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Associated Press/Photo by Gene J. Puskar

A place forgotten

Remembering 9/11 | Shanksville, the site of Flight 93's crash, gets a national makeover in time for the 10th anniversary of remembering its heroes

Issue: "Remembering 9/11," Sept. 10, 2011

SOMERSET COUNTY, Pa.-The pilgrimages here started soon after the attacks.

Local resident Donna Glessner remembers seeing visitors navigating Somerset County's rural roads with maps spread out on their dashboards. Many ended up taking pictures of the wrong place.

The visitors bold enough to flag down a local always asked two questions: Where did the plane go down and how close can I get?

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"It just felt wrong for us in the community not to be helpful," Glessner said.

In January 2002, four months after the deadliest attacks in history on U.S. soil, a group of local volunteers started staffing the site of an abandoned coal strip mine where United Flight 93, the fourth airliner hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists on 9/11, crashed. The site had become the final resting place of 40 individuals from 11 states and three countries who decided to fight back.

For the last decade the crash site has consisted of a chain-link fence, Porta-Johns, and a makeshift museum housed in a nearby rusted metal shed with concrete floors. The building was last used as the command post for investigators in the weeks after Sept. 11.

Still people came-an average of 150,000 visitors annually-to this barely accessible spot in southwest Pennsylvania two miles from Shanksville and about 60 miles from Pittsburgh. To get here, visitors travel streets where American flags decorate the majority of houses.

These visitors have left behind so far about 40,000 tribute items: police badges, fireman's hats, tiny flags with messages written on the white stripes, a purple heart, and even a brick from the seized Afghanistan compound of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. "Placed here in tribute to the first warriors of the Global War on Terror," reads a note attached to the brick.

But now, in time for the 10th anniversary, this homemade shrine has received a National Park Service makeover. Officially opening on Sept. 10, the upgraded 2,220-acre Flight 93 National Memorial includes a two-mile processional drive to a landscaped field of honor. Soon this field will be ringed by 40 groves of trees (one for each victim).

From a paved parking lot near a new shelter, visitors will be able to walk down a circular memorial plaza alongside the woods where the plane crashed. This walk leads to the memorial's focal point: a series of vertical white marble panels inscribed with the names of the victims.

This wall of names follows the flight path the plane took as it plowed into this plateau surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains. A 17-ton boulder, put into place this July, now marks the spot among the hemlock trees where Flight 93 exploded at a 40-degree angle into the ground, traveling upside down at 563 mph.

The passengers on that flight, which left from Newark, N.J., headed to San Francisco, ranged from 20 to 79 years old. They included one who had rearranged his flight so he could celebrate his fifth anniversary with his wife and one who had just married three months earlier; a mother of six and a woman expecting her first child; a passenger who had to reschedule her Sept. 10 flight due to thunderstorms and a husband and wife who arrived at the airport early enough to take Flight 93 instead of their later flight; two friends headed for a hiking trip in Yosemite National Park and a gentleman making his last business trip before starting a new job; a lady flying home from her grandmother's funeral and a man flying to the funeral of his stepson.

Their lives and hobbies showed evidences of strength and a heart for the underdog: a former rugby champion, a counselor at a crisis pregnancy center, a weightlifter with a Superman tattoo, a counselor to troubled teens, a collegiate judo champion, an author of the "Americans with Disabilities Act," a World War II veteran and a Korean War veteran, and an ironworker who took pride in having helped build the World Trade Center towers.

They were engineers, opera enthusiasts, sales managers, wine lovers, biologists, and people of prayer: A personal Bible was recovered at the crash site that contained a handwritten list of men for whom the victim had been praying.

"I think there was something special about them collectively," said Patrick White, who lost his cousin Joey Nacke in the crash. "It is still amazing to me that in roughly 40 minutes they came together and did something so momentous. They chose to act. That is the most pure aspect of what it means to be an American."

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