- From Memory to Memorial: Shanksville, America, and Flight 93 by J. William Thompson
The Flight 93 Memorial story speaks to me as a native Pennsylvanian, a frequent visitor to the state’s rich historic sites, and an archivist employed in Washington on September 11, 2001. Author J. William Thompson, former editor of Landscape Architecture magazine and author of The Rebirth of New York City’s Bryant Park and Sustainable Landscape Construction, lives in Washington and was working near the White House and Capitol Building, likely targets of the United Flight 93 terrorists on that fateful day. The nation’s capital averted a larger atrocity when the plane crashed, after a fight by heroic passengers and crew near the village of Shanksville in rural central Pennsylvania. British historian Simon Schama in his majestic Landscape and Memory, citing the deep meaning humans attach to sites of tragedy, observes fire is the element of annihilation, but from a pyre of ash a Phoenix of restored life can arise, and such is the intent for the hallowed ground now commemorated by the National Park Service’s Flight 93 Memorial.1
Thompson made the first of many trips to the crash site in 2006, wondering if public disaster memorials reflect a wave of mass killings in America since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and if stone and mortar tributes keep memories alive while healing survivors’ anguish. He argues the key to any memorial is what is remembered, liberally citing Erika Doss’s seminal Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (University of Chicago Press, 2010), underscoring the American obsession with public remembrance. Early on local “ambassadors” began interpreting the Flight 93 site for those making patriotic pilgrimages from across the country and creating a makeshift [End Page 276] “People’s Memorial” including mementoes, often with heartfelt inscriptions. Congress also soon authorized a permanent National Park Service (NPS) memorial that took a decade to construct, amid questions over what design form is best for a twenty-first-century tragedy and the effects on locals in an area forever identified with an event of mass murder.
Thompson recounts how September 11, a day Shanksville residents say they lost their innocence, was a sunny one with folks going about their usual business. Suddenly, many of them observed Flight 93 coming in low and fast to crash loudly near the Rollock Scrapyard about 2.5 miles from the village of Shanksville. A huge plume of smoke rose some 300 feet in the air and there was a smell of burnt fuel and human flesh. Notably, for Thompson in particular and Christians in general, especially the local Somerset County community, a Bible survived but little else as the site had instantly become a huge cemetery. The media arrived quickly, as did the FBI who deemed it a crime scene and placed local county coroner Wally Miller in charge.
Shanksville, originally settled by German immigrants in the late eighteenth century, with a farming and mining-based economy in steep decline, awoke from its somnolence in 2001. Flight 93, bound from Newark to San Francisco, turned by four terrorist hijackers for a one-way mission to Washington, fell short when the passengers and crew rebelled. Despite debate as to whom among them actually fought, all became instant heroes and martyrs of patriotism. Although Ground Zero at the former site of the World Trade Center became the focal point of 9/11 remembrance, the Flight 93 passengers and crew are also immortalized, especially Todd Beamer, who supposedly said “Let’s roll” as they charged toward the cockpit and into American mythology.
As mentioned previously, a spontaneous memorial, now sadly common in the twenty-first century, quickly arose as a rustic altar consisting of a thirty-foot chain-link fence festooned with teddy bears, cards, candles, flowers, and baseball caps. Thompson also returns to Doss’s question as to why we make so many memorials, supporting her view that people are trying to define what it means to be an American in the twenty-first...