OPINION: 9/11 memorial a moving experience for vacationing city couple

On a gloomy August day in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Sarnia’s Gary Folan and 5-year-old granddaughter Norah Dixon peer out at the “Field of Honor” on which United Airlines Flight 93 fell to earth on Sept. 11, 2001. Photo by Sue Folan

Phil Egan

The words are carved in granite on the site: An ordinary field one day. A field of honor forever.

For Gary and Sue Folan and their five-year-old granddaughter, Norah, it was a time of solemn reflection on an otherwise joyful family holiday.

The Folan’s have a tradition with their grandchildren. On their fifth birthday, they take a road trip with Grandma and Grandpa. This summer, it was little Norah’s turn.

While driving home to Sarnia from Philadelphia last month, Sue and Gary began seeing road signs for a Flight 93 National Memorial.

“We’ve got to go,” they decided. For Sue, an American pediatric nurse who has lived in Sarnia for decades, the trip had special significance. It was her country that had been so violently attacked 17 years ago.

They found the site “in the middle of nowhere” as Sue described it – amongst quiet fields of wildflowers 97 kilometres southeast of Pittsburgh.

United Airlines Flight 93 was one of four commercial airliners hijacked by terrorists and used as human-guided missiles on Sept. 11, 2001, destroying the World Trade Centre towers and striking the Pentagon, killing thousands in America’s worst domestic attack since Pearl Harbor.

Flight 93 was designed to strike the U.S. Capitol, but the 40 passengers and crew onboard, having learned of the other attacks, realized their predicament and fought back against the hijackers. As the cockpit door was breached, the terrorists plunged the aircraft to earth.

The courage of Flight 93’s passengers in the face of certain death has been celebrated as the one bright, inspiring moment of that tragic day.

Visitors to the Memorial can actually listen to the sounds and voices on the flight deck. “God is great,” shouted in Arabic immediately before impact, is the final voice heard on the cockpit voice recorder.

Other reminders powerfully capture the horror of that day. Three telephones in the Visitor’s Centre contain cell phone recording of calls made by a flight attendant and two passengers – farewell calls made to loved ones in full knowledge of impending death.

Sue Folan crumpled to the ground in tears as she listened to the flight attendant’s call.

Signs warn the calls can be distressing.

“Hang up,” Gary said when he saw his wife’s distress.

“I couldn’t hang up,” Sue said later. “I felt that if I hung up, I was somehow giving up on her.”

Visitors walk along the actual debris path towards a marble Wall of Names – a memorial wall of 40 panels, each containing the name of a victim of Flight 93. Along the debris path, signs depict the timeline of 9/11.

A giant boulder sits on the field to mark the exact location of Flight 93’s impact. The 93-foot Tower of Voices contains 40 wind chimes – one for each victim. Each chime has a different tone.

Little Norah Dixon may not have fully understood the entire story of what “the bad men” did that resulted in this National Memorial, but she certainly understood her grandparents’ distress and sensed the spirit of the moment.

“We have to stop,” she told them as they walked along the Wall of Names. “We have to pray.”