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Writing Entry: At Flight 93 memorial, a dream is realized

Written by Tim Lambert, WITF Multimedia News Director | Jan 3, 2019 9:45 AM

LEAD-IN: 

Tuesday will mark 17 years since United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a remote, Somerset County field.

Investigators concluded some of the 40 passengers and crew had fought for control of the jetliner with the four hijackers, who were believed to have been targeting the U-S Capitol.

WITF's Katie Meyer reports, the memorial honoring the 40 passengers and crew who lost their lives on September 11th, 2001, is finally finished.

[nature sound]

MEYER:

In the immediate aftermath of Flight 93's crash, the ragged crater it left just yards from charred hemlock trees was the only sign something had happened.

But in the years since, a collection of monuments and buildings have risen up--almost like organic parts of the stark landscape.

A crescent of maple trees rings the memorial. And perched on a hill, the gray, angular visitor center overlooks the windswept field where the crash took place.

Closer to the crash site, there's a broad plaza and a white, marble wall inscribed with the names of the 40 heroes--as they're commonly called--who died on the plane.    

[fade up construction noise]

And soon, there'll be another feature: the Tower of Voices--a 93-foot tall concrete structure adorned with a wind chime for each of the 40 passengers and crew.

ARCHITECHT PAUL MURDOCH:

"So it's kind of a counterpoint to this open, horizontal, rolling landscape. There's a kind of heroic quality to it that we wanted. But at the same time, hearing those chimes is a kind of personal and intimate experience."

MEYER:

Paul Murdoch is the architect responsible for the entire Flight 93 National Memorial design -- he spoke this summer as tower construction neared completion.

Murdoch won an international competition to design it in 2005. And since then, he's worked closely with families of the victims, the National Park Foundation, and the National Park Service -- which bought most of the land in 2009.

MURDOCH:

"This is probably the most challenging and the most unique piece. Had we tried it day one, I'm not sure we could have done it."

[fade down construction; fade up wind]

MEYER:

When the Tower of Voices is dedicated this weekend, it'll mark the end of a long, sometimes difficult effort to properly commemorate the 40 Flight 93 passengers and crew.

Since the very beginning -- when calls for memorial began gaining steam, their families and friends have been at the center of the project.

WALLY MILLER:

"There has to be something here. Even if it's just here. Even if it's just at the crater...."

MEYER:

That's Wally Miller speaking at the crash site about a month after the attacks --when the memorial was still just a vague, far-off idea. 

Miller's not a family member per se--he's the Somerset County coroner. But he has been a big part of the Flight 93 story -- ever since the day he received a call about a plane crashing near Shanksville. He has since been a close ally to the families -- whose loved ones he helped identify.

And standing at the site 16 years ago, with the war in Afghanistan about to start up halfway across the world, he saw the victims as the exact sort of heroes Americans needed to look to.

MILLER:

"You know, they didn't have any directive, they just acted on their own. It's amazing, it really is."

MEYER:

Beginning in those early days, the crash site -- the final resting place of the passengers as crew -- was sacred ground for their families.

Some five years after the September 11th attacks, memorial plans had started to solidify. But with those plans came potential pain -- the quiet field would stop belonging solely to families.

Esther Heymann, whose stepdaughter Honor Elizabeth Wainio, was killed, made it clear at the time the only thing she would balk at would be disrupting the crash site.

HEYMANN:

"I feel so strongly protective about this impact site. I can't really talk about it without getting upset."

MEYER:

To this day, the crater from the crash -- long since healed over -- is private.

A fence blocks it from the rest of the park, and only families members are allowed inside to visit the boulder that marks the impact spot.

[pause; fade down field sound]

But in 2006, funding was hard to come by and the families were getting frustrated by the lack of progress. Ben Wainio -- Honor Elizabeth's dad -- made it clear Congress needed to step up..

WAINIO:

"You know, you talk about politicians --You know...talk is cheap. They said they wanted to build this memorial and fund it, but we had to fight for everything we get...to honor the 40 people who helped save their lives."

MEYER:

Eventually, funding was secured. The National memorial's been open to the public since 2011. And as true completion has gotten closer and closer, the Flight 93 families have started grappling with something new -- they'll have to let go of the memorial. It'll belong to everyone.

That's what was on Debbie Borza's mind during a 2016 visit to the crash site.

BORZA:

"And who knows, maybe a day will come where they decide that the sacred ground will be more open to the visitors. Who's to say what my Muriel will have to say about that after I'm gone. And that'll be up to them I guess."

MEYER:

Borza's 20-year-old daughter, Deora Bodley, was the youngest person to die in the crash.

BORZA:

"I guess I could look at my ability to go on the sacred ground, and...you know...it's...that piece is still mine...I mean it's other family members' too but, just speaking for myself, that is the private place that's just for me."

[fade back up construction]

MEYER:

As for Paul Murtaugh, the architect -- this has been the biggest project he's ever worked on. He says it feels a little surreal to be almost finished. And it feels a *lot* like a victory. 

MURDOCH:

"What these 40 people did, I think inspires service in a lot of us. And I think it's a very important place for Americans to see."

MEYER:

The tower's being dedicated on Sunday, and then it'll be open to the public--the sounds of construction replaced, once and for all, with the voices of the chimes.

Katie Myer, WITF News in Stonycreek Township, Somerset County

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