Visiting the Flight 93 Memorial

Last month we took a road trip that tried to give us some semblance of a vacation in the continued midst of this pandemic while also preserving our safety. Our eight year old is still too young to be vaccinated, so we continue to be cautious.

We spent a week in Massachusetts with the grandparents, then a week based in Annapolis, Maryland where we could soak up some history and outdoor time along the Chesapeake Bay. Our kiddo who is really interested in the Founding Fathers got to visit Mount Vernon, the Maryland State House (where POTUS 1 resigned his military commission after the Revolutionary War), and a few hours in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture to provide some much needed historical context about those same Founding Fathers.

The original plan was to stop at Gettysburg on the way home, heading west through Pennsylvania. With COVID numbers rising in the area and too many folks not wearing masks, we made a last minute call on the advice of a cousin (Hi, Avram!) to visit the National Parks’ Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County, PA.

All photos taken by Sheila Quirke on 8.21.2021. Not to be used without permission.

I am glad we did.

The memorial is a fitting and moving tribute to the forty people whose lives were taken and whose family and loved ones will never again be complete. The space itself is a perfect melding of architecture and landscape that soars in every direction.

Designed by Paul and Milena Murdoch of Paul Murdoch Architects with landscape architecture from Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, the space is contemplative, informative, peaceful, reverent, and honors the lives lost, using nature and strong geometric structures as the tools that both tell the story of those lives, while also acting as the final resting place of random strangers who, when called upon, changed the trajectory of one of America’s darkest days.

Driving to the Flight 93 Memorial is a necessity, as it is in a rural locale. The local scenery is gorgeous and hilly, an area of many former mines. You drive into a winding road, passing the turn off for the Tower of Voices (we hit that on our exit from the memorial), and heading to the main Visitor Center.

Here there are soaring concrete pillars that were sharp and strong against the blue skies. The museum itself is quite small. Visitors wind through a few aisles of displays that house remnants of the crash, the other attacks, and the belongings of the victims. If wanted, you can listen to recordings left by passengers to their families and loved ones. On the day we visited, people were quiet and respectful.

Walkway to the main Visitors Center and Museum
Another view of the main Visitors Center. The concrete here reminded me of the texture of the hemlock used in the gate that leads to the site of impact.

At the end of that, you walk out to a circular path that is just shy of two miles. Alternately, you could drive down to the memorial site for a much shorter walk to the wall of names. We opted to walk along the path and feel grateful we did.

There are wildflowers dotting the hills along the path and they look natural and unintentional, which is a mark of how successful the landscape architects were with their work. In a small sign, there is commentary that the whole place is meant to feel healing, both from the devastation and loss of Flight 93, as well as all of the mining that has occurred in the surrounding areas.

We all felt a sense of calm and peace as we walked towards our destination, that wall of names of crew and passengers. The beauty of the setting is undeniable. In the far distance, you can see the tree line where the plane crashed, the crater it created now just a memory. The only people allowed near the actual crash site are family members and loved ones of the deceased. That area is only visible from a far distance. That feels fitting for a sacred space. A large boulder marks the site of impact.

Park Rangers are available at the lower visitor area to answer questions and provide daily programming. The wall of names is quiet, both in design and volume. People leave roses, mementos, offerings. There is a large square gate made of local hemlock. This is how family members gain access to the impact site.

Gate used to access the site of impact, reserved for family and loved ones only.
Detail of the hemlock gate, which, to me, is mimicked in the concrete structures at the Visitor Center.

After paying our respects, we completed the circular path back to the main visitor center. There we walked back to the overlook where there is a glass railing inscribed with the words, “A common field one day. A field of honor forever.” I think about that word, ‘honor,’ and what it means. When you look to define it, you get a lot of hits about respect, high regard, and admiration.

“A common field one day. A field of honor forever.”

When you dig deeper, you might find these words, “honor is the idea of a bond between an individual and a society as a quality of a person that is both of social teaching and of personal ethos, that manifests itself as a code of conduct, and has various elements such as valour, chivalry, honesty, and compassion.” This definition feels more complete to me.

The crew and passengers of Flight 93 were a random collection of people — young and old, urban and suburban, Black and white and Latino and Asian, with different religions and political affiliations and experiences and points of view. They learned the fate of other commercial planes used by terrorists that day and some reached out to call their loved ones to say goodbye. They made a plan about how to proceed, then voted on that plan.

That detail really gets to me. This random selection of strangers came together under catastrophic conditions and voted about what to do, how to proceed. All within a 32 minute period. There is a lot of the best of humanity in those few minutes, that scant half hour. Learning your probable fate, making a plan not to submit, changing the course of history. These were not soldiers or first responders. These were middle managers and cubicle workers and college students and grandparents and moms and dads.

They are honor personified. I don’t know how much my kids will remember about our visit to the Flight 93 Memorial, but I hope they remember that.

After getting back in our car, we again drove down the winding path back to the Tower of Voices, a 93′ structure of 40 individual wind chimes. The air on the day we visited was calm and mostly unmoving. No chimes to hear, though the structure, recently completed, was no less powerful, jutting into the air, creating a different kind of tower.

Detail of the forty wind chimes, one for each who perished aboard Flight 93.

Visiting the Flight 93 Memorial is something I would highly recommend. So many people came together to design a physical place made to memorialize and contemplate the values that are best about our American culture that the crew and passengers of United 93 exercised on that morning twenty years ago today — choosing to engage in collective, democratic action meant to help others in a time of great peril.

I wish all Americans would do this daily.


NPR ran a moving podcast this week about Flight 93, the days that ensued, and the creation of the memorial. It is a must listen and you can do that HERE.

The New York Times Uses the President’s Grief to Exploit Political Divisions

In yesterday’s Sunday edition of the New York Times, where all the news is “fit to print,” they saw fit to run an article about President Biden’s grief. The lede involved the anger felt by the father of one of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan last month upon his meeting with Biden at the Dover Air Force Base. Only one of those bereaved parents was judged for their grief.

Spoiler Alert: It was President Biden.

The original headline of the article written by NYT reporter Katie Rogers looked like this:

After getting justifiably slammed on social media about the wording, the headline was changed to read, “In Invoking Beau, Biden Broaches a Loss That’s Guided His Presidency.” Sadly, the original headline was much more reflective of the actual text. The reporter seemed to revel in the anger felt towards Biden from a Gold Star father.. There was a glee and breathlessness to her writing that felt more like click bait than Sunday paper above-the -fold commentary.

The article was actually as much about how Biden’s grief rubs people the wrong way as it was about how it guides his presidency, which he himself has acknowledged time and again. And, here’s another spoiler alert for you, the people that Biden’s grief seems to rub the wrong way are all people who are of the GOP voting variety.


I tweeted yesterday minutes after reading the article, “It feels fair and predictable to me that Biden would use his grief in this way. It also feels fair and predictable to me that newly grieving parents would not give a fig about Beau, esp. if they voted for Trump.”

Just as it is understandable to me that Biden is compelled to bring up his son, it is equally understandable that a newly bereaved parent would not want to hear about that son. Both of those things can be true and neither of those grieving parents is wrong in that regard.

This NYT article serves to amplify the profound and destructive political division that exists within America today. Parental grieving, both fresh and less fresh, simply becomes the latest arena where Americans can be angry at one another. To what end? There was also the clear undercurrent, highlighted with quotes from unnamed sources, that Biden should simply move on already.

For better or worse, I am someone who knows grief intimately. I worked as a clinical social worker in a retirement community for a decade and during that time one of my duties was to act as the bereavement counselor/coordinator for the onsite hospice. Later, I would gain more personal insight into grief with the loss of my mother, father, and daughter, who, like Beau Biden, died of an aggressive brain tumor.

My grief is a defining part of who I am. It has altered and informed my parenting, my relationships, my career, my life choices, my perspective, my joy, and my sorrow. This is true of President Biden, as well, I am sure, just as it will be true of that Gold Star father who met Biden with his heavy and angry heart.

Shame on the New York Times and reporter Katie Rogers for exploiting parental grief, in all its many forms, to leverage and magnify our current political climate of deep and extreme division. I generally expect better from them than hit pieces you would more commonly find on FOX or in the pedantic op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. We should expect better than hot takes dripping with cynicism meant to slyly critique the grief of a bereaved parent, whomever that grieving parent may be.

How Are You? No, Really, I Want to Know.

I don’t really know how to answer that question myself. “Fine,” is one way, which would cover the basics — income secure, food secure, housing secure. Not worrying about those things right now is a really, really good thing. Outside of basic needs being covered, though, I am feeling a lot less, well, secure.

All of us are walking through so much right now. Whatever your politics, whatever your science (because apparently, in 2021 America, we also have our choice of science), we are all holding on to a lot in this moment — these moments, the string of them, that just keep coming.

Sometimes I wonder how much longer we can sustain this degree of uncertainty, fear, anger, outrage, sorrow, hopelessness, distrust. That’s something I worry about a lot. There are other things I worry about a lot and was going to add a little list here with bullet points and everything, but who in the hell wants to read about someone else’s worry list right now? I like you too much for that.

In these days I find myself much more inwardly focused. I’m trying hard to take care of my family, I fuss over my kids. My world feels a lot smaller in general. It’s quiet this week and for the first time since March 2020, both my kids and husband are gone at the same time. My home and I are getting reacquainted. It’s good. It feels familiar and odd all at the same time. In no way do I trust that all this divine solitude will continue. Some shoe is gonna drop and it’s only a matter of time before it does.

That kind of captures how I am right now in a nut shell — always waiting for the other shoe to drop and being certain that it will, even if I don’t know when. Maybe you feel the same some days.

It does feel good to be here, in this space, with you, if there are any yous left, that is. It’s been so long since I’ve written in this space that I actually had to Google, “How do I write on my WordPress site?” It worked and here I am.

Take care of yourself. No, really. Take care of yourself. Know that, historically speaking, we are living through some really big deal things. Like catastrophic things. Also know that there is a nice lady in Chicago thinking of you. I hope you are well, or well enough.

Today I took a walk and made brownies for lunch and opted to write instead of watch an old episode of Bachelor in Paradise. All of those things are good things. Today they will be enough.

I wore this hoody on yesterday’s walk and for the first time in forever, some of the other walkers and cyclists actually smiled and waved at me when typically folks on the path work hard not to make eye contact. That’s a win.