COMMENTARY: Imagine being on an airplane that had been hijacked by terrorists. You know that you are going to die and you get to make one phone call. Who do you call? What do you say? An impossible decision. For the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, decision became reality.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Members of the Green Local Schools' Bulldog Beat journalism program, along with members of the Green ROTC program, visited the Flight 93 Memorial on Sept. 11, the 15th anniversary of the terror attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa. During this ongoing series, students in the Bulldog Beat program have been sharing what the visit meant to them. This week, it's eight-grade reporter Ella Hemphill.

Sept. 11, 2001, is a day that all Americans over 18 years of age remember. It was a day of praying, crying, fearing, and losing.

Imagine being on an airplane that had been hijacked by terrorists. You know that you are going to die and you get to make one phone call. Who do you call? What do you say? An impossible decision. For the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, decision became reality.

Reality was 40 passengers and crew members. Reality was four hijackers. Reality was forever etched in time; 35 minutes to be exact from the time that the plane was hijacked and the time it crashed into a field in rural Shanksville, Pa. Thirty-five minutes to make calls to loved ones. Thirty-five minutes to plan out an attack to gain control over the aircraft.

Reality became phone calls. The calls made from aboard Flight 93 ranged from husbands and wives to 911 operators. Reality had sunk in. Flight 93 was to be used as ammunition against a bigger target in the nation’s capital; perhaps the White House or the U.S. Capitol. The passengers and crew decided that they had to storm the cockpit and take control of the plane. They knew that they would likely die, but if they didn’t do it, who knows what would happen? Thousands more innocent lives could be taken if they didn’t. With a food cart loaded with pots of boiling water, they broke into the cockpit and the hijackers drove the Boeing 757 an estimated fifteen feet into the ground.

First responders arrived at the scene in less than four minutes, not knowing what to expect. Witnesses who reported a plane crash. Emergency officials were not sure what to expect. Reality was a thirty-foot-wide crater. Reality was identifying only pieces of the aircraft. Reality was a gaping hole. A gaping hole meant no survivors. The aircraft had exploded on impact; human remains were found within 70 acres of the crater. A million fragments combined from 40 bodies. Nobody was going to be found alive. Debris from the plane was scattered over an eight-mile radius. Evidence Recovery teams began the tedious work of combing through the twisted metal and singed fabrics. Somerset County Coroner Wally Miller took samples of anything with identifiable, passenger DNA. 

By December 2001, although not all remains were accounted for, all of the passengers, crew, and hijackers were identified as deceased. Remaining body fragments could not be moved to a proper grave; thus the crater was covered with dirt. The victims of Flight met their final resting place.

The act of terrorism played a huge role in the emotions of the first responders. Innocent passengers were killed because someone didn’t agree with America. Fifteen years since the attacks, some responders and volunteers still have nightmares and flashbacks. For some, the flashbacks are permanent.

The WTC (World Trade Center) Health Program was created for officials, volunteers, and survivors from 9/11. The WTC assists with annual exams, treatments, and free prescriptions for physical or mental conditions resulting from trauma witnessed on 9/11. The only requirement to apply – having worked for four or more hours at a 9/11 site and suffer from lasting effects.

Those of us who were born after Sept. 11, 2001, can’t fully understand the emotions of that day. I came close to it when I had the opportunity to go to the Flight 93 Memorial for the 15th anniversary of 9/11. Up until then, I knew that it was a very somber day of reflection, but what I didn’t know how many things have changed since that day.

A quote painted on a balcony overlooking the crash site says, "A common field one day. A field of honor forever." The field in Shanksville, Pa., was an old strip mine. Today, it is a memorial to forty people who gave their lives. 

Prior to 9/11, airplane cockpits were open to the flight attendants and anyone who managed to slip past them. Today, no one is allowed in the cockpit and a code is needed to unlock the door. Airplane security in general has changed.

First responders who rushed to the scene now have haunting memories that will never cease. The 40 passengers and crew on Flight 93 were just people when they boarded that morning. By the end of the day, they were changed to heroes. The reality is, the United States has changed. Sept. 11, 2001, is the day that changed America forever.