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My Flight 93 Crash Site Experience, In a Nutshell

Why We Must Protect Flight 93’s Landscape
September 6, 2011

By Josh First

From October 2001 through October 2003, I led the effort to conserve the Flight 93 crash site for an eventual national memorial. At that crucial time in its development, I was working for a national non-profit land protection group, and the National Park Service asked me to help out, just weeks after September 11, 2001.

During that formative two years, I took a lot of criticism for targeting a relatively large area that needed to be protected. It’s nice now to see the Flight 93 memorial taking shape around those boundaries, not just because I feel personally vindicated, but because it’s unquestionable that the American public expects our national monuments and memorials to be fully representative of greatness, including that of Flight 93.

People have asked me why the memorial needed to be such a large area, roughly 2,200 acres, and my response used to be “Go to Gettysburg battlefield and see what kind of an experience you would have there, standing on just six acres.”

In other words, can the importance and mechanics of something that occurred on a large scale be boiled down to its essence in a physically small area? My answer is No, it cannot, and I think that anyone who is interested in what happened at Gettysburg or at any other famous American battlefield will agree. At each location, the local story unfolded across a landscape, and in each landscape certain facts occurred. These places become important to the public because the interplay between the facts and the landscape are important. They tell a story that represents heroism, determination, American grit, qualities that we all want to recognize and immortalize. These qualities and symbols make us quintessentially American, and we are proud of them.

At Gettysburg, Antietam, Yorktown, Pearl Harbor, and Flight 93, heroes defended America. What took hours, days, or weeks at some took only seconds at Flight 93’s final resting place. Having interviewed all of the landowners at Flight 93, each one offered me a different recollection of the plane’s final seconds. We all know now that those final seconds were a frenzied battle for control of the cockpit, led by Americans who knew that their nation was under attack and who were determined not to let their plane become a missile to hit the Capitol or the White House. Phone records and the recollections of family members who spoke with their loved ones point to a truly heroic effort that the passengers knew was likely to be suicidal. Nevertheless, they broke into the cockpit and duked it out, American style.

Flight 93 landed upside down after yawing and veering wildly across the landscape. It nearly clipped a large oxygen tank that fueled hand-held torches used to dismantle junk metal, and the workers below involuntarily fell to their knees as the enormous plane roared by, just feet above their heads. We all know that the last living views of our heroic passengers was Pennsylvania’s green countryside, the bowl-shaped landscape that surrounds the crash site. That area is now mostly protected, and it gives current and future visitors the opportunity to visualize and memorialize for themselves what happened on Flight 93. No homes, motels, or theme parks will ever press against this hallowed ground.

Again, if you’ve ever been to Gettysburg battlefield, and you’ve looked from Little Round Top across to Devil’s Den, and visualized the brave soldiers who fought there, then you know why the immediate landscape around Flight 93’s resting place must be conserved. Future generations of Americans deserve the same inspiration that we now take for granted. Just as past generations protected Gettysburg’s landscape for us, long before it became a pressured commercial area, so we must also do in Shanksville for generations of Americans to come.

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