Flight 93 National Memorial
This is the spot in western Pennsylvania where the fourth passenger plane-turned-weapon crashed in the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. It was unique in that day of horror because it came down in an unpopulated field after what was likely a skirmish between defiant passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 and four suicide terrorists.
Our reaction to the official Flight 93 National Memorial, after driving the miles it takes to get from its entrance to its parking lot, then walking another quarter-mile to its memorial wall, was, "So, um, that's it?"
Granted, we tend to approach memorial landmarks as tourist attractions first, places of collective national healing second. Today's wrenching disaster symbol may well become tomorrow's Bathtub of the U.S.S. Maine.
We'd visited and appreciated the original temporary Flight 93 crash site memorial, with its empty field and observation area with many visitor-made tributes and offerings from 2001-2011. They're gone.
The new, official memorial has a low, sloping, black barrier that separates visitors from the impact field, and within it are a couple of niches in which people have left flags and love tokens -- but the antiseptic look of the place suggests that these are custodially cleaned every day or so.
Visitors are instead provided with a square of paper and a pen and are told to thumb-tack their messages onto a bulletin board, titled the "Leave Your Message Wall." These, too, are evidently cycled away frequently, so don't expect your message to be seen by too many people (except the archivist who keystrokes it into a database).
The ranger on duty at the Wall of Names told us that examples of the personal tributes from the old, improvised memorial have been kept, and will be put on display in the new Flight 93 National Memorial Visitor Center, which should open in the next year or two, maybe. The role of those spontaneous tributes will be as museum pieces.
The ranger also said that visitors ask all the time where the plane crashed and why a flag doesn't mark the spot. In fact, the memorial's designer -- Paul Murdoch Architects of Los Angeles, whose proposal was chosen over 1,100 others -- didn't want to mark the spot at all, and only later agreed to mark it with a large rock that was found elsewhere on the property.
The Wall of Names is the most memorable feature of the Memorial, made of 40 individual slabs, each engraved with the name of a Flight 93 passenger or crew member (the four passenger/terrorists are not included). The wall follows the flight path of Flight 93, although its exact trajectory when it hit at 563 mph may have differed slightly. At one end of the wall is the faux-distressed wooden "Ceremonial Gate," out of place, like something from a Conan the Barbarian movie.
You can see the impact boulder in the weedy field beyond it, but the Gate is only opened for VIPs. The closest an average visitor will get to the crash site is about 200 feet away.
It is quiet. Visitors are respectful, as you might find at a National Cemetery or the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial. One woman has cornered a ranger and asks questions about a supposed conspiracy and Biblical prophecy; the ranger smiles politely.
In 50 years, when all of the thousands of trees that have been planted at the Memorial have grown up, the treeless crash zone field should at least be easier to spot.