September 11, 2009

Visiting Shanksville, where heroes died

I wrote this column for the Press back in September 2003, but on this eighth anniversary of that bleak day when the towers fell, it seems like a good time to run it again.

On the far side of a rolling field -- not far from massive, rusting coal mining machines -- we saw a few dozen cars, a fence covered with visitors’ notes and a small crowd of people milling around.

After parking and joining the others, we stared out across the field at a distant American flag that supposedly marked the spot where 40 Americans and a handful of hijackers died in an instant on Sept. 11, 2001.

It already has the feel of a sacred place, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington or the tomb of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.

We’ve all heard the stories of the terrified passengers, informed by phone of what happened at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, bucking up their courage and doing what they knew they had to do.

They apparently charged the cockpit and played some role in making sure the plane didn’t go on to smash into the Capitol or the White House or wherever its captors planned to wreak havoc.

The word hero is thrown around almost recklessly these days, but those ordinary Americans were the real deal. Long before the president started dropping bombs on distant lands, they’d already started fighting back.

At the Shanksville crash site, there are plenty of photographs of passengers tacked to posters, markers and even little wooden angels that somebody planted in the ground.

There are baseballs, American flags, toys, scribbled notes and a heap of small objects that early visitors left beside the parking area because, it seemed, they wanted to leave something, to show their respect.

One fellow in Central America has erected two different stone markers hailing the heroes of Flight 93.

It’s all rather makeshift now, a temporary pilgrimage site that is sure to be replaced down the road with an impressive memorial.

But it says something that a million or so people have already found their way to an obscure field that’s well off the beaten path.

They stare in reverence, a few with tears, and remember the price that courage can exact.

My children were kneeling in front of the wire mesh fence to which many items have been lashed, reading messages and looking at the stuff people have brought to the site.

My son, Kiernan, was particularly enchanted by a primitive, wooden sculpture that showed the twin towers and the Pentagon, all of them scorched. For Shanksville, the sculpture just had a hole burned in the wood.

My 4-year-old daughter, Mary, was so taken by the vast accumulation of knickknacks that she headed back to our car, dug around for a bit and returned with a shiny piece of copper emblazoned "I love you."

She stuck it in the ground beside one of the stone markers.

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.
Contact Steve Collins at


Anonymous said...

good column today as it was in 2003

Anonymous said...


Tim Gamache said...

The mere fact that you made the pilgrimage with your children speaks volumes Steve.That level of courage should never be forgotten and the next generation must know about and truly understand what they did on Flight 93 in order for them to insure the sacrifice and courage of those on board won't be forgotten.Freedom can indeed exact a very heavy price.Would you also tell Mary I said "well done!"