Tower of Lights

The Towers of Light tribute shines behind the Tower of Voices at the Flight 93 national memorial in Shanksville, PA., Thursday, Sept.10, 2020. The display is provided by the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, and honors lives lost on United Airlines Flight 93 and at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., this year.

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. – As the sun set behind a blanket of trees behind them, Patrick White and dozens of fellow Flight 93 family members circled around the Tower of Voices to celebrate the completion of the musical monument – and the $45 million national memorial itself.

Then, they watched in awe as 40 individual lights formed a beam that shot into the sky from the hillside a few hundred yards away.

“I think my cousin, Joey, and all of the other passengers would be proud right now,” said White. “Just like them, we all worked together to complete a project that once seemed almost impossible.”

The group of family members and close friends of the 40 “heroes” who lost their lives during the Sept. 11, 2001, crash, were joined by the National Park Service and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to mark the moment by dedicating 40 individual musical chimes in the tower that were installed over the past week – two years after the 93-foot-tall tower’s debut.

They also stood alongside members of a New York nonprofit to start a new tradition that carried the same unifying spirit – joining groups at the Pentagon and World Trade Center to simultaneously light the sky with towering beams of light.

“Just look at that,” National Park Service Superintendent Stephen Clark said, gesturing over to the beam of light as it pierced through a dark cloud at twilight.

For him and Families of Flight 93 President Gordon Felt, there was symbolism there, too.

It serves as a reminder of a difficult September day, he said. But also a moment “the American spirit shone brightly – unified in purpose” to overcome attacks against its homeland and economic might.

“By linking these three sites here, in New York City and the Pentagon, it’s an opportunity to bring our country together in unity,” Clark said.

Tunnel to Towers, a foundation formed to honor fallen 9/11 firefighters in memory of New York Firefighter Stephen Sillers, spearheaded the effort to bring the lights to the memorial site and Pentagon in Virginia.

Capable of climbing 20,000 feet into the atmosphere, they were visible across Somerset County and beyond, the Johnstown area included.

The nonprofit’s CEO, Frank Sillers, credited “divine intervention” for the moment.

The group mobilized earlier this year when they became concerned the World Trade Center’s display wouldn’t continue this year. But once the National September 11 Memorial decided to press on with their twin towers of light, they reached out to officials about giving them a new home.

“It was only right and fitting,” Sillers said, “that they should be here with you ... to join in this unifying moment.”

And join in a shared commitment to “never forget,” he added.

Clark credited collective resolve – and a bit of persistence – for bringing Thursday’s events into being.

Plans for the chimes dedication were only announced hours prior to the event – and less than a week after the difficult, long-delayed $4 million Tower of Voices project wrapped up.

But it met a deadlin Bernhardt indicated needed to be reached to honor the men and women who gave their lives that day.

The chimes debuted on the eve of the 19th anniversary of 9/11.

Mother Nature, it seemed, was on a different schedule.

Architect Paul Murdoch designed the tower and chimes to rely on wind speeds of just 8 mph to deliver their unique harmonies.

Given that the memorial is built 2,500 feet above sea level on a ridge carved away for a onetime strip mine, gusts are a near constant.

But during Thursday’s dedication, the air was still and the chimes were silent.

That won’t last long, Clark noted, saying the 5- to 10-foot-long aluminum tubes will likely be ringing in harmony soon.

“These chimes are unlike any other in the world,” he said, quoting a statement from Murdoch.

Due to COVID-19, Thursday’s event was private but was live-streamed through the Park Service’s website through EarthCam’s network of high-definition cameras.

Clark credited many people unable to attend also deserved credit for the park’s completion, including fellow Flight 93 family members watching from home, the National Park Service Foundation and grassroots Ambassadors of Flight 93, among them.

Murdoch was also unable to attend.

Like the 40 passengers, Clark said, “it has taken the collective effort of many different people to realize this memorial.”

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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