About two years ago I received an email from a reader named Gary Williams inviting me to ride around southwestern Pennsylvania and attend the 9th annual ceremony at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Stonycreek Township. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend that year, but as promised, Gary invited me again the following year to spend the weekend at his family’s cabin at Indian Lake, only a few miles east of the crash site. With such a generous proposition and the opportunity to visit the crash site during the weekend of the 10th annual memorial ceremony, I gladly accepted Gary’s offer. I was honored that I would get visit the memorial site on such a historic day and pay my respects to the 40 passengers and crew members on Flight 93 and the nearly 3,000 others who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.
The weekend was scheduled with various ceremonies with the dedication of the first phase of the Flight 93 Memorial taking place. For that event, former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were scheduled to give speeches. Then on Sunday President Barack Obama, was scheduled to visit the site for the 10th anniversary commemoration.
Arriving in Pittsburgh, Gary and his friend, Dave Musser, picked me up from the airport with plans of departing for Indian Lake in the morning once Gary’s friends, Mel Bliss and Bill Rooker, arrived. Our ride to Indian Lake was beautiful as we careened through the back roads and lush two-lane highways, the Electra Glide that Gary procured for me from Z&M; Cycle Sales made for a great travel companion.
After settling into the cabin, Gary took us for ride and gave us a local’s tour of the Shanksville area. While the crash site is located in Stonycreek Township, most people often refer to neighboring Shanksville. Winding along the back roads amongst the rolling hills we ended up at the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department. Currently comprised of about 28 active members, the department covers a district of approximately 62 square miles and a population of about 2,500. Located mere miles from the crash site, members of the department were some of the first on the scene. When we arrived, the department was having a private barbecue for family members of the crash victims, so we respectfully, rode away hoping to come back the next day (Saturday) to get some photos of the department and meet some of the volunteers.
Saturday morning we hit the road with our destination being Z&M; Cycle Sales, about 50 miles away in Greensburg, to visit with owners Kim McMahan and her brother, Jim. A few miles down from Indian Lake, along historic Lincoln Highway, we passed the entrance to the Memorial site and it became quite clear how big the day’s event was going to be and how high security was. With several cop cars in the middle of the road and officers guiding traffic into the park, the line of cars, trucks, and motorcycles trying to make their way into the memorial site stretched for miles as we made our way to Greensburg.
Arriving at Z&M, I was introduced to Kim and was very impressed by how big the dealership was. Originally opened in 1968 with three employees, the dealership has continued to expand and his been family-owned for 64 years with Kim and Jim holding the reigns for the past 11 years. The dealership has been in its current location since 2005 and now has a staff of 44 employees and covers everything from service and repair to new and used Harley and Honda sales, Harley rentals, and a large apparel section. The day we were there, Z&M was hosting an open house party and chili cook-off and was a destination point for many of the incoming riders heading to the memorial site. With the previous day’s clouds cleared away, there was a great turnout of local and out-of-town riders enjoying the music and free chili and hot dogs. It was quite obvious that Z&M has been held in high regard amongst the local riding community as most of the people in attendance were like extended family. And with Kim’s generosity, (she purchased all the food for the event-including all the ingredients for the chili cook-off entrants) it’s obvious why her family’s dealership has been so successful over the years.
After spending several hours at the dealership we decided to hit the road and head back towards Shanksville to visit the fire department once again. When we got to there, things were much quieter than the day before with only a few of the volunteers hanging out and speaking with guests like ourselves. They were all very cordial and extremely appreciative of all those who stopped by. Walking through the garage of the firehouse, I got to meet a couple of the fireman/women including Sean Daniels (17 years with the department) his wife, Annie (13 years), and Chief Terry Shaffer (25 years). Just off to the right of the fire station I noticed a memorial setup as a tribute to all those that lost their lives on Sept. 11 and to honor the Shanksville Volunteer Fire department’s efforts on the day of the crash. The memorial is a cross made of steel from the World Trade Center and mounted atop a platform shaped like the Pentagon. The memorial was donated by New York City firefighters and has become a very proud and prominent point of interest at the station.
As I was chatting with Sean, a fleet of blacked-out SUVs came rolling up to the station. As we all stared in bewilderment trying to figure out what was going on, several guys dressed in suits popped out of the vehicles followed by Vice President Joe Biden and his wife. Obviously the small crowd that was there was shocked by the unexpected visit. For the next 30 minutes or so, the vice president shook hands, talked, and took pictures with the firefighters and visitors. He even gave an impromptu speech, thanking the Shanksville FD for its efforts and acknowledging how significant the memorial in front of the fire station was.
After Vice President Biden left, I spoke with Chief Shaffer and asked him how he felt having the vice president visit his station. “It probably meant more than anything to me that he [vice president] brought up that he knew and shared with everybody that we have this piece of steel from the World Trade Center. We hold it in honor of the 343 guys that were lost in New York and it’s on the base of a pentagon, so basically here in Shanksville we have the three sites represented. That whole ceremony in 2008 when they brought it, and now he brings it up again to tell people about it, that meant a lot to me, because the cross itself means a lot to me,” he commented. The chief also praised the motorcycle community for their ongoing support. “Kudos to the bikers, because they are some of the greatest people that come here to visit and most courteous people we’ve found to come up here and visit and hang out with us.”
Bright and early the next morning we made the short ride to the memorial site, and traffic into the site was noticeably lighter than the previous day. The entrance to the site follows a freshly paved road that winds through some small hills eventually dropping down into a large flat open field where the first part of the memorial has been constructed. Due to high security and the massive amounts of people on hand for the weekend ceremonies, everyone had to park about half mile away up on a small dirt hill and then busses shipped everyone down to the main site. As we made our way to the busses we walked past many other bikes parked in the dirt field. Leading up to the ceremonial weekend there were several cross-country and local charity rides with the final destination being the Flight 93 National Memorial. We passed several bikes with flags bearing the Never Forget slogan as well as the names of those who lost their lives in the tragedy.
Before September 11, 2001, the area was just an ordinary sprawling field that was a reclaimed coal strip mine. Ten years after Sept. 11, the majority of the area is still a sprawling open field, but there is nothing ordinary about it. It is now sacred ground that holds significant personal and emotional meaning. With the overall concept still in the development process, the Arrival Court and Memorial Plaza as well as several other components were finished in time for the 10-year anniversary ceremony. The Memorial Plaza provides visitors a view of the crash site and is outlined by a short, black slate angular wall that connects into a large marble wall. Speaking with one of the park rangers, he informed me that the area within the meandering short wall indicates where any and all debris and remains were found—nothing was found beyond the wall. The area within the wall is now considered a burial site and is off limits to the general public. The only people allowed within the area are family members of the deceased and approved personnel. The straight line of the marble wall marks the path of the plane as it came crashing to the ground. The Sunday ceremony marked the revealing of the wall, which features 40 marble slabs each with a passenger or crewmember’s name inscribed into it. When trying to choose a marker to identify the impact area, it was determined that something natural and from the area should be used. Once the final investigation was over and construction on the site was started, a large rock was unearthed and it was decided that something as simple as that boulder firmly represented the strength and solid determination of the heroes that fought back to take control of Flight 93; ultimately avoiding the terrorists intended final target and therefore saving countless lives.
As we stepped off the bus down by the Arrival Court, a massive crowd had gathered due to the tight security and metal detector screening. Waiting to get through security provided the opportunity to walk around the Memorial Plaza and read the information kiosks detailing the events on September 11, 2001, Flight 93, the passengers and crew, the investigation, and the final plans for the site. Looking at some of the pictures from the crash and reading the about the heroes aboard the flight really puts a personal perspective on the tragedy and can really pull at your heartstrings. Just as we were making our way through the metal detectors, we saw the Marine One helicopter flying overhead, marking the arrival of the president and first lady after having spent the morning at a ceremony at the World Trade Center site. After laying a wreath at the marble wall, they spent some time shaking hands and speaking with the crowd. The president and first lady then disappeared behind the marble wall and reemerged out by the memorial boulder and silently paid their respects. It’s reported they then spent some private time with the victims’ families and friends before boarding Marine One and heading to a ceremony at the Pentagon.
We spent a little bit more time at the memorial, then boarded the busses back to our bikes. During the short trip back to the bikes, I found it hard not to reflect on the overwhelming experience of visiting the crash site. Standing amongst thousands of people all feeling such strong sorrow and deep emotion, I felt drained and weighted down. Once on the road, the vibration of the bike and the hum of the engine and exhaust help soothe and relax me, and I felt a little more at ease.
With still quite a bit of daylight left, Bill and Mel decided to pack up and head home Sunday afternoon. Monday morning, Gary took Dave and I on a ride along some more of Pennsylvania’s incredible country roads. But then as with all good times, there always comes an end. And after five days of amazing riding, once-in-a-lifetime memories, and hanging out with new friends, it was time to go back home.
I can’t thank my friend Gary enough for offering to take me in for the weekend, introducing me to his riding buddies, and providing me with the wonderful opportunity to be a part of such a memorable and special occasion. And a special thank-you to Kim and the Z&M Cycle Sales staff for loaning me a bike and the generous hospitality. If you are ever in the Greensburg area, stop by and say hi or a visit them online at zmcycle.com.
I barely scratched the surface of how moving the Flight 93 Memorial is. Visiting the Flight 93 National Memorial really gave me a greater perspective of the tragic loss and sacrifices our country suffered on Sept. 11. There are several destinations every biker has on their list of places to visit, and in my opinion, this needs to be at the top of everybody’s list. The 11th anniversary of the tragedy is only a few months away, if you haven’t been yet, maybe a trip is in order. I can’t even imagine how impactful the memorial will be once it’s complete. To learn more about the site visit, nps.gov/flni, and to donate to the Flight 93 National Memorial, visit honorflight93.org. HB