9/11 anniversary: Obamas honor sacrifice of Flight 93
President Obama placed a wreath at the memorial for those who died in Shanksville, Pa., where one of the four jets hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, crashed after passengers and crew fought fought back and prevented it from reaching its target in the nation’s capital.
For the president and First Lady Michelle Obama, the ceremony Sunday was the second stop on a day of mourning, commemoration and echoes of past unity in a crisis. From Pennsylvania, the first couple was headed to a ceremony at the Pentagon, the third terror memorial site, before finishing at the Concert for Hope at the Kennedy Center.
The president, who read from Psalm 46 at his first stop, the site of the World Trade Center, will deliver remarks Sunday night at the Kennedy Center. He did not publicly speak in Pennsylvania and was not scheduled to speak at the Pentagon ceremony, the second of the day there.
In Pennsylvania the Obamas visited the Wall of Names, where each of 40 marble slabs is inscribed with the name of a victim of the crash of United Airlines Flight 93.
The president and first lady placed a wreath of white flowers in front of the wall, bowing their heads in silence for a moment. When they walked to the crowd to shake hands, the mood shifted. Some broke out in a chant of “U-S-A!” One man yelled, “Thank you for getting Bin Laden!”
The Obamas spent roughly an hour at the site, having photos taken, shaking hands and talking with family members of victims.
But even on a day of unity and remembrance, politics was not too far off. As the president approached, Rosemary Archer, a cashier at Wal-Mart from Centerville, Pa., asked the president if her Social Security payment was safe.
“It’s going to be there. You don’t have to worry about it,” the president said.
On that late summer day a decade ago, 19 hijackers associated with Al Qaeda seized four passenger jets. Two crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, whose two iconic towers collapsed within hours. One jet was crashed into the Pentagon.
The fourth, Flight 93, fell into a field near Shanksville after the passengers and crew fought to recapture the plane from the hijackers. The plane went down 20 minutes by air from Washington, where the hijackers are believed to have been planning to hit the Capitol or the White House.
On Saturday a new national memorial at the crash site was dedicated by Vice President Joe Biden and former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
The ceremony on Sunday was quieter and more personal. Bells rang out as tearful families members read the names of dead. The crowd paused in silence at 10:03 a.m. Eastern time -- the moment of the crash. A children’s choir sang.
Visitors sat in folding chairs and on blankets in the field near the memorial, waving flags and wearing T-shirts, carrying messages of support or photos of the dead. The field was a reclaimed coal mine site when the plane crashed. It is has been restored to a meadow of orange and white wildflowers and a wetland.
The point of impact -- called the sacred ground -- is marked by a heaping rock adorned with flowers. Some unidentified remains will be buried at the spot on Monday.
"Nothing frightens me more than the phrase, 'Time heals all things,' " Gordon Felt, whose brother died in the crash, told the crowd.
“Do we as individuals or as a community truly want to be fully healed if means complete elimination of the pain that links us to all we lost? Do we want our memories eroded by the passage of time? … Let us not allow time to heal all our pain, let us never forget,” he said.
In his remarks, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, the nation’s first Homeland Security secretary, addressed the Flight 93 passengers.
“Tragedies teach us, they do not stop us,” he said. “We pledge to you that we will ensure that future generations know your names and your remarkable story,” he said.
-- Kathleen B. Hennessey and Michael Muskal
Photo: A bell is rung during the reading of the names of passengers and crew who died on United Airlines Flight 93. Credit: Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press