SHANKSVILLE, Pa. >> Just another Thursday, and the morning mix includes leather-vested bikers from New Jersey, Amish visitors from Pennsylvania and a few children adjusting to a park not intended for play. They settle onto benches for the 11 o’clock retelling.
A ranger in the green and gray of the U.S. National Park Service tucks his peanut-butter-and-jelly lunch on a shelf and walks out to face his audience. A field of wildflowers undulates behind him; the pewter-bellied clouds seem nearly within reach. He begins:
“Remember how bad the weather was that morning?”
Hesitant nods turn quickly to head shakes. No. On that particular September morning, you could see forever.
This is just the ranger’s way of buckling you in. Helping some to remember what we know. Helping others, especially those who were not yet born, to envision a beautiful, calamitous day now nearly 15 years in the past.
His name is Robert Franz, he is 61, and his title is “interpretive park ranger,” which means that his job is to tell the story of what happened in that color-dappled field behind him, again and again and again.
This is the Flight 93 National Memorial, by far the most removed of the three 9/11 crash sites. A visit requires a roller-coaster journey through the arresting Allegheny Mountains, up and down and up and down, past a Confederate flag here, a Trump sign there, to a 2,200-acre field set aside for reflection.
“Mayday! Mayday! Get out of here!” the ranger says, echoing the alarm that was heard by air traffic controllers. The words chill the late-summer air, as children fidget and bees buzz around.
He continues the story of United Airlines Flight 93, bound for San Francisco from Newark, New Jersey. How four hijackers redirect the jet southeast, most likely to crash into the nation’s capital. How many of the 40 crew members and passengers fought back. How this hurtling jetliner nearly flipped before crashing at 563 mph into the soft, strip-mined earth, killing all.
“The crew and passengers put democracy in action,” Franz says. “They take a vote” — to storm the cockpit and regain control of the plane.
We connect to that day in our own way, and the storyteller in the broad-brimmed ranger’s hat is no different. He was born into the military, his father a U.S. Army lifer who served in World War II’s European theater, his mother a daughter of the French underground. They were married at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, and went on a short honeymoon in an Army jeep.
Their son Robert spent the better part of two decades flying Army Hueys and Black Hawks and training other soldiers how to fly helicopters. He left the service in early 2001, and was at home on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, that Tuesday, watching the news. He thought of those he had trained, and felt guilt for not being among them for the deployments sure to come.
Franz focused on a real estate career, volunteered with the local veterans’ committee and worked briefly as a police officer. Then, in late 2011, he spotted a listing on a government website for a seasonal job as an interpretive park ranger at the Flight 93 Memorial. He quickly applied, he recalls, sensing a chance to “complete the circle.”
Soon he was driving about 600 miles west to Shanksville every April, and staying until October. He proved to be such a powerful storyteller, his presentation informed by his knowledge of aeronautics, that he was recently offered permanent employment, which he accepted.
“He told this story unlike anyone I had heard,” said Stephen Clark, the superintendent for the national parks in western Pennsylvania. “And, of course, being a veteran makes it all the more special.”
Sometimes Franz stands at the memorial plaza, answering questions about the time of the crash and the location of the bathrooms. He commiserates as people recount their own connections to the day, and keeps his counsel as conspiracy theorists question whether such a crash even occurred. “If somebody’s made up their mind, there’s nothing I can do,” he says.
Sometimes he distributes Flight 93 Junior Ranger handbooks, explaining to young visitors what activities they need to complete before receiving a Junior Ranger badge. The 22-page booklet is a thoughtful study in trying to find the right words: “Early in the flight, their plane was hijacked by four men. To hijack a plane means to take control over it. These hijackers were angry at the United States of America …”
But there are words, and then there are words. When children ask about the recovery of bodies, Franz redirects, ever so slightly. Since there were only remains, no bodies, he explains that a spot out there, beyond the wildflowers, is now “a final resting place.”
And sometimes, Franz is standing before another 11 o’clock crowd, as he is now, telling an American epic in less than a half-hour, all the while reminding himself not to get emotional again when he comes to a certain point.
The more familiar narrative of Flight 93 focuses on those Franz calls the “big guys” — Todd Beamer, for example, the young software salesman who helped organize the passenger revolt and whose last recorded words of “Let’s roll!” became a national rallying cry. But the park ranger makes the gentle point that the revolt was “a group effort.”
“Let me tell you about Sandy Bradshaw,” he says, recalling the 38-year-old flight attendant who, in a furtive call to her husband, explained how she was boiling water to hurl at the hijackers.
“Let me tell you about Honor Elizabeth Wainio,” he says, recalling the up-and-coming business executive known as Lizz who, in a moment of supreme compassion, called to comfort her stepmother about what was to happen, and who was part of the revolt. She was 27.
“No, it’s not looking good,” Franz says. “But they weren’t going to give up.”
The park ranger, the father of two adult daughters, looks down and takes a long, unscripted pause. As he struggles to regain his composure, the wildflower setting becomes church-quiet, the bikers and the Amish now silent congregants in outdoor pews.
Soon these people will wander off, some over to the bone-white memorial wall, some up to the new visitors center, where Flight 93 shirts and mugs are sold, and an interactive display includes recordings from the fatal flight.
Soon, a Korean War veteran will tell Franz that he thinks the federal government “overdid it” with this park, and a 9-year-old boy in a tank top and a Penn State ball cap will ask for a Junior Ranger handbook so that he can learn about this place and earn his plastic badge.
But right now, Franz is taking a brief private moment in public that seems to him like an hour. Sandy Bradshaw. Lizz Wainio. Democracy in action …
His emotions in check, Franz acknowledges his awkward pause and returns seamlessly to his story. How the airplane flew right over Route 30, “the road you came in on.” How this elevated ground is a place to reflect on the tragic loss of life, yes, but how it is also a place to honor the courage of the passengers and crew of Flight 93. And that, he says, “is a good story.”
“Thank you,” the ranger says. “Have a great day.”