New York, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania
A national sense of tragedy provides a common, connecting thread to these three places.
A broad plot by al-Qaida terrorists sent hijacked commercial airlines crashing into the World Trade Center towers in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a remote field near Shanksville, Pa., on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. A decade later, most Americans old enough to vote know the basic story and remember where they were on 9/11.
But the memorials to the nearly 3,000 people killed by the crashes and the collapse of the Twin Towers are intended to keep their memory and saga alive for generations yet to come.
Those tributes approach that task in different ways. Adventurous travelers wanting to see all three in one road trip will experience three distinct environments.
Today, the permanent memorials in New York and Shanksville are officially open to the public. The Pentagon Memorial debuted on Sept. 11, 2008. Each utilizes symbolic numbers to honor those who died. At “Ground Zero” in New York, the footprints of the destroyed North Tower and South Tower have been turned into dual pools of cascading water called “Reflecting Absence.” The names of the 2,983 people killed in the three 9/11 attacks (as well as those of six lives lost in a 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center) are highlighted on walls surrounding the waterfalls, which pour 30 feet down from ground level.
Next year, the second half of the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum will open, with the completion of an underground museum.
In Arlington, Va., just outside Washington, the Pentagon Memorial is a park-like setting, dominated by 184 illuminated benches — one for each person killed on Sept. 11, including 125 inside the military complex and 59 passengers and crew members aboard American Airlines Flight 77. The steel and polished stone cantilevered benches hover above pools of running water, which stops moving each day at 9:37 a.m., the moment when the crash occurred.
And in Shanksville, the grassy field where United Airlines Flight 93 wrecked is now part of a 2,000-acre national park. Surrounded by hills and woods, the Flight 93 National Memorial features a black-and-white plaza and Wall of Names, which visitors reach first by vehicle, then on foot. Just beyond the plaza is the crash site, where only families of those who died can go. The plane that went down in Shanksville was the only case in which the hijackers failed to reach their target. A passenger uprising forced the terrorists to crash before reaching the presumed goal — the U.S. Capitol.
New York visitors will find the financial district surrounding the Ground Zero bustling. The memorial on the west side of the Pentagon is stately and peaceful, though the sounds of jets and passing highway traffic are clearly heard. Silence and natural scenery pervades at the Shanksville site.
Even before this weekend’s official opening of the Flight 93 National Memorial, an estimated 1 million people had visited the temporary memorial established by the National Park Service in southwestern Pennsylvania.
“We hear from a lot of folks that they may never go to Lower Manhattan [to Ground Zero], they may never go to the Pentagon, but there’s nothing threatening about a field in Pennsylvania,” said Jeff Reinbold, site manager and a park ranger at the Flight 93 Memorial. “So for them, I think this has become a de facto September 11 destination.”
The simple design of the Shanksville memorial matches the setting, he said, pointing to the construction work at the bottom of the hillside.
“We wanted to make sure that when visitors came here, it felt like rural Pennsylvania,” Reinbold explained. “It’s not Manhattan. It’s not Washington, D.C. You shouldn’t be able to take this memorial to either of those places and have it work. It is to be about this location. And the same with theirs [in New York and Washington]. What’s great about these three memorials is they’re specific to their own locations, and they should be.”
A motorist from Indiana could tackle a trek to all three 9/11 sites in one swing. A driver may want to start with Shanksville, the closest of the three. That tiny town is 502 miles from downtown Terre Haute, and about an 8 1/2-hour drive. (Prepare for lots of uphill and downhill stretches, especially in the final 30 miles.) Though diner food from the grill is available at the longtime local gathering place, Ida’s General Store, most of the food and lodging options can be found 15 minutes away in Johnstown. The memorial is open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily from April 1 to October, and then 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter. Admission is free.
The next stop should be the Pentagon Memorial, about 168 miles (or 3 hours and 15 minutes of driving time) away. The memorial is open 24 hours a day and free to the public, but getting there is tricky by vehicle because of limited public parking at the Pentagon. The prime option is to park or lodge in downtown Washington, and then trek to the Pentagon via the DC Metrorail subway system. The nearby Pentagon City boasts numerous spots to eat and shop.
The final stop, New York, is a 231-mile, 4-hour and 20-minute drive. Though reaching Lower Manhattan by vehicle isn’t difficult, journeying there from a lodging spot outside the city — perhaps in New Jersey — can feel more convenient. Bus lines deliver visitors to Times Square, and from there the subway offers inexpensive rides to the financial district and the World Trade Center area, where four new skyscrapers are being erected in place of those destroyed.
From New York, the trip back to Terre Haute is 809 miles, or 13 hours and 20 minutes of driving time. An overnight stay near Columbus, Ohio, breaks the trip into two manageable days of road time.
For those whose 9/11 recollections are connected to televised images of the Twin Tower plane crashes, visits to the actual sites to see the settings and talk with local people can be profound. Alexzandria Cormierhill, a 23-year-old from Houston, experienced that feeling on a visit to Lower Manhattan and the Ground Zero area in July.
“It’s different seeing it on TV, and then actually being at the site and near the site, and then seeing all the graphics up close and personal,” she said, standing outside the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.