SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — Exactly one American flag flaps in the brisk, rural Pennsylvania breeze at the Flight 93 National Memorial, which is the same number you'll find at most other national parks and monuments. That lone flag makes the memorial at once confounding and stoically brilliant.
Where there could be excess, the Flight 93 memorial exercises restraint. When it can aim for the heart, it heads for the mind. Instead of the sentimental, the memorial favors the spare.
Such sacred American soil, where 40 innocents died after their hijacked airplane plunged into the edge of a hemlock grove on Sept. 11, 2001, easily could demand patriotic excess: gleaming statues, towering religious symbols and, perhaps, an endless stream of red, white and blue to remind us of the fortitude of the American spirit.
Instead, the memorial gets out of its own way to let the strangely peaceful land — strange, at least, considering the catastrophe it witnessed — tell the story. What is required of a visitor is an open mind and quiet reflection. Through that come the horrific power and sadness of United Airlines Flight 93 plummeting 563 mph from the sky at a 40-degree angle and almost upside down to where you stand.
It wasn't until the end of my three hours at the Flight 93 memorial, after examining every angle I could, that I realized how spare it truly was. There is none of the "Let's roll" chest thumping often associated with the tragedy — a reference to the passengers' trying to take control of the plane. I asked a park ranger if visitors ever ask for more: more flags, more drama, more everything.
"Yup," she said. "Bigger and more."
But simplicity is the root of the memorial's power, and it is in part because of that simplicity that orienting to the memorial can be difficult.
Visitors arrive at a series of panels in an outdoor plaza that explains the events of that day, when nearly 3,000 people died in four crashes of hijacked planes, including in New York and Washington. Some are instantly familiar, and others stir long-forgotten details. The most jarring is simply titled "The Crew and Passengers of Flight 93" and shows mostly smiling images of the crew and passengers. Staring into those small faces, I realized how little I knew about the victims. Most were from New Jersey. One was Japanese. One was German. One was pregnant. Not surprisingly, the hijackers aren't named anywhere at the monument.
On a Sunday afternoon, I milled about with adults who soaked in the narrative with familiarity and quiet respect, arms folded tight and stony jaws. Children who knew Sept. 11, 2001, only as history struggled with comprehending the attack, which was a reminder that to future generations, the place where Flight 93 crashed will be no different from visiting the Gettysburg battlefield, 100 miles to the east. Eventually, everything becomes history.
"Daddy, did it crash in Washington?" one youngster asked from his father's shoulders.
"Honey, they didn't let that happen," the father said.
"Did they build it again?" the boy asked.
The father seemed not to understand the question, so he didn't answer.
Beyond the signs is the memorial itself. It's not even necessarily clear as you are entering it because it is so simple — a quarter-mile black cement path jogging along the edge of the plane's debris field. The path happens to be broken into three legs, which serve a convenient purpose for acclimating to the space.
The first segment allows us merely to understand where we are and to take in the broadness of the clean, pastoral land. After a slight turn, the second leg brings visitors to the closest point to the actual crash site — about 200 feet — which is marked by a 17-ton sandstone boulder taken from elsewhere on the land. The third brings us to a stirring conclusion: a white marble wall of panels bearing the names of the victims. Each name gets its own panel.
Then comes an even more sobering realization: The wall runs below the plane's flight path as it sped to the ground.
Standing beside that wall and dragging your fingers across the engraved names, it is impossible not to look into the bright Pennsylvania sky and imagine the plane hurtling toward Earth mere feet above.
It's a horrifying and humbling reminder of how, among so many other truths, that day was grossly unfair. A day earlier or later, the 40 people on that plane likely would have been 40 different people.
So, in essence, the memorial amounts to walking one-quarter of a mile along a black concrete path to a white marble wall. To your left is where the plane crashed. At first it looks like a landscape that can be processed in about 30 minutes, but in truth, it's worth walking that path and back two or three times. Each stroll makes the landscape increasingly familiar and powerful.
It was during my last visit to the marble wall that I met Barbara Krah, 64, of nearby Saltsburg, Pa., who admitted that she at first didn't understand the memorial.
"But from every angle that you look at it, you can really relate," Krah said. "There's a feeling of awe, like if you've ever been to Pearl Harbor. It makes you wonder, 'Could I have been that brave?'"
The memorial is only about one-third finished — a visitor center is expected to open in 2015 — but what has been constructed is quite enough to visit. Architect Paul Murdoch, whose firm was selected to create the memorial from 1,100 entries, said in an interview after my visit that he quickly decided his design would leave the overt narrative and symbolism for the forthcoming visitor center.
"That was very conscious," said Murdoch, president of Los Angeles-based Paul Murdoch Architects. "It's not like you're on the Mall in Washington, D.C., commemorating something that happened elsewhere in the world. This landscape offers firsthand experience, and that allows the memorial to be spare in support of it."
"There's a lot inherent in the site that really we are trying to bring the visitors to," he said. "There's heroism and generosity to what those people (on the plane) did. We're trying to honor that, but in a unique kind of way."
Daily park ranger lectures are just as frank as the memorial itself. As his audience sat on benches facing the crash site, park ranger Brendan Wilson told us details of the attack simply and plainly, explaining that the U.S. Capitol was the jet's likely target. He called the hijacking "a well thought-out plan," which gave me pause not because I disagreed but because in our national narrative, giving the attackers an ounce of credit is rare.
One visitor told Wilson he felt more sympathy for the passengers of Flight 93 than for people on the three other hijacked flights "because they took action." Wilson refuted the notion, reminding the man that Flight 93 passengers had the advantage of knowing three planes had already crashed that day. There's no reason to think that passengers on the other flights wouldn't have acted similarly with the same information, Wilson said. The man didn't argue.
After one final stroll to the marble wall, I headed back to my car, passing license plates from as far as Louisiana and Missouri. Just behind me a girl about 12 tugged at the sleeve of a woman who appeared to be her mother. She liked the memorial, she said, but she had a suggestion.
"You know what they need?" the girl said. "They need to put a really big American flag here."
"That'd be nice," the woman said.
"I mean, a really big one."
If you go
The Flight 93 memorial is about an 80-mile drive southeast of Pittsburgh. It is open daily, except Christmas and New Year's days. Gates are open 9 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. through October and 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. from October until April 30. Admission is free.
Reservations are recommended for groups of 15 or more, especially those planning to visit Sept. 11. In summer, park rangers give a half-hour talk about the history of Flight 93 at 1 p.m. daily, plus a second lecture at 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. There also are occasional 11 a.m. talks. Check nps.gov/flni for the most current information.