14 years later, Visitor Center opens at Flight 93 National Memorial

Two visitors to the Visitor Center Complex at the Flight 93 National Memorial look at a wall with the pictures of the 40 victims of the crash. The center opened to the public Sept. 10, 2015.

Rachel Duthie

It gets easier every year.

It’s something Jeremy Brigham could have never imagined saying about the death of his son, Mark Brigham, who perished amongst 40 other passengers and crewmembers after terrorists crashed his plane, United Airlines Flight 93, into the grassy plains of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The San Francisco-bound plane was turned around over Ohio and intended for the U.S. Capitol Building, but passengers attempted to take back the plane in an act of courage.

Since his loss, Brigham returns to the area to honor his son’s life at the Flight 93 National Memorial’s annual Sept. 11 ceremony, where the public is invited to participate in a variety of events celebrating the heroes and victims of that day.

The two-day event involves ceremonies featuring top government officials and family members of the victims, as well as the courage and inspiration found in those that perished in honor.

This isn’t about what they did on that day but rather what has changed since then. This is the aftermath of United Airlines Flight 93, 14 years later.

Visitor Center Complex

There are no more deep, vertical cuts in the ground from where the wings hit the ground. The surface has been refilled to hide the impact, the debris has been collected and the surrounding wildlife has been restored.

There are no signifying marks of prior disturbance. The forest is quiet during the day but hums of its usual nightlife creatures as the moon rises and gently falls behind the area’s abundance of greenery.

Looking across the lush, rolling hills of rural Pennsylvania, few would guess one of America’s greatest tragedies occurred here. But even 14 years later, its memory still rings clear in this barren landscape.

The area is not entirely desolate. A permanent national memorial since 2011, the site features a memorial plaza where visitors can travel down a walkway to a granite wall transcribed with the name of each victim of the crash. Ponds and scenic bridges, meant to bring a healing environment to the area, have been added as well.

This year, another site was added to the memorial: the Visitor Center Complex, acting as a museum detailing the accident, the victims and how the world responded to the terrorism as a whole.

Designed by Los Angeles architect Paul Murdoch, the $26 million center is the first construction on-site.  A walkway extending out of the building allows guests to look upon the ground where the plane crashed.

“The Visitor Center was the missing piece here,” said Laura Cohen, a National Park Service employee. “It sets the stage of everything that happened and it gives guests a great background on what makes this place so special.”

The new building drew several thousand individuals to the annual ceremonies, including family members of the victims. The visitor center, with its personal belongings from the passengers and crew members, makes this year more emotional than most, said Sandra Jamerson, who lost her twin sister, Wanda Green, a flight attendant on Flight 93.

“Every year, it’s a fresh wound,” Jamerson said. “It gets harder, but I have learned to cope. I know how much of a caring person she was. I just know she did everything she could to keep that plane in the air.”

Chris Lucas remembers his cousin Ed Felt, a passenger on the flight, as an extremely generous man who cared tremendously for his wife and two daughters. He recalls his favorite memory with him at Hilton Head when they were younger, where the boys learned how to water ski together.

“Losing a family member makes you have a different perspective on the world,” Felt said. “It absolutely impacted his (immediate) family. It probably put a spotlight on them that they didn’t want to have, but over time, they are now in a good spot.”

Tiffany Giardina was only five years old when she discovered her uncle, First Officer LeRoy Homer Jr., was killed.

“(Our lives have changed) tremendously,” she said. “He was the rock of the family. He held everyone together.”

The memorial is staffed by volunteers, known as ambassadors, who provide information to visitors and support to grieving family members.

Suzanne Hellers, who has been working as an ambassador at the memorial for about six years, participated in the development of the center.

She contributed to the Oral History Project, a historical account of the first responders, FBI agents and others on-site after the crash.

She said the goal of the project is for the families “to make sure that their loved one’s, their hero’s, story is never lost.”

Bill Dahl, whose cousin Jason Dahl, was Flight 93’s captain, said knowing how courageous Jason was makes bearing the loss a little easier.

“(Every year) I become more proud…and so much more calmer,” Bill said. “It’s amazing, you know? To know that your cousin is a hero.”

Future of Flight 93

Although time continues to pass, the story of Flight 93 will not be forgotten, said Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service.

“We will tell this story today, tomorrow, ten years from now and even a hundred years from now,” he said. “This story will always be alive within us.”

Mary Ann McMullen, an art therapist from rural Pennsylvania, is working to keep the story alive for children who were not alive on Sept. 11, 2001, to ensure the story endures.

McMullen helped design the Junior Ranger Storybook for Younger Children, which depicts the events of Flight 93 through drawings, coloring assignments and simple words and lessons.

“The biggest challenge I had (with the book) was being able to honor the people involved while not frightening the kids,” McMullen said.

The passengers of Flight 93 are being remembered in other ways as well, including Towson University’s Elizabeth Wainio ‘95 Communications Memorial Scholarship in honor of Wainio, who attended the university in Towson, Maryland.

As for the national memorial, new additions are still in the works. The National Park Service is developing The Tower of Voices, a 93-foot tower with 40 wind chimes. With an anticipated completion date in 2017, it will be used to honor the 40 victims of Flight 93 during future Sept. 11 ceremonies.

“My biggest goal is to just see this place complete,” said founding sponsor John L. Russell. “But, in a sense, it will never be complete. No memorial is ever complete. None of these people who died will ever be fully honored for what they have done.”  

Rachel Duthie is a general assignment reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].