The remnants of Tropical Storm Fred rolled northeast that Wednesday in August, ruining the prospects for water skiing, so Kirk Garber left his family’s vacation rental in Deep Creek, Md., and drove 60 miles north to the Flight 93 Memorial in Somerset County, Pa.
He couldn’t convince any family members to join him. He traveled alone.
Shortly before 2 p.m., he parked near the memorial’s visitor center and walked along a black granite path leading to an overlook. Within moments, dark clouds overhead let loose their rain. The dozen or so people lingering over the view fled to nearby shelter.
Only Mr. Garber remained — his slender 88-year-old frame buffeted by a stiff breeze. In the distance he could see the tree line where 40 passengers and crew members died in an effort to regain control of an airliner hijacked by terrorists. Those terrorists intended to crash the plane into the U.S. Capitol Building or the White House, the 9/11 commission would eventually conclude.
“I had to see it,” Mr. Garber said.
According to the National Park Service, Mr. Garber joined 687 others who visited the memorial on Aug. 18, 2021. Nothing special marked this day, other than the dark clouds and rain that kept attendance below normal. Two days later, the number of visitors would balloon to 2,500. The gloom stood in stark contrast to the stunningly beautiful weather on the day of the attacks. It did not, however, impede the flow of difficult memories.
Some of the day’s visitors gently ran their fingers across the names carved into white marble panels and recalled the shock and despair they felt 20 years ago, when horrific events that previously seemed inconceivable played out on live television. Some shed tears while listening to phone messages left by those aboard Flight 93. On at least a few occasions, they turned their thoughts inward and asked themselves difficult questions.
Mr. Garber came because the events of 9/11 hold deep meaning for him and his wife, Connie. Their story connects them with events in both New York and Pennsylvania. The memories are devastating, he says. Connie would not accompany him to the memorial because she did not want to relive the pain.
“It tears her heart out,” Mr. Garber said.
Raindrops thudded softly on his nylon jacket while he explained: Early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he and Connie boarded an airliner at Newark Liberty International Airport and settled into their seats. The couple looked forward to a trip to China, a country they’d never visited.
Heavy morning flight traffic had slowed operations at Newark.
Just ahead of the Garbers’ flight, a San Francisco-bound Boeing 757 scheduled to pull away from the gate at 8 a.m. was delayed several minutes. By 8:42, that plane was on its way — United Flight 93 roared down a runway and rose into the nearly cloudless blue sky. The Garbers’ plane would be following shortly.
Before their pilot had a chance to taxi onto the runway, the captain’s voice crackled over the intercom: A small plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center’s towers in Lower Manhattan, just across the Hudson River.
The flight would pause on the tarmac, the captain said, and await instructions from air traffic control.
News about the crash concerned the Garbers. Their oldest son Shawn worked as an IT employee for a bank in one of the twin towers. There was little that the couple could do, however. They had left their cellphones at home — the devices wouldn’t function in China — so they had no way to reach Shawn to see if he was OK.
For now, they and their fellow passengers waited in the quiet, sealed cabin.
Calls on flip phones
A dozen miles away, smoke poured from a gaping hole between the 93rd and 99th floors of the World Trade Center’s north tower. Morning television programs switched to live shots of the Manhattan skyline. Anchors shocked at the sight conducted live phone interviews with witnesses.
“It was a big plane,” one woman insisted. The anchor followed up: “So this wasn’t a small Piper Cub that had gone the wrong way?”
“No,” the woman replied.
In fact, the plane was an airliner, American Flight 11, bound for Los Angeles. It struck the north tower at 8:46 a.m., four minutes after Flight 93 took off a few miles away.
By now, passengers on the Garbers’ flight had begun receiving calls on their flip phones. Where are you? Are you in the air? Callers shared news about the damage to the World Trade Center, and the confusion surrounding the crash. The captain made another announcement. The plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center tower was not a small plane, he said, but a larger aircraft. He instructed passengers to deplane and return to the waiting area at the gate.
Throughout the country, television viewers fixated by the image of the burning north tower watched a second airliner emerge on the right corner of their screens. The plane banked slightly and bore down on the south tower, slicing into the structure between the 77th and 85th floors.
A bloom of red flame emerged from the tower’s opposite side. The time was 9:03. Millions of viewers had just watched hundreds of people die in an instant.
The Garbers waited in the boarding area at Newark’s airport and worried about Shawn. Fellow travelers loaned the couple their phones, but efforts to reach their son failed. The system was overwhelmed. Then came an announcement over the airport loudspeakers: Evacuate the airport immediately.
The couple headed toward a bus that would shuttle them to a long-term parking lot so they could retrieve their car and head home. By now, they knew a second plane had struck the World Trade Center complex. Was this some sort of coordinated, massive attack? Is our son OK?
While the nation focused its attention on the burning twin towers, an air traffic controller in Cleveland heard a cockpit transmission of garbled voices and possible sounds of a struggle from Flight 93, the plane that had taken off moments before the Garbers’ scheduled departure. The time was 9:29.
That transmission was followed by sounds of screaming and someone yelling, “Get out of here, get out of here.” Then, at 9:32, the controller heard another voice, this one issuing chilling instructions apparently meant for the plane’s passengers: “Keep remaining seating. We have a bomb on board.”
After gaining control of the cockpit, hijackers turned the plane around over northern Ohio. As United Flight 93 headed east toward Western Pennsylvania, American Airlines Flight 77 — traveling at approximately 530 miles per hour — slammed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
Aboard Flight 93, alarmed passengers and flight attendants reached for phones.
In all, 13 passengers and crew members on Flight 93 placed calls, most from Airfones in the backs of seats in the plane’s last nine rows.
At 9:37, Mark Bingham called his aunt’s house, where his mother Alice Hoagland was staying. At the same time, Jeremy Glick dialed the number of his mother-in-law’s house to talk to his wife, Lyzbeth. At 9:50, the plane passed north of Pittsburgh and Sandra Bradshaw told her husband that passengers were getting hot water from the galley and preparing to rush the hijackers in an effort to retake control of the plane.
Witnesses to disaster
While the Newark airport shuttle bus made its way to distant parking lots, the Garbers and other passengers witnessed through the vehicle’s windows the disaster unfolding just across Newark Bay and the Hudson River.
The twin towers burned with volcanic intensity. Passengers watched at 9:59 a.m. when the top floors of the weakened south tower dropped, slowly at first, then, with increasing speed, plowed into the floors below until the entire building disappeared in a surge of smoke and debris that engulfed Lower Manhattan.
The Garbers wondered if they’d just witnessed the death of their eldest son. The couple does not wish to revisit that moment of unknowing.
‘If we don’t, we’ll die’
By the time the south tower collapsed, a passenger revolt had begun aboard Flight 93, roaring over Western Pennsylvania. The terrorist at the plane’s controls tried to throw the attackers off balance, first by rolling the aircraft left and right, then by pitching the aircraft up and down. A cockpit voice recorder picked up sounds of crashes, thumps, breaking glass.
In the background a passenger says, “In the cockpit. If we don’t, we’ll die.”
The assault on the cockpit continued for at least three more minutes. The plane then rolled onto its back and plowed into an empty Western Pennsylvania field at 10:03, 20 minutes flight time from Washington, D.C.
When the Garbers finally arrived at their home in Plainsboro, N.J., neighbors in tears rushed across the street to greet them. They knew the Garbers were scheduled to fly out of Newark, and thought they were on the plane that had crashed in a field in Western Pennsylvania.
Within an hour, the Garbers learned their son Shawn was safe and unharmed. He’d worked late the night before and so had not gone to the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11. The reunion with Shawn was filled with hugs and tears, Mr. Garber said.
A total of 2,763 people died in the twin towers. At the Pentagon, 189 were killed. And aboard United Flight 93, 40 passengers and crew members lost their lives.
“It could have been our son,” Mr. Garber said. “And that’s difficult.”
‘Wake up, wake up’
Like the Garbers’ son, Bezunesh Admassu worked late the night before, so she slept in on the morning of 9/11. When the phone rang, she ignored it — she needed sleep. Then the call transferred to an answering machine and she heard the voice of her sister, Aregash Admasu, who spells her last name differently than Bezunesh does.
“Wake up, wake up, wake up,” she pleaded. “We have a big problem in our country.”
Ms. Admassu picked up the phone. “Turn on the television,” her sister said.
Five years earlier, Ms. Admassu had immigrated to the U.S. and developed a strong connection to what she refers to as a “blessed country.” The site of the burning towers in Manhattan overwhelmed her. “I cried, and then I fainted,” she said.
She told the story that Wednesday in August softly and slowly while lingering at the Somerset County memorial’s overlook with a few family members — her son Admassu Tsegaye, 14, and Aregash Admasu, 60, the sister who alerted her on the morning of 9/11 — and two friends, Martha Gittings and Margaret E. Dailey, both of Weirton, W.Va.
“This is our 25th anniversary of knowing each other,” said Ms. Gittings, 79, who stood nearby. She calls her friend “Bea.” The families get together often, she said. They gathered this time in nearby Bedford — Ms. Admassu and her family traveling from Washington, D.C., Ms. Gittings and Ms. Dailey arriving from their homes in West Virginia.
Ms. Gittings explained the origins of the friendship: “Bea had come from Ethiopia. I was a retail store manager near Columbus, Ohio. She needed a job. I hired her and we became friends. We adopted each other.”
She then nodded in the direction of Admassu Tsegaye. “And that’s my adopted grandson.”
Much of the 9/11 story was new to him. “I was supposed to learn about it last year,” he said. “But when COVID hit, we didn’t get to it. I feel sorry for the people that died. Sorry for the families.”
Aregash Admasu was working at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., on the day of the attacks, and clearly remembers the frantic phone call to her sister, as well as the shock and fear she felt after hearing a plane had attacked the Pentagon, a dozen miles from the Mayflower.
At the visitors center in Somerset County, she saw the remnants of burned ID cards, the pictures of those who died. She saw the plane’s seating chart and small remnants of the destroyed plane.
“I got goosebumps,” she said. “It makes me cry. Every single step, it makes you feel emotional. I feel like it happened yesterday, not 20 years ago. It’s hard to believe that it happened. This is a beautiful country. This is our country. We got married here, we raised our children here. It’s our identity.”
Those recorded messages
Thirty minutes later, dark clouds continued to swirl overhead so Cayton Sink held an umbrella while walking along the 40 white marble panels known as the Wall of Names. Each panel bears the name of a passenger and crew member aboard Flight 93. Ms. Sink passed panels for William Joseph Cashman, Georgine Rose, then Deora Frances Bodley.
Bodley was 20 — the same age as Ms. Sink — and the youngest person aboard the flight. She’d been visiting friends and had scheduled a later flight to return to the West Coast but requested standby on Flight 93 and got a seat.
“They were very heroic to take the plane down when they did,” Ms. Sink said. “It had to be terrifying, with all that was happening on the plane. But taking it down saved countless lives that would have been lost had the plane made it to D.C.”
Ms. Sink is from Macon, Ga., and was visiting family in Western Pennsylvania in August. She came to the memorial with her grandparents, who live in the area. She possessed basic knowledge of the attacks of 9/11 — the topic was covered in school, she said, and her parents have told her about that day.
But it was the recorded messages in the visitor’s center that revealed to her the emotional toll. She wept when hearing the final goodbyes left by some of those who died on the flight. She noticed a few of the messages “seemed almost hopeful that they were going to be able to correct what was going on. And then, to hear their voices break at the end …”
Moments later Tara and Chris Sorley walked along the wall with son Braden, 8, and daughter Ava, 12. The family, heading back to their Jefferson Hills home after a trip to Hershey, had decided to stop at the memorial after seeing a billboard. The names on the wall saddened Ava, especially when she saw the words “and unborn child” after the name Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas. Grandcolas was three months pregnant.
Tara Sorley talked about her memories of that morning, and the terror felt in Downtown Pittsburgh once people realized the country was experiencing a series of attacks.
She had been in a training session on the 40th floor of the U.S. Steel building. Training suddenly ended and “they brought in a TV on a cart and turned it on,” she said. The news was confusing and unclear, but the images were terrifying. “Nobody really knew what was going on.”
Around 10 a.m., everyone was ordered to evacuate the building. “There was so much confusion,” she said. She heard people say that a plane was heading for Pittsburgh, and that the U.S. Steel building — the tallest in Pittsburgh — could be a target.
She got into an elevator, but the trip down was terrifyingly slow. “We could not get out of that elevator,” she said. “It was so full and it stopped on every floor.”
Throughout the city, companies shut down offices, canceled meetings and sent workers home. Trials at the Allegheny County Courthouse ground to a halt. Outside the U.S. Steel building, Grant Street was jammed with people and traffic as workers tried to leave the city.
“I got outside on the sidewalk and dropped all of my books because I was so scared,” Ms. Sorley said.
The flight attendants
Dan Boray, of Chicago, made his first trip to the memorial on this August day, and before leaving in the late afternoon he stopped by the Tower of Voices, a 93-foot-high structure near the entrance that holds 40 wind chimes representing the victims of Flight 93. A United Airlines employee for 42 years, Mr. Boray knew the flight attendants who died on the two United flights hijacked on Sept. 11.
“I was one of the original ‘guy’ flight attendants,” he said. “I did that for 22 years.” Then, for 20 years, he trained United flight attendants on emergency procedures, such as evacuating a plane. Attendants were required to take the training course each year, he said.
“I’ve got their pictures here,” he said, scrolling through photographs on his phone before settling on an image displaying the faces of all 35 crew members on the four flights hijacked that day. He points out a few.
“CeeCee, she was a cop in Florida,” he said. “Wanda, she’s over here. This guy was a cop, Al Marchand. Kathy LaBorie, she was in class a couple of days before.”
CeeCee Lyles had worked for six years as a police officer and detective in Fort Pierce, Fla., before becoming a flight attendant. Wanda Green’s career as a flight attendant spanned 29 years. She also sold real estate and had planned to retire from United in a few years so she could open her own real estate office. Both women worked Flight 93.
Marchand and LaBorie worked United Flight 175, which crashed into the World Trade Center’s south tower. Marchand, recently retired from a career as a police officer, had been a flight attendant for less than a year. LaBorie was a seven-year United employee.
Mr. Boray said the flight crews were in hopeless situations. Nothing in their experience or training prepared them for what happened aboard those four airliners on Sept. 11.
“How do you train for something like that? When I used to fly, I’d say, ‘Give me a snowball’s chance to get out of the airplane,’ because that’s what you trained for. Grab the ankles, open the doors, slide down the slide.’’’ But that was procedure for surviving an emergency landing, not for surviving a hijacking by terrorists on suicide missions. “How do you explain this?” he asked.
Mr. Boray photographed the Tower of Voices, then stopped to listen. A breeze occasionally activated the wind chimes, sending out haunting tones that washed over the stillness. It was now past 5 p.m., closing time at the visitor’s center, and few people remained at the memorial.
Chuck and Chiquita Burroughs were late arrivals. Their visit was a spur-of-the-moment decision. While driving along the Pennsylvania Turnpike on their way home to Richmond, Va., they noticed signs for the memorial. “The map said it was 15 miles off the highway, so we said, ‘Let’s go check it out,“ Mr. Burroughs said. The Tower of Voices was their first stop.
Mr. Burroughs thought of the courage displayed by the Flight 93 passengers and crew and said, “It really rushes over you, the bravery that they had. And you wonder, if you were on that plane, would you do the same thing? I would like to say, yes. But you always ask that question: ‘What would I do?’”
He imagined the initial panic, and then the coming together of the passengers and crew, and the resolve that quickly settled in. He imagines the thought: “This is my country, and I’m going to do everything I can to stop this.”
Ms. Burroughs remembered her hurried evacuation from a 24-story building in Richmond, the uncertainty. “We immediately started praying,” she said. “We have a cousin that works in the Pentagon, so we were trying to get in contact with him. Thank God he was able to get out without being hurt.”
She thought of the recorded messages left behind. They reveal the “type of people they were, the heart they had …,” she said.
In one message, Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas, three months pregnant, tries to reach her husband. “Honey, are you there? Jack? Pick up, sweetie.” Her voice remains calm, even reassuring, as she explains that the flight is experiencing a problem.
“I’m totally fine. … I’m not uncomfortable and I’m OK for now,” she says, before her voice finally breaks slightly as she ends, “I, I just love you. Please tell my family I love them, too. Bye, honey.”
Steve Mellon: firstname.lastname@example.org