SHANKSVILLE, Pa. – The 40 passengers and crew who fought back against their hijackers aboard Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, performed one of the most courageous acts in U.S. history, former President George W. Bush said Saturday at a ceremony dedicating the first phase of a memorial at the nation’s newest national park.
The two-hour ceremony also kicked off a bipartisan effort conceived backstage to raise about $10 million to finish the memorial’s first phase and maintain it in the future.
The hijackers likely intended to crash the plane into the Capitol in Washington, D.C., where the House and Senate were both in session, said Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service. But the plane “never made it because of the determination and valor of the passengers and crew of Flight 93, that plane crashed in this field, less than 20 minutes by air” from the target, Jarvis said.
Bush said the storming of the cockpit “ranks among the most courageous acts in American history.”
Former President Bill Clinton likened the actions of those aboard Flight 93 to the defenders of the Alamo in Texas or the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae some 2,500 years ago who knew they were going to die. But Flight 93 was “something different” because those past heroes were “soldiers. They knew what they had to do.”
The passengers and crew were, by contrast, “ordinary people given no time at all to decide, and they did the right thing. And 2,500 years from now, I hope and pray to God that people will still remember this,” Clinton said.
“They gave the entire country an incalculable gift: They saved the Capitol from attack,” Clinton said, along with an untold number of lives, and denied al-Qaida the symbolic victory of “smashing the center of American government.”
Clinton pledged to work with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on a bipartisan effort to fund the remainder of the memorial, a promise that caused Calvin Wilson, brother-in-law of co-pilot LeRoy Homer, to burst into tears after the ceremony.
“I can’t put that into words. But to … have the people whose lives were saved recognize that, that was extremely important,” Wilson said, as sobs choked off his words.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said it’s possible the bipartisan support could result in special legislation to fund the memorial, though Neil Mulholland, president and chief executive officer of the National Parks Foundation, said it’s more likely the effort will result in an influx of money from corporations and other private sources to finish the memorial and then, hopefully, create an endowment to sustain it.
“Today we got a huge lift,” Mulholland said of the agreement he said was struck backstage by Clinton, Bush, Boehner, Vice President Joe Biden and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
The National Park Foundation, the park service’s fundraising arm, also announced a $2 million matching grant to spur donations.
The remarks by Bush and Clinton, in particular, drew standing ovations and loud cheers from the ceremony, which drew about 5,000 people: 4,000 invited guests, including the crash victims’ families, and about 1,000 other people who sat or stood on the surrounding grounds.
In the Washington area Saturday, President Barack Obama paid tribute to America’s resilience and the sacrifice of its war dead.
A day before 9/11 anniversary commemorations in New York and Washington, the president made a pilgrimage to Arlington National Cemetery, strolling with his wife, Michelle, among graves filled with dead from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
The Obamas hugged other visitors among rows of white tombstones from the long wars that Obama is winding down after more than 6,000 American troop deaths.
Obama invoked the common purpose that arose from carnage a decade ago in telling Americans that the nation cannot be broken by terrorism “no matter what comes our way.”
Obama also visited a soup kitchen, where he and his family helped prepare trays of gumbo for the needy in the nation’s capital, underscoring the call to national service that rang so loudly after the terrorist attacks.
All this as the president and his national security team tracked the latest possible terrorist threat against the country, a tip that al-Qaida might be seeking to detonate a car bomb in New York or Washington.
Obama met his senior national security team in the morning to review the latest developments and ensure the nation remains on a heightened state of vigilance during the anniversary commemorations.