Seventeen years ago today the early morning Pennsylvania countryside near Shanksville was quiet. Its 245 residents--15 fewer than it had in 1920--were unnoticed by the world, going about their business, in school, or perhaps tending to errands in a downtown that would make Mayberry RFD look cosmopolitan.
In the clear blue skies less than a mile above Shanksville, United Airlines flight 93 had just descended to 5000 feet heading eastbound into Maryland on a path that was apparently taking it to directly to Washington DC; the last of four hijacked US airlines on a suicide mission that was likely intended for the US Capitol or the White House.
What we do know of what happened on flight 93 is pieced together from the many calls made by its passengers using the plane's GTE seat back phones. Voices of terrified but incredibly courageous individuals who where just as human as any of us, but whose strength we can only hope to aspire to.
Many of those voices can still be heard on voicemails left behind for loved ones.
One is that of CeeCee Lyles, the junior flight attendant on Flight 93, who called her husband to tell him that her flight had been hijacked. Her voice was calm and deliberate as she talked about the two prior planes that had been flown into the World Trade Center's twin towers. She told her husband and her boys that she loved them and hoped to see them again.
Before reaching her husband CeeCee left a voice mail for him, which thousands of people have heard since. Listening to CeeCee, with the knowledge of what she and all of the passengers on flight 93 must have been going through, is nothing less than heartbreaking.
Minutes after CeeCee's call passengers on flight 93 mounted an attempt to overtake the terrorist guarding the flight deck door and then gain entry to the cockpit and take back control of the plane, or perhaps divert it and take it down before its intended target. We'll never know for sure which.
What we do know is that at 10:03 flight 93 banked sharply and dove inverted into a strip of land just outside of Shanksville, killing everyone on board.
With that the voices of the 40 passengers and flight crew could easily have been silenced.
Flight 93 became a story of courage and leadership in the face of a fear few of us can begin to imagine. It wasn't the Hollywood kind of courage where the arrogance of enormous ego trumps evil. Nor was it the well-planned sort of courage that outwits a cunning adversary.
It was the messy and haphazard sort of courage that you don't find in novels and movies, but which speaks to something that we all hope we're capable of. And that is precisely why we are drawn to it.
The many conversations that the passengers on flight 93 had with loved ones, emergency services, and in one case a GTE telephone operator have been well documented. Each one providing a vignette of courage at its most raw; frail and imperfect humans who somehow rise above their fear to offer a role model for what it means to be decisive, to lead, to fight through the terror that should cause them to cower, but instead raises in them an immeasurable power.
It was the voice of Tom Burnett refusing to yield to fear, telling his wife, "If they are going to drive this plane into the ground, we've got to do something."
The voice of Todd Beamer, who called GTE operator supervisor Lisa Jefferson, rather than risk upsetting his pregnant wife. He prayed with Lisa, asked her to tell his wife how much he loved her, and then summoned the strength to rise up with his fellow passengers. His final comment, overheard by Lisa has become a rallying cry for a generation, "`You ready? OK. Let's roll."
The voices of the passengers on flight 93 ring in our memory as reminders of something far greater than the horror of the day; the indomitable power of what courage really sounds like.
There were cowards on flight 93, but they were not its passengers or its crew.
On that common field where flight 93 finally came to rest, near that quiet little town, there stands today a newly dedicated monument that speaks to the courage in the voices of 40 passengers and crew who refused to be silent, who would not allow fear to dull their voice.
The Tower of Voices memorial to the 40 souls on flight 93 is a 93 foot tall wind chime. It's architecture meant to channel and amplify the random and unpredictable power of the wind through its slender and staggered pillars, causing 40 large chimes to ring, each a testimonial to the courageous voice of one of the 40 brave souls that perished on that day.
As I listened to the sounds of the memorial a quote came to mind from Mirianne Williamson's book A Return To Love, "It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
The Tower of Voices reminds us that in the midst of even the deepest darkness there is a choice to act, to reach beyond our fear, to find the strength to challenge ourselves, and ultimately to amplify our voice and our purpose rather than to dampen and shy from it; courage, as with so many things in life, is a choice.