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Hallowed ground

At Flight 93 site, flora and fauna return

SHANKSVILLE — There were doubts in Lori Guadagno’s mind whether this place would ever feel right — a place of tragedy, a land scarred first from strip mining and then the crash of United Airlines Flight 93.

And the final resting place of her brother.

On her first visit to the rural Pennsylvania field, she felt the overwhelming pain of trauma. She felt the grief that had racked her since Sept. 11, 2001, when Richard Guadagno and 39 other passengers and crew members fought back against hijackers and crashed near Stonycreek Township. She felt a kind of resentment, too, with her brother’s story open for all the world to see.

“This was my Richard,” she thought at the time. “This is ridiculous.”

Ms. Guadagno, who lives in Jacksonville, Fla., has returned over the years to the Flight 93 National Memorial, which on June 23 hosted a virtual pollinator awareness event. Her feelings have changed, along with the landscape. The wildflowers bloomed, native trees took root, and the wind blew — a reminder that she is not alone. Richard’s there, too. And a sense of peace.

“It’s a living, breathing memorial,” Ms. Guadagno said. “It grows, it changes, it dies back, it rebirths. There’s so much life there now that when you go there, you don’t feel necessarily the crushing blow of sadness. Of course, that’s there, but with the nature around it, it just kind of breathes this other life and hope.”

Since opening in 2011, the National Park Service and partners have worked to restore the land to its natural beauty. There’s a wetland. Volunteers plant about 15,000 native trees and shrubs each year. A wildflower meadow sweeps down the slopes to the edge of the Memorial Plaza and Wall of Names. And in that meadow are some 500,000 bees, a population that can go unnoticed — but is critical all the same.

When Brenda Wasler walks through the Flight 93 National Memorial, she still sees what most other visitors don’t. Her eyes are drawn to the invasive plants, choking out the native foliage. She sees an opportunity for a new project here, or a way to adjust an existing one over there.

“All I see is all of the work I need to do,” said Ms. Wasler, the natural resource manager for the National Park Service in western Pennsylvania, overseeing the Flight 93 National Memorial and four other parks.

But it’s a different view from the one most visitors take in, such as Ms. Guadagno. While Ms. Wasler notices the improvements still needed, the progress that’s already been accomplished is on full display. The former strip mine and the crash site and final resting place of the 40 passengers and crew members of Flight 93 has become a living memorial, a place for both reflection and education.

And it’s become what Ms. Guadagno feels is the ideal place for her brother to be, a silver lining even in the worst of situations.

Mr. Guadagno showed his love for nature at an early age. Instead of hanging with friends or playing sports, he’d learn how to grow tomatoes, basil and zucchini from his neighbors in a New Jersey suburb. He’d sit on the porch with his grandmother, and she’d point out all the types of birds in their backyard. He’d collect tadpoles to watch them grow into frogs or observe butterflies and bugs up close.

“From day one, Richard was indoctrinated into a sense of nature, and wildlife, and ecosystems,” Ms. Guadagno said. “His passion started then, and it never, ever waned.”

Before his death, Mr. Guadagno, a biologist, rose to become manager of the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and he took that role seriously, on the lookout for anything from poachers to wildflower pickers.

So with the memorial in its planning stages, Ms. Guadagno and her father hoped for one thing in particular — a field of wildflowers.

“That would be perfect for Richard,” they’d say to each other.

What they got was so much more, with the latest addition being eight hives of bees in 2018 to serve as important pollinators for the trees and wildflowers at the site. During National Pollinator Week, the Friends of Flight 93 — the partnering organization that introduced those hives — hosted a Facebook Live event June 23 to offer an inside look at the bees and describe their value to the memorial.

Darci Sanner, the beekeeper from Summer Smiles Honey Farm in nearby Stoystown, who looks after the hives at the memorial, took apart one of those hives during the live broadcast. She pointed out the difference between drones and worker bees, located an egg on a frame and found a queen.

“Our goal is an environmental and education initiative, and to really expand the story and create some STEM programming based off the pollinators,” said S. Brooke Neel, the director of programs for Friends of Flight 93. “But ultimately, projects like the pollinators, plant a tree, it all goes back to really telling the story of the 40 passengers and crew members.”

The honeybees, while not native, are a key pollinator to have. But they’re not the only ones, with butterflies, bats, hummingbirds and other animals and insects playing a vital role in the ecosystem. One out of every three bites of food depend on pollination, Ms. Wasler said.

Still, bees often serve as the poster child of pollinators, and helping to promote bees can assist other pollinators, too.

“Everybody might not recognize some of the ground nesting insects,” Ms. Wasler said, “but honeybees are recognizable for everyone.”

In addition to introducing bees to the Flight 93 National Memorial, there’s an effort underway to plant native foliage, reclaiming the environment of the former strip mine. Before the crash, the land was in the process of reclamation, but fast-growing, non-native Scots pines were chosen.

Since then, the Park Service and partnering organizations have worked to replace the pines, doing so without pesticides — which can harm pollinators. It doesn’t happen overnight. Volunteers have met to plant 150,000 trees and bushes over a 10-year span, and the group is in the ninth year of the project.

“When you come to Flight 93, it’s very peaceful, you kind of have a lot of reflection,” Ms. Neel said. “Everything we do — wildflowers, tree planting, pollinators now — helps to basically cultivate those ecosystems and natural habitats. And it does, it beautifies the memorial.”

And it’s reflective of the work Mr. Guadagno did in life.

“This would be his comfort zone,” Ms. Guadagno said.

She sometimes thinks about if things had been different. But if it had to be this way — if she had to lose her brother — she’s grateful it was here, in a rural Pennsylvania field.

She finds peace in the knowledge that deer walk by the 17-ton sandstone boulder that marks the site where the plane made impact, her brother’s final resting place. She loves the flowers and trees. And the wind.

“Of all the places his life would come to an end,” Ms. Guadagno said, “I think that there would be a strange smile on his face, that this was OK.”

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