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‘Complete Strangers’: Reflecting On The Sept. 11 Attacks, 20 Years Later

flight 93 memorial 9-11 september 11 sept 2001 terrorist attack (9).JPG
Laura Tsutsui
90.5 WESA

On today’s program: We look back on the effect of the Sept. 11 attacks, 20 years ago, speaking to former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy; a pilot whose orders were to bring Flight 93 down; residents who experienced racism and prejudice in the wake of the attacks; the architect who designed the memorial to the victims of Flight 93; and the superintendent stewarding the Flight 93 National Memorial.

The flight path went over Pittsburgh
(0:00 - 9:51)

Former mayor Tom Murphy remembers how the city scrambled to evacuate buildings Downtown because of concerns that a hijacked plane traveling over the city could crash before reaching its intended target.

Murphy sat on the phone with air traffic control, simply waiting.

“The FAA calls us and said there’s a plane going towards Cleveland, and it’s coming around Cleveland, and, in effect, they said ‘it’s about 20 minutes outside of Pittsburgh coming towards us. Good luck.’”

A pilot sent to take down the plane
(9:51 - 16:17)

“We were tasked to find and take down Flight 93 by any means possible,” says Heather Penney, who was an Air Force First Lieutenant and fighter pilot at the time. She is now retired from the Air Force.

“But we didn’t have any missiles on our jets, and so it would be a suicide mission.”

There was no need for First Lieutenant Heather Penney or any of her squadron to take down Flight 93. It crashed in Somerset County at 10:03 a.m.

The long-term effects of hate following 9/11
(16-17 - 28:19)

After the September 11 attacks, the country saw a spike in hate crimes against people who identify as Middle Eastern.

For Middle Eastern and residents of Pittsburgh who practice Islam, this meant potential harassment, assault and uncomfortable encounters in their everyday lives.

Safdar Khwaja, president of the board of Council on American Islamic Relations Pittsburgh, was 47 years old.

“It felt like the hijacking of a large part of humanity, that somehow these people crawled out of a cave and claimed to represent an entire faith and commit crimes completely antithetical to that very faith and every other faith,” says Khwaja.

Alaa Mohamed, policy coordinator in the Office of Equity for the city of Pittsburgh, was 6 years old at the time. Mohamed says she remembers her mother stopped wearing a hijab at the time.

“I am a person who has experienced nothing more than microaggressions as a result of these horrific actions in 2001, and I would consider myself lucky,” says Mohamed. “I know people who have been on the receiving end of a lot worse.”

Designing the memorial
(28:19 - 36:43)

Shortly after the plane crashed, nearby residents began providing the first responders with food and water. People began placing flowers and wreaths as close to the site as possible in a makeshift memorial.

In September 2002, Congress approved legislation “to authorize a national memorial to commemorate the passengers and crew of Flight 93 who, on September 11, 2001, courageously gave their lives thereby thwarting a planned attack on our nation's Capital.”

Following a lengthy search, architect Paul Murdoch was chosen to design the Flight 93 National Memorial, converting what was once a field in Stonycreek Township into a tribute to the victims.

The Memorial includes a beautiful visitors center where there are images and audio recordings; the white marble wall of names built along the flight path; and of course the most recent addition, the 93-foot-tall Tower of Voices.

“We wanted to be heroic in recognition of [the heroic actions of victims],” says Murdoch of his designs. “We also recognize the tragedy of this event and so there’s a certain somber tone that’s part of this memorial.”

What stands now
(36:43 - 5:30)

The Flight 93 National Memorial is overseen by Stephen Clark, the superintendent of the five national park units in Western Pennsylvania.

As families and visitors make their way through the parks this weekend, Clark hopes this memorial evokes awe at the passengers who came together and kept Flight 93 from reaching Washington D.C.

The most recent addition to the memorial is the Tower of Voices, which uses wind chimes to evoke the voices of the passengers.

“This airplane was but 18 minutes flying time from Washington D.C., its likely target the Capitol building of which roughly 4,000 employees were there, not to mention members of Congress as well as the countless thousands of visitors in and around the Capitol building,” he said. “So their voices [are] really such a focal point.”

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago.
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at
Rebecca Reese is a production assistant for The Confluence.
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