The Magazine

Flight 93 Remembered

While government dithers, Americans build their own memorials.

Dec 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 15 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."

In a San Francisco Chronicle story about the council meeting, Jennifer Price, president of Flight 93 Families, Inc., was quoted as lamenting, "This was the first we heard about [the Union City memorial]; he's never officially contacted our board." Price, whose parents were on Flight 93, explained, "The key is a process that includes all family members, one that is done respectfully and doesn't make people upset or uncomfortable." The same Chronicle story reported that "feelings were bruised further when a Chronicle columnist wrote about the project and mentioned five passengers who stormed the hijackers, leading some to believe that Emerson's memorial would highlight only them."

Not all of the families were upset, but the city council postponed the vote nonetheless. Emerson did his best to reconcile with the unhappy families and assuage their concerns. On December 14, 2004, the council unanimously approved the memorial.

There were delays and problems. As of April 2006, Emerson had only $15,000 of the $50,000 he needed for the bond. When Robert Mowat, the architect, agreed also to act as the construction manager, however, the city lowered its requirement to $20,000. (Emerson was eventually able to put $28,000 into a trust for the memorial's upkeep, leaving the city with virtually no ongoing costs.) Initially, the dedication was planned for Memorial Day 2006, but 6 of the 40 rose stones were incorrectly measured--a mistake noticed only after they had been delivered to Union City.

Emerson found a local engraver willing to fix them, but he was from a nonunion shop. The union workers volunteering on the memorial refused to continue if Emerson used him. So the stones were shipped back to Georgia for repair, causing further delay. Tension grew between the unions and Emerson; bad feelings developed as well with Mowat and the city manager. By the time of the dedication ceremony, many of the parties on the stage together were barely on speaking terms. Mowat and Luboviski pointedly did not mention Emerson's name in their speeches. But at least the rift with the families had been repaired. Many families made the trip to the dedication, some coming from as far as Florida. Carole O'Hare even spoke at the ceremony, quoting lyrics from the Enya song "Fallen Embers" in her remarks.

For all of this, the memorial itself bears few scars. And while no one would confuse it with Lincoln's grand temple on the Mall, the Union City memorial has a certain majesty. Michael Emerson set out to build a tribute to the heroes of Flight 93; he succeeded on a scale that no one had reason to expect.

Emerson was not the first person to create a permanent tribute to Flight 93. That distinction goes to Father Alphonse Mascherino, who in 2002 built the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, just three miles from the crash site.

A retired Catholic priest, Father Al was living in the nearby town of Somerset on September 11, 2001. Like many residents of the county, he sprang into action on 9/11, volunteering to help feed and house the hundreds of local, state, and federal workers who descended on Shanksville. During his drives to and from town, Father Al noticed a rundown building on Stutzmantown Road. It was the Mizpah Evangelical Lutheran Church, built in 1901. The church had operated for 68 years, until it was dissolved in 1969 and converted into a seed distribution center. And in October 2001, the property was for sale.

As Father Al explained in an essay about the chapel's founding, "reflecting on the experience of the Heroes on board Flight 93, in their prayer together, it seemed that the simplest way to memorialize faith, and especially the faith manifested by the Heroes on board the plane, was to do it privately." So he bought the old Mizpah Church.

It took some doing. The asking price was $18,900; Father Al cobbled together $100 to hold the property and then tried to figure out how to come up with the down payment. He began selling whatever possessions he could. After two months, he had $1,500. Finally, his brother-in-law, an antiques dealer, bought his extensive collection of Christmas ornaments for $6,400, giving him enough to cover closing costs and the down payment.

At noon on Christmas Day 2001, Father Al went down to the basement of his mother's house and began sketching out his vision for the old church. In a Handelesque fury, he worked for 24 hours straight, compiling detailed plans for a renovation that would turn the old church into a chapel dedicated to the heroes of Flight 93.

He closed on the property a few days later and set to work restoring it by himself. There was only one electrical outlet, which had to provide power for both lighting and tools. The walls and ceiling needed to be torn out and rebuilt. There wasn't much money. Father Al was buying supplies $50 at a time at the local lumber yard, whenever he could spare the cash. One day the manager noticed the priest who kept coming back and buying bits of this and that. He asked what sort of project he was working on. Father Al told him about his plans for the chapel. The manager called Maggie Hardy Magerko, who owns the 84 Lumber Company, and relayed the story.

Hardy Magerko immediately gave Father Al a $23,000 grant toward materials for the restoration. That August, she came by the church to visit and saw how truly desperate the condition of the place was. She sent out a call to carpenters and craftsmen and put a small army of professional builders at Father Al's disposal. They worked around the clock for ten days, using the sketches he had drawn on Christmas as their blueprints. As Father Al tells it, at 4:00 P.M. on September 10, 2002, "the artist applying gold leaf paint to the trim in the sanctuary put his brush down and the work was complete." The Flight 93 Memorial Chapel was finished.

The Union City memorial and Flight 93 chapel have more in common than their private origins. There are people who view the passengers and crew of Flight 93 as victims to be mourned. And then there are people like Michael Emerson and Father Al who insist that these are heroes to be celebrated.

The same contrast can be seen between the private projects and the government's own memorial plans. The proposed national memorial in Shanksville has yet to break ground, but it will commemorate Flight 93 in a less-than-triumphal manner. It's mainly a landscaped park, including a "healing" wetlands area and 40 groves of trees laid out in a giant circle. Union City's purposeful wall of stones couldn't be more different.

At the entrance to the federal memorial will be a "Tower of Voices" that will feature 40 wind chimes designed to whisper constantly on behalf of the departed. The Flight 93 Memorial Chapel has a voice, too, a half-ton bell cast in 1860. It was donated by a friend, and Father Al has rechristened it "Thunder Bell."

Thunder Bell hangs in a new 44-foot-high steel-frame belfry and can be rung by anyone who visits the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel. Its sound can be heard at the crash site, three miles away.

Jonathan V. Last is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.