9/11 memorial gripping in its simplicity

I have a bit of a geographical connection with 9/11.

I used to live a couple blocks from the World Trade Center when I worked at MSNBC. I’d just moved from the beach in L.A. and needed to be near water.

I found an apartment that was cheap in those days overlooking the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor. It was so high up, Lady Liberty looked like a piece from a Monopoly game.

Photo/Carol M. Highsmith

The nearest subway stop was the WTC, and it was thrilling to be a speck at the center of the financial universe. (Remember when giddy career girl Mary Richards would toss her hat into the big-city air at the start of The Mary Tyler Moore Show? That was me, too.) A decent deli, dentist’s office and great Borders bookstore were all there. Yeah, a lifetime ago.

I have a faded souvenir from those days: a dainty teabag from a Crabtree & Evelyn store in the Twin Towers. A fragment of that past world smashed to bits.

I was actually where I am today, in Lancaster, PA, when the hijacked planes hit. I watched my former neighborhood morph into a smoldering hell on TV. Amazingly, my apartment building was intact. What if I had still been there or on my way to work?

What of those who were there; who began that beautiful morning thinking it was business as usual? And the Pentagon? And that little town in Pennsylvania?

I avoided returning to my former neighborhood for years. When I finally confronted my past, the ruins looked like just another construction site.

Meanwhile, here I was in Pennsylvania, but had never taken the pilgrimage to the Flight 93 crash site. It was just a field in the middle of nowhere. The big drama happened on the plane. Or so I thought.

You know the awful story, but here’s a refresher since it’s going on a decade.

From temporary memorial near crash site

United Airlines Flight 93 was headed from Newark, NJ, to San Francisco on Sept. 11, 2001. After terrorists took over the cockpit, the 40 passengers and crew called loved ones and found out about the other suicide attacks in New York and DC. When their plane abruptly changed course, they realized it, too, was headed for another target. They fought back.

Also from temporary memorial

And put up such resistance, the terrorists decided to crash the plane rather than give up control. It came at the ground at almost 600 miles an hour, upside-down, slamming into an empty Pennsylvania field. Another 20 minutes, and it would have been in DC. (Apparently, the  intended target was the U.S. Capitol, where Congress was in session.)

I’d read the memorial at the crash site was short on funds (part of the reason was that it was in the middle of nowhere). So I decided to see what was planned for the 10th anniversary.

It was three hours from my house.

When I went to college in Philadelphia (like Bill Cosby, I’m a Temple University grad), I, an ignorant Nu Yawka, thought most of Pennsylvania was either a Philly or Pittsburgh suburb, and its biggest contributions to civilization were Tastykakes, Heinz Ketchup, and much later, the Gosselins.

Was I wrong. After 12 years in Pennsyltucky, I have to say this hilarious goof on California Gurls nails it, down to the gnarly Lebanon Bologna and Amish buggies at the supermarket.

Anyway, not much to see on the way but the occasional mix of church, convenience store and Auto Zone.

And some turnpike tunnels.

The crash site is in Shanksville,  about an hour or so from Pittsburgh.

The boulder by the trees was where Flight 93 hit the ground.

The names of the 40 who gave their lives to save others will be inscribed on the white wall, which follows the plane’s flight path.

What you see will be dedicated the weekend of September 11.  When the project is finished, there will be a tower with 40 wind chimes leading to the park, symbolizing the voices of the passengers and crew. There will also be a visitors’ center.

For now, it’s a shed.

But that doesn’t seem to bother the endless crowds who pay their respects. This is the “people’s memorial,” the head of the county chamber of commerce tells me. It’s easy to get to from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, for those who don’t feel like venturing into the big cities to see the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Welcome to Ida’s, the Times Square of Shanksville, about a mile from the site.

The girl behind the counter says she was in a nearby school. “I was in sixth grade. I didn’t know much about it. We felt the building shake and all that.”

Somerset is the county seat and the closest big town. Prior to 9/11, the biggest event in these parts was the antiques fair going on when we stopped for lunch.

The former head of the county chamber of commerce says no one will ever forget the day this place became the final scene of a real-life thriller, ending in a field of horror and heroism. And turned in a great performance.

From temporary memorial/Courtesy David Lloyd

People opened their homes and hearts. One woman, he says, went to do errands and
“just told the State Police, ‘I left my house open, if you’d like to get something cold to drink or use the bathroom, feel free …’ ”

A restaurant owner says many of the victims’ relatives eat at her place and call the area their second home.

And this from the current chamber head says it all: “One mother [of one of the victims] said to me not too long ago that if her daughter had to die somewhere, she’s so glad it happened here, because she feels her daughter is so well-taken care of.”

Click here for more information about the Flight 93 memorial site.

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