09/11/2011 07:06 pm ET | Updated Nov 11, 2011

Gaining Inspiration From Flight 93 Crash Site

Each of my trips to Shanksville, Pa., has been inspiring, for different reasons.

My first trip was six years ago, when the Internet was ablaze with criticism of the planned memorial to the passengers and crew of Flight 93. The project was then in the design phase, and some saw the presence of an Islamic crescent in the proposed alignment of indigenous maple trees.

I decided to go take a look, accompanied by a busload of 47 radio listeners. Aboard was Ed Root, a retired business analyst, who lost his cousin, Bucks County resident Lorraine Bay, on the flight. He'd arranged a briefing by Jeff Reinbold, the project manager for the National Park Service.

The earnest nature of both men made an impression on me and my companions. So, too, did the work of the community ambassadors, who have made themselves familiar with all of the facts surrounding the crash and who volunteer their time to educate visitors.

Immediately upon entering the site, a 2,200-acre former strip mine, I detected a slight change in temperature. So, too, did my traveling companions. And a cooler temperature wasn't the only thing we felt. There is an almost indescribable aura in Shanksville.

Back then, visitors would find only a temporary memorial -- a 40-foot chain-link fence, upon which people placed tributes, overlooking the crash site about 500 yards away. The site was described on a quilted wall-hanging sent there by a Los Angeles firefighter, Capt. Stephen Ruda: "A common field one day. A field of honor forever." Still, the ground where the plane went down seemed unremarkable, offering few clues of what had taken place.

And yet, an estimated 130,000 visitors had already been arriving annually to see it. The controversy over the official memorial's design soon dissipated. What some saw as a crescent in Paul Murdoch's winning plan -- the semicircle of indigenous maples -- was attributable to topography. In other words, the design was the result of the natural contour of the land, not a deliberate attempt to insult or provoke.

I returned to Shanksville two years ago -- this time with Jose Melendez-Perez, who is an important part of the Flight 93 story.

On Aug. 4, 2001, Melendez-Perez was working as an immigration inspector at Orlando International Airport. He stopped a Saudi national named Mohammed al-Kahtani upon arrival from London because, Melendez-Perez told the 9/11 Commission, the traveler "gave me the creeps."

Four months later, Kahtani was captured in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, after fighting on behalf of Osama bin Laden, whom the young Saudi had encountered days before. Because of Melendez-Perez's interrogation, information on Kahtani had been accumulated by U.S. investigators, which eventually allowed the 9/11 Commission to determine Kahtani's intended role in the attacks.

If it weren't for Melendez-Perez's intervention, Kahtani likely would have been the fifth terrorist aboard United Flight 93 -- and could have given the other four men the added muscle they needed to keep the plane in the air for the 20 additional minutes needed to reach Washington.

Recently, we learned that Kahtani, who had been sent to Guantánamo Bay, surrendered information about bin Laden's courier, a critical link in the trail to Abbottabad and the death of the al-Qaeda leader.

Melendez-Perez was overwhelmed upon visiting Shanksville. And it was wonderful to see people learn of his role and offer him their thanks.

This weekend's trip was for the dedication of the first phase of the permanent Flight 93 National Memorial. I expected to be accompanied by eight busloads of listeners and Steven Singer, the Center City jeweler, who for three years has been selling "9/11 Never Forget" pins for $10 each and giving all the profit to the memorial. He has helped raise more than $250,000 so far.

National fund-raising for the memorial has been led by former Gov. Tom Ridge, the first secretary of Homeland Security, who last week told me about his first trip to the crash site.

Ridge was at his home in Erie on 9/11 when a state trooper told him about commercial airliners hitting the twin towers. Ridge then watched as NBC's Jim Miklaszewsky reported on the attack on the Pentagon. And soon thereafter came word from Somerset County that a plane had gone down. That afternoon, Ridge traveled to the site.

"I anticipated seeing what I had previously seen televised of commercial-aviation accident sites, expecting to see huge pieces of fuselage, engine, tail sections, and the like," he told me last week. "Instead, it was nothing -- nothing but a smoldering hole, which we later determined was caused by a rapidly descending airliner at a sharp angle at about 500 m.p.h."

In place of that nothing is now a permanent memorial to the heroes of Flight 93 and a tribute to the victims of 9/11. It is a site where unparalleled tragedy has been converted into hope and healing -- and a place whose sacredness must be experienced in person.

This post first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.