We need artists to make sense of tragedy—and to help us heal
The skies here were strikingly different on two days: September 11, 2001, and today, September 22, 2022, when my family visited the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In 2001 there was a vivid blue sky with bright early-autumn sun. Today, the sky was passionate, full of drama as clouds scudded overhead changing their shapes.
Often we neglect the history within arm’s reach. As Pennsylvania residents living nearby, we felt it was time to see the place where the passengers and crew of Flight 93, who knew they were going to die, chose how they were going to die by removing the weapon that was their aircraft from the hands of terrorists. The visitors’ center in Shanksville is informative, heartbreaking . . . and a good and worthy memorial for those heroes.
First, I was deeply impressed at how well the place is designed. The center, which lucidly tells the story of 9/11 in words, objects, and recordings, is itself built to communicate “flight.” When you stand on the observation deck, you feel that you’re soaring over the field. And when you view it from the meadow below, the keen blade of the building appears to be flying, a gleaming structure sweeping over the brow of the hill just as Flight 93 did. As we looked up, a towering cloud advanced over the center in the same shape, like the grand prow of a ship, mirroring the edifice below. The building overlooks the wide, pastoral field alive with grasses and brown-eyed Susans where a single sandstone boulder near the line of hemlock trees marks the crash site. Sky, trees, field, flowers . . . a panoramic whole. On that morning in 2001, a semicircle of the hemlock grove was incinerated, the forest’s edge littered with bent silverware, shreds of paper and plastic, artifacts of the giant vanished aircraft. There was no wreckage, nothing but impact depressions: fuselage- and wing-marks, soil gouged up, sprayed wide. No seats, no luggage, no people, only intense heat, a pall of smoke. DNA to be extracted from the ground. Lives snuffed out, but a terrorist plot foiled: Flight 93 may have been bound for the Capitol or the White House.
A darkly paved walk marks the path of the flight past a slightly zigzagging, accordion-folded wall of the names of passengers and crew. Viewed from a distance the wall seems straight and unified, symbolizing the way these people came together to resist the terror. The walkway ends in a gate of vertical, rough-hewn hemlock timbers. Like the lines in the pathways, the zigzag cut of their surfaces reflects the growth patterns of hemlock trees. The Creator God is in charge here: a vast and breathtaking land. Sky, woods, flowers, grass. Hemlocks. Enormity. Out beyond the gate, the boulder where Flight 93 met the earth.
A short drive away, a carillon tower stands, The Tower of Voices. The wind plays its chimes. It’s a brilliant choice to let the music be made entirely by the wind as if we’re hearing a song from the earth. We couldn’t resist standing in the center of the tower between its feet and singing wordless tones, joining our voices to its pitches.
The memorial is a reverent place etched with sorrow like a battlefield. And that’s what it is. For many, the most powerful part of the visitors’ center is that you can pick up an earphone and listen to three calls made from cell phones by people aboard the plane during the hijacking. For the most part, the callers are amazingly composed, but they’re also determined to say clearly how much they love their families. All three left messages on answering machines, which is sobering in itself: They weren’t talking to people directly. The first caller is trying not to alarm her family. She must have placed the call early in the hijacking before the passengers knew about the World Trade Center, the Pentagon. Perhaps they thought the terrorists would make demands of the government, that people might get off the plane alive. “We’re having a problem here on the plane, but I’m fine,” she says. Then “I’m fine for now. I love you so much.” The second caller, after she gives instructions for how to get into her safe, breaks down. Again, “I love you so much. I hope I can tell you that again soon.” She’s pretty sure she’s saying goodbye. The third, a flight attendant, talks of the plan to storm the cockpit. Her voice is professional, informative, tense, urgent. She knows there will be a battle. She knows the plane is probably going down, hard. She, too, tells her loved ones that she loves them. When the end comes, that seems the most important thing for us to say.
God’s sky, trees, field, flowers . . . here, the Divine working in people brought victory over evil human behavior. The heroism at Shanksville turned something horrible into an ennobled place that when viewed firsthand is hauntingly beautiful. I think that’s ultimately how God handles evil and what God can do with the ugliest human works. The pain and scar remain, felt always by those touched, but even the worst of human wrecks, God can forge into beauty.
The Flight 93 Memorial is a worthy and fitting testament to courage—the courage to act on behalf of others under the worst conditions—and the ability to think with true humanity in an unthinkable situation. The design of the building and of the carillon tower drove home for me how much our broken world needs creative expression that helps us toward healing. Architects, visual artists, writers, musicians, woodworkers, gardeners . . . we need them all to put tragedy and heroism in their rightful places.
For over twenty years, Frederic S. Durbin has been professionally writing fiction for adults and children. His most recent novel, A Green and Ancient Light, was named a Reading List Honor Book by the American Library Association.