“Let’s Roll.”

A drawing of the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, PA.
A drawing of the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, PA.

On 9/11, that fateful day, United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757, left Newark, New Jersey, just before 9 a.m. bound for San Francisco. The flight typically carried about 90 passengers, but this time had 44 people aboard, including seven crew members.

Forty-six minutes later, over Ohio, it was hijacked by four al Qaeda terrorists who rushed the cockpit and sized control of the plane, killing the pilots. Meanwhile, elsewhere, the Twin Towers were burning in New York, and the Pentagon had been struck.

A pilot took control of the plane and swung it east toward Washington, D.C. Most evidence points to the U.S. Capitol as the target, though the White House is suggested, too. Three terrorists guarded the pilot by herding the passengers and crew into the rear of the plane. They warned that they had a bomb and said that they were returning to the airport. They stabbed a flight attendant.

In all, 37 phone calls were made by 12 people on the flight after it was hijacked. Passengers learned about the three other hijacked planes and their fates. Passenger Tom Burnett, talking with his wife, came to the realization: “O, my God. It’s a suicide mission.” He ended a later call saying, “Don’t worry. We’re going to do something.” The passengers’ plan, they reported to callers, was to rush the cockpit and force the plane down. Passenger Todd Beamer, putting down the phone for the last time, said, “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.”

The revolt against the hijackers started just before 10 a.m. Recordings bear out the attack by the passengers. The pilot rocked the plane from right to left to throw them off their feet. When they kept coming on, he began pitching the plane’s nose up and down. When the sounds of crashes and the passengers’ voices can be heard in the cockpit recordings, the pilot rolled the plane over and aimed for the ground.

The crash at Shanksville, Pennsylvania, came at 10:03. The plane was about 20 minutes from the Capitol. Local residents saw the plane coming down and saw the explosion and the mushroom cloud of smoke that formed over the 10-foot hole the impact dug. Human remains, bodies obliterated in the blast, were later found over 70 acres.

Warren Byrd (Photo by Jeremy Green)
Warren Byrd (Photo by Jeremy Green)

The terrorist surprise attack had worked three times, but not the fourth. One hour after they had innocently boarded Flight 93, a random set of ordinary Americans were proving how extraordinary Americans can be. They chose to die to prevent the deaths of others. Their noble example of sacrifice stood in stark opposition to the crimes and the shame of the terrorists. The day went to al Qaeda, but America had set its jaw. “Let’s Roll” was the decision it went with.

The memorial to the 40 men and women on United Flight 93 who prevented their hijacked plane from being flown into the U.S. Capitol will open in a few days on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. President Obama will speak there. The 2,200 acre national park established on the site will feature a memorial design conceived by architects Paul and Milena Murdoch of Los Angeles and Warren Byrd, of Crozet, whose landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz in Charlottesville, was instrumental in what is essentially a landscape design project. Murdoch, a Philadelphia native, had camped in the vicinity of the crash in western Pennsylvania as a boy. Like Byrd, he got his architecture training at the University of Virginia in the early 1970s.

The commission to design the memorial was awarded following an international competition to pick an architect. The competition drew 1,011 entries, and five finalists were identified.

‘We didn’t enter,” said Byrd, who worked on the 2004 Crozet Master Plan. “It was short turnaround. We did enter the World Trade Center competition around the same time.”

“Each of the five finalists was asked to assemble a team,” Byrd explained. “So they called us. This is a landscape-oriented project. We looked at the different schemes of the finalists and we felt most strongly about theirs. It reflected the impulses we had about the memorial. It was a fit.

Aerial view of the Flight 93 memorial site
Aerial view of the Flight 93 memorial site

“The next phase was a six-month design period. We won as a team. My take on why they picked us is that of the five schemes, ours was the most evocative and enduring in design expression on that scale landscape. It has a classical quality with a contemporary expression. It might have felt the most knit-in to the site while still evoking the tragic consciousness of the plane crash.

“The design is really about marking the flight path and the crash site, which we call sacred ground. Creating an arc and a circle of trees that would  allow people to experience the magnitude of the landscape while still moving toward the Sacred Ground. One of the things we felt most strongly about was to honor the 40 citizens who lost their lives in such a heroic gesture.

The site is a former strip mine whose remediation was nearly wrapped up on 9/11. “We look at it as a healing landscape,” said Byrd. “Paul Murdoch wanted us to do something honest about the mining background of the site.” Byrd said hemlock siding from old local barns was used to make the concrete forms for some of the walls and used on the gate that marks the spot where visitors can look along the flight path to the point of impact.

“Paul did a tremendous amount of research about the flight and so did we,” said Byrd. “The plane passed over relatively flat ground, went just beyond a hillock and into the remediated field. It dug 10 feet down and hit a head wall from the mine. The earth was soft but the headwall stopped it. It was right at the edge of a forest of hemlocks and oaks and hickories. The crash burned part of the edge of the forest.

“In the immediate follow up [to the crash] the coroner established a chainlink fence perimeter around an area between 30 and 40 acres in size. It’s off limits to all but family members. The only disturbed part is the 8 or 10 acres at the northern end.”

After the official investigation was over, the hole the crash made was filled in. A massive boulder marks the impact location now.

“That’s why we made the flight path so important in the design,” explained Byrd.

Family members of the passengers and crew have assisted on the park’s design, he added. “They are very nervous about any disturbance. One thing we had suggested was reseeding it in native grasses and flowers and in groves. The families objected. They want it ‘as is.’ The rawness should not be changed. They didn’t want it pretty.”

But they still have to account for forest succession, he observed. Nature is at work on the site when man is not.

There are no statues at the memorial. “Let’s roll” doesn’t appear anywhere there. In phase 2 of the memorial project, a visitor center, also designed by Murdoch, will be built and include exhibits on the crash. Phase 3 will see the construction of a metal tower 93 feet tall near the entrance to the park that will have 40 wind chimes suspended in it. The main entry will be off U.S. Rt. 30, and the two-mile drive to the overlook over Sacred Ground follows a former mining road. The whole project is expected to cost $60 million; money is still being raised for it.

The inscribed memorial walls are on the right. The black granite walkway marks the flight path of the plane.
The inscribed memorial walls are on the right. The black granite walkway marks the flight path of the plane.

For now, the names of the 40 victims are carved on white granite walls. A line of black granite stones traces the flight path of the plane. An arcing pathway now under construction, termed the Crescent of Embrace in the plan, will pass 40 stands of red maples with groves of mixed hardwoods planted beyond them as it goes from the main parking area to the memorial wall. The arc encloses an expansive, bowl-shaped wild flower meadow.

About 150,000 people a year have been visiting the temporary memorial, a spot about 500 yards away from the impact location. A fence there has been gathering mementos. In 2008 New York City firefighters gave a cross made out of steel from the World Trade Center to the Shanksville fire department. It was mounted on a pentagon-shaped base at the firehouse.

Byrd has been to the crash site at least a dozen times. “It’s a moving experience every time. It’s powerful,” said Byrd. “What we hope for is that people come away comprehending the tragedy and the heroism of what happened there and that it got a fitting tribute. This place has American values thwarting what did happen at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. You see it visibly in people who visit the site. They are moved by the sacrifice. We can only hope we did something to help that contemplation. Everyone will respond differently and you want to provide for them to find a spot where they can come to terms with it. It’s hyper-evocative, because you reflect on what could have happened. This place works on your soul and your psyche.”

Byrd was at the crash site last month with Murdoch, and Todd Beamer’s father David was present too. “He called the memorial ‘absolutely appropriate.’ He called it ‘serene’ and ‘reflective,’” Byrd was happy to relate.

An overhead view of the plan of the park
An overhead view of the plan of the park


  1. Thank you for the excellent article on the Flight 93 National Memorial titled “Let’s Roll.” It is a well done piece, and rightly features the imagination and excellent design sense of Warren Byrd and Paul Murdoch. I have served as the Chairman, Flight 93 National Memorial Federal Advisory Committee for eight years as this new national park area has been planned and built from scratch. Warren Byrd and Paul Murdoch have given the very best in professional guidance and design from concept to fruition of the construction of the entrance road and the “Sacred Ground” parts of the memorial. As pointed out in the article, much remains to be done, including as the next phase the construction of a visitor and education center, its parking, and its setting at the point that Flight 93 crossed over the low hills to the point of impact. A partnership of dedicated people including family members, local Pennsylvania citizens, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the advisory commission, the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation have gotten us to where we are today. We, and the people of the nation, still need $10 million to complete the next phase. With about $8 million in hand we are nearly halfway there.

    It would be deeply appreciated by all of us involved if you could publish a brief follow-up article which allowed people to know how to donate to help complete this wonderful gift to our nation. People can go to http://www.honorflight93.org to make a direct donation and join over 60,000 other Americans who have already joined in to help. In order to find out more about the National Memorial itself, the most useful website is http://www.nps.gov/flni, the official National Park Service website.

    Again, thank you very much for your excellent article.

    John Reynolds
    Crozet, VA

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