We stood atop a hill in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, and I do mean rural.
Cars, trucks, SUVs and RVs kept pulling into the parking area. Groups of people climbed out of their vehicles and into the suffocating July heat. Then, they too stood on the hilltop, staring down at a grassy clearing in front of a woods.
My brain saw it as a scene out of a Paul Simon song — “We’ve all come to look for America.”
For all its tragedy, heartache and vast ramifications, the resiliency and spirit exhibited in this country on 9/11 is an American story. Virtually anyone who was school-age or older on Sept. 11, 2001, can describe what they were doing when that awful news transformed a peaceful, sunny Tuesday morning into a traumatic national turning point.
More than a million people have traveled to that hill near Shanksville, Pa., to share their stories and contemplate.
“It’s a wonderful setting to think about what happened here and what it means to you,” said Jeff Reinbold, a National Park Service ranger and site manager of the Flight 93 National Memorial.
Ten years ago this Sunday, a group of 40 determined passengers revolted against four suicidal hijackers, forcing the al-Qaida terrorists to crash 20 minutes short of their likely target, the U.S. Capitol. Everyone aboard perished. But the broader, heinous plot to attack symbols of American life did not end as the extremists planned.
Instead, today, people “come to look for America” at the places where the wounds of terrorism were inflicted — Shanksville, the World Trade Center site in New York City, and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Once the permanent Flight 93 National Memorial opens Saturday at Shanksville, it will become a 2,200-acre national park where a quarter-million visitors are expected annually. The Pentagon Memorial, a park on the complex’s western side, greets visitors 24 hours a day, all year. Ground zero in Lower Manhattan is now the most visited place in New York City, and the National 9/11 Memorial won’t officially open until Sunday.
There are stories behind the nearly 3,000 lives taken that day by the hijacked plane crashes. Their families have stories, too. The residents and workers in those places have their own stories. So do the visitors. Some seem mundane — “I was working at a diner in Hancock, Maryland.” Others profound — “I lost a good 40 to 50 people I knew.”
On an assignment this summer, I listened to the stories of folks we (my wife, our daughter and I) encountered during a two-week trek to New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. The closer we got to Lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and the tiny community of Shanksville, the sharper the memories of the people. No one we spoke with had to pause to remember. Besides their own whereabouts on 9/11, locals in those places saw the changes in daily routines caused by the attacks. Life is similar, yet different.
Those conversations are reflected in a three-part series, “Walking in the shadows of 9/11,” beginning Friday in the Tribune-Star, as well as in video and audio interviews online at www.tribstar.com.
As a result of that journey, I’ll never think of Sept. 11 the same. My own “where-I-was” tale will share space in my mind with the stories we heard. A mom at the Flight 93 Memorial whose son was enlisted in the Army and is in Afghanistan. The first-cousin of a flight attendant who died in the crash at Shanksville. A priest who opened a memorial chapel near the Flight 93 crash site. A woman visiting the Pentagon Memorial who saw the first plane hit the Twin Towers while walking to work in New York. Her husband who had the difficult task of helping identify victims’ remains as a DNA analyst at a New York crime lab. A pastor who guided several people to safety in a Lower Manhattan subway entrance as the South Tower collapsed. The brother of a man killed in the North Tower. The brother of a fallen firefighter who saved lives.
It’s an American story, not about me, but us.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.