SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — The 40 passengers and crew who fought back against their hijackers aboard Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2011, 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.
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. 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 capital 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.
“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.
“Today we got a huge lift,” Neil Mulholland, president and chief executive officer of the National Parks Foundation, said of the agreement 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, announced a $2 million matching grant to spur donations.
The remarks by Bush and Clinton, in particular, drew standing ovations during the ceremony that drew 4,000 invited guests including the crash victims’ families, and about 1,000 others who sat or stood on the grounds.
Vice President Biden unveiled the Wall of Names – a set of 40 marble slabs, each inscribed with the name of someone who died.