When I was a kid my Aunt Hilda took me to Gettysburg, where thousands of Union and Confederate troops battled to bloody deaths. Try as I might to conjure up the awfulness and randomness and loss, to me it still looked like a field.
Not so the gentle ground near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The chill I felt looking into the dark, faraway crater where United 93 fell to earth on 9/11 is similar to the feeling when I gaze at the strange, emptied space where the Twin Towers crumbled. I had been in the World Trade Center towers so many times. I have flown out of Newark so often.
It could have been me.
They fell out of the sky.
They had no idea that sunny September morning would be their last.
What did they feel, aware of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, realizing their hijacked plane was also destined to crash into iconic buildings, bravely attempting to storm the cockpit?
The site is a couple of hours from Pittsburgh. You approach it along a landscape of rolling fields, steepled churches and one-street hamlets lined by feed stores and modest homes -- not a place you'd expect to be a nexus of terrorism. The day I paid respects was so peaceful, so normal, so quiet.
A couple of park rangers were there to assist, but I stood by myself to ponder in silence. I strained to see the crater, far off and unmarked, and thought about how the plane might have fallen instead into a nearby town.
At a shack which serves as a temporary center, I read the transcript from the recovered black box, words and sounds garbled, frantic and poignant, ending in unknown noises, perhaps the confrontation of hijackers and heroes.
On a bench inscribed with the names of the passengers, I touched letters that spelled "Jeremy Glick," one of the leaders of the heroic group that tried to breach the cockpit. According to my son, who attended the University of Rochester with him, Jeremy was a friendly young man who was on the wrestling team. I thought about his short life, his family, and the loss to all the families on that terrifying day seven years ago.
When the planned federal memorial is completed, paths will be groomed, and facilities will be large, clean and bright. The parking lot will fill with buses bringing visitors from around the world, who will be offered a well-produced presentation, Multi-level walls will lead to a handicapped-accessible ridge from which to gaze upon the crash site.
But right now, the most elaborate memorial is at a private chapel three miles away, an old church which in recent years, until 2001, served as a seed warehouse. I visited there before going to the crash site, and met the founder and curator, Reverend Alphonse T. Mascherino -- "Fonzi " to his childhood friends, Father Al to others -- a middle-aged Catholic priest in a country-western suit.
He spent most of his modest means to get this project started, with the help of friends and family. A 19th-century, cast-iron bell Father Al calls "Thunder Bell, the Voice of Flight 93" hangs in a 40-foot tower in front of the church, near a monument to the crew members. A perpetual lamp is above the sanctuary, forty picture frames line the walls, and an eagle tops the altar, surrounded by 40 gold stars. A statement on the wall reads:"We shall not falter. We shall not waver. We shall not fail." And in a small meditation room visitors can leave votive candles.
Whether or not you decide to stop at Father Al's chapel -- and for some, the imprinted coffee cups, tee shirts and caps will subtract from the power of the experience -- you must end your visit at the site itself.
My most vivid impression was my very first. With Father Al's directions, I drove slowly, my usually blaring music turned off, and the car windows open. I had no idea what I would come upon as the road curved ahead. Then two powerful images came into view: hundreds of handmade tributes flapping on a fence, and a dark gouge in the fertile landscape beyond.
It simply broke my heart.