The Magazine

Flight 93 Remembered

While government dithers, Americans build their own memorials.

Dec 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 15 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Union City, California

Last Saturday, America's first major memorial to Flight 93 was dedicated in a small town 20 miles north of San Jose. Set in a park roughly the size of a football field, the memorial is elegantly simple; it would not look out of place on the Mall in Washington. At one end stands a flagpole with hand-painted tiles decorating its base. A gently winding path stretches 135 feet north. Forty rose-colored one-ton granite slabs are arranged along the path, each polished surface engraved with the name, age, and hometown of one of the passengers or crew members of Flight 93. The pathway ends at a circle, where an American sweet-gum is planted and three larger slabs of blue granite stand. One of these bears a list of donors to the project, one tells the tale of Flight 93, and the third gives a brief account of the memorial itself. But the story of Union City's Flight 93 memorial is worth telling in full, because--unlike most serious public monuments--it was conceived, paid for, and built by private citizens.

The idea for the memorial began with Michael Emerson, a 44-year-old retired Marine who lives in nearby Hayward. Emerson, who creates financial trusts for a living, is something of an enthusiast. He's a devoted Star Trek fan whose home boasts an impressive array of sports memorabilia, as well as a collection of swords used in films from Spartacus to Rio Grande. Emerson had no personal connection to 9/11, but was struck by the heroism of the passengers and crew of Flight 93.

In 2002, Emerson began corresponding with Alice Hoglan, the mother of passenger Mark Bingham. He told her that he wanted to build a memorial to Flight 93. He sketched out a design and planned to solicit donations and volunteers to build it--all he needed was a city willing to host it. Emerson approached Hayward first, but the city council wasn't interested. He looked for a nearby town with a suitable space and a good parks department, and he quickly settled on Union City. It had a healthy commitment to public parks, and one park in particular, Sugar Mill Landing, looked promising.

Situated at the corner of two major roads and just across from a gargantuan shopping center, Sugar Mill Landing wasn't much more than a thin, rectangular strip of green space buffering a residential neighborhood from the vast expanse of big box stores and chain restaurants. It was the perfect size for the memorial Emerson envisioned. When he approached the city, both the mayor, Mark Green, and the city council were receptive, provided Union City wouldn't have to spend any money on the memorial. They told Emerson that if he could hammer out the details and raise a $50,000 bond to pay for upkeep, he could build the memorial at Sugar Mill Landing. They even recommended a landscape architect, Robert Mowat, who volunteered his time to help Emerson create a design.

Emerson sent another letter to Alice Hoglan, explaining his plans and asking that she forward it to the rest of the Flight 93 families. And then he went begging, faxing requests for donations all over the country. In September 2004, Jim Boyd, who owns a quarry in Elberton, Georgia, received one of Emerson's faxes. He volunteered to procure and ship the granite and to find stonecutters and engravers who would donate their time to carve it. Tom Albanese, who has owned a concrete business in San Jose with his brother since 1948, volunteered to supply 200 tons of concrete. Barry Luboviski, an official with the local AFL-CIO, stood ready to organize hundreds of union volunteers to do the construction work. Many others lined up to donate time and equipment, too, from sod to expensive lighting. And Emerson and his girlfriend, Mary Greenlee, spent scores of hours outside the local Wal-Mart soliciting donations for the upkeep fund.

By October 2004, the project was solid enough that the city council was ready to approve it. But the day before the council meeting, two Flight 93 families called the city manager to voice concerns about Emerson and the project. At the meeting the next evening, some of the Flight 93 families showed up to complain. "We just want to know what's going to be said about our loved ones," said Carole O'Hare, whose mother, Hilda Marcin, was on Flight 93. The local Fremont Argus reported that O'Hare "said some of the families were upset because Emerson contacted them directly by email and did not follow protocol for contacting them."

The protocol for such communication, evidently, is not to contact family members directly, but instead to go through a group called the National Organization for Victim Assistance in Alexandria, Virginia. Ken Nacke, the chair of the Flight 93 Families Memorial Committee, was equally disturbed. "I wish there were a memorial in every state," Nacke said, "but this gentleman didn't reach out to all the family members."