American Letter: Flight 93 centre packs an emotional punch

9/11 crash site museum captures the plane’s final moments in wrenching detail

U.S. President Barack Obama honours the memories of lives lost during the attacks on September 11, 2001 and vows to be relentless against "terrorists like al Qaeda and ISIL". Video: REUTERS

 

Shortly before 10am on September 11th, 2001, George Bradish, a tractor-parts salesman living in Latrobe, rural Pennsylvania, was standing in his farmyard talking to a customer when they noticed something unusual in the sky above.

“We were looking to the west and talking, and we heard this plane coming over. We saw it and looked up. My gracious, it was low,” said Bradish (79).

“To the east of our farm is the first ridge of our mountains, and when we were talking I said I was sure that the plane wasn’t going to clear those mountains.

“It came almost directly overhead. The plane kind of veered up in the air and got over the mountain.”

In seconds, it disappeared out of view because of how low and fast it was flying.

A short time later, about 20km southeast of here, Adrian Rossi, eight years old at the time, was outside playing in the yard of his primary school in the town of Ligonier.

“It was definitely low enough that I heard it before I saw it. I just remember it being really loud,” said Rossi (23), now an engineer and a licensed pilot living near Pittsburgh.

“It looked like someone was hand-flying it. My reaction was the eight-year-old equivalent of what the hell was going on. It was definitely making jerky movements.”

Heading southeast from there, about 35 minutes beyond Rossi’s former school, signs point to the Flight 93 National Memorial off Route 30, which runs through the picturesque Allegheny Mountains.

Opened a year ago, on the 14th anniversary of 9/11, the memorial is dedicated to the 40 passengers and crew killed when al-Qaeda hijackers crashed the plane bound for San Francisco from Newark, New Jersey, into a field near the town of Shanksville.

The terrorists ditched the plane at 10.03am as passengers and crew tried to regain control after learning through calls with relatives on the ground about the attacks in New York and Washington.

The plane was about 20 minutes’ flying time from the US Capitol, suspected to be the intended target of the fourth hijacked aircraft.

Run by the US government’s National Parks Service, the monument is designed around the flight-path of the plane.

A black granite path cuts through a visitor centre and museum, and continues on through a narrow gap in two 40ft-high concrete walls shaped like an aircraft wing, pushing visitors towards an overlook balcony.

There, through glass, your gaze is directed down a hill. Below, running further along the flight path, are a line of 40 upright panels of polished white granite, each inscribed with the names of the victims.

At the end of the path, a gate leads into a field where, before a gap in a grove of trees, sits a large boulder next to the spot where the nose of the plane smashed into the ground.

Inside the visitor centre, there are boxes of tissues near the exhibits. You quickly understand why.

Traumatic detail

The museum recalls in traumatic detail the moments leading to the crash. It is powerful, but at times too much.

One exhibit in particular focuses on reliving the horrific final moments of the passengers and crew rather than on remembering them or their courage.

Along one wall, there are full-size replicas of the seats from Flight 93 against a life-size photograph looking down the plane towards the cockpit.

On the seats are phones that visitors can pick up to listen to the actual recordings of messages left by passengers and crews on the voicemail of their loved ones.

In one recording, a passenger calls her sister to express her love for her, give her the combination for her safe and to say goodbye.

It is haunting, but feels intrusive and gratuitous.

Keith Newlin, deputy superintendent for the National Parks Service in western Pennsylvania, says that the families gave permission for the use of four recordings in the memorial.

One family refused permission for the use of another. It is much more powerful to hear the voices, he says.

“People can hear that this is what they were saying and this is what they were doing. It helps them heal a little bit,” he said of the relatives, with whom he speaks regularly.

On Saturday, the eve of the 15th anniversary, 40 candle lanterns will be placed below the names of the Flight 93 victims before a memorial service tomorrow.

More than 500,000 people have visited the memorial this year. Bradish visited a temporary memorial in 2014, but not this one. Rossi has not yet visited.

“I regret to say that I have never made it to the memorial,” Rossi said. “It is definitely not a memory I am proud to have.”

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