SHANKSVILLE, Pennsylvania — OMoments after Flight 93 touched down here 21 years ago, residents, some on foot, some on tractors and some on ATVs, abandoned whatever they were doing and rushed to the scene to see how they could help.
To their horror, all they found was a crater in the field near the edge of the trees extending 30 feet in either direction, still smoking from the impact.
In six days, bales of hay were laid at the reclaimed coal mine to create a base for a makeshift memorial to the family members who were brought here to honor the bravery of the 44 lives that were cut short when terrorists hijacked their plane, eventually crashing into the hills here in Somerset County.
There were more than 200 family members transported from nearby Seven Springs Resort who piled into six coaches. Most of the town’s 200 residents stopped and lined the streets out of respect for their loss upon arrival.
Someone, possibly one of the state troopers, had placed an American flag on a poll at the site. He swelled to half-staff as they exited the buses.
When they left the site, they did not leave empty-handed. A local church had made each family angels to take with them.
Yet it was what these family members left behind on this modest bed of dirt and hay along the sloping hillside overlooking the crash site that opened the door to people from all over country, as well as people across the country, to mourn with them.
And for a while this place went deep, a symbol, really, of the heart and the benevolence of a country at odds with the horror that happened here and at the World Trade Centers in New York and in Pentagon in Washington.
As each family stood in front of the makeshift memorial, they left some of their loved ones where they were so horribly taken. There were family photos, flowers, someone’s favorite teddy bear, a bag of M&M’s and one of the crew’s flight jackets.
People watching that moment still grappling with tragedy found themselves wanting to do something, anything, not just to honor them, not just to thank them for possibly saving the U.S. Capitol, but also to connect with them in a way that they thought was meaningful, so they started coming here too.
Within days, people came. They left heartfelt notes, cards, flowers, American flags, pennies, crosses, football shirts, prayer books, rosaries and leather jackets. If it was meaningful to them, they wanted to share it. Soon the locals started a system of volunteers who looked after the site.
And they too left a part of themselves here.
The Hay Memorial soon became a chain-link fence memorial as well as a whitewashed plywood memorial; every parenthesis of the palisade was covered with trinkets of thanks. Every inch of the plywood contained the grief and gratitude of people who had traveled there and wanted to express something, anything to make sense of what happened here.
I vividly remember Hawaii’s “SEA YA” license plate, homemade “Let’s Roll” signs, high school football teams leaving the whole team’s jerseys hanging on a fence already draped in American flags, and Amish people stopping in their buggies to offer a quiet prayer.
Some came to sing a hymn. Groups of scouts came and took the oath of allegiance. On several occasions, a bagpiper stood in the distance and the melodies of the lone bagpipes brought people to their knees.
They come by the thousands here in this old mountain. They came in the scorching heat of the Appalachian summers. They braved the deep snows and gusty winds of Somerset County’s notorious winters. They kept coming, and they always followed the example of the families and left some of them with the mountain to thank them, to pray for them, to pray for our country.
Before Flight 93 National Park was built here, locals opened their homes with glasses of water and the use of their bathrooms.
It was and remains America’s finest here.
It’s hard to imagine that I’ve been coming here for 21 years. It’s just as hard to imagine that, God willing, I won’t continue to come here for the next 21 years. There has never been a time when I haven’t been brought to my knees in prayer and grief. I doubt there ever will be.
For many of us, the thunder on that mountain that day is forever etched into a part of who I am. I don’t know what happened to the souvenir my children and I left here the day we arrived in 2001. It doesn’t really matter. It was what we had to do.
Despite the divisive and hateful tone of our national politics, people far from the walls of Washington must still be part of something bigger than us. The terrorists did not break that in us 21 years ago. Neither does politics.