Earlier this summer, my wife and I visited the Flight 93 National Memorial in western Pennsylvania, about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. United Flight 93, of course, was one of the four hijacked airlines that terrorists wanted to use strike highly populated buildings of great symbolic importance to America. In Flight 93′s case, the target is believed to have been the U.S. Capitol, some 130 miles or so away.
Fortunately, Flight 93, out of Newark, was 25 minutes late taking off. Because of this delay, passengers were able to learn, while in the air, that other planes had been hijacked and used to attack buildings.
Passengers, therefore, saw through the terrorists’ claim that they wanted to land the plane, as was the standard practice in hijackings. Accordingly, some passengers tried to wrest control of the plane from the terrorists. As we all know, they were unable to accomplish this. However, their action caused the plane to crash in an empty field in Pennsylvania — now the site of the memorial — instead of (presumably) the Capitol building.
Flight 93 was about 20 minutes from Washington when it crashed. Would our military have been able to down it before it hit its intended target?
The guides at the Memorial suggested that, more likely than not, the military would not have succeeded. There was too much confusion and not enough time. Here is a detailed timeline of the events of 9/11.
For me, the great significance of Flight 93 resides in the fact that, even while the terrorists were firing their opening shots, with no warning under conditions that maximized the likelihood of their complete success, America began its fight-back and denied the terrorists their complete success. Moreover, America did this not through military action, but through the action of random Americans who found themselves on an airline flight.
As for the Memorial, it is a work in progress. Construction is ongoing. Even so, our visit was worthwhile. We learned plenty, got a true feel for the seclusion of the area, and paid our respects to the passengers and crew (about 40 people).
We may well return in a few years — perhaps on a 9/11 — when work has been completed.
JOHN adds: As a frequent business traveler–I have logged somewhere between one and two million miles on commercial airlines–Flight 93 has always been the most resonant of September 11 stories. We frequent fliers can easily imagine ourselves in the position where those Americans unexpectedly found themselves; it is not so easy to imagine responding as heroically as they did in the face of certain death. If anyone deserves a memorial befitting heroes, it is the passengers of Flight 93.