By Kari Hulac
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 ignited in ex-Marine Michael L. Emerson a patriotic fire that's been a force to be reckoned with ever since.
When the Hayward resident realized how many ties the San Francisco-bound United Flight 93 victims had to the Bay Area, he took it to heart.
Fittingly for a guy who graduated from high school at 16 and trained as an infantryman in the Marines at 19, he got right to work. He jumped online to find names, phone numbers and addresses of the victims' family members and sent out condolences that very same day. (Here you can find mini bios of the Flight 93 victims.)
Ten years later, Emerson, now 48, hasn't stopped. After getting a memorial in Union City built for the 40 passengers and crew members killed when the hijacked plane plummeted into a field, he's spent the last four years raising money for the 2,200-acre memorial at the crash site in Shanksville, Penn.
Who is Michael Emerson?
Emerson is the oldest of eight children, born to immigrant parents from France and Germany who split when he was only 8.
He did not have a happy school experience growing up in Maryland outside of Washington, D.C.
"I was bullied in school. I wanted to get out," he said, explaining his decision to graduate at age 16.
He also wanted to be available to help his mother, who was struggling to make ends meet. He even drove her to the hospital when she was ready to give birth to his only female sibling. He had just gotten his driver's license.
The military offered him a chance to follow in the footsteps of family members who served, and he picked the Marines because it promised to give him the best possible training.
After too many accomplishments to list here (read his bio for more), most notably serving in Desert Storm, he was retired in 1992 with eight medals and five service ribbons.
He spent the '90s focusing on careers in real estate and business (he ran his own company); raising a family (he has two sons); and furthering his education (he has degrees from Cal State East Bay and U.C. Berkeley).
"I served my country. I'm a Desert Storm veteran," he said. "I was going to school, I got married, I had my business. I was really geared more into business and family and education. I did real well in the '90s, then 2001 happened. Sept. 11, 2001 re-awakened in me a patriotic spark. I wanted to give back."
He recalls seeing the TV spot about how 9/11 changed America, showing a neighborhood before Sept. 11 and after. The only difference? Afterward each house was flying an American flag.
He's had a flag displayed at his house ever since. He wears a Flight 93 remembrance bracelet day and night. He has a 10-inch-thick scrapbook depicting the victims' lives.
"It re-awakened how important the country is to me," Emerson said. "I've been all over the world, and there's nothing like the United States — the people, the attitude, how beautiful our country is. We have the most amazing country ever...We are so lucky to live here."
What Michael Emerson Did
After Emerson sent out his condolences to Sept. 11 families, he heard back from some of them and established some connections.
That was initially the end of it — until he visited Ground Zero the next year, on July Fourth, to show his solidarity.
He was struck by the lack of conversation at the time about Flight 93, in terms of where any memorials to honor them might be built.
"No one was talking about it," he said.
He decided to ask victims' family members if they thought a memorial in the Bay Area would be a good idea and, with their blessings, he moved forward, reaching out to cities near his home in the East Bay.
Union City became the choice after Hayward turned him down, and he picked an under-used park near a shopping area close to Interstate 880 and accessible on foot.
It wasn't easy. One weekend he sent faxes to 500 companies nationwide to find one willing to donate the materials for the 40 monuments he envisioned for the park.
He made many friends along the way and a few enemies. He has a strong personality, and he readily admits that he parted ways with some of his former partners on the project.
"The reason I kept going? "I didn't want to let down the heroes. I didn't want to let down the families," he said.
Judging from the finished project, he didn't. The 40 red granite monuments — one for each passenger and crew member — curve along a path leading to two circles: one with a flag pole and a hope theme; the other for remembering. That one is his favorite, he says.
The tree planted there is nourished by 20 pounds of dirt from the crash site — a remote field where Flight 93 slammed into the ground at an estimated 500 mph.
"I poured dirt through my hands onto the roots," Emerson said. "The soul of the actual crash site is in this tree."
He said the memorial's dedication on Dec. 8, 2007 is one of the proudest days of his life — after the births of his children, to whom he's already passed his devotion.
Now divorced, he spends Sundays with his two boys, Tyler, 8, and Nick, 12. It's become their tradition to visit the memorial, picking up trash and making sure all is well, and they've promised him they'll keep it up, even after he's long gone.
Why Does He Do It?
After 9/11, Emerson felt an urge to get more involved in his community, joining several veterans groups and more regularly volunteering.
He's spearheading the creation of a veterans memorial in Castro Valley and has raised $38,000 toward the $90,000 project.
After the Union City memorial dedication, he was asked to join the committee working on the Pennsylvania memorial.
He got a company to donate a one-of-a-kind rose, red with a white stripe. Sales of the Flight 93 rose go toward the $38 million fundraising efforts. Ten million is still needed to finish the final phases of construction.
He'll be there for the Sept. 10 dedication, expected to attract 10,000. A ceremony is also planned for 1 p.m. at the Union City memorial. (Click here for details.)
So what ultimately motivated this man to do so much?
"I believe this is my one time around (in life). I don't want any regrets. I served my country. I want to help people. It gives me pleasure."
He's looking forward to 2015, when all the planned 9/11 memorials, including the towers in New York, are expected to be completed.
"Then we can honor them and remember them and make sure it never happens again and take care of their families and their children," he said. "We can never forget, but we have to move forward."