Driving along the Pennsylvania Turnpike two summers ago, my wife Deanna and I noticed the sign for the Flight 93 Memorial.
We had no idea it was close by and only swung off the freeway at the last moment. After driving through Somerset and then through the beautiful rural countryside, we came to it.
We have visited hundreds of national parks, monuments and memorials.
Few have touched us as this did.
Perhaps because it is remote, or because it was the last of the sites where planes were crashed on that dreadful morning or perhaps because so much attention is rightfully focused on New York and the Pentagon, we can tend to forget the incredible act of courage and humanity that led to that huge hole in the Pennsylvania countryside, now called “sacred ground.”
The National Park Service did not forget.
Out of the 2,200-acre former strip mine on the windy, rolling hills 75 miles from Pittsburgh, it has consecrated the deeds of that day, in Lincoln’s words, “far above our poor ability to add or detract” - a spiritually powerful place that speaks to the soul.
Walk from the parking lot along a black path winged by huge cement monoliths and you come to an overlook where you learn you have just walked the flight path of Flight 93 moments before all aboard were killed.
In the quiet of the setting, you can almost hear the passengers struggling to the last second to wrestle back control of the plane on that darkest of days. On that day, 17 years later, in the quiet, one could almost hear the whispered echoes of their fearlessness replacing their screams.
They knew they were almost certainly going to die. The voicemails some of them left to loved ones are emotionally wrenching as you pick up the exhibit phones and listen. Passengers had heard about the other three planes and knew they were on a suicide mission - seemingly beyond their control.
But that’s not how they saw it. Rather than passively sitting and accepting their fate, they fought back. Knowing the odds of their own survival were slim, the better angels of their nature spurred them to save the lives of untold hundreds or thousands more.
The word “hero” is now used so often it has become almost trivialized.
But if ever there was a time and place, if ever there was a group of people who deserve that title, it is the passengers and crew of Flight 93 and the noble sacrifice they made for their fellow human beings.
The “sacred ground” is now marked by a large stone from the site, covering the crater that was filled with the chipped remains of 100 trees destroyed by the plane that day.
The agonizingly small fragments of the plane displayed in the Visitors Center represent both pieces of our hearts and pieces of our shared humanity.
And since then, a 93-foot tall carillon of 40 wind chimes, called “The Tower of Voices,” has been dedicated near the memorial entrance.
The winds ripple peacefully through the chimes, in sorrow, yes, but also as a the message left by 40 ordinary people who took the test of courage and showed us that the best of who we are can confront the worst of who we are.
And those voices floating in the wind will silently ask us, “would we do the same?” as they did in the skies above our land.
Let us hope their example will be a lesson to us all: acting against evil is not an option, it is a moral obligation.
It is a lesson we must never forget.