If the three attacks of Sept. 11 have each taken on symbolism in the last decade, Flight 93 has come to be thought of as Middle America’s tragedy — at least by those closest to it. Its site is pastoral and quiet, miles from hubs of power.
Its story prompts a simple question: What would I have done?
In a meadow blanketed with wildflowers and goldenrod, federal officials, families of the victims, and others gathered Saturday to ponder that question and dedicate a memorial to the crew and passengers who responded so bravely.
“Courage lies in every heart, and one day it will be summoned,” Vice President Joe Biden told the crowd under the first rays of sunshine in days. “On Sept. 11, 2001, at 9:57 a.m., it was summoned and 40 incredible men and women answered the call. They gave their lives and, in doing so, gave this country a new life.”
Biden was joined by Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other lawmakers. His remarks capped a ceremony that showed flickers of the bipartisan call for patriotism common in the days after the terrorist attacks, but also, particularly in Bush’s remarks, acknowledged how that spirit has been severely strained.
“We must never allow our differences to harden into divisions,” Bush said solemnly, seeming to defend his response to the attacks. “It may be tempting to think it doesn’t matter what happens to a villager in Afghanistan or a child in Africa, but the temptation of isolation is deadly wrong.”
Bush recalled how another president, Lincoln, came to another Pennsylvania town to salute heroism. “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground,” Bush said, quoting the Gettysburg Address. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
“So it is with Flight 93,” Bush said.
Clinton compared the passengers and crew to the 300 Greek warriors who fought a massive Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae. They were certain they would die, he said, but fought bravely and, in the end, saved their country.
The world has not forgotten what the ancient Greeks did, and “2,500 years from now, I hope and pray to God people will still remember this,” he said.
The Washington officials have particular reason to pay homage to Flight 93. The hijackers who seized the plane bound from Newark to San Francisco are believed to have been headed toward the U.S. Capitol. After passengers attacked the four hijackers, the plane crashed in a reclaimed mine and hemlock grove in Pennsylvania’s coal country.
In many ways, Biden and the former presidents said, the decadelong war on terrorism began in the skies over Pennsylvania. A relative of one of the victims struck a similar theme. For all the horror of that day, the passengers were the first to fight back, said Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93.
“It was that first victory that gave us some hope on a dark day in our history,” Felt said in an interview. His brother, Edward Felt, was on the flight.
President Obama will visit Shanksville on Sunday, along with the other sites attacked on Sept. 11, the Pentagon and New York. On Saturday he met with his senior national security team as officials continued to monitor the possibility of terrorism on the Sept. 11 anniversary.
In Shanksville, a new granite walkway brings visitors within a few dozen yards of the impact site that was once a charred crater. It is marked with flowers and a jagged rock, and is still off limits to nearly all but victims’ families. The ceremony Saturday unveiled a white wall etched with the names of the passengers and crew members who died in the crash.
Other elements of the memorial — designed by Los Angeles architect Paul Murdoch — are still to come. A visitors center, tower of wind chimes and grove of trees are expected in the next phase, which remains $10 million short on funding.
Clinton, in what appeared to be a spontaneous moment, announced that he and Boehner had agreed on the spot to host a fundraiser in Washington for the effort.
“Let’s get the show on the road. Let’s roll,” he said, borrowing the call to action attributed to Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer.
Hundreds of families and supporters came from all over the country Saturday.
A 70-year-old woman rode her Harley Davidson from Northern California. A hairdresser from Virginia Beach came dressed in a shirt she’d embroidered with the names of the dead and phrases from the phone messages they left for loved ones as the plane went down. And a third-grader came with his grandmother from a nearby town.
“A couple more seconds and it would have hit a school,” said Devin Snyder, 8.
A group of locals manned the impromptu memorial that popped up days after the crash — and still do. In 2002, Congress ordered that the site become a national park and memorial, giving the National Park Service less than decade to build it.
What sounded like a long time proved to be not quite enough. There was the complicated and contested process of buying up the land for the 2,200-acre site. Environmental concerns emerged. Money needed to be raised.
There were squabbles over the design of the memorial, which takes its cues from the rolling hill curving around the field. Some victims’ families complained that the arched shape formed by the structures would resemble an Islamic crescent.
But the family members dedicated to the project say they never questioned the goal. The site is personal to them. It is a grave site. And unlike the other attack sites, it is a place of uncommon quiet and stillness. It speaks to them.
Ken Nacke, whose brother Louis J. Nacke II died in the crash, says he once saw a pair of bear cubs tumble out of the woods onto the crash site. They were wrestling and “knocking the dog’s snot out of each other,” he said. “Just like my brother and I used to do when we were kids.”
Nacke said he believed his brother’s spirit is at this place, on this land. And the land, at least, has healed.