Flight 93 heroes honored at national memorial's 'sacred ground'
The chimes of the bells of remembrance broke the silence on Wednesday morning at the Flight 93 National Memorial in rural Somerset County for several hundred visitors who gathered to honor those who died Sept. 11, 2001, aboard United Airlines Flight 93.
It was the 12th annual ceremony at the site where the commercial jetliner en route from New Jersey to San Francisco was forced down by 40 passengers and crew members, thwarting a terror attack on Washington. When the plane plowed into an empty field at 563 mph, it was only 20 minutes of flying time from the Capitol.
At 10:03 a.m., a crew member of the USS Somerset, which the Navy will commission in March, rang the remembrance bells as the names of the passengers and crew were read.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who oversees the National Park Service, assured family members that the memories of that day are in good hands. The park service will assume partial control of managing the 2,200-acre facility near Shanksville from the Flight 93 Advisory Committee, which disbanded on Tuesday.
“We're in the forever business,” Jewell said. “We will make sure we will protect this sacred ground and that future generations hear their story.”
Jewell became emotional as she recalled placing luminaria at the memorial on Tuesday night with family members when a jet flew overhead.
“It's hard to believe it's been 12 years since the crash, but it feels right to be back in Somerset County now among friends and family,” said Gordon Felt, president of Families of Flight 93 and brother of passenger Edward Felt.
Felt urged the audience to remember that “in a period of 22 minutes, our loved ones made history.”
“We're not the same people we were 12 years and one day ago, but we cannot afford to forget the actions of our loved ones,” he said.
Dr. Brent Glass, director emeritus of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, who was a member of the Advisory Commission, said the stories of Flight 93 will live forever because of the work of the commission and other groups to support the memorial.
“Their legacy will be secure at this museum,” Glass said.
Glass praised the passengers and crew, likening their quick action against the four hijackers to the beginnings of American democracy.
“They knew they were facing impossible odds and turned the hijacked plane into a meeting place in the sky — uniting and forming a small army to thwart the hijackers' plan to attack Washington, D.C.,” Glass said.
Felt noted that dozens of family members who made the annual trip to the memorial near Shanksville show “that life evolves and we can move forward.”
Felt told the crowd that generations of visitors will be inspired by their loved ones when they visit the memorial.
“While it's not complete, we're nearly there, and it is in good hands with the Memorial Ambassadors, the Friends of Flight 93 and the National Park Service,” he said.
The Rev. Paul M. Britton, 69, a Lutheran minister from Albany, N.Y., again made the six-hour drive to give the benediction. He said he wouldn't miss honoring the memory of his sister, passenger Marion R. Britton.
Britton, who uses two crutches, said the travel and walking through the natural habitat at the memorial site is getting more difficult, but he wouldn't have it any other way.
“The families agreed that we should keep it as natural as we could, and they've done a terrific job with the open fields. Driving the 3 1⁄2-mile road past the fields into the site ... it's perfect,” Britton said. “It really hasn't changed much since I was allowed out here for the first time about 14 days after the crash.
“It is getting harder every year for me ... driving alone. There will come a day when I realize I won't be able to make it. But as long as I feel I am able, I will continue to be here.”
Deborah Borza of Maryland read aloud the names of passengers and crew, including that of her daughter, Deora Bodley.
She has missed only two memorial services in 12 years. Borza said she visits at different times of the year and finds peace at the memorial.
“Taking that time away and coming here this year gives me a larger view of what the memorial now provides visitors. It's an exciting, exciting time for visitors,” she said.
She enjoys watching children at the site, many of whom were not yet born on 9/11.
“They get the importance of Sept. 11 and what this memorial gives to them. It fulfills Deora and takes care of her legacy,” she said.
Retired state trooper Richard Palaski, 66, of Homer City, wearing a Flight 93 ball cap, said he hasn't missed a ceremony in 12 years and doesn't intend to.
“It's too important to remember what these people did ... fighting back,” said Palaski, who retired in 2002. He helped to secure the site for more than a week after the crash as investigators combed through the wreckage for evidence.
Palaski was disappointed at the size of the crowd, much smaller than the 5,000 who lined up before dawn to mark the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
“Every year the crowd for the ceremony seems to get smaller, and that's a shame. ... People tend to forget, but they should never forget what happened here,” he said.
Hannah Neal and Jillian Sobrino, both 14, visited the memorial on Wednesday with more than 20 classmates at Charles Town Middle School in Charles Town, W.Va.
After hearing math teacher Crystal Muia's account of her visit to the memorial several years ago, the two decided to raise funds for it.
“I was just surprised this wasn't built,” Neal said. “It had been over 10 years.”
Through the 93 Cents for Flight 93 student fundraising program, they sold T-shirts for $10 and accepted 93-cent donations to sign a banner they brought to the site.
Mary Pickels and Paul Peirce are staff writers for Trib Total Media.