A Visit to Three Sites of Unity

Adult woman hugging child in red shirt among crowd of people in United We Stand t-shirts

After the horrific day when terrorists shocked this nation with destruction at three locations where planes were used as deadly missiles, I, like many, felt stunned and weakened.

In the following weeks, I decided to travel to each place. Perhaps as a catharsis for my emotions, I’m not sure, but I felt an urge to witness with my camera. On TV, I had seen how many other people coped with this tragedy by leaving memorials or pictures of loved ones missing. I would cope by visiting each site to give respect to those who were directly affected.

Since I lived in Maryland, a drive by car was the simplest way to travel.

The first and closest site was the Pentagon in Virginia. When my friend and I approached the exit, we saw large group of people, possibly two hundred or more people (I’m not good at guessing crowd size), gathered in one area.

Almost all wore white shirts with writing on the front and back. Quickly, we parked. It took several minutes to walk where they gathered. I could see the shirts now – “UNITED WE STAND” with an American flag. Shortly after we arrived, the crowd began to move, walking in the street. We joined the group, and walked under a couple of overpasses. The somber group slowed, but continued to progress, some stepping onto a sidewalk with a small grassy area separating them from a guard rail. As we moved forward, I caught sight of a makeshift memorial of photos, statues of angels, and handwritten messages on the grass. On the other side of the guard rail, with the glare of sun in our eyes, the Pentagon stood. It looked like a silhouette, hard to make out, but with squinting I saw the gaping hole where the plane had crashed. I took some shots knowing the images would be lacking. I lowered my camera and looked to my left at the crowd. A woman and child stood in a mournful embrace. She stood looking toward the Pentagon through sunglasses. The child slumped against her, with his arms limp, as she wrapped her arm around him. I snapped a picture, which I included in this submission. A moment passed, and they turned away. It was then I noticed hill in the background with a cemetery looking down at the group. After several minutes of photographing some of the memorials on the grass, we left the Pentagon and drove into D.C.

There, we encountered a very different group of people.

At Freedom Plaza a large group of people carrying signs mulled about. We drove by them, and I convinced my friend to park. Many of the signs declared anti-war sentiments, and reminded me of the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations of the past. There was one person in particular that looked like he just walked out of the late 60s or early 70s. About 20 years old, he wore a camouflaged army jacket, parted his long unkempt hair in the middle, had a thin mustache with a long goat-like beard, and wore wire rimmed glasses. One corner of his mouth was pulled up slightly, which made me wonder what thoughts he had. He did not carry a sign. Many of the signs were homemade, but a pile of pre-printed signs could be chosen. Some of the pre-printed choices: “No Return, No Peace Israel’s Terror Made In U.S.A.”; “Remember the Sept.11 Victims NO WAR NO RACISM”; “WAR Will Not Bring Our Loved Ones Back”. Some of the handmade signs: “A PEACEFUL RESOLUTION IS THE ONLY SOULUTION”; “LET US HEAL WOUNDS NOT INFLICT THEM”; “WAR DOES NOT HONOR THOSE WE’VE LOST”. I didn’t see a march, but that may have occurred before we got there. I took many photos and we left to go back to our homes to think over the day.

In November of 2001, I had a chance to visit New York City. My husband had a meeting, and I had my way to New York. When he went to his meeting, I met with one of my former co-workers from my days at Westinghouse (now Northrup Grumman) near Baltimore. Steve now lived in NYC and worked in New Jersey, a ferry ride, directly across the twin towers. We stopped to get some lunch, and chatted for a short time. Looking down at the table, he told me he saw the second plane hit from his office window. He didn’t see the first plane hit, but like many of his fellow workers, after being alerted to the fire on the first tower, stood looking out a plate glass window. Steve thought the fire was an accident when someone mentioned a plane hit it. Moments later, the second plane hit. He knew this was no accident, and terrorists must be involved. He raised his eyes, looked at me and gave a nervous laugh. His laughter didn’t surprise me. In college, I had a friend who told me she couldn’t stop laughing at her mother’s funeral. My friend’s 13 year old mind could not process the reality of her mother’s death from cancer.

Talking about the planes crashing into the towers, brought him back to the moment he saw the second plane hit. After eating, Steve and I took the ferry to where he worked. He still seemed shaken, gave a smile with a little chuckle attached, and said “This is where I work. I’d better be getting in.” We said our goodbyes. I looked at the view he and his workmates had, a clear view of where the towers had been, which now several cranes occupied picking up the aftermath. I took the ferry back to Manhattan, and walked toward Trinity Church.

As I approached the church, I noticed a crowd quietly reading messages secured to a chain link fence outside of the church building. The most people in the crowd moved along, which provided an opening for me to get closer. I clicked a picture of an American flag with handwriting on alternate white stripes – “All Sympathy – from Germany – Corinna + Karl.” Another note in a clear plastic cover, had signatures all written with blue ink. Printed near the bottom of the paper, was “Georgia.”

Dozens of fresh bouquets of flowers pushed through the chain links had fallen upside side down due to their top heavy weight. After the church, I continued walking along Broadway. A “Prayer Station” had been setup on the wide sidewalk. Stacks of brochures, neatly placed on a table, sat without a passerby taking notice. Three people, two white men and a woman, wore red aprons with “PRAYER” printed at the top of a circle. At the bottom of the circle, more words appeared, too tiny to read. Farther along, I encountered two Asian women, on a side street, with cranes in the background, selling postcards and larger pictures of the twin towers. Several people looked at their pictures, but I did not see anyone make a purchase. Down the side street cranes were moving noisily, and puffs of dust rose from the bottom. On another side street, other people paused to watch the cranes work.

Many, like, me photographed the moment. I realized that I tended to take more pictures than I needed. I think it was because the cranes seemed to be etched in my brain. I didn’t want to stop taking photos, maybe the images were proof of what happened. After snapping a few more photos, I caught the subway and returned to the hotel.

In early September of 2002, I visited the third site, Shanksville, in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. My friend was eager to go, and booked a motel room for us since the distance was about 400 miles round trip. We arrived late afternoon, ate a quick dinner at a local restaurant and checked into the motel. The clerk gave us rough directions to the site, but also noted that signs will help point the way. She was right. However, the two signs we saw were so far apart and we wondered if we missed a turn. We finally came up on a sign that pointed to a dirt road which topped a barren hill. When we crested the top of the hill we saw the memorial. About ten or more feet high, it was made of chain link fence and wood. Dozens of U.S. flags decorated the top of the fencing, with larger flags attached to the back. We parked in a gravel lot near a guard rail with just two other cars. The front of the memorial looked down a hill where the plane had crashed. More cars came as the light slowly disappeared. A few people came prepared for the dark, and shined flashlights on the memorial as they looked closely at the words and items people left. We decided to go back to the motel and have an early night so we could visit the memorial again in the morning.

The following morning we checked out of the motel, ate breakfast and returned to the site. Initially, we were the only car in the lot, so we took advantage to look closely at the items people left behind. So many people had placed tokens of memory that I rarely saw a piece of bare chain link. Scores of ball caps hung next to each other, and sat above a plywood board painted white. Hundreds of signatures decorated the board, many with notes of thanks.

Patches from police organizations, ambulance crews, and local clubs were tacked on the top portion of the board. Patches from Chicago Police, Pleasant Hills Police, Indiana State Police, District of Columbia Fire and EMS, Sheriff Spotsylvania County Virginia and more. Wish I could list them all.

Flags, all sizes, and bouquets of flowers filled every available space.

Another white board had been placed at the end of the display. It was covered with words of thanks and hope. I wondered how long it took to fill this board with messages. More memorials had been placed next to the large memorials, a grouping of what appeared to be, handmade angels dressed in stars and stripes. Each angel had a name of those lost on flight 93. As I continued to look and read messages, I heard a drill near me. I looked up and saw a heavy set man taking screws out of the white board on the right. I walked over and asked if he wanted to help. He looked up, smiled and said, “Sure!” I didn’t do much but steady the board he was removing, but I asked how long it took to fill the board with all those signatures. About a week. He told me that a group of people take turns maintaining the memorial, and that everything they take would be preserved. He carried the board to his pickup truck and came back with a new white, untouched board. The board was put up in seconds, and he went on his way. I returned to looking at the small memorials. One captured my attention. Fisher-Price airplane had been attached to the fence with the number “93” on the tailfin, and the word “United” on the engine. Words on the side of the plane made me realize the impact this tragedy had on this community.

THANK YOU FOR SAVING OUR LIVES & FOR NOT HITTING OUR SCHOOL SHANKSVILLE STUDENTS

The more I looked around the memorial the more messages appeared. Even guard rails became message centers. More people came and went. I walked back to the front of the memorial and saw a police man looking at the patches. I walked over to him, and we chatted for a little while. He worked for Somerset County. I asked him if he was called to the crash site to help. He was told there was no reason for him to come. Nothing was left of the crash. Nothing for him to do.

I haven’t been to any of the sites since, but I think I will visit all three again in the near future.

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