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20 years after Flight 93 crashed on his family’s land, WITF’s Tim Lambert shares journey

On an overcast morning in August, Tim Lambert missed his exit off Route 30 near Shanksville.

It’s an exit he’s made hundreds, if not thousands, of times before, nondescript as it is. Lambert’s family owned the patch of land he was driving toward for nearly eight decades, back from when it was mostly known as a strip mining area. For the first half of his life, Lambert admits, he didn’t think much about the land at all.

That was until the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when he got a phone call that would change not only his own life’s trajectory, but this country’s.

It was his dad, Tom, calling to say that he recognized the trees in the background of a local newscast about a plane careening into the ground, hours after three other planes struck the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington. He recognized it as their land.

WITF news director Tim Lambert covered the aftermath of United Flight 93 after the plane crashed in western Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. The terrorists who hijacked the plane had crashed it on part of his family's property in Somerset County, giving him a different perspective -- and unique access -- into the historic event.

Lambert, a longtime host of WITF’s Morning Edition and the station’s news director since 2011, arrived at the Flight 93 National Memorial on that overcast August morning to do what he’s done dozens of times over the last two decades – serve as a conduit for a story much larger than himself.

“I was just thinking about so much” that he missed the exit, Lambert says, describing his thoughts driving to the memorial. “Some of the time, when I would come up to interview someone, I would listen to old stories to get in that frame of mind. And now, I've been so immersed in it with everything that we've been doing since May, I definitely feel it driving up here. It sneaks up on you from time to time.”

Lambert is referring to a monthslong project in partnership with NPR’s White House correspondent and former WITF staff member Scott Detrow, in which they reflect on the 20th anniversary of Flight 93 in conversation with family members and those with firsthand knowledge of the event. The piece, titled “Sacred Ground,” premiered on NPR and its affiliates this past Friday.

In a letter announcing his temporary departure to the WITF audience in June, Lambert noted he hoped this project would serve as a “final chapter” to time walking the tightrope as both a journalist and source, a storyteller and story subject.

“I've had to pull back over the years,” Lambert explains. “I was so involved that, for WITF, as a journalist, it was like, ‘I can't report on this anymore.’ So, I would only do special projects, like spending time with some families on the fifth anniversary. I can't claim to be unbiased.”

‘We all lived through this’

On this August morning, the sky above the Flight 93 Memorial is intensely gray, but not rainy, as if even the clouds know enough to show reverence here. There are families, a motorcycle crew and at least one buzzing group of Boy Scouts milling about the visitor center. It starts with only a few, but over the course of a few hours, it balloons to at least 100 onlookers, if not more. They’re here to see the place where an airplane carrying 40 passengers and four terrorists hit the ground at 563 miles per hour, killing everyone onboard.

Some come to take pictures in front of the Wall of Names or the lookout where, several football field-lengths away, a large boulder represents the plane’s zone of impact. You can go to the visitor’s center to buy an official Flight 93 walking stick, or listen to the voicemails from the panicked passengers who seemed to already know their fates.

In some ways, the memorial brings to mind the numerous Civil War memorials in Gettysburg. There is ample space to sit, stand and stare out, perhaps casting yourself as one of those who died, wondering how it would be different, if at all. Much like Gettysburg, as a stranger in a different time, there’s no real peace of mind to leave with – these people still died, and there’s no changing that. However, adding up all the little details will leave one with as close to a complete picture as is humanly possible.

Forty people, all of different creeds and backgrounds, uniting together in the face of certain death, changing the course of history, all in under 45 minutes.

Lambert leans against the wall that leads to the lookout, taking in the throngs of tourists. He delivers answers and statements in the clear, concise way that you would hope a radio host would.

“There's a tape from '06, I'm talking with a (Flight 93) family member and saying 'You know, 20 years from now, we're going to be talking about something else, it's going to be about the grandkids.' One of the family members said, 'Well, I hope I'm not talking about this in 20 years.' It's hard to wrap your mind around. A family member put it this way — when you look back on something that didn't impact you, it happened to them, and this is like it happened to us. We all lived through this,” Lambert says.

Lambert’s role at WITF began almost exactly three weeks before 9/11, and with each major anniversary since, he’s been tasked with covering it in some fashion. His 2006 report on the fifth anniversary garnered him one of his eventual six national Edward R. Murrow awards in broadcasting.

He tells the story of a December 2001 meeting in a Shanksville high school, where he as the then-landowner, along with family members and members of the community, would first try to decide what would become of the site. A family member of Sandy Bradshaw, immortalized in a voicemail to her family describing her and the other passengers boiling water as a weapon to fight the terrorists, approached him outside of the meeting.

“She said, ‘So you’re a journalist, huh?’” Lambert explained. “And I said yes, and she said, ‘Tell their story.’ And well, that is a heavy responsibility.”

“It's a weird privilege,” Lambert says. “The only images of Flight 93 are of the smoking crater and guys milling around. Nobody knew what was beyond that temporary security fence, that temporary memorial, so having that privilege to chronicle it as a journalist was something I never took lightly.”

Still tied to the land and families

Lambert hasn’t owned any of the land since selling off his acreage as part of an effort to dedicate the memorial in time for its 10th anniversary in 2011, which came after an uproar over the government attempting to seize the land by eminent domain in 2009. Nevertheless, he remains intrinsically tied to both the land and its primary beneficiaries — namely the family and friends of Flight 93.

“I think they did a really nice job of building it out enough," Lambert says of the memorial space. “There's 2,000 acres, it sort of forms this bubble around the place to prevent encroachment. They've done a good job of keeping it solemn and focusing on the 40 heroes and telling the story of what they did.”

It’s the telling of the story that has Lambert worried these days. While he chuckles remembering his high school textbooks only offering a scant page or two about the Vietnam War, he gets serious when considering a similar fate for the story of Flight 93.

“I think it's the big challenge right now,” Lambert says. “I think it's a concern for the family members, because they're aging out and it's up to the next generation of family members. A perfect example — when (Donald) Rumsfeld died, the New York Times' obit for him said that the plans for him to overhaul the Pentagon were interrupted with the Sept. 11th attacks on Washington and New York and in parentheses, it said a fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. In parentheses! It was literally like the attacks on New York and Washington, and then this thing in the field in Pennsylvania, that's how it's described all the time.”

Much like his “final” piece on Flight 93 shows, Lambert knows he is just one tiny part of a complex patchwork that involves everyone from first responders and government officials to community members of Shanksville, who had no idea that a few rapid flight decisions would immortalize their sleepy town.

Most importantly, it’s the 40 people who departed from the Newark International Airport that day, and by 10:03 a.m., had landed in this country’s history books.

“The challenge of telling this story so it's not a footnote in the overall fabric of 9/11, it's to educate people and continue to tell their story — they changed history with what they did, and they saved the country further despair,” Lambert says. “I think the challenge is telling the story.”

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