erected as a monument.
“We will not forget,” was written in magic marker on a guardrail that kept people from driving out onto the field where the plane had gone down amidst the chaos of that September day.
Three months earlier, I has been nestled in a newsroom in Northeast Pennsylvania eating photos for the daily publication. Our first edition — papers were afternoon back in those days — was headed to press, when I heard my boss run out of his office. “Turn on the TV,” he bellowed. “A plane’s hit the Trade Center.”
My home at the time was exactly two hours from the Holland Tunnel. I’d been to New York City several times for fun and on assignment. As we watched the live broadcast, a second plane hit. There were all kinds of emotions. Fear, sadness, curiosity — they were all visible. It was chaos for our news team as well. By now, we’d gotten word that the Pentagon had been hit. We watched and began to change our minds on our second edition — and on life as we knew it.
“One’s down in Pennsylvania,” one of the copy editors shouted as he read the wire stories. The newsroom was a mix of fear, tears and confusion at this point. The World Trade Center Towers had collapsed. We were seeing horrifying images of places we knew.
Flights were being diverted and grounded. Many were landing at an airport near us. We sent reporters and photographers out not knowing what was going on. During the course of the events, I traveled to all three locations. My first trip to Ground Zero was months after the initial event.
But it was Shanksville that intrigued me, perhaps because I knew the area or perhaps because of the heroic actions of those onboard. The plane was allegedly headed for the U.S. Capitol, and the passengers and crew decided to mount an attack on the four hijackers.
In my subsequent trips, I got a chance to go to the Somerset County Historical Society and look at some of the items left as memorials. There was a flight attendant’s uniform, left in tribute to the crew, hundreds of pictures and notes from people around the world and candles, stuffed animals and so many American flags.
As I look back on the 20th anniversary of the attacks, I still think of the nearly 3,000 people who perished on that day. Many of whom I didn’t know in life, but came to know in death.
Our staff covered several funerals for victims from the area. I still remember sitting in a living room hearing a mother speak about her son who was killed in one of the towers.
The one thing we have to take away from the anniversary is that no matter what the memorial is, be it flags taped to a fence, a message scribbled on cardboard or the new elaborately designed structure, is to never forget.
We can’t forget or let our children forget a moment in history that was dark, yet we showed our American resolve.
For a short period after Sept. 11, we weren’t Democrats or Republicans; we weren’t Catholics, Protestants, Jews and others; we weren’t Black, white or Hispanic; we were Americans. Sometimes I think we forget that.
It’s a lesson that should not be lost.