At the Flight 93 Memorial: Nation pauses solemnly to honor the lives lost


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STONYCREEK

On this breezy, lovely Sunday, it was President Barack Obama's turn to honor the 40 passengers and crew who died while wresting control of a hijacked plane on a suicide mission to Washington, D.C., 10 years ago.

While his predecessors, former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton -- joined by Vice President Joe Biden -- mesmerized the crowd with their speeches at the new Flight 93 National Memorial on Saturday, Mr. Obama made no public remarks when he arrived at the site shortly before noon.

Instead, he laid a wreath at the memorial's Wall of Names, a long, white wall that tracks the plane's final flight path, and spent nearly an hour meeting with families and members of the public before taking a helicopter back to Pittsburgh International Airport.

It was part of a long day of solemn remembrance that began at New York City's ground zero, followed by the Somerset County visit and ending at the Pentagon, honoring the nearly 3,000 people who died on Sept. 11, 2001, during the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in history.

First lady Michelle Obama stooped to retrieve and then replace one of the wreath's white roses, and chants of "USA!" and "Yes we can!" could be heard as the president and first lady made their way through the crowd.

Nearly 5,000 people slogged through muddy fields -- saturated by last week's heavy rains -- and waited patiently for shuttle buses to transport them to the 2,200-acre site, which on this late summer day was covered in yellow wildflowers.

According to Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93, 780 people representing 37 of the 40 people on the flight attended the two days of ceremonies at the $62 million memorial, which has taken 10 years to build and needs $10 million more to be fully funded.

Earlier Sunday morning, at the 10th Commemorative Service, Gov. Tom Corbett said that "Nothing we build in stone and mortar can sufficiently honor the deeds" of the passengers and crew who thwarted hijackers aiming the plane toward Washington, D.C.

"I get a feeling when I go to some of those places, to Gettysburg, to the Alamo and here, a feeling of spirit, of a presence ... But the truth is this location is like no other. There is nothing with which to compare the passenger uprising of 10 years ago," he said.

Those who delivered speeches at Saturday's dedication appeared to avoid outright displays of emotion, while Sunday's commemoration speakers seemed to struggle with it.

Former Gov. Tom Ridge, who was in office during the terrorist attacks and was later appointed by President George W. Bush to be the nation's first secretary of Homeland Security, choked up briefly during his speech while quoting a poem by Isla Paschal Richardson:

"Grieve not, nor speak of me with tears, but laugh and talk of me as if I were beside you there." Mr. Ridge serves as co-chair of the Flight 93 Memorial.

"Your presence today means almost as much to the families as the memorial itself," he told the crowd of thousands who had gathered at the site. "You're the VIPs," he said, whose presence "is a powerful message of comfort and love to these families and, on their behalf, I thank you."

The families then turned and faced the crowds, and applauded them.

At Saturday's ceremony, poet Robert Pinsky stoically read aloud each name of those on the flight while two bells tolled. Sunday, the names were read again, this time by a spouse, a relative or a friend, in voices sometimes thick with tears.

"We remember them," the crowd then responded as Somerset County Coroner Wally Miller read a litany of remembrance and wept briefly.

Sunday's service called for five separate moments of silence: at 8:46 a.m., 9:03 a.m., 9:37 a.m., 10:01 a.m. and 10:03 a.m,, representing key moments of the terror attacks.

But there was music, too: A string quartet for the Johnstown Symphony played, as it has for the memorial service every year since 9/11.

It's very personal to Elizabeth Pile, the first chair violinist, who lives just a few miles from Shanksville, in Friedens.

"I think we do set the tone, we try to play music that's reverent and meditative," she said. She has a close up view of the families, and their expressions always touch her, she said.

"The families are so appreciative. They always come and say thank you."

Violinist Elizabeth Williams said that Stonycreek is different from the other 9/11 sites, not simply because of its rural location.

"It's very emotional for me because these people had choices. They chose. They knew. They weren't just victims and they weren't doing their job," she said of their battle against the terrorists.

"They were not victims," added Pat Hofscher, the cellist.


Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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