Thousands visit Flight 93 site for dedication of memorial
September 11, 2011 4:00 AM
Alice Hoagland, mother of Mark Bingham, who died on Flight 93, hugs Iraqi war veteran Glenn Crutchfield of Coal Hill, Ark. The Wall of Names has the names engraved of the 40 victims of the Flight 93 crash.
Todd Beamer. Georgine Rose Corrigan. First Officer Leroy Homer. Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas and Unborn Child. ...
The 40 names were read aloud slowly, carefully by poet Robert Pinsky, with two bells tolling after each one, at the Somerset County hilltop where they died a decade ago, while presidents listened, mothers quieted babies and a humid breeze ruffled the flags under a white canopy.
Saturday's dedication of the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville brought together a remarkable gathering of people associated with Sept. 11, 2001, the date of the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in its history:
• Former President George W. Bush, his eyes glittering with emotion as he calmly recited the facts as they unfolded on that day.
• A white-haired, hoarse-voiced former President Bill Clinton linking ancient Greek warriors and the Alamo with the doomed but courageous passengers of that flight.
PG VIDEO: FLIGHT 93 MEMORIAL DEDICATION
PG VIDEO: FLIGHT 93 SPECTATORS
PG VIDEO: WALL OF NAMES
• Vice President Joe Biden, with a speech that was powerful and personal (and contrary to his reputation, short).
• The families of the 40 people who died while fighting hijackers planning to fly the jetliner into a Washington, D.C., target.
• And more than 4,000 others who traveled to see the ceremony at the 2,200-acre slice of land set aside as a memorial to the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93.
Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93, thanked Somerset County, southwestern Pennsylvania and state and national leaders for their commitment to the memorial project. Mr. Felt, whose brother Edward died in the crash, later said, "I'm thrilled that this sacred ground is protected ... I have a place to come to be with my brother."
The ceremony started late, as officials struggled to cope with muddy conditions caused by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee and visitors were subjected to tight security.
The open fields of Stonycreek Township were already saturated with 8 inches of rain earlier this week, said Mike Lisstert, a spokesman with the National Park Service, and the site sits above an abandoned coal mine with a very high water table.
That led to muddy conditions and stuck vehicles Friday night and a flooded parking lot Saturday morning. So in the pre-dawn hours, pumps were brought in and truckloads of gravel to firm up the ground, while thousands of cars lined up outside the gates off Route 30.
Nearly three hours after the gates were scheduled to open to the public, they finally did, at 10 a.m.
In his remarks, Mr. Bush recounted how after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., the average citizens on the plane rushed their "captors" in the "first counteroffensive of the war on terror."
Mr. Bush compared the dedication of the Flight 93 memorial to the dedication of another hallowed ground in Pennsylvania. Quoting from part of President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, he drew a direct connection between the courageous soldiers of the Civil War and the courageous actions of the passengers and crew.
"What happened above this Pennsylvania field ranks among the ... most courageous acts in American history," he said.
He was followed by Mr. Clinton, who likened their actions to the defenders of the Alamo, who also decided to take a stand even though they knew they were going to die. He thanked both Mr. Bush and President Barack Obama for their roles in fighting against terror, one of the day's only references to the mastermind of the plot, Osama bin Laden, who was killed May 1 in an operation ordered by Mr. Obama.
Mr. Clinton also announced that he and House Speaker John Boehner had gotten together Saturday and agreed to host a joint fundraiser to close the remaining $10 million gap in the $62 million national memorial project.
Performer Sarah McLachlan, accompanying herself on piano, sang her melancholy hit song, "I Will Remember You" before Mr. Biden and the former presidents helped unveil a Wall of Names, 40 marble blocks lined up beneath the plane's flight path and engraved with the names of the victims. It is one of the main features of the first stage of the memorial.
Mr. Biden said the passengers and crew of Flight 93 gave their lives for their country when they fought four hijackers, preventing the plane from hitting its D.C. target when it instead crashed into a Pennsylvania field.
He said that while nothing can fill the void left in the hearts of their family members and friends, their actions will always be recalled gratefully.
"There was a father who tucked you in bed at night. A wife who knew your fears before you expressed them ... they're irreplaceable," he said.
The vice president also saluted those in the military who have continued to fight a war whose first battle, he said, was fought over Somerset County.
There has been much criticism of the plan not to have clergy or prayers at the Ground Zero memorial in New York, but here the ceremony opened with an eloquent prayer from Daniel Coughlin, chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives at the time of the attacks, and the former presidents and Mr. Biden all made religious references in their remarks.
Families listened under skies that went from misty to sunny, smiling at some of what they heard.
Patrick White, cousin to crash victim Louis "Joey" Nacke II: "I thought the memorial they unveiled, in the sunshine today, was a tremendous moment."
Gerald "Jerry" Bingham, father to 31-year-old passenger Mark Bingham, said he hoped the monument and visitors center will reach fruition soon. "You feel proud of 40 heroes that died that day. And you feel proud of America."
Ilse Homer, a Long Island woman whose son, Leroy Homer, was the first officer on Flight 93, held a silent conversation with him as the former presidents and vice presidents poured out their tributes. He was such a humble man, she said, that she could hear him saying, "Mom, this isn't for us, is it?"
"I'd say, 'Of course it's for you,' " she said, citing the sacrificial bravery of all of the passengers.
"I loved that people came together and mourned together and were joyous together," she said. "We were very deeply moved by the honor and love bestowed upon the victims."
She looked almost joyful as she said that, then broke into tears when she spoke of how she mourns for the servicemen and women who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. She listens to the names on the news and remembers them and their families by name.
"They enlisted because of 9/11 and they went willingly. I mourn for our troops. They have exceeded the number of all the victims who died on 9/11," she said through her tears. "Their families all mourn just as much as we do."
Saturday's ceremony was an emotional moment as well for the National Park Service staff who have worked so hard over the last decade to make it a reality.
Joanne Hanley, the National Park Service's first superintendent at the Flight 93 National Memorial until she left earlier this year for a job in Gettysburg, came to see the completion of the project full of emotion.
"It was 10 years of family members, friends, joys, sorrows, obstacles, challenges and ultimately successes, which is what today is about," she said, noting the legion of volunteers and park staff who helped. "I walked with a lot of people to get here. Now it feels like coming home."
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who became the nation's first Homeland Security chief and is an honorary co-chair of the Flight 93 fundraising organization, said with the memorial itself completed, "I hope everyone can be at peace today and remember how freedom prevailed over fear."
Former Gov. Ed Rendell was among those gathering at the memorial site. He said he felt "a mixture of residual sadness with a feeling of accomplishment that the state did its part" in raising money for the memorial. "I've become friends with the families, and I've wanted to see them here on a day that's very special to them. I feel real satisfaction that we're able to finally do this for them, a sense of accomplishment mixed with grief."
As has become typical at big national gatherings like this, a "First Amendment Area" was set up near the entrance area to the memorial. The only group that took advantage of the area wasn't even there to protest. The Independent Board for Presbyterian Home Missions showed up to give away "Free Patriotic Literature."
After the ceremony, the families of the victims were given a half-hour by themselves to view the marble wall with the names of their loved ones. While they visited, several hundred visitors waited patiently to get their chance to see the wall up close. But when the families were done with their viewing, and they started to head to the exit, they had to pass through the throng waiting for their chance to view the memorial. As the families passed through the thick crowd, which parted to give them a walkway, the visitors clapped, until all the family members had walked through. It was a moving moment that had some family members crying as they said quietly to the visitors, "Thank you. Thank you."
Reported from Stonycreek Township by Mackenzie Carpenter, Sean D. Hamill, Ann Rodgers and Bill Toland.