SHANKSVILLE, Pa. (AP) — The 40 passengers and crew members of a plane that crashed in western Pennsylvania after it was hijacked during the Sept. 11 attacks 15 years ago have been honored with a reading of names and tolling of bells.
About 1,000 surviving family members, dignitaries and citizen visitors attended the annual service at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville. The site, about 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is where the United Airlines flight crashed as passengers staged a rebellion and stormed the cockpit. They fought back against four Muslim hijackers who, along with others, crashed three other hijacked passenger airliners into the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. the same morning. Ceremonies on Sunday also honored nearly 3,000 killed in those attacks.
For the first time, the Shanksville ceremony was held on the grounds outside the visitor center that opened last year rather than at the marble wall that runs along the crash site.
Frances Foster, 47, and Ken Austin, 48, both of Mercer, Pennsylvania, said the center vividly chronicles the events of the day.
“It brings back that emotion. It’s like living this all over again,” Austin said. “It’s hard to listen to the phone calls” he said, referring to recordings of cellphone calls passengers made to loved ones once they learned about the other hijackings and deduced their plane was going to be used as a weapon, too.
Investigators believe the hijackers meant to crash it into the Capitol, or possibly the White House, after the flight from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco was commandeered by the terrorists and steered toward Washington, D.C.
“It just angers me and makes me want to make sure it never happens again,” Austin said of the memories recorded in the visitor center.
“It brings back all those memories,” Foster said. “It’s just a very sobering place.”
Secretary of the Interior Sandy Jewell was the keynote speaker in Shanksville, and spoke about the need to commemorate the crash site as a national park.
“Fifteen years ago today, the course of American history changed,” Jewell said. “Certainly the men and women of Flight 93 had no idea they would be heroines and heroes that day.”
Addressing the victims’ families, Jewell said, “You have known the terrible pain of loss. None of us would want to trade places with you, but we honor your sacrifice.”
Gordon Felt, the president of the Families of Flight 93, an advocacy group that helped push for and design the park, said just one aspect of the memorial remains to be completed, the Tower of Voices. The 93-foot tall tower will contain 40 wind chimes and is scheduled for completion by 2018 and will stand “proudly and defiantly” near the park’s entrance.
But Felt, whose brother Edward died in the crash, cautioned that the memorial park is about “so much more than the surrounding structures, our losses and the effects of Sept. 11 on our lives.”
“Most of us today do not need marble walls, a tower of chimes or even a visitors’ center to remind us of the sacrifices here 15 years ago,” Felt said. “These structures and design aspects are not for us, they are for those who have forgotten, they are for tomorrow’s children.”
The surviving families visited the visitors’ center privately following the ceremony, before it opened to the public. The families then were to visit the memorial itself, a wall with the names of each victim engraved on individual panels that line the crash site. Some were expected to walk to the site itself along a path that is generally not open otherwise.
Jewell said it’s clear that the visitors’ center is educating those too young to remember the attacks. She read from one entry by a 17-year-old visitor in the center’s log book.
“You’ve all done a completely selfless act for the good of our nation,” Jewell read from the teen’s entry, choking back tears. “You’ll be rewarded in heaven for your courageous deeds. God bless America. May you rest in peace.”