Posted by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
I began writing this last Friday, on Interstate 70 en route back to Washington, after attending the 9/11/01 commemoration at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. That morning, I flew there with the President and First Lady. Stephen Clark, Superintendent of the Flight 93 National Memorial, emceed the ceremony. The 170-mile drive back to D.C. provided quiet time to reflect on the event, Flight 93’s heroes and the loved ones they left behind, only some of whom were able to be present for the very poignant ceremony. [This year’s ceremony, due to COVID-19 and social distancing, included a smaller number of attendees.]
The overcast sky lent an intimacy and even more somber tone to this 19th annual ceremony of remembrance. It is a bucolic, serene, peaceful place. On a ledge overlooking the crash site and debris field, I placed a Department of Transportation challenge coin alongside other tokens left by service members, firefighters, law enforcement officers and private citizens. The Memorial Plaza and Wall of Names were deeply moving and we walked reverently on the black granite walkway which follows Flight 93’s flight path in its final moments. At the Flight Path Overlook at the Visitor Center, there is this inscription: “A common field one day. A field of honor forever.” From here we can view the entire field and crash site from above. Inside the Visitor Center, exhibits detailing the events of 9/11/01 and Flight 93’s timeline conjured vivid memories for many of us and provides new context for younger viewers. The exhibits also included focus on the FAA’s extraordinary response to the 9/11/01 attacks in safely clearing our national airspace of approximately 4,500 airplanes within four hours. The cloudless good weather of that day helped as planes were able to land without having to resort to instrument landing.
Afterwards, I visited the 93-foot tall “Tower of Voices,” the Memorial’s newest element and the first of its kind in the world. The Tower of Voices is a musical instrument holding 40 wind chimes representing the 40 passengers and crew members. It was conceived as a way of memorializing the role that their voices, through phone calls, played in the last minutes of the passengers lives as they reached out to loved ones and learned what had transpired at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. At each of these stops, Park Ranger Robert Franz provided a moving narrative.
Looking out the car window at the Pennsylvania countryside, I am reminded that but for Flight 93’s brave passengers and crew, 9/11/01 would have been even more horrific. Thousands in D.C. would have been in and around the Capitol, watching as Flight 93 crashed into its magnificent dome. Unimaginable harm would have come to those within and in the vicinity, and the premier symbol of America’s freedom and democracy would have been scarred, or worse.
The 40 innocent men and women of Flight 93 had boarded that San Francisco-bound airplane that morning not knowing one another, or their own fate. Shortly after, in the sky over Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, they teamed up in the most incredibly brave and bold way to save the lives of strangers on the ground. And as the President observed in his remarks, in deciding how to respond to the hijackers, the men and women of Flight 93 “did the most American of things: They took a vote, and then they acted.”
Within days of 9/11/01, the pledge to “Never Forget” echoed coast-to-coast. The Flight 93 National Memorial is part of honoring that pledge for our entire country, but it took years for it to be designed and constructed. In the meanwhile, local residents in the Shanksville area — soon to be known as the “Ambassadors” — took it upon themselves to lovingly preserve the Flight 93 crash site as a memorial. For years, the memorial consisted of a 40-foot long, 10-foot tall chain link fence and a gravel parking lot. The Ambassadors preserved the mementos and tributes left at the chain link fence overlooking the crash site. They volunteered in 2-hour shifts, sunrise-to-sunset, 365 days a year. As one of the Ambassadors later recounted, their efforts arose from a deeply-felt sense that “It didn't seem right to have no one here." As one of the Flight 93 family members observed later, they watched over the crash site “as if it were their own family cemetery.” Within a few months of 9/11/01, the “Ambassadors Program” was formalized and is today an official part of the Memorial. The Ambassadors know the stories of the passengers and crew, are still watching over the Memorial, and are a big reason our Nation will never forget the passengers and crew of Flight 93.
The Flight 93 National Memorial is a permanent, moving and fitting testament to honor their sacrifice. It is open from sunrise-to-sunset, year-around, including holidays. While September 11, 2001, was a day of immense tragedy and sadness, the Flight 93 National Memorial also reminds us of a tremendous triumph of the human spirit.
The U.S. Department of Transportation shone in its emergency response efforts on September 11, 2001 and in the months afterwards. I am very proud of our Department for its performance during that challenging time. To memorialize the Department’s and Air Traffic Control’s role in keeping America safe, permanent plaques are being planned for placement in the atrium at the U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters and at FAA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
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