On Pittsburgh, United Flight 93, and twenty years of war.
By Ed Simon
In 1973, not far from where I-95 and I-78 intersect in that confusing morass of highways, oil refineries, and marshland that is north Jersey, Terminal A of the Newark International Airport was opened to much celebration. Lacking the architectural pedigree of TWA Domestic Terminal at JFK, designed by I.M. Pei, the unfamous staff designers of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey nonetheless produced a structure that was a triumph. Stark, grey-white buttresses ascend toward turret-like points, holding in place massive windows; the edifice curves, gently, like a slender moon reflecting back the sun’s light on a cold desert evening. A secular cathedral to high-speed travel, commerce, interconnectedness. Every weekend for two years, on my commute between Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Manhattan, I sat on a bus and contemplated the angular arches of those windows. Twenty years ago, forty-four passengers and crew walked beneath the airport’s cantilevered roof and boarded United Flight 93 at Gate 17, bound for San Francisco. It never arrived.
Everyone old enough to remember 9/11 returns to certain totems—that it was a cloudless autumn day; that the first time you saw the footage it reminded you of a bad movie; how, afterward, you heard rumors of other hijacked planes, other explosions. American flags proliferated (my family used the full-size newspaper broadsheet included with the September 12 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), and even otherwise liberal folks across the country were overtaken with blood-lust fantasies.
Upon first hearing of the attacks, as a senior at Pittsburgh’s Taylor Allderdice High School, I thought that this particular year was an abundantly unfortunate time to be turning eighteen. And. like others in Pittsburgh that day, my memory is shaped by United 93’s unnerving proximity, and a grappling with what exactly that meant. Flight 11 hit the northern tower of the World Trade Center at approximately 8:46 a.m. I was in second period English, where we were discussing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Flight 175 crashed into the other tower at 9:03. By the time the administration put together an announcement informing faculty that the nation was at war (this was the actual language), Flight 77 had already crashed into the Pentagon. The art teacher, Mr. Dorinsky, found a radio in his office and we listened. By the time his class started, the South Tower had collapsed already; the North Tower would fall twenty-eight minutes later. And, at exactly 10:03, United Flight 93 swung low toward the green hills of Somerset County, Pennsylvania and was obliterated into the black soil of Shanksville, some eighty miles from where we sat.
The hijacking of United 93 happened over northern Ohio. At 9:29 a.m., air traffic controllers at Cleveland Center heard “unintelligible sounds of possible screaming” and responded, “Somebody call Cleveland?” The passenger insurrection – which included businessman Tom Burnett, rugby player Mark Bingham, Judo champion Jeremy Glick, and salesman Todd Beamer – occurred at 9:57, six minutes before the crash, and just a few minutes before we turned on Mr. Dorinsky’s radio. Listening to NPR, we heard an incredulous correspondent interrupt coverage of the second tower’s collapse to report on the whereabouts of United 93, approximating the location of the crash to be Pittsburgh.
Based on that report, we assumed that, like a knife into a torso, the plane had bisected the triangular heights of the U.S. Steel building, the glass castle of PPG Place, the octagonal towers of One Oxford Center. There was the nightmare feeling that perhaps our Downtown itself, in its entirety, was no more. “The mind of man is capable of anything,” Conrad writes in Heart of Darkness, “because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valor, rage – who can tell?” For months after that day, I had nightmares about the hijackers bringing the plane down in Pittsburgh, content to destroy something.
For all that horror, there was a darkly comedic confusion – New York, sure; Washington, D.C., sure; Pittsburgh? We’d all grown up in the post-industrial shadow of our former significance, so the idea that we’d been targeted in the largest domestic attack in U.S. history was nonsensical. It felt like the punchline of a dark joke. Two days later, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jonathan Silver asked, “What was the danger to the city?” It turns out United 93’s flight path was within ten miles of our air space. A decade after the attacks, in the Pittsburgh Business Times, Paul J. Gough wrote that, in the confused frenzy, “there was a rumor that a plane was headed to target Pittsburgh,” which in the minds of those he interviewed, was confirmed as the “jet did fly over Pittsburgh on its way east.”
Jet speed being what it is – compressing space and time in ways that even in our century seem remarkable – the location of the passenger revolt is uncertain. For twenty years, several residents of Charleroi, a mill town in the Mon Valley, twenty miles south of Pittsburgh, have claimed they saw United 93 flying low when it began to bank, and the FAA hasn’t ruled that out. Were the plane that close, anyone looking out the window in their last few moments would have clearly seen the towers of Pittsburgh. What is clear is that by the time the plane crashed, it was a little more than ten minutes outside of Washington D.C. When flight is so fast, no place is really flyover country.
It’s strange to think of now, when we’re in the midst of so much more death that scarcely seems to draw sympathy, or even attention—the death toll from COVID-19 currently averages a 9/11-level catastrophe every three weeks—but there was a ritualized, collective secular liturgy concerning those who perished. The New York Times printed fifty-word biographies of every single casualty, and I read all of them, learning of the man who loved Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness at the Edge of Town, or the woman whose favorite show was The X-Files. On Halloween of that year, commandeered into handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, I sat looking at the smudged black-and-white faces of the dead, pretending that I could commit them to memory and then of course forgetting what they looked like the moment I moved onto the next.
What I felt was a kind of obligation. I couldn’t look away. When facing the sheer enormity of those explosions, the horrifying consideration of what it must have been like to be trapped in the upper stories, the smoke, fire, and asphyxiation, the chosen plummets to certain death, the accounts of last phone calls to loved ones – what would you say? What would you choose to do? British artist Damien Hirst, famous for studding a human skull in diamonds and preserving a shark in formaldehyde, told The Telegraph that 9/11 was “basically an artwork in its own right.” As wicked and Luciferian as it may be, our century’s preeminent image is an endless loop of a 747 slamming into a skyscraper.
It’s hard for many people younger than me to remember, but the political ecosystem was so stiflingly pro-war in the period immediately following the attacks that nothing, even in our recent dystopia, quite compares to it. (The events of last month, during which President Joe Biden admitted, amid much criticism, that a two-decade-long war was lost from the beginning, only underscores the hawkishness of America’s pundit class. Suddenly everyone on cable news was of the opinion that twenty years wasn’t long enough.)
This is not a nostalgic reminiscence of “coming together”; Americans largely did come together, but in the wrong way. A week after the attacks, Martin Amis wrote in The Guardian that “For those thousands in the south tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the…coming future.” Because for a millennial, 9/11 was the moment everything went wrong. Everything following that day – the Patriot Act and Afghanistan, Iraq and the drone wars, Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, Trump and resurgent fascism – started that morning. 2,753 humans untethered from the circumstances of their lives, transformed into free-floating signifiers to justify any number of things done in their names. We waited for the other shoe to drop, and discovered that the shoe has been the entirety of the last twenty years.
September 12 never dawned. We’ve been in its long twilight ever since, and in our fear, myopia, confusion, prejudice, and terror, the world became worse. Forty Pittsburghers died during the 9/11 attack. More than a hundred Pennsylvanians died in Afghanistan, and more than two hundred in Iraq. Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than two thousand Allegheny County residents have died. In the United States, as of this writing, 637,000 Americans have died – more than 212 times the number of people who perished on 9/11. Last month, an offshoot of ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombing that took thirteen American soldiers’ lives. Five of those men were born the year of the attacks.
The December before the pandemic, my family and I drove from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. on the Lincoln Highway, that strange, one-lane ribbon of meandering black asphalt that cuts through the brambly woods near Somerset County, past the Flight 93 National Memorial. Featuring a circular “Wall of Names” for all of the passengers and a “Tower of Voices,” composed of forty wind chimes for each of the victims, the original design incorporated a natural crescent formed from trees growing along the bowl of earth where the plane exploded. Predictably, critics claimed (falsely) that the shape honored Islam, so the plan was modified. A shame in that, for the crescent of oak and maple reminds me of the curved edifice of steel and concrete at Newark International Airport, where all of those who died began their day—before they knew that, in their heroism, they’d forever be yoked together.
Anniversaries are obviously a time to ruminate, and twenty years later I think of Todd Beamer’s quiet exhortation to his fellow passengers: “Let’s roll.” It’s a bit corny, a bit charming. That line later became a jingoistic catchphrase, but at the time it was an expression of love for those he and his fellow passengers would never know. Today, when the barest suggestion that somebody should wear a mask or get a vaccination so as to protect your fellow citizens is treated as an affront to freedom itself, the passengers’ mutual aid is astounding.
We passed the marker for the memorial in the gray Pennsylvania dusk, the low winter sun extinguishing itself behind us. In that field in Somerset County lies the gulf between then and now, between what’s known and what can never be known—mysteries of what exactly happened, the chasm between official record and extinguished personal experience, intimations of last moments, and how humans can be immolated to an elemental nothingness. I’ve never been able to visit the memorial.
“I can’t resolve why we saw it,” Charleroi resident Dolores Veres told The Pittsburgh Tribune in 2002, regarding her belief that United 93 flew over her house in its last moments. “Their spirits were alive,” she said. “They’re deceased now, but their spirits are still alive.” ■
Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions and author of An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, forthcoming from Belt Publishing.
Cover image of the Flight 93 memorial in Somerset County, Pennsylvania by Michael Stokes (creative commons).
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