Exhibits will present story of 9/11 flight where passengers overpowered terrorists
September 6, 2015 12:00 AM
At the Flight 93 National Memorial visitor center, a walkway leads past 34-foot-tall walls and marks the flight path of the hijacked plane before it crashed.
Keith E. Newlin, deputy superintendent of the Flight 93 National Memorial, discusses on Aug. 28 the walls that frame a walkway following the flight path.
By Sean D. Hamill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Gordon Felt has been working for 14 years to see his brother, Edward, and all 40 passengers and crew who were aboard United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, honored properly.
Four years ago, Mr. Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93 organization, got to see that done when the Memorial Plaza opened in Stonycreek, Somerset County, attended by the last three U.S. presidents.
But Mr. Felt and the families have also long sought to see the story told of what their loved ones endured on that plane, and how what happened that day fit into the larger story of international terrorism.
A new way of experiencing Flight 93 memorial
The new visitors complex at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County will evoke an emotional response from visitors, says Keith Newlin, deputy supt. of the memorial. (Video by Steve Mellon; 8/28/2915)
This year, that goal will finally be accomplished “after all these years,” Mr. Felt said.
The National Park Service on Thursday opens the $26 million Flight 93 National Memorial Visitor Center complex, which includes the visitor center itself, an education center and the sculpture-like overlook providing a dramatic view down onto the plaza and crash site.
At a dedication ceremony Thursday, which precedes the annual Sept. 11 ceremony a day later, the families will finally get to see the story told through visual, audio and tangible exhibits that tell the story of heroism, terror and a nation’s grief.
PG map: Flight 93 Visitor Center (Click image for larger version)
Mr. Felt and others have visited the complex as it has evolved over the past two years. But neither he nor other family members have yet been inside the visitor center to see exactly how the story will be told. They will get that experience for the first time during a private viewing on Wednesday.
“From what I saw [in March when I last visited], they did a spectacular job. I’m very satisfied,” he said. “But the final test is when I finally get to walk through [the visitor center] to see how the story is told.”
The families have been involved in the crafting of the visitor center from the beginning, aided by an academic committee of historians and museum experts, to try to craft an experience that is “not overwhelming,” Mr. Felt said.
During a recent tour of the outside features of the visitor center complex, Keith Newlin, Flight 93 National Memorial deputy superintendent, said the larger goal of Paul Murdoch, the California architect who won the design competition to create the memorial, “is to give people choices in all seasons to how they pay their respects and reflect on what happened here and [in] New York and D.C.”
The 6,800-square-foot visitor center itself, with all of its exhibits, storytelling and education, will get much of the attention. But what will strike returning visitors first is how the once-familiar property has evolved into a dramatic presentation, with the overlook itself framing the sky and the flight path of Flight 93 pointing down to the crash site. The gray concrete walls, 50 feet high in some places, have impressions of hemlock trees pressed into its forms (intended to mimic the wood on many of the area’s barns) and are juxtaposed against black granite walls below them (intended to remind viewers that the field was once a strip coal mine).
There are still two projects from the original plan to be completed: A red maple grove of trees that rings the circular walkway around the property, which will be planted next spring; and the Tower of Voices, a bell tower 93 feet high that will be erected near the entrance to the site and feature 40 aluminum chimes, which is expected to be completed in the next two years.
Though Mr. Felt and others had hoped to get the visitor center complex completed sooner, funding and other issues — including buying all the land targeted for the memorial park — took longer than expected.
The fundraising was given a significant boost at the 10th anniversary of 9/11 when former President Bill Clinton came to the dedication of the Memorial Plaza and said in his public remarks that he was shocked and dismayed that the entire Flight 93 memorial had not yet been completed. He promised to work to raise the needed funds.
Brent Glass, a member of the academic committee that consulted on the creation of the visitor center exhibits, points out, however, that “10 years to dedicate a memorial … is not that long in memorial time if you look at the Washington Memorial or the Lincoln Memorial.” Those monuments took decades to complete after their honored subjects died.
Plus, he added, taking more time “also gives us a little perspective to decide what the main events are, which sometimes you might miss if you’re too close in time to the events.”
On Friday, after he had a chance to finally tour the completed visitor center exhibits himself, Mr. Glass left impressed.
The distance of time — 14 years now — has helped make a more effective exhibit, he said.
The exhibits “set up the historical context of al-Qaida and the terrorist network and spend just the right amount of time to show what happened here wasn’t just a random act, but part of a larger story, and that it’s not over yet.”
Most importantly, he said, the exhibit explains in vivid detail how “in the space of 20 to 25 minutes, this small group of passengers formed a government, took a vote and formed a small army to defend themselves and take action. It is an inspiring story.”
Mr. Glass is director emeritus of the American History Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. But he has been involved in the decisions about how to present the history of what happened aboard Flight 93 almost since the day the passengers stormed the cockpit to thwart the terrorists’ scheme — believed to be to plunge the United Airlines plane into the U.S. Capitol building.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which helped in the days and weeks after that day when citizens began leaving hundreds, then thousands, of tributes to the passengers and crew near and on the site in Stonycreek. He later was an original member of the Flight 93 Memorial Commission.
Mr. Glass said that finally standing inside the long-envisioned visitor center — and seeing the full story of Flight 93 told in images, words and objects — invoked all 14 years of his own “different touchstones. … It’s been inspiring to see how it has all come together.”
Sean D. Hamill: email@example.com or 412-263-2579.