SHANKSVILLE -- The ninth anniversary of the crash of Flight 93, viewed by many as the first battleground in the War on Terror, was marked today by a respectful ceremony and an unusual joint appearance of the current and past first ladies.
Michelle Obama and Laura Bush stood, and then sat, side by side, the current first lady in gray and the former in cream. Mrs. Bush spoke first, and their speeches were separated by the Laurel Highlands Chorale singing "You'll Never Walk Alone."
"I come here today not just as first lady, on behalf of my husband and a grateful nation. I come as an American, filled with a sense of awe at the heroism of my fellow citizens," said Mrs. Obama.
She said the passengers who wrested control of the plane from terrorists came from diverse backgrounds.
"But in that awful moment, when the facts became clear, and they were called to make an impossible choice, they all found the same resolve. The agreed to the same bold plan," she said.
"It was clear that these 40 individuals were no strangers to service and to sacrifice," she said. "The men and women on that plane had never met the people whose lives they would save, but they willingly made the sacrifice."
Former first lady Laura Bush said she first came to the site on Sept. 17, 2001.
"Our grief was raw, and our heartache was heavy," she said. But it was tempered by awe.
"This peaceful place was not chosen by the terrorists. They had other targets for their violence and hate," she said. "This site was chosen by the passengers of Flight 93, who spared our country from even greater heartache."
Her speech was filled with references to the faith of passengers, some of whom prayed before rising against the terrorists.
"We saw that there is evil in the world, but also good in the heart of our country," she said. "In the face of terror, Americans chose to overcome evil, with good," first on the plane, and then through blood drives, candlelight vigils, memorial services.
Shanksville High School students rang two bells of remembrance as family members of the 40 Flight 93 passengers read their names, from Christian Adams to Deborah Jacobs Welsh. "Colleen L. Fraser, my hero," one family member read. "Lauren Catuzzi Grancolas and unborn child," he continued.
The flight was one of four hijacked by extremists on Sept. 11, 2001, and the only one that did not reach its intended target. Passengers fought with the hijackers, precipitating the crash in a field.
Though the crowd did not fill the available viewing area, organizers at 9 a.m. said they had handed out around half of the 3,000 commemorative white and blue ribbons made for the event. A bookmark attached to each ribbon read: "Remember September 11, 2001, honor the innocent & brave we lost that day, choose to make a difference, hope for tomorrow."
Among the crowd that streamed in was the Kuhl family, which planned a family camping trip around the occasion. It was the first time all three generations of the family had been together in seven years.
"It's just really emotional for me," Lewis Kuhl, of Sandusky, Ohio, as he got choked up. He came with his wife, two children and two grandchildren.
Sharp sun did little to warm the hilltop overlooking the crash site, as a brisk wind kept the distant windmills turning and nearby flags fluttering. The area around the site is mostly a brown construction site, with green-brown grass and trees in the as-yet-ungraded area. The National Park Service is in the midst of a $60 million memorial effort, funded half by the federal government, and half by private donations.