An American Pilgrimage

On the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack on America, some find spiritual solace in a field near Shanksville, Pa.

Somerset County, Pa., literally crashed into world history on Sept. 11, 2001. On that memorable day, Muslim jihadists flew four commercial aircraft into American targets. United Airlines Flight 93, scheduled to travel from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, crashed into a farming community near the diminutive hamlet of Shanksville, Pa., killing everyone on board — 40 Americans and four jihadists.

The Somerset incident has since become an American metaphor of survival; the destiny of all faithful American citizens is inextricably bound up with that flight in a battle whose survival will eventually depend not upon any organizing agency, but upon us.

The day was won by a citizen soldier.

A temporary national memorial, located on private property, has been established at the crash site, about 13 miles from the town of Somerset, an area replete with quaint villages with delightful-sounding names.

That one of the places involved in the conflict with militant Islam was in Pennsylvania is not entirely surprising, for the old commonwealth has been pivotal in American history. The United States of America emerged in Philadelphia; patriots fought a crucial battle in nearby Trenton, N.J., launched from the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River; Washington and his troops suffered painfully — but survived — at Valley Forge, and Unionists and Confederates warred with each other in the country’s defining event — the Civil War — at Gettysburg, to the east of Somerset.

In all of these places, American forces lay down their lives for ideals larger than they themselves knew. In short, the “Keystone State” has functioned historically as a keystone to American birth, continuity and survival.

On a recent trip — I like to think of it as a pilgrimage — my wife and I arrived in early evening. The sun was low on the horizon, the surrounding countryside burgeoning with well-groomed farms. In the distance, an unidentifiable body of water glistened in the twilight. For a moment, it seemed like an episode from one of Tolkien’s shires.

Life’s Fullness

As I slowly surveyed the surrounding countryside, for a brief moment, the metaphysical seemed to converge with the physical, what Reading-born poet Wallace Stevens might have identified, as he once had in a description of Pennsylvania’s Oley Valley, as “one of the limits of reality.” Had I written my own “Credences of Summer,” I would have substituted Somerset, a name that suggests both summer’s fullness and simultaneously an end — the word’s last syllable connoting a memory, however faint, of life’s fullness descending into a seasonal plentitude.

A permanent memorial is planned at the actual crash site, about 500 feet away, currently identifiable by an American flag and surrounded by a fence. The temporary memorial, made semipermanent by an overlay of concrete and a ranger’s station, features rows of benches inscribed with the names of those who died that day. In practical terms, the memorial’s simplicity strikes one deeply; its absolute genuineness faithfully expresses the unrevised devotion and affection of the American people.

A 40-foot-long, 15-foot-high fence stretches across one end of the memorial. This “fence of tears” has been transformed into a massive display of flowers, flags, art work, handwritten notes, photographs and religious memorabilia, such as crosses, rosaries and angels. Unforgettably moving are photographs of the dead, including one of Thomas Burnett Jr., the hero of Flight 93.

Flight 93’s Hero

Burnett’s story deserves to be remembered. He was born in Bloomington, Minn., and, assiduously nurtured by his parents, developed a love of family, country and God. More importantly, his Catholic faith taught him to practice self-denial, preparing him to meet unforeseen challenges with selflessness and courage. Add to these values the fact that he was intelligent and physically strong. A sportsman, he became known as “a take-charge kind of guy,” one destined for greatness.

After earning two degrees, he entered the world of industry, and, at the time of his death, he was a senior vice president, a position that required long-distance travel, to his wife’s chagrin. A lover of nature and the woods, he often stole away between company assignments to enjoy relaxation on his farm in Wisconsin. How fitting that Tom would die in a land of farms and woods, so close to the natural world he cherished.

Burnett’s wife, Deena, relates the incredible story in Fighting Back, which is, at times, a spine-chilling narrative about a man who experienced the fulfillment of a yearlong premonition on that fateful September day. A devout Catholic, Tom, aside from Sunday observance, began attending daily Mass sometime prior to 9/11. When Deena inquired (not alarmed, but delighted by his deepened sense of religiosity) about his increased Massgoing, his response astounded her: He related that he had had a premonition (as it turned out a year before 9/11) that he would be involved in something big, something involving the White House. Deena, moreover, experienced her own unaccountable reply to another otherwise harmless question. Tom and Deena were parents to three young girls, and Deena’s mother innocently inquired when she would give Tom a son. Deena responded that God would never give them a son because Tom would be killed in a plane crash. She was never able to account for her shocking response. As it turned out, the unusual sense of future developments that both Tom and Deena articulated proved in both instances prophetic.

As everyone knows, Burnett took charge of the revolt that involved unarmed passengers and crew on Flight 93, and his fellow passenger's cry “Let’s roll” has become, to some extent, as familiar an expression as “9/11” itself. That revolt resulted in the circumstances that led to the crash near Shanksville, preventing the hijackers from flying the plane into either the Capitol or the White House.

Burnett’s heroism helped prevent a national catastrophe, yet in one of Deena’s cell phone calls with Tom, she pleaded with him to sit quietly so as not to infuriate the hijackers.

“We can’t wait for the authorities,” Tom responded, “It’s up to us.”

Certainly, Deena’s request represented more hope than belief, for she knew that Tom was a man of action, a leader.

In literature, I suspect, Burnett would have resembled not Hamlet but Henry V; in politics, Lincoln, decisive regardless of the popularity or unpopularity of his actions; in military matters, Robert E. Lee, admired by friend and foe alike; in religion, Ignatius of Loyola — a saint who never ceased being a soldier.

Thomas Lombardi writes

from Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Getting There:

From the Pennsylvania Turnpike take Exit 110. From Somerset travel north on Rt. 281 toward Friedens, then on to Stoystown, intersecting with the Lincoln Highway (Rt. 30), collectively about 9.5 miles. Then drive 2.4 miles east to Lambertsville Rd., where a sign, marked with an airplane configuration, appears, across from the Highland Tank Manufacturing Co., and points the way toward the final short distance to the site. The 1.7 miles on Lambertsville leads to Skyline Rd., a narrow, winding way that climbs for nearly one mile up a steep grade, at the top of which one can see the temporary memorial.

Planning Your Visit:

In Somerset, St. Peter’s Church has a 7 a.m. Mass Monday through Thursday and an 11:15 a.m. Mass on Friday. Confession is available on Saturday afternoon at 3:30, followed by the Sunday Vigil Mass at 5:30 p.m. On Sundays, Mass is at 8 and 10 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. For more information, call (814) 443-6574.