Katie Hostetler was a teenager, a high school kid, when the world – and four commercial airliners – crashed down.
It was a brilliant late-summer morning, a couple of weeks into the school year, when evil visited two East Coast cities, then rural Somerset County, 10 miles south of Hostetler’s classrooms. Nineteen Al Qaeda terrorists, in a coordinated suicide attack against America, planned to hijack those jets and fly them into symbolic locations.
They crashed all four, but failed to complete their mission. Passengers and crew of the last plane in the air — a delayed flight out of Newark, N.J., bound for San Francisco — had placed calls to report the hijacking. They found out about attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Unarmed and with no other option, they counterattacked, rushing the cockpit in an attempt to wrest control of the airliner.
They apparently were close to doing that, according to the 9/11 Commission report, prompting the terrorists to crash the plane before reaching their destination: the U.S. Capitol, 18 minutes to the south.
The 33 passengers and seven crew members who died are, deservedly, hailed as heroes, having prevented the last of four planned, unspoken catastrophes from occurring on Sept. 11, 2001.
The U.S. and world survived the multiple concussions they were dealt, and so did Hostetler. She is now a ranger/public information officer for the National Park Service, working at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Stonycreek Township, back home.
Although she declined to relate her experiences and feelings of that day, Hostetler summarized what transpired – the valor that emerged – perfectly.
“They’re 40 unique people who came together in a short period of time and decided to do that,” she said. “By doing that, they changed history that day.”
They did so, ironically, on a United flight.
Officially, 2,977 individuals – excluding hijackers – lost their lives in the attacks two decades ago. Heroic stories emerged from the devastating assaults on the World Trade Center in Manhattan and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., to be sure. Courage and heroism also are hallmarks of the Flight 93 National Memorial, a 1,000-acre expanse on the site of a reclaimed surface mine.
It is an immaculate, incredible park, rich in symbolism and a tourist destination that, somehow, is tragic yet uplifting at the same time. It is open daily, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., for self tours by foot or by vehicle. And there is no entrance fee.
This being the 20th anniversary year, Flight 93 National Memorial could break its single-year attendance record of 411,000. COVID-19 and the delta variant, however, may have a say in that.
The entrance is off Route 30, about 10 miles north of the Somerset interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Attractions include the Tower of Voices, Visitors Center, Wall of Names, Impact Site and Boulder, and Memorial Groves.
“The Memorial is designed around the flight path” of the airliner, Hostetler said. That path is replicated, on the ground, beginning with the walkway from the parking lot to the Visitors Center.
Paul Murdoch Architects and Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects won an international design competition that led to development of the Memorial that stands today.
There was a previous incarnation of a memorial more than a decade ago, but it wasn’t much of an attraction. People who remember the old site regularly refer to it as “no more than a chain-link fence.”
“We got involved with the Memorial when it was a hole in ground. It’s great to see it come together,” said Tom Rooney, a member of the Friends of Flight 93 board of directors and a former Washington County resident.
Donna Gibson, president of the group, said Friends was created in 2011 “to help raise funds for the Memorial and engage communities.” Friends is part of a public-private partnership that led to development of the park, along with Families of Flight 93, the National Park Foundation and the National Park Service.
Foremost among the featured attractions are:
- Tower of Voices: This towering monument is visible from the entrance, away from the flight path, and described by the National Park Service as a “musical instrument.” It is 93 feet tall – for the flight number – and features 40 chimes, for the combined 40 passengers and crew members. The Park Service says there are no other chime structures like this. (It was dedicated on Sept. 9, 2018.)
- Visitors Center Complex: This area, dedicated on Sept. 10, 2015, features the Flight Path Walkway, exhibits, photos, a bookstore and an overlook of the crash location. (The gallery of victims’ smiling faces will tug at your heart.)
- Wall of Names: Forty polished, white marble panels bear the name of each passenger and crew member. They are adjacent to the crash site, the final resting place for the victims. (Dedicated on Sept. 10, 2011.)
- Crash Site/Debris Field: The jet, traveling at 563 mph, crashed here upside down, into a grove of hemlock trees. A sandstone boulder, weighing 17 tons, marks the general area of impact.
- Memorial Groves/Allee:. Forty groves of 40 trees – again, symbolic of passengers and crew – sit along Ring Road. The Allee, a walking path, follows the edge of the groves and connects the Visitors Center Complex with Memorial Plaza down the hill.
The Flight 93 crash was the only one that was nearly averted. Rooney is certain the passengers and crew were aware of their plight. Their plane was delayed in departing Newark, N.J., disrupting plans for a coordinated attack and giving those on the flight time to learn about the other attacks.
“I used to have to fly in and out Newark for business,” Rooney said. “Flights from there were almost always delayed. There was a 25-minute air traffic delay (for Flight 93).”
Before relocating to Franklin Park, the head of Tom Rooney Sports and Entertainment Group lived in Washington County for 41 years, and still has clients there. He pointed out that Flight 93, which apparently was hijacked in northeastern Ohio, soared over Washington County en route to its intended target. Somerset County wasn’t far away.
But that disaster was not averted, and Katie Hostetler and Donna Gibson want the public, and future generations, to be aware of the quadruple tragedy that occurred 20 years ago – and the ramifications that still resonate.
“An important thing to keep in mind today is that an entire generation has been born who don’t remember this. That’s why the story has to be told,” Hostetler said.
“One of our concerns,” said Gibson, a vice president of First National Bank, “is that 20 years have passed and 75 million Americans have been born since. They have no memories of those events.
“How do we reach those 75 million? How do we tell these stories? We need new volunteers to tell stories of individuals.”