McCain joins mourners at Flight 93 'homecoming'



SHANKSVILLE, Pa. -- At the makeshift memorial among the rolling hills, 40 families gathered yesterday to remember and to mourn.

They come to this bucolic slice of Somerset County on each anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks to commemorate the passengers and crew members of United Flight 93, whose heroic tale has become legend in the past seven years.

Germaine Wilson, of Queens, N.Y., a sister of perished co-pilot LeRoy Homer, has seen dignitaries like President Bush and, yesterday, Sen. John McCain, speak at the annual memorial services.

But she most looks forward to seeing the now-familiar faces of the locals who have embraced the mourners and the families who share her mix of grief and pride for those lost.

"It's almost like a homecoming," Ms. Wilson said, wearing a button with Mr. Homer's image on it.

"You're drawn back here. The ambassadors and townspeople welcome you with open arms. It almost feels like family." Yesterday those families were joined by a couple hundred spectators for a solemn, 35-minute remembrance.

The service began shortly before 10 a.m., about the same time that passengers stormed the cockpit to take back the plane from hijackers. Instead of the plane crashing somewhere in Washington, D.C., a strike coordinated with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that same day, the passengers successfully took down the aircraft in the field, where everyone on board died.

Family members, emergency responders and a minister read every victim's name aloud, with two bells tolling after each name.

Among the blustery morning's speakers was Gordon Felt, president of Families of Flight 93, who addressed the need for an appropriate permanent memorial, which is scheduled to be dedicated in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

"The 9/11 of our young children is our Gettysburg, our Pearl Harbor," Mr. Felt said. "The transition from an emotional response to a historical one remains our main challenge."

Mr. Felt sat next to Mr. McCain, who arrived early and stayed late, accompanied by his wife, Cindy, to shake hands and pose for pictures with the victims' families.

Mr. McCain spoke briefly during the ceremony, noting he could owe his life to the plane's passengers, because the hijackers' intended target might have been the Capitol.

The senator praised the victims' heroism, calling them "those good people who grasped the gravity of the moment, understood the threat and decided to fight back."

Gov. Ed Rendell and Ken Wainstein, director of the U.S. Office of Homeland Security, also addressed the crowd, with Mr. Rendell, a Democrat, commending Mr. McCain's own heroism while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

In an interview after the ceremony, Mr. Felt said he discussed the permanent memorial with the Republican presidential hopeful, who vowed the continued support of Congress.

"He was visibly touched by the memorial and had nothing but desire to thank the families for the sacrifice of our loved ones," Mr. Felt said of Mr. McCain. "He was really very genuine in his gratitude."

Brad Shober, the deputy fire chief for the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department, was called to the scene on 9/11 and has returned each year for the ceremonies. "I'm impressed with the turnout," he said. "I hope most of them are here for the passengers and not John McCain."

Count 17-year-old Danielle Aponte in the first group. She departed, along with the rest of the North Plainfield (N.J.) High School cheerleading squad, before Mr. McCain arrived.

The group unfurled an American flag and sang "God Bless America" earlier, as part of an annual Sept. 11 journey to all three sites. They had to skip the Shanksville ceremony to keep the 1,000-mile trip on schedule.

In a 15-passenger van, the cheerleaders left school at 11 p.m. Wednesday and stopped at Ground Zero in Manhattan for a midnight remembrance, then drove overnight to Somerset County. After their visit to Shanksville, they climbed back into the van and headed to the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., before their scheduled return to New Jersey last night.

Coach Skip Pulcrano said on the first anniversary of the attacks, a few cheerleaders on his team in New Jersey pitched the idea to see all three sites in one day, and he's done it ever since, bringing it to North Plainfield last year. Of the three memorials, Mr. Pulcrano said Shanksville is by far the most emotional for the girls.

"They'll just go to pieces," he said.


Daniel Malloy can be reached at dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1731. First Published September 12, 2008 4:00 AM


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