A lower key, more intimate remembrance at the Flight 93 National Memorial marking the 11th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was in sharp contrast to last year’s 10th anniversary commemoration.
Barely 1,000 people gathered on the grass near the historic crash site to hear messages of honor and hope from Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Families of Flight 93 President Patrick White.
Last year, tens of thousands came for a glimpse of President Barack Obama and to get a first look at the Memorial Wall of Names and other Phase One features unveiled.
The smaller turnout didn’t bother Flight 93 family members David and Carol Whalan of Jackson, N.J. Carol’s cousin, Richard Guadagno, was among the 40 passengers and crew who tried to regain control of the hijacked United Flight 93, prompting the terrorists to crash the jetliner into the Stonycreek Township field.
“We like the fact that it’s smaller, simply because Flight 93 is about people,” David Whalan said Tuesday before the program. “It is always a very personal experience. We feel almost a family atmosphere.”
The personal message was carried through the speeches in the anniversary program, highlighted by the vice president’s reflection on his own personal tragedy. Biden, who lost his wife and daughter in a 1972 car accident, told families he understands their grief, but offered hope for recovery.
“No matter how many anniversaries you experience, for at least an instant, the terror of that moment returns; the lingering echo of that phone call; that sense of total disbelief that envelops you, where you feel like you’re being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest,” Biden said.
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Biden went on to say he hoped the pain would ease as family members find images of their loved ones in surviving relatives’ characteristics and features, and to believe the Flight 93 heroes can see how their lives have made a difference.
He added that the nation joins the families in honoring the 40 who died aboard Flight 93.
“They’ve not forgotten the heroism of your husbands, wives, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers,” Biden said. “And that what they did for this country is still etched in the minds of not only you, but millions of Americans, forever.”
He concluded with:
“My personal prayer for all of you is that in every succeeding year, you’re able to sing more than you weep. And may God truly bless you and bless the souls of those 40 incredible people who rest in this ground.”
Salazar noted that the Flight 93 National Memorial is being developed by the National Park Service with the same purpose of remembrance as the Gettysburg, Yorktown and Pearl Harbor memorials.
“It is a place to reflect on the strength of the families who suffered an unspeakable tragedy and who have rededicated themselves as families so deeply to protecting this final resting place,” Salazar said.
“It is a place to reflect on the heroism of the passengers and crew of Flight 93, who refused to submit to terrorism, but instead heroically struck back. And it is a place to reflect upon the spirit of America, that spirit that binds us together as we all share in our nation’s triumphs and trials.”
The memorial design fills that purpose, said family member Ed Root of Allentown. His cousin, flight attendant Lorraine G. Bay, died on Flight 93.
Root and his wife, Nancy, are frequent visitors to the memorial. It brings a “whole range of emotions,” Ed Root said.
“It is an amazingly peaceful place,” Ed Root said. “No matter the weather – it can be blowing and howling – it always seems very peaceful and very quiet.”
The peaceful ambiance is ironic, family member Gordon Felt said.
“It's a place that was formed with such violence on September 11,” Felt said. “But with the creation of this memorial, it has also become a place that is very peaceful. People come and contemplate the events of that day. We can be awash in the remembrances of our loved ones.”
But the memorial has meaning for all Americans, Nancy Root said.
“It is not just about families,” she said.
“It is a national memorial.”
“The meaning of this place is the 40 heroes,” said Jerry Bingham of Churchill, Tenn. His son, Mark Bingham, was killed on the plane.
“I think you always say a prayer for those that are here – for those that were here.”
He and his wife, Karen, visit the memorial frequently, and always on Mark’s birthday.
“When you love your kids, that's what you do,” Bingham said, his voice breaking.
Ed Root said that while families use the memorial’s idyllic setting to feel closer to their families, other visitors should also take time to reflect.
“I always think, ‘What would I have done?’” he said.
“They had the courage to do something.”
His wife said she always thinks of the Margaret Mead quote:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”