Things were quiet on the back roads of Pennsylvania as we tried to locate the site of the Sept. 11 crash of Flight 93. No traffic to speak of, and few signs to guide us. Mostly just bows of yellow ribbon tied to trees, fence posts, mailboxes.
The final turn was on to a barely wide-enough paved section of road, and as soon as we topped the crest of the hill, we encountered a myriad of cars parked haphazardly along the pavement's edges, leading down to the temporary memorial site.
The sun was overhead, masked by a thin layer of overcast, making distances seem endless and shadows non-existent. To the left of the road, on a bare hillside sat two huge cranes, remnants of coal mining activities we assumed. I heard someone behind me saying that on the day after Sept. 11 a local fireman or policeman had climbed to the top of one crane and hung an American flag. On the left, ahead of the temporary memorial, was an empty field stretching to a barely discernable chain link fence in front of a row of evergreens. The fence gathered crash remnants safely within its arms, guarded around the clock to prevent looting of any yet undiscovered "memorabilia" by those with such an inconceivable desire. On a hillside to the left of the field was a solitary farmhouse with its attendant red barn.
Peaceful. Quiet. Pastoral.
It was March 10, and the next day would be the six-month anniversary of the crash. My husband, John Osborne, and I came from Alaska, where we had felt, to some extent, safe and insulated from the events of Sept. 11.
Yet, as we looked around us at the bare, spreading field and abandoned quarry site on which Flight 93 exploded, we didn't feel so safe and insulated. It could happen anywhere. It did not need to happen in New York or Washington, D. C. It could happen in a field, on a bare expanse of quiet, unoccupied ground one would have thought the most unlikely place for such horror.
The people at the memorial site were quiet. Most were reading the messages, letters, poetry, prayers left on a collection of painted boards, cards, paper, rocks, or whatever was at hand to express the writer's emotions.
There were bouquets of flowers, some new, some showing signs of having weathered the winter. A school bus sat in the center of the small parking area and a group of children were singing the National Anthem and other songs. A CNN newsman with his camera wandered through the crowd. Flags were flying, flapping in a gentle breeze.
Somehow, the act of our being there brought home to me the overwhelming fact that yes, it could happen to me. It could happen on the Kenai Peninsula. My sister lives near the site of Flight 93's final resting place.
Had the plane stayed in the air less than a minute longer it might have crashed into the middle of downtown Somerset, Pa., a tiny, poor, county seat where the only distinction is having a courthouse at a higher elevation than any other structure in the state of Pennsylvania. My sister was at work that morning in the basement of that courthouse. Disaster was that close.
My sister had not been to the site before she brought us to see it. For some, it is easier to stay away in order to keep the reality of the "what if's" at bay. For others, it is easier to go and look and confront the reality in order to get past it. All of us felt the impact and came away with a better understanding of the event and how it was shaping the things we do and the ways in which we act today.
I certainly understand better the disbelief of the people of New York and D.C. that such a thing could happen in their cities. It happened in a field in Pennsylvania. It happened in the least likely of places. It can happen anywhere.
Not to take any part of my life for granted is a resolution I think I can make and keep on every New Year's Eve. Getting and staying in touch with those I love is a very real part of that resolution, as is thankfulness for what I consider a "near miss" for my sister and for all the residents of that tiny county in Pennsylvania.
It was as far away, in its own location, as is Alaska, from any possible conception of that kind of unconscionable, horrific disaster. Let's keep that in mind as we go about our daily business.
Marilyn Wheeless is a 19-year resident of the Kenai Peninsula and lifelong resident of Alaska. She currently works for the Law Offices of Cowan, Gerry & Aaronson in Kenai and is an active member of the Central Peninsula Writer's Group and the Pioneers of Alaska both locally and statewide. She lives "almost" on the North Road with husband John Osborne, two cats, a dog and a greenhouse, all of which take up the "rest" of her time.
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