Sat, Sep. 07, 2002
By DAVE BARRY
On a humid July day in
Pennsylvania, hundreds of tourists, as millions have before
them, are drifting among the simple gravestones and timeworn
monuments of the national cemetery at Gettysburg.
Several thousand soldiers
are buried here. A few graves are decorated with flowers,
suggesting some of the dead have relatives who still come
here. There's a sign at the entrance, reminding people that
this is a cemetery. It says: "SILENCE AND RESPECT."
Most of the tourists
are being reasonably respectful, for tourists, although many,
apparently without noticing, walk on the graves, stand on
the bones of the soldiers. Hardly anybody is silent. Perky
tour guides are telling well-practiced stories and jokes;
parents are yelling at children; children are yelling at each
other. A tour group of maybe two dozen teen-agers are paying
zero attention to anything but each other, flirting, laughing,
wrapped in the happy self-absorbed obliviousness of Teen-agerLand.
A few yards away, gazing
somberly toward the teen-agers, is a bust of Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address here 139 years ago, when
the gentle rolling landscape, now green and manicured, was
still raw and battle-scarred, the earth recently soaked with
the blood of the 8,000 who died, and the tens of thousands
more who were wounded, when two armies, 160,000 men, fought
a terrible battle on July 1, 2 and 3 that determined the outcome
of the Civil War.
Nobody planned for the
battle to happen here. Neither army set out for Gettysburg.
But this is where it happened. This is where, out of randomness,
out of chance, a thousand variables conspired to bring the
two mighty armies together. And so this quiet little town,
because it happened to be here, became historic, significant,
a symbol, its identity indelibly defined by this one overwhelming
event. This is where these soldiers - soldiers from Minnesota,
soldiers from Kentucky, soldiers who had never heard of Gettysburg
before they came here to die - will lie forever.
This is hallowed ground.
On the same July day,
a few hours' drive to the west, near the small Pennsylvania
town of Shanksville, Wally Miller, coroner of Somerset County,
Pa., walks slowly through the tall grass covering a quiet
field, to a place near the edge, just before some woods.
This is the place where,
on Sept. 11, 2001, United Airlines Flight 93, scene of a desperate
airborne battle pitting passengers and crew against terrorist
hijackers, came hurtling out of the sky, turning upside down
and slamming into the earth at more than 500 mph.
That horrendous event
transformed this quiet field into a smoking, reeking hell,
a nightmare landscape of jet fuel, burning plane debris, scattered
Now, 10 months later,
the field is green again. Peaceful and green.
Except where Flight 93
plunged into the ground. That one place is still barren dirt.
That one place has not healed.
the grass won't grow right here," says Miller.
Nobody on Flight 93 was
heading for Somerset County that day. The 33 passengers and
seven crew were heading from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco.
The four hijackers had a different destination in mind, probably
Washington, D.C., possibly the White House.
Nobody on the plane meant
to come here.
"I doubt that any
one of them would ever set foot in Somerset County, except
maybe to stop at Howard Johnson's on the turnpike," Miller
says. "They have no roots here."
But this is where they
are. And this is where they will stay.
No bodies were recovered
here, at least not as we normally think of bodies. In the
cataclysmic violence of the crash, the people on Flight 93
literally disintegrated. Searchers found fragments of bones,
small pieces of flesh, a hand. But no bodies.
In the grisly accounting
of a jetliner crash, it comes down to pounds: The people on
Flight 93 weighed a total of about 7,500 pounds. Miller supervised
an intensive effort to gather their remains, some flung hundreds
of yards. In the end, just 600 pounds of remains were collected;
of these, 250 pounds could be identified by DNA testing and
returned to the families of the passengers and crew.
Forty families, wanting
to bury their loved ones. Two hundred fifty pounds of identifiable
"There were people
who were getting a skull cap and a tooth in the casket,"
Miller says. "That was their loved ones."
The rest of the remains,
the vast majority, will stay here forever, in this ground.
"For all intents
and purposes, they're buried here," Miller says. "This
is a cemetery."
This is also hallowed
In the Gettysburg Address,
Lincoln was essentially trying to answer a question. The question
was: How do you honor your heroes? Lincoln's answer was: You
can't. No speech you give, no monument you erect, will be
worthy of them, of their sacrifice. The best you can do is
remember the cause they died for, finish the job they started.
Of course the passengers
and crew on Flight 93, when they set out from Newark that
morning, had no cause in common. They were people on a plane
bound from Newark to San Francisco. Some were going home,
some traveling on business, some on vacation.
People on a plane.
Which makes it all the
more astonishing, what they did.
You've been on planes.
Think how it feels, especially on a morning cross-country
flight. You got up early; you're tired; you've been buckled
in your seat for a couple of hours, with hours more to go.
You're reading, or maybe dozing. You're essentially cargo:
There's nowhere you can go, nothing you can do, no role you
could possibly play in flying this huge, complex machine.
You retreat into your passenger cocoon, passive, trusting
your fate to the hands of others, confident that they'll get
you down safe, because they always do.
Now imagine what that
awful morning was like for the people on Flight 93. Imagine
being ripped from your safe little cocoon, discovering that
the plane was now controlled by killers, that your life was
in their bloody hands. Imagine knowing that there was nobody
to help you, except you, and the people, mostly strangers,
Imagine that, and ask
yourself: What would you do? Could you do anything? Could
you overcome the fear clenching your stomach, the cold, paralyzing
The people on Flight
93 did. With hijackers in control of the plane, with the captain
and first officer most likely dead, the people on this plane
got on their cell phones, and the plane's Airfones. They reached
people on the ground, explained what was happening to them.
They expressed their love. They said goodbye.
But they did not give
up. As they were saying goodbye, they were gathering information.
They learned about the World Trade Center towers. They understood
that Flight 93 was on a suicide mission. They figured out
what their options were.
Then they organized.
Then they fought back.
In "Among the Heroes,"
a riveting book about Flight 93, New York Times reporter Jere
Longman reports many of the last words spoken to loved ones
on the ground by people on the plane. They're not the words
of people in shock, people resigned to whatever fate awaits
them. They're the words of people planning an attack. Fighters.
Here, for example, are
the last words of passenger Honor Elizabeth Wainio to her
stepmother: "They're getting ready to break into the
cockpit. I have to go. I love you. Goodbye."
Here are flight attendant
Sandy Bradshaw's last words to her husband: "We're going
to throw water on them and try to take the airplane back over.
Phil, everyone's running to first class. I've got to go. Bye."
And of course there are
the now-famous words of Todd Beamer, who, after explaining
the situation on the plane to an Airfone supervisor in Illinois,
turned to somebody near him and said: "You ready? OK,
They're getting ready
to break into the cockpit.
I've got to go.
We'll never know exactly
what happened next. Some believe that the fighters managed
to get into the cockpit, and that, in the ensuing struggle
for control, the plane went down. Others believe that the
hijackers, trying to knock the fighters off their feet, flew
the plane erratically, and in doing so lost control. Inevitably,
there is Internet-fueled speculation that the plane was secretly
shot down by the U.S. government. (The government denies this.)
But whatever happened,
we know two things for sure:
We know that the plane
went down before it reached its target - that the hijackers
failed to strike a national symbol, a populated area. They
And we know that the
people on the plane fought back. On a random day, on a random
flight, they found themselves - unwarned, unprepared, unarmed
- on the front lines of a vicious new kind of war. And somehow,
in the few confusing and terrifying minutes they had, they
transformed themselves from people on a plane into soldiers,
and they fought back. And that made them heroes, immediately
and forever, to a wounded, angry nation, a nation that desperately
wanted to fight back.
And now these heroes
lie here, in this field where their battle ended. This cemetery.
This battlefield. This hallowed ground.
Wally Miller, coroner,
has walked this ground hundreds of times. He spent endless
hours among those collecting human remains and picking up
plane parts. Even now, he walks with his eyes down, looking,
looking. Every now and then he reaches down and picks up a
tiny piece of plane - a thimble-sized piece of twisted gray
metal, a bit of charred plastic, a shard of circuit board,
a wire. This is what Flight 93 became: millions of tiny pieces,
a vast puzzle that can never be reassembled. Despite the cleanup
effort, there are still thousands of plane parts scattered
for acres around the crash site, just under the new plant
growth, reminders of what happened here.
The site is peaceful;
no sound but birds. Miller walks from the bright field into
the hemlock woods just beyond the barren spot where Flight
93 slammed into the earth. It's mid-afternoon, but the woods
are in permanent dusk, the tall trees allowing only a dim,
gloomy light to filter down to the lush green ferns that blanket
the ground. The woods look undisturbed, except for bright
"X"s painted on the trunks of dozens of hemlocks.
The "X"s mark the trees that were scaled by climbers
retrieving human remains, flung high and deep into woods by
the force of the crash.
Some of the hemlocks,
damaged by debris and fire and jet fuel, had to be cut down.
These trees were supposed to be trucked away, but Miller,
who, as coroner, still controls the crash site, would not
allow it. Some of the trees have been ground into mulch; some
lie in piles of logs and branches. But they're all still here.
Miller won't let them be removed.
"This is a cemetery,"
he says, again. And he is determined that it will be respected
as a cemetery. All of it. Even the trees.
Almost immediately after
the battle of Gettysburg, people started coming to see the
place where history happened. More than a century later, they're
Some are pilgrims: For
them, Gettysburg is a solemn place, where the suffering and
sacrifice of the soldiers still hangs heavy in the air. Some
are purely tourists: For them, Gettysburg is another attraction
to visit, like the Grand Canyon, or Graceland - famous, but
not particularly relevant to their everyday lives. You park,
you look, you take a picture, you leave.
I think that most of
the visitors to Gettysburg, even today, are some mixture of
pilgrim and tourist. But as the battle has receded in time,
as the scars of the war have healed, tourism clearly has come
to dominate the mixture. Despite the valiant efforts of many
to preserve the soul of this place, to explain to the waist-pack
hordes why this ground is hallowed, Gettysburg, surrounded
by motels and gift shoppes, accessorized by a wax museum and
a miniature-golf course, is now much more a tourist attraction
than a shrine.
But soldiers are still
buried here. And people still come to place flowers on graves.
And the sign at the entrance to the cemetery still makes its
plea: SILENCE AND RESPECT.
Immediately after Sept.
11, people started coming to see where Flight 93 went down.
The site is a little tricky to find, but they found it, and
they're coming still, every day, a steady stream of people
who want to be near this place. They're not allowed on the
site itself, which is fenced off and guarded, so they go to
the temporary memorial that has been set up by the side of
a two-lane rural road overlooking the crash site, a quarter-mile
The memorial - the word
seems grandiose, when you see it - is a gravel parking area,
two portable toilets, two flagpoles and a fence. The fence
was erected to give people a place to hang things. Many visitors
leave behind something - a cross, a hat, a medal, a patch,
a T-shirt, an angel, a toy airplane, a plaque - symbols, tokens,
gifts for the heroes in the ground. There are messages for
the heroes, too, thousands of letters, notes, graffiti scrawls,
expressing sorrow, and love, and anger, and, most often, gratitude,
sometimes in yearbookish prose:
"Thanx 4 everything
to the heroes of Flight 93!!"
Visitors read the messages,
look at the stuff on the fence, take pictures. But mostly
they stare silently across the field, toward the place where
Flight 93 went down. They look like people you see at Gettysburg,
staring down the sloping field where Pickett's charge was
stopped, and the tide of war changed, in a few minutes of
unthinkable carnage. There is nothing, really, to see on either
field now, but you find it hard to pull your eyes away, knowing,
imagining, what happened there.
There will be a permanent
memorial for Flight 93. The temporary one is touching in its
way, a heartfelt and spontaneous tribute to the heroes. But
it's also haphazard, verging on tacky. Everyone agrees that
something more dignified is needed. The official wheels are
already turning: Congress has begun considering a bill to
place the site in federal custody. Eventually land will be
acquired; a commission will be appointed; a design will be
Wally Miller frets about
the memorial. He worries that, in the push to commemorate
this as The Defining Moment In The War Against Terrorism,
people will forget that it was also - maybe primarily - a
personal tragedy for 40 families. He believes that, whatever
is done at the site, there should be a place set aide for
the Flight 93 families to grieve in private, away from the
public, the tourists, the sightseers, the voyeurs, and what
Miller calls "the metal-detector assholes."
Tim Lambert, who owns
the woods where many of the remains were found, agrees that
the paramount concern has to be the families.
"They are forced
to live with this tragedy every day," he says. "The
site itself is, for the most part, the final resting place
for their loved ones. People need to remember and respect
One of the most heartrending
quotes in "Among the Heroes" is from Deena Burnett,
the widow of Flight 93 passenger Tom Burnett, who is believed
to have played an active role in the battle on the plane.
Mrs. Burnett is describing what it's like to be the widow
of a hero:
"In the beginning,
everyone asked, 'Aren't you proud of him? Aren't you happy
that he's a hero?' I thought, my goodness, the first thing
you have to understand is, I'm just trying to put one foot
in front of the other. For my husband to be anyone's hero
... I'd much prefer him to be here with me."
So we need to remember
this: The heroes of Flight 93 were people on a plane. Their
glory is being paid for, day after day, by grief. Tom Burnett
does not belong to the nation. He is, first and foremost,
Deena Burnett's husband, and the father of their three daughters.
Any effort we make to claim him as ours is an affront to those
who loved him, those he loved.
He is not ours.
And yet ...
... and yet he is a hero
to us, he and the other people on Flight 93. We want to honor
them, just as we want to honor the firefighters, police officers
and civilians at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon who
risked, and sometimes gave, their lives to try to rescue others.
We want to honor them for what they did, and for reminding
us that this nation is nowhere near as soft and selfish as
we had come to believe.
We want to honor them.
And so in a few years,
when grass grows once again over the place where Flight 93
hit the ground, when the "X"s have faded from the
hemlocks, there will be a memorial here, an official, permanent
memorial to the heroes of Flight 93. It will be dedicated
in a somber and dignified ceremony, and people will make speeches.
Somebody - bet on it - will quote the Gettysburg Address,
the part about giving the last full measure of devotion. The
speeches will be moving, but they will also prove Lincoln's
point, that the words of the living can add nothing to the
deeds of the dead.
Thanx 4 everything to
the heroes of Flight 93!!
There will be expressions
of condolence to the families, and these, too, will be heartfelt.
But they will not take away the grief.
I'd much prefer him to
be here with me.
And then the ceremony
will end, and the people will go home. And the heroes, the
people on the plane, will remain here in the ground of Somerset
And years will pass,
and more people will come here, and more, people who were
not yet born when Flight 93 went down, coming to see this
Let's hope, for their
sake, that the world they live in is less troubled than it
is today. Let's hope they've never had to feel anything like
the pain of Sept. 11, 2001.
Let's also hope that,
when they stand here, they know enough to be silent, to show
Let's hope they understand
why this is hallowed ground.
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