As 12th anniversary nears, many landmarks for 9/11

By Michael Smerconish Philadelphia Inquirer

“I really should see that.”

So often that’s the response from friends with whom I shared that I had just visited one of three 9/11 memorials, each within driving distance. Now’s the perfect time. We’re 21/2 weeks away from the 12th anniversary of 9/11, and many kids are still home from school. Make it a family event and here’s what you’ll find:

Garden of Reflection at Memorial Park:

Start close to home. Bucks was the hardest hit of Pennsylvania’s counties on 9/11, losing 18 residents. They, and all other victims, are remembered at a poignant memorial just a few turns off I-95 in Lower Makefield. The Garden was designed by a local architect, Liuba Lashchyk, who wasted none of the grounds – everything here has meaning.

Upon arrival, your eye will surely be trained on the rusted wreckage from the Twin Towers, which is pointed in the direction of where the Towers once stood. (And don’t overlook the tear-shaped forecourt as you enter the grounds.) A maple tree has been planted for each Bucks Countian killed, and the 42 lights along the walkway represent the number of Pennsylvania children who lost a parent.

Head toward the core of the memorial and you’ll see the names of all 2,973 victims etched in glass. But note the topography, rippling away from the central focus of the memorial, symbolizing the shock that reverberated during and after the attack. Finally, you’ll come to a reflecting pool surrounded by a railing with the names of the local residents lost. In the pool are indentations representing the footprints of the Twin Towers, with twin ascending fountains.

There is no admission fee to the state’s official 9/11 memorial. And this September 11, the Garden will host a Remembrance in Light Ceremony at 7 p.m. The half-hour event will include remarks by Ben Sliney, who, on 9/11 as the Federal Aviation Administration national operations manager, made the decision to ground all aircraft nationwide.

National September 11 Memorial:

Ninety miles north of Philadelphia, what was Ground Zero has been transformed. The memorial is now shadowed by the tower rising 1,776 feet in the air that will soon be called One World Trade Center. In the two years that it has been open, the memorial has attracted nine million visitors from 180 nations. Two weeks ago, on a hot Friday in August under threatening skies, it was nice to see it so crowded.

Designer Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker are to be commended. As with the Garden of Reflection, tremendous attention has been paid to detail. No doubt you’ve seen photographs of the two pools set in the footprints of the original Twin Towers. Water constantly flows into both, masking the sound of the surrounding city and providing the appropriate backdrop for reflection.

The roster of victims remembered here includes six from the 1993 attack. Their names are arranged in meaningful adjacencies and etched in climate-controlled bronze, allowing visitors to touch their remembrance in any weather. I saw many looking for the names of friends, family, and American heroes, like Todd Beamer, who lost his life aboard Flight 93. I myself was easily able to locate and pay respects to the name of Victor Saracini, of Lower Makefield, who was captain of United 175. Look and you will see white roses adjacent to some names – they are placed to commemorate birthdays at an average of nine per day.

A ring of trees outside the pools marks the actual location of the facade of the buildings. There is also the “survivor tree,” a Callery pear that had been planted on the eastern edge of the site in the 1970s. Workers found it after the attack, reduced to an eight-foot stump. It has been nursed back to health and stands 30 feet tall.

Next spring, the museum will open underground. It will house the Fire Department of New York’s Engine 21, the “survivor’s staircase,” the “last column,” and the “cross of steel.”

Admission is free, though access is determined by timed passes, which are offered on a first-come basis for same-day visits. Reservations made online or by phone carry a $2 charge.

Flight 93 National Memorial:

Shanksville is a relatively easy three-hour drive west from Philadelphia on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This is, of course, where Flight 93 crashed, just 20 minutes in flight time from Washington.

The first of my four trips here came in 2005, when an online controversy arose after someone remarked that from an aerial view, the memorial might resemble an Islamic crescent. After taking a look, I found the dispute contrived.

I’ll never forget that, immediately upon entering the site, a 2,200-acre former strip mine, I detected a slight change in temperature. So, too, did my traveling companions. It’s part of an indescribable aura at Shanksville. Back then, visitors found only a temporary memorial – a 40-foot chain-link fence, upon which people placed tributes, overlooking the crash site about 500 yards away. Local residents, called docents, assumed the unpaid responsibility of educating visitors about the site.

Architect Paul Murdoch won a design competition. Two years ago, the initial features were completed and dedicated, including a new entrance, new roads, and the MemorialPlaza at the crash site. Jeff Reinbold is the project manager for the National Park Service.

“It’s a very moving time to visit the memorial,” he told me last week, noting that roughly 300,000 visitors are coming per year.

“The fields of wildflowers are in bloom and create quite a backdrop for viewing the crash site and paying your respects at the Wall of Names,” he said. “We’re about ready to break ground for the visitor center and shift our focus to more fully telling the Flight 93 story and educating the coming generations.”

Reinbold told me that while the chain-link fence memorial was removed in 2010, more than 40,000 tribute items were saved and will become part of a visitor center exhibit. And the park service has since given the docents the titles of “ambassador.”

These three memorials take us back to a tragic day, while honoring those we lost. Yes, I tell my friends, you really should see that.

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