The countryside of 9/11

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"But from every angle that you look at it, you can really relate," Krah said. "There's a feeling of awe, like if you've ever been to Pearl Harbor. It makes you wonder, 'Could I have been that brave?'"

The memorial is only about one-third finished — a visitor center is expected to open in 2015 — but what has been constructed is quite enough to visit. Architect Paul Murdoch, whose firm was selected to create the memorial from 1,100 entries, said in an interview after my visit that he quickly decided his design would leave the overt narrative and symbolism for the forthcoming visitor center.

"That was very conscious," said Murdoch, president of Los Angeles-based Paul Murdoch Architects. "It's not like you're on the Mall in Washington, D.C., commemorating something that happened elsewhere in the world. This landscape offers firsthand experience, and that allows the memorial to be spare in support of it."

"There's a lot inherent in the site that really we are trying to bring the visitors to," he said. "There's heroism and generosity to what those people (on the plane) did. We're trying to honor that, but in a unique kind of way."

Daily park ranger lectures are just as frank as the memorial itself. As his audience sat on benches facing the crash site, park ranger Brendan Wilson told us details of the attack simply and plainly, explaining that the U.S. Capitol was the jet's likely target. He called the hijacking "a well thought-out plan," which gave me pause not because I disagreed but because in our national narrative, giving the attackers an ounce of credit is rare.

One visitor told Wilson he felt more sympathy for the passengers of Flight 93 than for people on the three other hijacked flights "because they took action." Wilson refuted the notion, reminding the man that Flight 93 passengers had the advantage of knowing three planes had already crashed that day. There's no reason to think that passengers on the other flights wouldn't have acted similarly with the same information, Wilson said. The man didn't argue.

After one final stroll to the marble wall, I headed back to my car, passing license plates from as far as Louisiana and Missouri. Just behind me a girl about 12 tugged at the sleeve of a woman who appeared to be her mother. She liked the memorial, she said, but she had a suggestion.

"You know what they need?" the girl said. "They need to put a really big American flag here."

"That'd be nice," the woman said.

"I mean, a really big one."

If you go

The Flight 93 memorial is about an 80-mile drive southeast of Pittsburgh. It is open daily, except Christmas and New Year's days. Gates are open 9 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. through October and 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. from October until April 30. Admission is free.

Reservations are recommended for groups of 15 or more, especially those planning to visit Sept. 11. In summer, park rangers give a half-hour talk about the history of Flight 93 at 1 p.m. daily, plus a second lecture at 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. There also are occasional 11 a.m. talks. Check for the most current information.

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