SHANKSVILLE, Pa.—Debby Borza stood before a wall of photos of 40 people who died here Sept. 11, 2001, and gently tapped her daughter’s face on a computer touch screen, not knowing exactly what to expect.
“What do they have to say about my dear, sweet daughter?” she said, her face brightening as the screen filled with photos of Deora Frances Bodley, 20, at her high school graduation, working as a volunteer reading tutor, visiting Paris — an album of a promising young life cut short 14 years ago Friday, when four al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked United Airlines Flight 93.
Borza was among the family members given an early look at the $26 million Flight 93 National Memorial visitor center that opened this week, remembering the legacy of the 9/11 attacks and honoring the courage of 40 passengers and crew members who fought back against their four hijackers, preventing the plane from hitting its presumed target, the U.S. Capitol.
“It’s important to me that the visitor sees what these 40 people took on, to take a stand for freedom, to take the kind of stand that cost their lives,” said Borza, whose daughter was the youngest female passenger on Flight 93. “Maybe there will be some special thing they see about Deora that will inspire them.”
As Americans mark the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, thousands will gather at long-established monuments at Ground Zero in New York, at the Pentagon in Virginia and at other sites honoring the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives in the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history. But those who come to the national monument in Shanksville, to honor Bodley and the passengers who kept 9/11 from becoming even more catastrophic, will find a work still in progress.
The stunning concrete-and-glass visitors center and museum are finally open, but landscaping and other finishing touches are still underway. Yet another structure, the Tower of Voices, a nearly 100-foot bell tower with 40 chimes, is scheduled to be built during the next two years.
A memorial plaza close to the crash site, in a field that was once a strip mine, was completed in time for the 10th anniversary in 2011.
At the time, former president Bill Clinton, visiting the site with former president George W. Bush, expressed frustration with the pace of the project.
Clinton and Bush soon became personally involved, speeding fundraising and development, according to Gordon Felt, president of Families of Flight 93.
“President Clinton and President Bush both came through for us,” said Felt, whose brother, Edward Porter Felt, 41, died in the crash.
Felt said the families were closely involved in all aspects of the complex development, working with private donors and state and federal officials — as well as the National Park Service, which operates the memorial — to raise money, acquire land, select a design and complete construction.
“Our loved ones left a legacy for all of us,” Felt said, noting that the plane, which was traveling at 563 mph, was less than 20 minutes of flying time from Washington. “If the Capitol building was destroyed that day, just think how much more devastating an impact that day would have had on our country.”
The legacy of Flight 93 might already have inspired others to stand up against terrorist attacks, Felt said. Last month, three Americans acted to avert a massacre on a train in France.
“It’s important that we don’t forget the events of the day, but the individual people who stood up to say no,” Felt said. “They could have sat back and let others dictate the end of their lives. But they fought back and became heroes in the process.”
On Thursday, several hundred people huddled under umbrellas in a heavy, chilly drizzle for the official opening of the visitors center. Speakers remembered the passengers and crew of Flight 93, who “changed the course of American history,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D).
“They are modern-day heroes who represent the very best in us,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who also quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered on another remote Pennsylvania field: “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”
Alan Hantman, the appointed architect of the Capitol from 1997 to 2007, addressed family members in the crowd, noting that he was in the building on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and saying, “I’m one of those who was saved by your loved ones.”
Paul Murdoch, the architect of the memorial, said it is designed to highlight the power of the story of Flight 93.
“In its raw severity, we acknowledge their sacrifice. In its solemn darkness, we acknowledge their loss. In its calm serenity, we offer solace at their final resting place. And in its monumental scale, we praise their heroic deeds,” Murdoch told the crowd.
The visitors center and museum is set between two soaring concrete walls that rise 40 feet high, one foot for each of those who died. It is set directly on Flight 93’s flight path, with a black stone walkway indicating the precise route that the plane followed. On the valley floor below, a large boulder marks the point of impact, serving almost as a headstone in a place where very few human remains were recovered.
The center presents the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as they unfolded. The first display that visitors encounter features that morning’s Wall Street Journal; photos of local students entering an elementary school; a diagram showing that there were 4,500 planes in the air when Flight 93 took off at 8:42 a.m. from Newark on its way to San Francisco.
The next display features video clips of a stunned Katie Couric telling viewers of NBC’s “Today” that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. There follows video of the second plane hitting, the South Tower collapsing, the voice of ABC News anchor Peter Jennings saying, “My God.”
Display cases are filled with tiny fragments of the plane; bits of metal and wire and electronics; a charred seat belt; a safety instruction card; bent metal spoons and forks; the Oracle employee identification card of passenger Todd Beamer; the New Jersey driver’s license of passenger Colleen Fraser; a Visa card that belonged to one of the hijackers.
At one display, visitors can pick up a phone and listen to some of the 37 calls that were made from Flight 93 that morning, some to 911 and some to family members. Those calls allowed passengers to understand that what they faced was not a normal hijacking, and it also allowed them to say goodbye.
“I just wanted to tell you I love you. We’re having a little problem on the plane. I’m totally fine. I just love you more than anything, just know that,” Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas says in a message on her husband’s answering machine.
Passenger Linda Gronlund calls her sister and says: “I just love you and I just wanted to tell you that. I don’t know if I’m going to get the chance to tell you that again or not.”
Another wall is dedicated to a life-size photograph of a Boeing 757 cabin, showing the plane as the passengers would have seen it after the hijackers forced them all to the back. When they decided to rush their attackers, they had to move 100 feet to the front of the plane, down an aisle 20 inches wide.
Ed Root, whose cousin, flight attendant Lorraine Bay, died in the crash, stood in front of the photograph, contemplating that daunting prospect.
“We all ask ourselves, ‘What would I have done if I was here?’ ” Root said. “What would you do? Would you have just stayed back there and hoped for the best? Or would you have reacted? Thankfully, they did react.”
While 9/11 is a defining event for America, Root noted that it is getting to be “history” for younger Americans, even those now in college.
“We need them to remember,” he said. “This history is not over. This is a story that goes on.”