Every fall when new students start taking my classes at Point Park University I ask them what they remember about 9/11. Those memories aren’t always clear or accurate anymore; this year’s 18-year-olds were mostly in kindergarten in 2001. Many don’t realize United Airlines Flight 93 crashed 65 miles east of Pittsburgh in Somerset County.
I started taking students to the Flight 93 Memorial near Shanksville since its dedication in 2011 as a result. We’ve paired that trip with presentations and an annual vigil on campus, something we’ll do again this year.
So when I learned that Tom McMillan, Pittsburgh Penguins vice president of communications, had written a Flight 93 book, I was instantly interested. I contacted him to learn more (full disclosure: I’ve known the author since his Post-Gazette sportswriter days, and he’s an active and involved Point Park alumnus).
A devoted student of history, Mr. McMillan said he had been drawn to the site, visiting it about 20 times before getting a personal tour and becoming a volunteer greeter. Those visits led to his decision to tell as complete an account as possible of the crash, the heroic actions of the 40 crew members and passengers, the investigation, and the memorial’s development.
For two years Mr. McMillan researched books, documentaries, and newspaper and magazine articles; pored over documents, transcripts and flight plans; reviewed the oral histories collected by memorial volunteers; and conducted interviews with 18 family members and officials.
The result: Mr. McMillan created a compelling narrative of the plot’s conception, the terrorist cell formation, pilots’ training — which occurred at Oklahoma and Florida flight schools — and the careful study of U.S. airline security that enabled the 19 hijackers to succeed at striking three targets, killing thousands and wounding a nation.
He developed vivid portraits of the ordinary citizens on board thrust into the role of patriots as they desperately attempted to save their own lives and in doing so spared the U.S. Capitol just 20 minutes away.
I had to put the book down twice — once after his recounting of their heroic insurrection, crafted in chilling detail from the animated flight plan, cockpit voice recorder transcript and the phone calls made from the doomed flight, and again when the descriptions of the grief of those left behind just overwhelmed me.
Of course, much of this has been reported, but as Mr. McMillan notes in his preface, in many pieces. New to many will be the story of Somerset County Coroner Wally Miller, a second-generation funeral home director. He supervised the painstaking scouring of the site for human remains, supported the far-flung family members, organized meetings for them five months after the crash, and spearheaded their successful drive to listen to that cockpit voice recorder.
His humanity and ongoing concern for them, ensuring that part of the memorial become a cemetery for their loved ones’ remains, is evident. Readers will understand completely why the families consider him their hero.
The story of Flight 93 hijacker pilot Ziad Jarrah, an affluent Lebanon native who lived a dual life, also stands out. The aeronautical engineering student fell in love as he moved toward extremism and martyrdom. His return trips to Germany to see his girlfriend worried plot mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Jarrah called her before he boarded the plane in Newark, N.J., although a letter he sent to her recovered by the FBI professed that she should be proud of him “because it is an honor, and you will see the result, and everybody will be very happy.”
It had bothered Mr. McMillan that when the 9/11 sites are referenced, often this one is referred to as “a field in Somerset County.” His book gives residents, officials and emergency responders the credit they deserve. It covers crash witnesses’ accounts, the assistance given to investigators and the extreme care taken with thousands of items left at the temporary memorial.
From the signs and flags posted by students at Shanksville-Stonycreek School, just three miles from the site, to residents standing along the roadway when family members first traveled there and up to their continuing volunteer efforts at the peaceful memorial site, readers will grasp their significance.
Mr. McMillan calls this book his “labor of love” — he is donating his proceeds from it to the memorial — and it is a fitting continuation of the tributes left there by thousands of visitors. While no account can be definitive for many reasons, his book will help secure Flight 93’s legacy and Somerset County’s place in U.S. history.