Flight 93 site quietly inspires awe

October 26, 2003|by BOB PARASILITI

What is awe?

How can it be described? How does it feel? How do you sense it?

Awe is inspired by fear and wonder, but it isn't realized until it's experienced. It's sneaky that way.

Awe struck me the other day, coming out of nowhere in what seemed like the middle of nowhere.

Last Sunday, I took my family and my in-laws on a two-hour drive.

What started out as a tour of the splendor of fall colors ended up as a lesson about what happens when wonder and fear come together.

We were one group in the countless number of people who have made a pilgrimage to Shanksville, Pa., the small rural town near Somerset where Flight 93 crashed in the middle of a field during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.


The trip started because my wife, JoAnn, had a deep desire to see this historic site, particularly since she just finished reading "Let's Roll," the recount of the tragic incidents by Lisa Beamer. Beamer's husband, Todd, is credited as a leader of the selfless group which gave up their lives to save others.

In the open spaces just a few miles off Pa. 30 is a gravel road - fittingly named Skyline Road - that crests before falling in what has become a theater of symbolism and outpouring emotions.

I was overwhelmed by the eerie quiet and calm that struck me as we got out of our car. There was a constant procession of cars and buses bringing the curious and the grateful for a glimpse of the small tract of land that played a part in changing the course of America.

Many who visit our area visit the rolling hills and grassy setting of Antietam. They spend hours combing the confines just to have history wash over them.

This is different. The feeling is immediate and you see it all in less than 30 minutes.

The impact, however, could last a lifetime.

The site can be characterized as the day and location where the world as we knew it ended. At the same time, the new movement of patriotism and unity dawned thanks to the actions of 40 passengers and flight crew members who never questioned their love of country or final destiny.

The actual crash site, some 500 yards away from the memorial, is guarded by fences and "No Trespassing" signs. The crater from impact is filled in and covered with grass, but is marked by a huge American flag.

Time and distance do not make it any less a humbling experience.

The temporary memorial resembles a yard sale with its wall of baseball caps and other memorabilia. The difference is that each item is autographed by grateful citizens in thanks to the new-era patriots for their sacrifices.

There are homemade signs, softballs and baseballs left by teams, coins, teddy bears and handmade crafts placed lovingly at the foot of the memorial. There are reprints of newspaper stories and a picture of the crash site hanging on the makeshift wall.

Other groups erected small billboards or bronze and stone markers professing their thanks to the fallen. One was an engraved marble marker in the shape of a mountain from Colorado.

Motorcycle groups encased their "colors" in plastic stands with all their names and messages of thanks written on them.

Members of an Amish church group were so taken by the scene they went home and built a number of benches, each with the names of two of the fallen passengers engraved on the back.

One sign is from the students, staff and teachers of the elementary school about two miles from the site. If the plane had been forced down a second later, it's estimated it would have hit the school, adding a whole different dimension to the tragedy.

It made me stop and realize that Shanksville is just 90 miles from Hagerstown. It means the crash was a second from the school and only minutes from happening in my yard.

Another grateful citizen cut 40 wooden angel-shaped signs and turned them into red, white and blue ground stakes with the name of each fallen hero.

Others removed license plates from their cars, signed their thanks and hung them on the wall of caps. The plates are from all over the nation, including Hawaii.

Some of the tourists taken by the emotion of the area sat and wept openly on them.

But like most things in life, the simplest tributes are the most effective.

Visitors used pens and markers to write personal messages of thanks to the passengers on every available surface. They are in guest books, wooden railings ... even the metal guardrail along the site.

One, written in foot-high blue letters, read, "Never forget - Never again."

The one that affected me the most, though, was the first thing I noticed when we entered the area. It read, "I will walk these hills and pray for you and your families for the rest of my life. Thank you for what you have done for us."

All this reality is so symbolic.

Three sites were hit on that fateful day in American history.

We lost the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, a monument to the American lifestyle.

We also lost part of the Pentagon, which stands for our military strength.

But Flight 93's tragic final landing in an open field in Shanksville, Pa., has become something more personal.

It resembles a pebble dropped in the middle of a pond. The pebble hits in the center, while the ring of waves spread, fanning out to infinity. Flight 93 has become that important pebble to America's common man.

The waves are the rise in consciousness that we have taken so many of our freedoms for granted. And that has touched the steady stream of people who visit the site.

For that reason, the 40 who died in that terrorist crash will live forever.

And that's enough to put awe in perspective.

Bob Parasiliti is a member of the sports staff at The Herald-Mail. He can be contacted at 301-733-5131, ext. 2310, or by e-mail at

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