On a clear September day in 2001, Flight 93 took off from Newark, New Jersey at 8:42 AM ET, en route to San Francisco. It would never arrive there, instead crashing into a field in southern Pennsylvania at 10:03 AM.
Forty people onboard that plane fought terrorist for control, preventing it from crashing into the US Capitol in Washington DC. Seven crew members, 33 passengers, each of them a hero for choosing to fight back and ultimately die rather than see their flight become the fourth that horrible day to crash into an American landmark.
The Flight 93 Memorial is stark in its simplicity and contrasts. For those who want a quick visit, a walk along a concrete path provides a visual timeline of the three ill-fated flights that hit the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon. The path ends overlooking the memorial wall and the field where Flight 93 crashed, with a large boulder marking the exact point of impact.
I drove down to the memorial area, where your path parallels the long crater made by Flight 93. After 18 years, the field has closed up around the crash site. Green trees have grown tall again, and the grass grows wild and slightly yellowed by the heat of a July morning. I knew the boulder was there, but it was hard to find until it wasn’t. There, far from the path, framed by the line of trees, that’s where Flight 93 ended that day.
At the memorial site, a series of tall marble slabs, each one engraved with a name, stands in a long line, symbolizing the unity of the crew and passengers that day as they made the decision to fight back.
The line focuses attention on a wooden gate at one end. Stand at the gate and you can see a path cleanly mowed to the boulder in the field. I stood there, looking through the gate at the boulder and then back at the long line of names etched on marble, and I felt the courage of those people.
I took Boeing 757 flights from Boston to California all the time back in the day, back in those days. I knew people like those on Flight 93: business travelers, someone going home, a family setting out on a trip. They were ordinary people on Flight 93 when it left Newark that morning, expecting to be in San Francisco before lunchtime, thoughts of to-do lists, friends, and meetings crowding their heads as the plane taxied down the runway. 81 minutes later, they were all dead.
I stood there a long time, thinking how lives can change in an instant. And how heroes are born by courage in action.
In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.