A Humbling Experience

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The Wall of Names at the Flight 93 National Memorial. Photo by Brian Hagberg.

Every year, hell, every time I think about it, I wonder. “Would I have had the courage to do what they did?”

That question was never more pertinent, or more difficult to answer than when I was overlooking a field in Shanksville earlier this summer. Standing there, yards away from where 40 brave men and women made the ultimate sacrifice to save the lives of hundreds or thousands of strangers, was the most humbling experience of my life.

Visiting the Flight 93 National Memorial has been on my bucket list since it opened in 2011. I didn’t really know what to expect as we approached the entrance on the first stop of our “All-American Family Vacation” in June. I know I wasn’t at all ready for the emotion I experienced during our visit.

The Tower of Voices at the Flight 93 National Memorial. Photo by Brian Hagberg.

For some reason, I’ve always felt a strong, emotional connection to 9/11. I’m sure I’m just one of many Americans who feel this way, but it was strange to me how strong my response has always been. It’s not like I was living in New York or Washington, or knew anyone who was directly affected by the attacks.

That emotional response is strongest when it comes to what happened onboard United 93. Taking nothing away from the first responders or security personnel who gave their lives to try to help people escape the World Trade Center and Pentagon, but the passengers and crew on that flight were “regular people” thrust into an extraordinary situation.

They boarded a plane that day not knowing what was about to happen, or that they would become genuine American heroes. Once they realized that they were a part of something bigger than just a hijacking, they took action to ensure that at least their plane wasn’t going to reach its intended target.

The walkway at the Flight 93 National Memorial traces the final flight path of United 93. Photo by Brian Hagberg.

Walking the path to the Visitor’s Center, and not realizing it was the plane’s final flight path until we were inside, really brought the enormity of what this field represents into perspective. I won’t get into much detail about what’s inside the Visitor’s Center because I think everyone should take time to see for themselves, but there were a couple of exhibits that made me feel like it was 2001 again.

The long walk from the parking area to the Wall of Names gives ample time for introspection and one of the things that was most striking was how much this could have been anywhere. Outside of development for the Memorial, this looked like it could have been any number of fields in Warren County.

This boulder marks the spot where United 93 impacted at the Flight 93 National Memorial. Photo by Brian Hagberg.

The rolling hills, ample foliage, and nearby farms are distinctly Pennsylvania. Even the boulder marking the spot where Flight 93 feels like it belongs . . . until you remember what it represents.

Looking down the Wall of Names to see that rock really brings everything into focus. The names, the flight path, and the final destination. It all speaks to the bravery and heroism displayed by those 40 people.

Again, it begged the question, “Would I have the courage to do what they did?” I sincerely hope I’ll never have to answer that question, and I’m forever grateful to those brave souls who decided their answer was, unhesitatingly, yes.