When the Northeast Philadelphia-based Brothers for Flight 93 made their inaugural motorcycle-borne pilgrimage to Shanksville, Pa., in 2007, the 9/11 crash site looked almost nothing like it does today.
Back then, little distinguished the remote, expansive farmland from the countless other surrounding fields that characterize much of Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands region — except for the 10-foot-deep crater created by the jetliner’s impact.
Almost five years earlier, mourners had hastily erected a temporary memorial on a hillside overlooking the site. It had a large fence where visitors posted thousands of flags, notes, photos and poems dedicated to the 33 passengers and seven crew of United Airlines Flight 93 who died there on Sept. 11, 2001. The memorial also had benches where visitors would sit, meditate and perhaps pray for the 40 victims and heroes.
But the benches are gone now, as is the giant fence with its very personal mementos. In their place is an even larger “Wall of Names” and a visitors’ plaza that will be dedicated this weekend as the first phase of the site’s ongoing permanent memorial project.
Organized by Philadelphia Deputy Sheriff and Bustleton resident John Hamilton, along with his wife Kim, brothers Michael and Jim and many friends, the Brothers for Flight 93 made their fifth annual motorcycle ride to the crash site, as well as the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel last weekend. About 150 people took part in the convoy, which included about 80 motorcycles, plus support vehicles and a police escort.
Sadly, with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and 10,000 or more visitors expected at the newly formed national park this weekend, the brothers were not permitted an advance, close-up peek at the Wall of Names.
Yet, they say, the true meaning of their 600-mile trip was not necessarily in the destination, but more so in the journey.
“It’s just about coming out to the crash site, being able to lay a wreath and say a prayer,” Hamilton said. “I would like to have spent more time at the crash site. Before, you used to have benches where you could sit and reflect. Now, it’s in and out because everybody is coming and going.”
Hamilton and several of his colleagues in law enforcement made their first “memorial run” to the Flight 93 site in 2006. Upon their return to Philly, they decided to form a non-profit organization to raise money to benefit the permanent memorial project. The following year, they opened up the event to like-minded civilians.
Besides the charitable aspect of the event, it’s also their way of exercising and celebrating the freedom that came under attack from the 9/11 terrorists and that the crew and passengers of Flight 93 heroically defended.
“I think that’s the ultimate freedom that a person can experience, riding down the road on a motorcycle,” Hamilton said. “And the people who ride are the most honest people you’ll meet, good or bad. They’ll tell you like it is. They’re real people. There’s no façade. They are what they appear to be.”
Each year, usually a week before the 9/11 anniversary, participants gather at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on State Road early on a Saturday morning for a departure ceremony.
Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla hosted this year’s event, which included a live performance of the national anthem, the reading of the names of all 40 victims of Flight 93 and the release of 40 white balloons into the sky.
Members of the Eddington Fire Company of Bensalem and American Fire Company of Bristol used their ladder trucks to suspend an American flag high over the parking-lot exit.
The Bensalem Township Police Department’s Motor Patrol escorted the riders to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Philadelphia Police Officer Joe Goodwin and the Brothers’ own “road captains” ensured the safety of the convoy on the 250-mile highway jaunt to Somerset, along with the rustic side trip to the actual crash site.
For the fifth year in a row, Chief Sigmund “Sugar” Fine of the Rhawnhurst-Bustleton Ambulance provided emergency medical backup for the duration. He is one of many faces that show up every year.
“Each time we come, everything’s a little bit different,” said Northeast resident Jim Campenello. “I like this ride. I’ll be doing this every year.”
“I was there last year and you’re just in awe,” said Hatboro’s Steve Becker, whose wife Gina and beagle Shane rode in a support car this year.
Bill and Nancy White, along with Cindy Stefano, were making their third visit to the site.
“It’s the memories, the dedication, the tributes,” Bill White said. “Now that they’re fixing it up nicely, it’s different every time we go see it.”
More than a national tragedy, the Flight 93 crash was also a personal one for at least two of the riders in last week’s convoy. West Chester’s Mike Truitt was a business colleague and friend of Todd Beamer, the passenger credited with the now-famous rallying call, “Let’s roll!”
Bill Shipley of Bensalem was a co-worker and friend of Lou Nacke, a New Hope resident who also perished in the crash.
“There’s a lot of sentimental stuff to me because I used to work with one of the fellas who went down in the plane,” said Shipley, whose wife Michelle also made the memorial ride this year.
After visiting the crash site, the riders gathered back at an area motel for a barbecue. Downingtown-based caterers John and Susan Lowe supply much of the meal. Both are avid motorcyclists, too.
The following morning, many riders returned to the Shanksville area to visit the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel. The chapel is a century-old country church refurbished to pay tribute to the 40 crash victims. The Rev. Alphonse Mascherino is founder and director.
“We started in November 2001 and were totally rebuilt by the first anniversary, September 11, 2002,” Mascherino said. “When we started the chapel, there weren’t so many memorials going on. There weren’t so many programs. … Since then, of course, there are many memorials and programs.”
Surrounded by cornfields and hills, the tiny chapel has an 8-foot marble monument to the Flight 93 crew and passengers. An indoor shrine shows their photos and biographies.
“(It’s a) simple structure, a country chapel, but inside is the glory of God,” Mascherino said. “When (visitors) open that front door, they see the whole panoply, the vista of the interior. And for many, it takes their breath away.” ••
For information about Brothers for Flight 93, visit www.brothersforflight93.com
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or email@example.com