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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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.