PITTSBURGH — In a Monroeville, Pennsylvania, basement in the 1960s, a young, comic book-obsessed Louis Nacke II would tie a blue towel around his neck like a cape and pretend he was Superman. One day, he tried a superhero-like move of flying through the window of a glass storm door, ending with an un-superhero-like result: severe cuts on his body, more than 100 stitches and an ugly scar above his left tricep.
Kindergarten-age when he got the scar, he decided three decades later — as the father of two school-age boys — to add a bit of whimsy to it in the form of a Superman tattoo.
"He had this scar. It wasn't done by a plastic surgeon, [and] it was raised half an inch thick, and everyone notices what it is," said his brother, Ken Nacke, of Dundalk, Md. "It's not that he thought he was Superman — but he thought that, 'I can put the Superman symbol above it and see the humor in it.' "
On Sept. 11, 2001, just a few years after getting the tattoo, Louis "Joey" Nacke II, of New Hope, Bucks County, died at age 42 as a real-life hero.
He and 39 other passengers and crew members on Flight 93 disrupted hijackers on board, preventing the United Airlines plane from being used to cause additional carnage by hitting its likely destination of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Twenty years later, Ken Nacke tells the Superman story — part of a quest by him and other Flight 93 family members to make sure the legacy of those on board continues on, not only among those who remember that day but also for generations to come.
"This was history book stuff," Nacke said. "There's the 40 heroes, and they need to be honored, cherished and remembered."
As Donna Gibson, president of the board of the Friends of Flight 93, thinks about it, 75 million Americans alive today weren't even born on Sept. 11, 2001. That day three commercial jets were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center towers in New York and into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. The fourth plane hijacked that day was Flight 93.
The Flight 93 memorial in Somerset County offers visitors the opportunity to listen to answering machine recordings from passengers and crew on board that fourth plane, who were trying to figure out what was going on and leaving messages for loved ones. Gibson has watched as school groups not only don't know much about Sept. 11 but also don't even understand the concept of an answering machine.
The passage of two decades is evident in other ways, too. Some of the family members who work with the Friends of Flight 93 — an organization that coordinates with the National Park Service on the National Flight 93 Memorial — are now second- and third-generation relatives of those who died on board the plane that came down near Shanksville.
Emily Schenkel, of Allentown, Pa., is one of those relatives.
Initially, her father was involved in planning the memorial on behalf of his cousin, United Flight 93 senior flight attendant Lorraine Bay. "As I got older, I thought that I need to step up," said Schenkel, who was Bay's goddaughter. "People had been doing this for a long time."
Schenkel's own children — her 13-year-old son and her 11-year-old daughter named Lorraine — of course know the story of Flight 93. But she knows many members of their generation do not.
Through her volunteer work with the memorial and giving talks at elementary schools, "I realized how much of a discrepancy there is about people's knowledge and understanding of that day," she said. "People were too young, not born or never really learned the details. Somebody could be an adult and not been born on 9/11."
As for those details, Schenkel thinks back to a hectic morning on Sept. 11.
She was preparing to fly to Indianapolis that afternoon for a work trip when a friend called to tell her to turn on the television. Immediately, she went into crisis mode: Her brother was working in New York City, had seen the second plane hit and was stuck in Manhattan trying to get home to New Jersey. Her parents were in the air on a flight home from England.
With everything else going on, "I really never thought about my Aunt Lorraine — at the time, she had been cutting back, hadn't been flying that much," she said.
Then, another relative called, hysterical. Initially, Schenkel was assuring that relative Schenkel's brother was OK. Then, "I finally understood what she was saying," she said. "I felt like it kind of came out of left field."
Bay, "just an amazing, wonderful woman," was indeed flying that day.
Always chic and put together, Bay was drawn to the glamour of the job when she started as a stewardess in the 1960s. Even after 37 years as a flight attendant, she was still perfecting her role.
Schenkel traveled frequently for work in those days, and Bay would quiz her on her experiences from the passenger perspective: "She was still curious: What were the biggest frustrations? What did you enjoy? How could she learn more? How could she make things better as a flight attendant?"
Bay, who was married but didn't have children of her own, doted on her friends and family. Going through Bay's house in East Windsor, N.J., after she died, Schenkel's family found a file box of cards for birthdays and anniversaries, already put in order with names to be sent out months in the future.
In contrast to Schenkel, Ken Nacke wasn't initially concerned about his family on Sept. 11. He had reported to his job as a police officer on the K9 unit at 6 a.m. that day, and he watched reports of a plane hitting the Twin Towers on a television in the locker room.
"You do that mental checklist," he said. "I know where my wife and kids are; I know where my mom and dad are, I know where my sister was, and I was pretty sure I knew where Joey was because he didn't really travel for work. I can count my lucky stars that everyone is OK."
Nacke was then called on to take a bomb-sniffing dog to investigate a threat to a small local airport. He turned off all radio communication — the protocol for investigating possible explosives. After about an hour, he and other officers officially cleared the small airport of the threat.
Then, just as he turned on his phone again, his wife called to tell him his brother Joey was believed to be on Flight 93, which had flown out of Newark International Airport and was headed to San Francisco.
"I had no knowledge about Flight 93, and how could that be? Joey never flies," he said. "For the first half-hour, I was in denial. As the day went on, it's kind of hard to put into words, but I kind of knew something was missing in my life."
His brother, it turned out, was on a last-minute, one-day business trip for his job as a director of a distribution center for Kay-Bee Toys.
Nacke spent the rest of the day on the road — driving to New Jersey to be with his parents, driving his parents to his brother's family in New Hope and then driving his mother to a candlelight vigil in Somerset County, getting there just in time, meeting some of the other families of those on Flight 93 and just starting to piece together the story of what those on board had done.
As some of the passengers on the flight had made phone calls home and learned about the planes flown into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, they had realized their flight was likely going to be used as a suicide mission to injure others.
They voted to try to overtake the cockpit, using the beverage cart as a battering ram. Recordings of the cockpit capture the sounds of breaking glass and screaming from the hijackers as the plane went down.
Nearly 3,000 people died in the terrorist attacks that day, including everyone on board Flight 93.
As a police officer, Nacke is in awe of the mission the passengers and flight crew of Flight 93 accomplished.
The first plane hit the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, and the second one hit at 9:03 a.m. The hijacking of Flight 93 began at 9:28 a.m., according to cockpit transmissions, and the plane crashed at 10:03 a.m.
The Friends of Flight 93 website estimates the plane crash site near Shanksville as being just 18 minutes flying time from Washington, D.C.
"They were able to get information, come up with a plan, discuss it, vote on it and then put it into play, preventing Flight 93 from hitting its intended target — and all of that, it happened in 30 minutes," he said.
"I'm a trained police officer. I've been one for 33 years, and in every operation that we've been involved in, nothing has ever went as planned. These weren't soldiers; they weren't policemen; they weren't firemen; they were everyday working people who were placed in a horrific situation."
A total of 13 passengers made 37 phone calls from Flight 93.
Nacke's family didn't receive one, but they are confident Joey Nacke, who was always larger than life, played a role in the takeover. "He was the oldest of four. Every time our parents went somewhere, Joey was left in charge," he said. "It was not hard for him to make a decision, to act."
What the passengers and crew on board accomplished over the skies of Western Pennsylvania came to life for Nacke at a ceremony at the White House in 2001 for family members, hosted by President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush.
"We were meeting the president and his wife and seeing the staff are just crying and sobbing and thanking us," he said. "'Thank you for saving my life. It would have been my life instead of his life.'"
Now structurally complete, the National Flight 93 Memorial is focused on adding programming to further commemorate the victims. The Flight 93 Heroes Award, an annual award launched this year, will honor individuals who have performed selfless acts of courage. The first recipient of the award, which includes a $5,000 prize, will be announced Friday, Sept. 10.
A partnership launched in early 2020 with the Pirates Charities and Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation helps school groups pay for transportation to the memorial for field trips.
Field trips were suspended last school year because of COVID-19, but the year before, the partnership funded 46 field trips with more than 3,450 students. In part driven by the pandemic, the memorial is developing and expanding its virtual learning programs for children unable to visit.
Schenkel visits the memorial frequently, sometimes listening to the recordings of phone calls made on board and watching others learn about the incident and mourn the victims.
As the 20th anniversary approaches, she thinks about what people should take away from the decisions made by those on that flight.
"They were put in the position of having to make a decision. The ideal would have been taking over the cockpit, but there was an understanding that this was most likely not going to happen," she said.
"They made the decision they did out of love, out of trying to protect other people, in stark contrast to the other actions of the day, which was made out of hatred. If you are going to learn from that day, learn from the sacrifices that were made from these people."