Originally published September 8, 2002
On a humid July day in Pennsylvania, hundreds of tourists, as millions have before them, are drifting among the simple gravestones and timeworn monuments of the national cemetery at Gettysburg.
Several thousand soldiers are buried here. A few graves are decorated with flowers, suggesting some of the dead have relatives who still come here. There's a sign at the entrance, reminding people that this is a cemetery. It says: "SILENCE AND RESPECT."
Most of the tourists are being reasonably respectful, for tourists, although many, apparently without noticing, walk on the graves, stand on the bones of the soldiers. Hardly anybody is silent. Perky tour guides are telling well-practiced stories and jokes; parents are yelling at children; children are yelling at each other. A tour group of maybe two dozen teen-agers are paying zero attention to anything but each other, flirting, laughing, wrapped in the happy self-absorbed obliviousness of Teen-agerLand.
A few yards away, gazing somberly toward the teen-agers, is a bust of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address here 139 years ago, when the gentle rolling landscape, now green and manicured, was still raw and battle-scarred, the earth recently soaked with the blood of the 8,000 who died, and the tens of thousands more who were wounded, when two armies, 160,000 men, fought a terrible battle on July 1, 2 and 3 that determined the outcome of the Civil War.
Nobody planned for the battle to happen here. Neither army set out for Gettysburg. But this is where it happened. This is where, out of randomness, out of chance, a thousand variables conspired to bring the two mighty armies together. And so this quiet little town, because it happened to be here, became historic, significant, a symbol, its identity indelibly defined by this one overwhelming event. This is where these soldiers - soldiers from Minnesota, soldiers from Kentucky, soldiers who had never heard of Gettysburg before they came here to die - will lie forever.
This is hallowed ground.
On the same July day, a few hours' drive to the west, near the small Pennsylvania town of Shanksville, Wally Miller, coroner of Somerset County, Pa., walks slowly through the tall grass covering a quiet field, to a place near the edge, just before some woods.
This is the place where, on Sept. 11, 2001, United Airlines Flight 93, scene of a desperate airborne battle pitting passengers and crew against terrorist hijackers, came hurtling out of the sky, turning upside down and slamming into the earth at more than 500 mph.
That horrendous event transformed this quiet field into a smoking, reeking hell, a nightmare landscape of jet fuel, burning plane debris, scattered human remains.
Now, 10 months later, the field is green again. Peaceful and green.
Except where Flight 93 plunged into the ground. That one place is still barren dirt. That one place has not healed.
"Interesting that the grass won't grow right here," says Miller.
Nobody on Flight 93 was heading for Somerset County that day. The 33 passengers and seven crew were heading from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco. The four hijackers had a different destination in mind, probably Washington, D.C., possibly the White House.
Nobody on the plane meant to come here.
"I doubt that any one of them would ever set foot in Somerset County, except maybe to stop at Howard Johnson's on the turnpike," Miller says. "They have no roots here."
But this is where they are. And this is where they will stay.
No bodies were recovered here, at least not as we normally think of bodies. In the cataclysmic violence of the crash, the people on Flight 93 literally disintegrated. Searchers found fragments of bones, small pieces of flesh, a hand. But no bodies.
In the grisly accounting of a jetliner crash, it comes down to pounds: The people on Flight 93 weighed a total of about 7,500 pounds. Miller supervised an intensive effort to gather their remains, some flung hundreds of yards. In the end, just 600 pounds of remains were collected; of these, 250 pounds could be identified by DNA testing and returned to the families of the passengers and crew.
Forty families, wanting to bury their loved ones. Two hundred fifty pounds of identifiable remains.
"There were people who were getting a skull cap and a tooth in the casket," Miller says. "That was their loved ones."
The rest of the remains, the vast majority, will stay here forever, in this ground.
"For all intents and purposes, they're buried here," Miller says. "This is a cemetery."
This is also hallowed ground.
In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was essentially trying to answer a question. The question was: How do you honor your heroes? Lincoln's answer was: You can't. No speech you give, no monument you erect, will be worthy of them, of their sacrifice. The best you can do is remember the cause they died for, finish the job they started.
Of course the passengers and crew on Flight 93, when they set out from Newark that morning, had no cause in common. They were people on a plane bound from Newark to San Francisco. Some were going home, some traveling on business, some on vacation.
People on a plane.
Which makes it all the more astonishing, what they did.
You've been on planes. Think how it feels, especially on a morning cross-country flight. You got up early; you're tired; you've been buckled in your seat for a couple of hours, with hours more to go. You're reading, or maybe dozing. You're essentially cargo: There's nowhere you can go, nothing you can do, no role you could possibly play in flying this huge, complex machine. You retreat into your passenger cocoon, passive, trusting your fate to the hands of others, confident that they'll get you down safe, because they always do.
Now imagine what that awful morning was like for the people on Flight 93. Imagine being ripped from your safe little cocoon, discovering that the plane was now controlled by killers, that your life was in their bloody hands. Imagine knowing that there was nobody to help you, except you, and the people, mostly strangers, around you.
Imagine that, and ask yourself: What would you do? Could you do anything? Could you overcome the fear clenching your stomach, the cold, paralyzing terror?
The people on Flight 93 did. With hijackers in control of the plane, with the captain and first officer most likely dead, the people on this plane got on their cell phones, and the plane's Airfones. They reached people on the ground, explained what was happening to them. They expressed their love. They said goodbye.
But they did not give up. As they were saying goodbye, they were gathering information. They learned about the World Trade Center towers. They understood that Flight 93 was on a suicide mission. They figured out what their options were.
Then they organized.
Then they fought back.
In Among the Heroes, a riveting book about Flight 93, New York Times reporter Jere Longman reports many of the last words spoken to loved ones on the ground by people on the plane. They're not the words of people in shock, people resigned to whatever fate awaits them. They're the words of people planning an attack. Fighters.
Here, for example, are the last words of passenger Honor Elizabeth Wainio to her stepmother: "They're getting ready to break into the cockpit. I have to go. I love you. Goodbye."
Here are flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw's last words to her husband: "We're going to throw water on them and try to take the airplane back over. Phil, everyone's running to first class. I've got to go. Bye."
And of course there are the now-famous words of Todd Beamer, who, after explaining the situation on the plane to an Airfone supervisor in Illinois, turned to somebody near him and said: "You ready? OK, let's roll."
They're getting ready to break into the cockpit.
I've got to go.
We'll never know exactly what happened next. Some believe that the fighters managed to get into the cockpit, and that, in the ensuing struggle for control, the plane went down. Others believe that the hijackers, trying to knock the fighters off their feet, flew the plane erratically, and in doing so lost control. Inevitably, there is Internet-fueled speculation that the plane was secretly shot down by the U.S. government. (The government denies this.)
But whatever happened, we know two things for sure:
We know that the plane went down before it reached its target - that the hijackers failed to strike a national symbol, a populated area. They failed.
And we know that the people on the plane fought back. On a random day, on a random flight, they found themselves - unwarned, unprepared, unarmed - on the front lines of a vicious new kind of war. And somehow, in the few confusing and terrifying minutes they had, they transformed themselves from people on a plane into soldiers, and they fought back. And that made them heroes, immediately and forever, to a wounded, angry nation, a nation that desperately wanted to fight back.
And now these heroes lie here, in this field where their battle ended. This cemetery. This battlefield. This hallowed ground.
Wally Miller, coroner, has walked this ground hundreds of times. He spent endless hours among those collecting human remains and picking up plane parts. Even now, he walks with his eyes down, looking, looking. Every now and then he reaches down and picks up a tiny piece of plane - a thimble-sized piece of twisted gray metal, a bit of charred plastic, a shard of circuit board, a wire. This is what Flight 93 became: millions of tiny pieces, a vast puzzle that can never be reassembled. Despite the cleanup effort, there are still thousands of plane parts scattered for acres around the crash site, just under the new plant growth, reminders of what happened here.
The site is peaceful; no sound but birds. Miller walks from the bright field into the hemlock woods just beyond the barren spot where Flight 93 slammed into the earth. It's mid-afternoon, but the woods are in permanent dusk, the tall trees allowing only a dim, gloomy light to filter down to the lush green ferns that blanket the ground. The woods look undisturbed, except for bright "X"s painted on the trunks of dozens of hemlocks. The "X"s mark the trees that were scaled by climbers retrieving human remains, flung high and deep into woods by the force of the crash.
Some of the hemlocks, damaged by debris and fire and jet fuel, had to be cut down. These trees were supposed to be trucked away, but Miller, who, as coroner, still controls the crash site, would not allow it. Some of the trees have been ground into mulch; some lie in piles of logs and branches. But they're all still here. Miller won't let them be removed.
"This is a cemetery," he says, again. And he is determined that it will be respected as a cemetery. All of it. Even the trees.
Almost immediately after the battle of Gettysburg, people started coming to see the place where history happened. More than a century later, they're coming still.
Some are pilgrims: For them, Gettysburg is a solemn place, where the suffering and sacrifice of the soldiers still hangs heavy in the air. Some are purely tourists: For them, Gettysburg is another attraction to visit, like the Grand Canyon, or Graceland - famous, but not particularly relevant to their everyday lives. You park, you look, you take a picture, you leave.
I think that most of the visitors to Gettysburg, even today, are some mixture of pilgrim and tourist. But as the battle has receded in time, as the scars of the war have healed, tourism clearly has come to dominate the mixture. Despite the valiant efforts of many to preserve the soul of this place, to explain to the waist-pack hordes why this ground is hallowed, Gettysburg, surrounded by motels and gift shoppes, accessorized by a wax museum and a miniature-golf course, is now much more a tourist attraction than a shrine.
But soldiers are still buried here. And people still come to place flowers on graves. And the sign at the entrance to the cemetery still makes its plea: SILENCE AND RESPECT.
Immediately after Sept. 11, people started coming to see where Flight 93 went down. The site is a little tricky to find, but they found it, and they're coming still, every day, a steady stream of people who want to be near this place. They're not allowed on the site itself, which is fenced off and guarded, so they go to the temporary memorial that has been set up by the side of a two-lane rural road overlooking the crash site, a quarter-mile away.
The memorial - the word seems grandiose, when you see it - is a gravel parking area, two portable toilets, two flagpoles and a fence. The fence was erected to give people a place to hang things. Many visitors leave behind something - a cross, a hat, a medal, a patch, a T-shirt, an angel, a toy airplane, a plaque - symbols, tokens, gifts for the heroes in the ground. There are messages for the heroes, too, thousands of letters, notes, graffiti scrawls, expressing sorrow, and love, and anger, and, most often, gratitude, sometimes in yearbookish prose:
"Thanx 4 everything to the heroes of Flight 93!!"
Visitors read the messages, look at the stuff on the fence, take pictures. But mostly they stare silently across the field, toward the place where Flight 93 went down. They look like people you see at Gettysburg, staring down the sloping field where Pickett's charge was stopped, and the tide of war changed, in a few minutes of unthinkable carnage. There is nothing, really, to see on either field now, but you find it hard to pull your eyes away, knowing, imagining, what happened there.
There will be a permanent memorial for Flight 93. The temporary one is touching in its way, a heartfelt and spontaneous tribute to the heroes. But it's also haphazard, verging on tacky. Everyone agrees that something more dignified is needed. The official wheels are already turning: Congress has begun considering a bill to place the site in federal custody. Eventually land will be acquired; a commission will be appointed; a design will be approved.
Wally Miller frets about the memorial. He worries that, in the push to commemorate this as The Defining Moment In The War Against Terrorism, people will forget that it was also - maybe primarily - a personal tragedy for 40 families. He believes that, whatever is done at the site, there should be a place set aide for the Flight 93 families to grieve in private, away from the public, the tourists, the sightseers, the voyeurs, and what Miller calls "the metal-detector assholes."
Tim Lambert, who owns the woods where many of the remains were found, agrees that the paramount concern has to be the families.
"They are forced to live with this tragedy every day," he says. "The site itself is, for the most part, the final resting place for their loved ones. People need to remember and respect that."
One of the most heartrending quotes in Among the Heroes is from Deena Burnett, the widow of Flight 93 passenger Tom Burnett, who is believed to have played an active role in the battle on the plane. Mrs. Burnett is describing what it's like to be the widow of a hero:
"In the beginning, everyone asked, 'Aren't you proud of him? Aren't you happy that he's a hero?' I thought, my goodness, the first thing you have to understand is, I'm just trying to put one foot in front of the other. For my husband to be anyone's hero ... I'd much prefer him to be here with me."
So we need to remember this: The heroes of Flight 93 were people on a plane. Their glory is being paid for, day after day, by grief. Tom Burnett does not belong to the nation. He is, first and foremost, Deena Burnett's husband, and the father of their three daughters. Any effort we make to claim him as ours is an affront to those who loved him, those he loved.
He is not ours.
And yet ... and yet he is a hero to us, he and the other people on Flight 93. We want to honor them, just as we want to honor the firefighters, police officers and civilians at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon who risked, and sometimes gave, their lives to try to rescue others. We want to honor them for what they did, and for reminding us that this nation is nowhere near as soft and selfish as we had come to believe.
We want to honor them.
And so in a few years, when grass grows once again over the place where Flight 93 hit the ground, when the "X"s have faded from the hemlocks, there will be a memorial here, an official, permanent memorial to the heroes of Flight 93. It will be dedicated in a somber and dignified ceremony, and people will make speeches. Somebody - bet on it - will quote the Gettysburg Address, the part about giving the last full measure of devotion. The speeches will be moving, but they will also prove Lincoln's point, that the words of the living can add nothing to the deeds of the dead.
Thanx 4 everything to the heroes of Flight 93!!
There will be expressions of condolence to the families, and these, too, will be heartfelt. But they will not take away the grief.
I'd much prefer him to be here with me.
And then the ceremony will end, and the people will go home. And the heroes, the people on the plane, will remain here in the ground of Somerset County.
And years will pass, and more people will come here, and more, people who were not yet born when Flight 93 went down, coming to see this famous place.
Let's hope, for their sake, that the world they live in is less troubled than it is today. Let's hope they've never had to feel anything like the pain of Sept. 11, 2001.
Let's also hope that, when they stand here, they know enough to be silent, to show respect.
Let's hope they understand why this is hallowed ground.