SHANKSVILLE, Somerset County — In the remote, rolling hills near this tiny southwestern Pennsylvania borough, signs of thunderous jolts that shook the town on Sept. 11, 2001, and then rippled across the world, have mostly faded.
The 40-foot deep crater created by United Airlines Flight 93's chaotic, 500-mph descent has long been covered. Nearby, wildflowers blanket the 60-plus acres that serve as a burial ground for 40 crew members and passengers.
A serene walkway overlooks the seasonal blooms and leads to a granite wall inscribed with the names of all who were aboard Flight 93.
It took 10 years, but the National Park Service's Flight 93 National Memorial in Stonycreek Township will be unveiled this weekend during events that are expected to draw 10,000 people, including President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
It's been a long time coming for families of the Flight 93 crew and passengers, who were hailed as heroes for their impromptu uprising against the terrorists who hijacked their flight.
"It's been fascinating just watching it all develop and take form and shape," said Ed Root of Coopersburg, whose cousin, Lorraine Bay of East Windsor, N.,J., was a senior flight attendant onboard. "In some respects this finished memorial is more for the future than it is for the present."
Root first visited the site on a dreary March day, six months after his cousin, a 58-year-old who was known to mother her younger colleagues, had chosen Flight 93 over another because it was nonstop from Newark to San Francisco.
"It was numbing," Root, now 64, recalled. Growing up, Root and Bay spent many a holiday together as well as vacations at the New Jersey shore.
"She was kind of the big sister I never had," said Root, who has no siblings. "I looked up to her as a teenager."
Root was so moved by his first visit that he eventually served on a committee that selected the memorial design, became a years-long member of the Families of Flight 93 organization, and has made frequent trips here to monitor progress of the project's $62 million first phase.
He plans to be here this weekend with hundreds of other relatives of Flight 93 victims.
Saturday's opening ceremony marks the completion of the initial phase of the project — about half of what is planned.
The memorial features a cast concrete gateway leading to a 900-foot walkway that offers vistas of the flower-covered "Sacred Ground" that absorbed the impact of the crash.
At the end of the walkway is a black granite wall listing the names of crew and passengers on the fateful flight. The wall will be unveiled to the public Saturday. Only relatives of those who died aboard the flight will be allowed on the actual ground where the aircraft went down.
A half-mile diameter Field of Honor adjacent to what is being called Sacred Ground will eventually be framed with groves of maple trees and a walking path.
Paul Murdoch, the California architect who designed the memorial, had in mind the courage of the passengers and crew when he designed the memorial.
The 9/11 Commission concluded that the hijackers downed the plane in Pennsylvania as the hostages, who had learned of attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., revolted.
"We used the large scale of the open site to give a heroic quality to the memorial, creating a long, arching walkway around a Field of Honor," Murdoch said. "We used the serenity of the rural landscape to inform the memorial expression as a cemetery, while working with the severity of the site's exposure and mining history to recognize it as a battleground."
Keith Newlin, a National Park Service superintendent whose been at the site since it was established in 2002 as a national park, expects annual attendance of around 110,000 to double or triple once the park is dedicated.
Even in its temporary state, the park has attracted visitors from all 50 states and places as far as Africa, Romania and the Netherlands. On a recent morning, vehicles with license plates from Michigan, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina and Georgia lined the parking lot.
"There are two questions people always ask: Where did it go into the ground and how close can we get?" Newlin said. "I have some visitors who don't want to come down [to the impact site]. It's out of respect. It's still too fresh for them."
Root said it's not unusual to see visitors patting their pocket or reaching into their purses to leave behind something personal.
Firefighters, police officers and medics leave their company patches. Children leave toys. Bay's husband, Erich, leaves an arrangement of flowers on each of his visits: four yellow roses for flight crew members and one red rose for his late wife. More than 35,000 tributes have been left behind and become part of a stored archival collection.
Root thinks visitors will find the new memorial a contemplative place where they'll ask themselves, "What would I have done?"
"Many people believe that if the plane was in the air a few more seconds, it would have hit the town and every child in town was in school that day," Root said. "[The flight crew and passengers] knew if they didn't act that something far worse would happen."
Not everyone who has gotten a glimpse of the memorial from a fenced overlook has been impressed. Linda McClintock, a volunteer "ambassador" who tells visitors the story of Flight 93 at the memorial, recalled an angry man who commented, "What in the hell is this mess?"
But Gene and Sherrie Watson and their son Justin, who took the 50-mile trip from Fayette County to visit the memorial on a recent morning, said the money has been well spent. They called it a "fitting" tribute.
"There's no material way to say thank you," Gene Watson said. "It's as close as we can get. My thoughts, as we were turning in here…Osama Bin Laden, you finally got yours. I hope you're rotting in hell."
The National Park Service Foundation is still raising private funding for the roughly $10 million needed to pay for first-phase work. Future plans include a visitors center between two large concrete walls that designate Flight 93's final path; a 93-foot high "Tower of Voices" with 40 wind chimes near the park entrance; and 40 memorial groves, each with 40 trees.
When the memorial is completed, more than 140,000 trees will be planted as part of a reforestation project. The $52 million raised so far includes $20 million from private donors, $18 million from Pennsylvania and $14 million from the federal government.
"It's not done yet, it's not over," said Root. "There's still work to be done and money to be raised."
FLIGHT 93 NATIONAL MEMORIAL EVENTS
Events are planned for this weekend at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville. Events are open to the public. No tickets are required. The memorial will be closed to the public on Monday morning and reopen at 1 p.m. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are scheduled to visit the memorial during the weekend.
•12:30 p.m.: Dedication of Phase 1 of the memorial will include musical tributes, wreath placements and a performance by singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan.
•Dusk: Lighting of 2,982 luminaries, one for each person who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
•9:30 a.m.: Commemorative service with musical tributes, wreath placements and additional activities
DIRECTIONS: From the east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike: Exit Bedford (#146) — at Turnpike light, turn left. Go to next light, turn left. Take Route 220 South. Follow 220 South to next exit. Exit US 30 West. Follow US 30 west approximately 25 miles to Lambertsville Road (three miles beyond Buckstown). Turn left onto Lambertsville Road. Travel approximately three miles to Memorial entrance; Turn left.
GPS USERS: 1060 Lambertsville Road, Stoystown, PA 15563
WATCH IT: Watch the live webcast of the Sept. 10 dedication ceremony on http://www.Flight93Dedication.org and at http://www.history.com/flight93.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit http://www.nps.gov/flni and http://www.honorflight93.org.
TO DONATE: http://www.honorflight93.org/join/?fa=ways-to-give
Source: National Park Service