September 11, 2001 - And Me
On September 11, 2001, I was in the Air Force, stationed in New Jersey. My base was where FEMA set up staging and President Bush landed in AF1 before boarding Marine 1 and flying to New York City.
I was a firefighter at the time.
I’m also from Pennsylvania and grew up roughly an hour away from Shanksville.
I Was In The Area
Years after the attacks, when my enlistment was complete, I returned to my hometown and took a job as a public speaker for a company just outside of Pittsburgh. One day, while speaking in Shanksville, I mentioned my service time.
After the presentation, someone asked if I had been to the crash site. I said I had not and he encouraged me to go.
What happened next was something I’ll never forget.
The Shanksville Experience
I had to take a dirt road to get there, and it took me right past a little red farmhouse (you probably remember the picture on TV with smoke from flight 93 rising into the air). Though it was years later, the scene was familiar.
When I got to the crash site, it was just wide open land, with a little shack and a small parking area made of crushed stone.
A single volunteer emerged from the shack and pointed out landmarks such as a boulder that was installed where the impact happened. She also made sure I took notice of the tree limbs which were missing in certain areas due to heat and fire from the crash.
What I remember most was the small, fenced-in area set up for visitors. It was adorned with tokens brought by people all over the nation. Patches from far away motorcycle clubs, Challenge coins from military units, and veteran organizations. Engraved plaques, custom headstones, letters, drawings from children, flowers, and blankets. You name it, it was there.
I felt the lump in my throat. My heart started pounding. My vision blurred from a well of tears restrained like a levy that was about to burst. The memories of 2001 flooded my mind. I remembered it all; where I was, what I was doing... it was a fresh wound again.
I can’t explain the emotions. They all hit me at the same time.
I was angry and confused.
I felt sadness for the 2,977 victims and every single one of their surviving family members.
I don't remember if I said a prayer or just stood there, lost in the moment.
But I know I felt proud because I was surrounded by irrefutable proof that Americans are resilient.
We didn’t forget. In fact, we forged that moment into history.
In the years since that day, untold numbers of Americans journeyed to a field in the middle of a small town few, besides its residents, even knew existed. With them, they brought trinkets and items to show their love and respect for complete strangers.
Proud To Be An American
I’m proud to be an American every day, but on the day I visited Shanksville, it was unmatched.
I saw hope.
I saw unity.
I saw the spirit of the United States, the great melting pot, reinforced by the values of a small town.
Total strangers sat side-by-side, engaged in genuine conversation, finding common ground, and offering emotional support. At that moment, they were friends, brothers, and sisters, but definitively Americans.
Won't Back Down
We didn’t back down. We didn’t fall apart. We didn’t lick our wounds and accept some type of loss.
We dug in. We turned a field into a memorial because that’s what we do when we are tested and tried. We come together and become stronger.
I had the great fortune to return to the memorial years later. It is unrecognizable from the first iteration. There are structures and exhibits that retell the timeline of the events of 2001.
Some of the items left by early visitors to the temporary site are on display, but the experience is much different now... it's not as raw.
I should also mention that I had the chance to visit ground zero in the weeks after the attacks, and the emotional experience there was similar. The difference was NYC was not my home.
I grew up in Western Pennsylvania (1 hour away from the crash site). Flight 93 departed from Newark, New Jersey (1 hour away from where I was currently living). Had the events inside the cabin been changed by just a few moments, it is possible the memorial would be in my hometown rather than just a short drive away.