It's a tale of unspeakable evil, unbelievable tragedy and unforgettable heroism. And, 15 years after 9/11, it's a tale that needs to be told again and again by people like Rob Franz.
Best known in Chatham as one of the organizers of the annual Memorial Day and Veterans Day commemorations, Franz was recently featured on the front page of the New York Times for his work as an interpretive ranger at the Flight 93 National Memorial outside Shanksville, Pa. Though he still lives in Chatham in the winter, Franz recently accepted a permanent position with the National Park Service, helping visitors to the memorial understand the site's history and significance.
“Shanksville itself is a very small town,” Franz said in a telephone interview. The crash site is about two and a half miles from the town, part of the rolling Laurel Highlands of the Allegheny Mountains. The impact area is home to a stark memorial, a broad wildflower meadow, and a small grove of hemlock trees that marks the final resting place of many of the 40 passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93.
The memorial not only honors those who died, but tells their story. It's a story that Franz knows in great detail and can recite with military precision. On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners for a coordinated attack on American landmarks. At 8:46 a.m., Flight 11 flew into the north tower of the World Trade Center, and Flight 175 struck the south tower at 9:03. Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m.
“Flight 93 was delayed upon takeoff,” Franz said. It left the runway at 8:42 instead of 8:15 a.m., so the passengers and crew were in the air, with access to cell phones and outside news when the attacks unfolded. Four terrorists took control of the aircraft, telling those on board that there was a bomb on the plane and they were headed back to the airport. But because the flight was delayed, the passengers knew that their plane was on a suicide mission. Later, it became clear that the most likely target was the U.S. Capitol building.
The passengers and crew members called their loved ones and families. Then they did something remarkable.
“They took a vote,” Franz said. In a defiant final act of democracy, the passengers voted to attempt to overcome the hijackers. They did so, forcing the attackers to crash the plane before it reached its target: the nation's seat of democracy.
“It's a very important story,” he said. While the attacks in New York and Washington often come to mind first because of their “real estate,” Franz said, the Flight 93 story is unique.
“We as a nation took a lot of solace, a lot of strength that the crew and the passengers on Flight 93 were able to stop the terrorists from completing their mission,” he said.
As an interpreter at the national monument, Franz tells the story again and again, helping visitors understand not only the events of that day, but also the stories of the individuals who were on the plane.
“It's like Memorial Day and Veterans Day. The adults that are there know why they are there,” he said. “A lot of what I'm doing is reminding them of things they already knew and filling in some of the blanks.” But Franz also has the almost unfathomable task of explaining the site to children.
“Each age is different,” he said. Some children witness the emotions that their parents express when visiting the memorial: anger, fear and sadness. Franz said he wants youngsters to feel as comfortable as possible at the site, and he shares as much information as he feels he can. It's critical that they understand what happened so that, as a society, we don't forget.
“It falls to them,” Franz said.
Franz found the position in a listing of federal jobs in 2011, and visited the site.
“I had to come just to find out what it's all about,” he said. He applied for the job and was hired as a seasonal ranger. An experienced public speaker and a veteran of the U.S. Army, Franz was a strong candidate. When the memorial was seeking to fill a permanent ranger position, he applied and was hired.
Naturally, sharing the story of Flight 93 day after day takes an emotional toll.
“I tell people that the emotion is there, and I guess when I don't have any emotion to it, maybe I should move on. I just can't let it overwhelm me,” Franz said. He begins each talk by telling visitors that the site is a memorial that commemorates a tragedy. And he ends each presentation by telling them that the people that day demonstrated courage and strength.
“And that's a good story,” he said.