Less than 1,000 feet from the White House -- one of the potential targets of a hijacked commercial airliner on Sept. 11, 2001 -- the design for a memorial to the victims of that flight was unveiled yesterday afternoon.
Of course, unlike the planes used by terrorists to attack the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon here, United Airlines Flight 93 did not reach its target on that momentous and terrible day. Instead, it crashed in an isolated Pennsylvania field because its captive passengers rebelled and forced it down.
The Flight 93 National Memorial there will recognize and honor their sacrifice, and when its design was revealed, many in the audience at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at Connecticut Avenue and H Street NW rose to cheer and applaud.
"I think it is going to give a warmth to the families with the knowledge that the tranquillity of the sacred ground will be preserved," said Ben Wainio. His daughter, Elizabeth, was on the plane, and Wainio was one of dozens of family members of the victims who attended the unveiling.
One of the memorial's chief features will be a 93-foot-tall "Tower of Voices," set on high ground to mark the entrance to the memorial park. Sheathed in a light, reflective ceramic tile, the circular tower with a canted top will contain 40 wind chimes, one for each passenger and crew member killed in the crash, and each with a different tone.
The memorial was designed by the Los Angeles firm of Paul Murdoch Architects, assisted by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects of Charlottesville, and will encompass more than 2,000 acres that surround the crash site near Shanksville, Pa., about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. The entire site will be controlled by the National Park Service.
"This design managed to capture the spirit of the time and of the place in Pennsylvania, and also what happened on that flight -- the spirit of facing death and taking over the plane," said Gerald Bingham, who lost his son, Mark, in the crash. The father was a member of the jury that selected the Murdoch design.
The memorial will cost between $30 million and $58 million to build, according to Hamilton Peterson, president of the Families of Flight 93, an organization that has advocated its construction. In addition to roads, pathways, a visitors center and other memorial elements, these costs include ongoing land acquisition, Peterson said.
Much of the money will have to be raised privately, although Peterson said that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania already has come forward with $10 million and Congress has committed $1 million. Peterson said the group will seek more congressional funds in view of the "mandate" created by the Flight 93 National Memorial Act of 2002. Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge and retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks are honorary co-chairmen of the private fundraising effort. "Optimistically," Peterson said, groundbreaking could occur within a year or two.
Murdoch's design was among five finalists chosen from more than 1,000 submissions. The firm then was joined by the Charlottesville landscape firm to refine the design. Paul Murdoch characterized the final version as both "open" and "focused."
Much of the terrain between the tower and the ground where the plane came down will remain untouched, although Murdoch said additional stands of trees will be planted at critical points to give definition to fields and views. This is all to the good. On a visit to the site last year -- my wife and I were among more than 150,000 visitors in 2004 -- I remember thinking, "The less they do, the better."
It is a beautiful, ordinary slice of rolling Pennsylvania countryside. The contrast between that plain beauty and the strange, dramatic, deathly event that occurred there is somehow stirring. The informality and spontaneity of the temporary memorial established there on private land, with its chain-link fencing and hundreds of mementos, contributed to the lonely, provocative ambiance of the place.
On the other hand, the temporary memorial is quite confining. Visitors are prevented from moving beyond a rough gravel rectangle. Thus, the many footpaths in both the fields and woods of the new park will be welcome. So, too, will be the opportunity to make a closer approach to what Wainio and others call the "sacred ground," where the plane hit the ground at 575 miles per hour and literally incinerated everyone inside.
It is a daunting, and yet meaningful, thing to approach such a cemetery (albeit one unmarked with individual gravestones). In the new design a visitor will be able to walk right to its edge, and family members will have their own private access. The surface of the sacred turf, Murdoch said, will be planted with flowers that will "bloom from spring to fall."
But there will be a lot of additional planting and building as well. Textured concrete walls 36 feet high will mark the path the plane took to earth, and nearby will be a visitors center of about 10,000 square feet. The shallow topographical "bowl" that inclines toward the crash site will be defined by a double row of maple trees planted in a circle. Part of the edge of the sacred ground will be defined by a low, inward-tilting wall and a darkly paved walkway.
Something had to be done, of course, to permanently mark the site of this significant event. Time will tell, however, whether the winning design is a bit too much for this simple patch of land. It definitely is not too little.