Ceremony touches on ‘unimaginable courage’ of Flight 93 passengers, crew

Sean D. Hamill  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

STONYCREEK, Pa. – As fate would have it, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson’s birthday is on September 11.

He has spent part of his birthday many of the last 14 years at either the New York or Washington D.C. 9/11 sites.

Flight crews hold roses during ceremony at Flight 93 National Memorial. Photo by Michael Henninger, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Flight crews hold roses during ceremony at Flight 93 National Memorial. Photo by Michael Henninger, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

But he had never been to Stonycreek until Friday to see the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 and give a short speech to a crowd of more than 1,000 that included more than 100 family members of the 40 passengers and crew who died here on September 11, 2001 when they fought the terrorists who took over their plane.

In the midst of the crisis, Mr. Johnson noted, the 40 passengers and crew “did the most American of things: They took a vote.”

The vote was whether they should attack the cockpit, where the terrorists were in control of the plane. They did and their action “most likely saved hundreds or thousands of lives by giving their own.”

“I’ve said it many times,” he said. “Terrorists cannot prevail among a nation of people who refuse to be terrorized.”

His speech was one of five at the ceremony Friday that included remarks by National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, Gov. Tom Wolf, President of the Families of Flight 93 Gordon Felt, and the keynote speaker NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski. Other victims of the September 11 attacks were remembered in ceremonies in New York City, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.

In the Somerset County ceremony, it was Mr. Johnson’s remarks that stayed with many of 47 middle schoolers who came to the ceremony as part of a class trip to the memorial from Akron, Ohio.

“I liked how he said that we Americans, we get right back up, we don’t back down,” said Mason Doerer, 14, an 8th grader at Green Middle School in Akron. “That was my favorite.”

Part of the reason the school came Friday is just the start of what the National Park Service expects to greatly increase attendance at the site in coming years: The opening of the new $26 million visitor center, which features a gripping series of exhibits about 9/11 generally and Flight 93 specifically.

Amanda Gostlin, one of the teachers from the school who chaperoned the trip, said the exhibits were a lure, but she and other teachers were concerned how “middle school kids would take” visiting the site, and if they “would understand the magnitude of what happened here.”

But like Mason, she said, it appeared that most in the class got that the big theme of Flight 93 was that “anyone could be a hero.”

Mr. Johnson came with two U.S. senators, Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware, and Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin. Together they all toured the new visitor center together, and all came away moved.

“I learned many things,” Secretary Johnson said in an interview after viewing the exhibits. “Most importantly I got to get a sense of the people who died here.”

Sen. Johnson, like so many already, was most moved by the three voice mails that are part of the exhibit. They were made from the plane before it crashed by two passengers and one flight attendant.

“You’ve obviously heard the story. But you come here and, well, those voice mails — just the humanity in that,” Sen. Johnson said in an interview. ”They’re going to need more phones” because so many people will want to listen to them.

Tom McCormick and his wife, Guadalupe, had been to the memorial a couple times in the past, including when it just had a temporary memorial dominated by a tall fence where people left mementos.

“I like the old site,” said Mr. McCormick, an Army veteran.

But after driving three hours Friday from their home in Sykesville, Md., so they could tour the new exhibit, he too was struck most by the voice mails.

“They should stick with everybody when they hear them,” he said.

Those in attendance Thursday, when the visitor center was first opened to the public after a dedication ceremony, and Friday, got to be among the first to buy the official Flight 93 memorabilia that is on sale at the site, everything from key chains, to mugs, T-shirts, and carefully vetted books about Flight 93 or the events of 9/11.

Though some might think of it as crass consumerism in a solemn place, by the high number of people carrying “Flight 93 National Memorial” plastic bags, most appear to take such sales for what they are.

“People want to have reminders, they want to have something to take home, because you can’t remember everything you see here,” said Greg Zern, who came to the site with his wife, Laimite, from their home near Philadelphia.

They bought a National Geographic DVD about the history of 9/11 and a Memory Book of Flight 93.

They’ve been to the site now four times over the years, said Mrs. Zern: “And I’ve been moved every time I’ve been here, including today.”

Around the country, the date was marked with what has become a tradition of lowered flags, wreath-laying, bell-tolling.

In New York City, more than 1,000 victims’ relatives, survivors and recovery workers marked the anniversary at ground zero with grief, gratitude and appeals to keep the toll front of mind as years pass. “It’s a hard day. But it’s an important day. I’ll come every year that I can,” recovery worker Robert Matticola said.

Although the private ceremony is smaller than in its early years, the date has become an occasion for the public to revisit ground zero, where the memorial plaza now opens to everyone on the anniversary. There is a public reading of the names of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the terror strikes at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and at the Flight 93 site. One woman at ground zero collapsed during the ceremony, apparently overcome by grief; bystanders helped her to her feet.

Family members praised first responders, thanked the armed forces and prayed for unity and security. They also sent personal messages to their lost loved ones.

“You are the reason that I wear this uniform and stand here today,” Air Force Technical Sgt. Sparkle Thompson said of her uncle, Louie Anthony Williams.

In Washington, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama stepped out of the White House for a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m., when the first of four hijacked planes hit on September 11, 2001, striking the World Trade Center’s north tower. Later Friday, the president told troops at Fort Meade in Maryland that he hoped September 11 would inspire thoughts of what binds the country together, while Vice President Joe Biden praised New Yorkers’ resilience in remarks to bikers and police officers taking part in a 9/11 memorial motorcycle ride.

 

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