The Tower of Voices, a roughly 93-foot-tall concrete and steel structure, contains a wind chime for each of the 40 passengers and crew members who were killed on Sept. 11, 2001, and represents the final phase of the Flight 93 National Memorial. Each chime will generate its own distinctive sound.
At the end of April in 2006 a couple of friends asked me to go with them to see “United 93,” but I declined both offers saying I wasn’t sure that I needed any reminders other than what I saw in New York on that day. In the end, though, I went to it as I went to the funerals, alone.
When people who were in New York on that day talk about it, it always seems to be focused on the day itself. Nobody talks much about the days and the weeks and the months that came after that day in New York City.
In a way, that’s understandable because what happened for days and weeks and months after was pretty much a slowly diminishing repeat of that day. Things got better, got back to the new “normal.” The wax from the candled shrines was scraped away, and in time — quite a long time actually — even the walls and fences full of fading flyers asking if you had seen one or the other of those we came to call “the missing” were gone.
Most of these ghastly portrait galleries were simply washed away by the snows and rains that followed that autumn day. Some were covered in long sheets of clear plastic duct-taped and sealed.
It was as if somehow preserving them for a long as possible would in some way preserve the hope that those in the towers who had been turned to ash and dust were, somewhere, somehow, still merely missing. Some were even laminated and replaced more than once on a chain-link fence that ringed Ground Zero forming a patchwork of Kinkos-copied faces framed by wire and the hole in the sky.
Inside the wire under the hole in the sky was, in time, a growing hole in the ground as the rubble was cleared away and, after many months, the last fire was put out. Often at first, but with slowly diminishing frequency, all the work to clear out the rubble and the wreckage would come to a halt.
The machinery would be shut down and it would become quiet. Across the site, tools would be laid down and the workers would straighten up and stand still. Then, from somewhere in the pile or the pit, a group of men would emerge carrying a stretcher covered with an American flag and holding, if they were fortunate, a body. If they were not so fortunate the flag covering over the stretcher would be lumpy, holding only portions of a body from which, across the river on the Jersey shore, a forensic lab would try to make an identification and then pass on to the victim’s survivors something that they could bury.
I’m not sure anymore about the final count, but I am pretty sure that most families, in the end, got nothing. Their loved ones had all gone into the smoke and the dust that covered the end of the island and blew, mostly, across the river into Brooklyn where I lived. What happened to most of the three thousand killed by the animals on that day? It is simple and ghastly. We breathed them until the rains came and washed clean what would never be clean again.
The best among us all had our rituals for getting through those days and, to tell the truth, for a long time in New York, the best of us were the most of us. In time, as you can see today, that faded out of a lot of New Yorkers’ souls, and left them even emptier and more cynical than before as they turned back to petty politics and bad art. A lot of the output of these damaged souls can be seen in the media products that the city produces to fainter and fainter acclaim. But we were, for a bit, somewhat united by the evil that had been visited on us. That and the need to bear witness to our dead.
My own ritual for living in the aftermath was, for some time, to bear witness to the heroism of the firemen and the policemen by attending their funerals and honoring them. In the beginning I vowed I would go to every single one, but in the end I simply couldn’t take it. I managed to go to about a dozen before I faltered. I just wasn’t, it turned out, that strong.
Far away on that day, far from the pillar of flame and plume of ash at the foot of the island, there was another fire in a field in Pennsylvania. Those nearby felt the shudder in the earth and saw the smoke, but it would be some days before we understood what it was, and longer still until we began to know what it meant.
The film I saw by myself tonight expands that meaning and brings a human face to the acts by the passengers of United 93 that endure only in that rare atmosphere that heroes inhabit. What I know in my heart, but what always escapes my understanding until something like this film renews it, is that heroism is a virtue that most often appears among us not descending from some mythic pantheon, but rising up out of the ordinary earth and ordinary hearts when the moment calls for actions extraordinary.
I saw this ordinary courage in New York on that day as I learned of the police and the firemen who had gone up the stairs to save others’ lives. That they, in their hundreds, had gone up when all others were fleeing down is an image that can never be erased from my memory. Time fades all impressions as surely as it faded the faces of the missing on the walls of my city, but let’s, just for now, remember it it once again, for it we fail to remember and sustain the memories of our heroes, we are surely done as a nation and a people.
There are two gigantic buildings soaring into the sky above you. They are both consumed by flames and thick putrid smoke on the upper floors. The burning is so high up that those trapped above choose to leap to their deaths rather than suffer what it coming at them in the rooms behind them. Untold thousands are struggling to escape from these twin funeral pyres.
As you arrive in your heavy and hot survival gear you know that putting the fires out is a near impossibility. All your training tells you that. But putting them out is never really your goal. Your goal is to go into the building, climb up, and save as many as you can that are surely trapped unknown floors high above you.
The situation is unprecedented. Rubble litters the streets and, after awhile, you hear the sharp crashes as the jumpers above shatter on the ground on all sides of the buildings. Your communication gear is all but useless and the tactical situation is confused. But you know, from long experience and training, that if thousands are getting out the various exit stairways, there may well be hundreds trapped somewhere high above that you can still save. The situation is extraordinary, but you are a fireman or a policeman, and your duty is known and, to you, quite ordinary. It is, as you always like to say, just your job.
And so, without a lot of hesitation, while hundreds around you are running down and out of the building, you walk into the building. And then, with perhaps a prayer, you walk up into the smoke and the flames determined to save as many as you can or die trying.
And on that day you do die. You die in the hundreds. Every one of you an ordinary hero on an extraordinary day. Every one moving, until the last moment, up the stairs.
To this day, those men who went up those stairs exist in my mind as starlight, beyond my capacity to comprehend — only to honor. But I went to a few of their funerals and so I know, if only slightly, the human face and the life and the families of about a dozen.
Far above and away to the west on that day, there was as we knew, and now as we have seen, another group of American men and women who, when they found out what was happening and what was to be their likely fate, also took that fate in their own hands and came on, fighting to thwart or reverse that fate, until the last moment of their lives. Ordinary people in an extraordinary situation finding the ordinary courage to resist and to fight against the evil that appeared among them.
That’s the theme and the pace and the action of “United 93:” How ordinary people, at first strangers to each other, found the courage to act together in the face of certain death.
Despite the whines and the cavils of the weak and the vile and the corrupt among us, “United 93” has no “message.”
Despite the rising and continuing attempts to cheapen the film from the spiritually and politically bankrupt that batten off America, “United 93” has no politics.
You don’t “review” this film if you have an ounce of soul left to you. You watch it.
“United 93,” from the first frame to the last, simply and clearly lets you see what happened high in the air on that day. It is, as the phrase on the poster says, “The plane that did not reach its target.” Instead, it reached something unintended and much higher. It became and will remain a legend; an integral part of the tapestry of the American myth from which we all draw what strength remains to us, and, in the future, will surely need to draw upon even more deeply. Like the best of our legends, it arises out of our ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
“United 93” lets you see, without footnotes or the faintest tinge of an agenda of any sort, how ordinary people in one of the most banal yet dangerous modern settings, refused at the last to be cowed or frightened and, knowing full well that all was probably up for them, still fought to save their lives or, in the end, thwart the designs that evil had brought on board.
For when I think, not about the film “United 93” — that remains a pattern of light and dark in the caves where we come together to share our dreams and myths and more paltry entertainments — but about the actual flight on that actual day high in the air to the west of the city, I can understand why the passengers, knowing what they knew, would become united in an effort to save themselves.
But I also think that, in the end, saving themselves was not so much on their minds. I think that, at that time and in that place, they understood that those chances were slim indeed. Instead, I like to think that the men and women of United 93 had their souls set upon, in those last moments, the refusal to die as passive victims with seatbelts fastened as the monsters in the cockpit pushed their evil mission to its appointed end.
In a film of brief but telling moments, there’s one moment towards the end where you see one man reach down and remove his seatbelt. In that moment you can sense that he goes from being a passive victim to a man who has decided to stand up and engage the evil that has taken control of his life; to take the controls back from thugs and the cut-throats and the mumbling fanatics of a wretched and burnt-out god.
That man, like the firemen who went up the stairs, and his fellow passengers who attacked up the aisle in those last moments, became, in the end, one of the Americans who decided on that day and the days that followed, to stand up. Soon after, that man and all the others on United 93 went into the smoke of that fire in the field.
“United 93” is a simply told, near-documentary look at how that fire in the field came to be. As I said above, the film has no message, but if you — as I finally did — choose to go, it will pose you a question: What would you do, an ordinary person in an extraordinary moment when life and death, good and evil, were as clear as the skies over America on September 11? Will you, as so many of our fellow citizens yearn to do these days, stay seated? Or will you stand up?
On one of our days to come, there will be another test. You’d best have an answer prepared.