Flight 93 memorial: ‘Is this all there is?’ — a story of grief transformed

Early September always fills me with a strange kind of dread. There's a flood of horrid memories jumbled together with admiration and wonder for all the love and courage that each 9-11 anniversary churns up.  I find the Tribute in Light over the World Trade Center a hauntingly beautiful, irresistible tribute. How something so horrible could lead to something so beautiful -- it just makes my heart and my soul want to burst.

But it was a visit to Shanksville in 2010 that taught me the most about transforming grief. So many things were wrong there, and yet, the woman who had the most right to be angry -- the mother of the youngest victim of Flight 93 -- was so filled with grace, and patience, and loving energy that I was forever changed after speaking with her. I wrote about it at the time, so I'm sharing it with you today.  

A wise person once told me that pain not transformed is pain transmitted.  Debby Borza is the best I've ever met at doing so. 

SHANKSVILLE, Pa, Sept 11, 2009 -- On Sept. 11, 2001, passengers on United Flight 93 engaged in perhaps the most heroic act of our generation, fighting back against terrorists who had hijacked their plane. Today, the spot in Shanksville, Pa., where the plane slammed into the earth remains a largely unrecognizable patch of dirt.

On Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the attack, the place will be dressed up for visiting dignitaries, scheduled to include Michelle Obama and Laura Bush. Soon after, though, the field will be back to normal -- a barely active construction site.

And yet, a woman who would have every right to be angriest about the delays -- the mother of the youngest victim on Flight 93 -- recently showed me the best kind of patience, and a heroic grasp of a concept in short supply during our troubled times: perspective.

I visited Shanksville this summer on a detour during my "Hidden Fee Tour," drawn -- as nearly 1 million Americans have been since 2001 -- by stories of the doomed passengers' bravery.

Shanksville couldn't be any more different from lower Manhattan.  Set about 20 miles off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, its rolling hills are barely disturbed by occasional twisting, empty two-lane roads.  It's quieter than any church I've been in.  As you approach Shanksville, you wonder what the roar of a 757 about to crash must have done to this quiet place.

Finding the crash site is surprisingly tricky.  Signs leading drivers to the place are tacked onto stop signs and light poles, with all the permanence of "garage sale" posters you might spot on a Saturday morning. The road up to the temporary memorial is unpaved but passable.  It leads to an old barn that was commandeered by the FBI to conduct its investigation. The makeshift structure now houses placards that tell the Flight 93 story, as well as some artifacts.

The main attraction is the abandoned mine field below, where the plane slammed upside down at about 500 mph. When I was there, a fence separated visitors from the point of impact. A couple of earth movers, part-way through efforts to level the ground, stood silent. Given the size of the place -- the memorial grounds ultimately will cover 1,500 acres -- the trucks seemed dwarfed by their task.

A volunteer, standing at the fence, showed visitors an artist's rendition of the planned permanent memorial, flipping pages in a notebook protected from the elements by laminate.

"This is our tribute to these heroes?" I thought.

The rest of the story will probably sound familiar to you, even if the details are not.  While Congress passed a law authorizing creation of a memorial a year after 9/11, the National Park Service and the Families of Flight 93 spent the better part of the next nine years working to acquire the the crash site for the memorial. The process did not go smoothly. At one point, the park service had to move the temporary memorial when a mining company that owned the land where it had been erected tried to solicit donations from visitors.  After years of bickering, the federal government threatened to use eminent domain to take the land in 2008, which finally persuaded several local coal companies to sell. In the meantime, the park service and the coal companies argued over who would clean up the manganese left over from prior mining activities.  After the design for the memorial was chosen in 2005, protestors -- led by a family member of a Flight 93 victim -- complained that the plans include hidden pro-Islamic messages. Work on the memorial finally began in 2009, but stopped almost immediately when a New Jersey construction company challenged the bidding process.

Denise Custer, who grew up near the crash site and now lives in nearby Lambertsville, told me that the locals are sick of hearing all the talk about the memorial -- and they are saddened by how little has been done. Still, when relatives come to visit, they all want to go.

"In May, I took my sister who was here visiting from Florida, and she said, 'Is this all there is?'" said Custer, 58.

At a press conference last week in Pennsylvania to announce new fund-raising efforts, David Beamer said much the same thing, albeit with more diplomatic flair.  Beamer is the father of Todd Beamer, who famously led the charge against the terrorists with the call, "Let's roll."

"We're very pleased with the progress," Beamer told the Pittsburg Post-Gazette. "But I must tell you it has been nine years. The 40 folks on that plane that day did what they had to do in about 30 minutes. ... I must also say I'm a tad disappointed that it's not already done."

'An amazing process'

When I tracked down Debby Borza, treasurer of the Families of Flight 93, I expected to hear exasperation, bitterness, even flat out anger.  Borza's daughter, Deora Bodley, was only 20 when she stepped onto Flight 93.  She was headed back to California to start her junior year at Santa Clara University. Slated to take a later flight, she arrived early at the airport that day so the friend who dropped her off could attend an early class. Fate gave her a stand-by seat on Flight 93.

Borza's expected anger, however, was absent.  Instead, when talking of the memorial, her voice sounds like the gentle breezes that blow almost continuously through Shanksville.

"We're on target for next year," she said, referring to the park service's plans to have the first section of the memorial ready for a formal dedication on the 10th anniversary. "There's a lot of people who are dedicated, people willing to go above and beyond. It's really just a labor of love. … It's been an amazing process, and it is really something that what will be there next year will be an amazing place for visitors to come to."

Borza spent our first fifteen minutes talking by thanking seemingly everyone she could think of.

"The state of Pennsylvania has been so generous. It's because of them that visitors who take Route 30  can access the site," she said. "The families are always grateful when we see dignitaries like Laura Bush and Michelle Obama. We are always thankful that they come."

But what about the lack of obvious progress on the memorial site?

"The design is mostly a landscape memorial," she replied.  "It's not a typical memorial with buildings and monuments, lots of markers, so you wouldn't see the normal construction signs."  Borza then lovingly described what's to come: A wall that tracks the descent of the plane. A walkway to what's now called the "Sacred Ground," the impact area where the remains of the passengers were scattered on impact.

"And the rest is just open area for people to just walk through, sit down and reflect," she said.  "A nice place to honor the heroes."

'40 percent complete'

Joanne Hanley, superintendent of national parks in Western Pennsylvania, also said the memorial project construction is proceeding according to schedule.

"We're 40 percent complete," she said. Also to be finished by next year: A 2.5-mile entrance road, and a parking area for the Sacred Ground. A second phase of the project, which includes a visitor's center and an education center, is targeted for completion by 2014, she said.

Still, after a nine-year process, Borza understands there are complaints and frustrations, and of course she feels them. Deora was close with her grandparents - Borza's parents. While her mom has passed away, she hopes her father will live to see completion of the memorial.

"Deora used to fly from California to North Carolina every summer to see (her grandparents)," she said. "It's important to him."

But complaints don't do her -- or her daughter's memory -- any good. On the other hand, being "gracious" helps keep her moving in the right direction.

"I have my moments," Borza said. "I just share those moments with my family or close friends. But I know that from the moment I wake up in morning until I go to sleep every night, it's not going to make a bit of difference to anybody how my identity feels about this. When I'm gracious about it, it provides a different point of view other than the same old thing."

The "same old thing" is the negativity and complaints that so often trivialize all that's happened. "(Complaining) doesn't get you anywhere. I run into a lot of visitors who are really upset and angry. But if I'm going to spend time on anything, I spend it on filling up that empty void I have instead of having more hatred or anger," she said.

And for perspective, she notes  that 10 years is actually not a long time for planning and construction of state memorials.

"They are still working on the MLK Memorial," she said. "Look at how long the World War II Memorial took."

Indeed, on the other side of Pennsylvania from Shanksville is perhaps the most important battlefield of America's 19th century -- Gettysburg. Its largest monument -- devoted to the soldiers from Pennsylvania who fought there -- was dedicated on the 50th Anniversary of the battle.

This weekend, memorial design protesters have taken out advertisements in local newspapers, still hoping to draw attention to their complaints. Their presence will no doubt be felt at local ceremonies, which include a motorcycle rally this week which begins at a nearby chapel christened the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel.

'Your job isn't finished'

On Saturday, Borza will be standing aside the two first ladies, but she spends most days now with her father in North Carolina -- and she keeps up with her daughter's friends. Their lives are a more important memorial to Deora, anyway, she said.

"So many of them changed their majors to things like social work, headed for jobs that could help people," she said. "They woke up that day and life took on a different meaning for them.  Business degrees, where it was easy to make a little money, didn't seem to make a lot of sense any more. A lot of them do nonprofit work now." She also hears occasionally from workers at the U.S. Capital building and White House, the suspected targets of the Flight 93 hijackers. They regularly thank Flight 93 families for potentially saving their lives, she said.

"All I have to say to them is, 'Your job isn't finished yet. Go find something you love doing and play hard.'"

 The Flight 93 Memorial, estimated to cost $58 million, is being built through a combination of private and government funds. While funding for phase one is complete, Hanley said another $15 million is needed to begin work on phase two.  Donations are accepted at HonorFlight93.org.

 Since this piece was written, the Shanksville 9-11 memorial has indeed opened, and it is beautiful. The town, however, is still suffering. I highly recommend this excellent story by Christopher Maag to understand why.