On the 16th anniversary of 9/11, Vice President Mike Pence credited the “heroes” of Flight 93 with saving lives, possibly even his own, and sparking a national “rededication to our most sacred ideal of freedom.”
“They were ordinary people,” he said, “but on that day, they became extraordinary.”
Pence used Monday’s keynote address at the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Somerset County, to take stock of the “global war on terror” and to reminisce on where he was on 9/11.
“We are in the midst of a war between good and evil. The first battle in that war took place in the skies above us and ended in this grassy meadow,” he said.
Hundreds of people, including surviving family members, gathered on a breezy, sunny morning for the annual commemoration of the 40 passengers and crew members who took control of Flight 93 and perished in the Somerset County crash.
Pence described the passengers and crew as “men and women who looked evil squarely in the eye and, without regard for their personal safety, rushed forward to save lives. … They charged the cockpit and took hold of their fate.”
Since 9/11, tens of thousands of people have been inspired to become first responders, and 5 million have joined the armed forces — nearly 7,000 of whom have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
Sixteen years later, Pence said, that fight is still worth fighting.
The U.S. military has ISIS “on the run” in Iraq and Syria and won’t leave Afghanistan until there is “an honorable and enduring outcome that will be worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made,” he said.
Pence got choked up when he remembered where he was on 9/11. A new congressman from Indiana, Pence started out the day in his Capitol office but was moved to the U.S. Capitol Police headquarters when word of the World Trade Center attacks reached Washington.
“It was as though the (Capitol) building was literally hemorrhaging, with people running in every direction,” he said.
The legislators were told that another hijacked plane — United Flight 93 — was headed for Washington and was only 12 minutes away. Pence said he looked across the street at the dome of the Capitol.
“It was the longest 12 minutes of my life — but it turned to 13 minutes, then 14. And then we were informed that the plane had gone down in a field in Pennsylvania,” he said.
Later, while visiting the Shanksville site with his family, Pence said he learned from a park ranger that the plane likely would have struck the Capitol while he and other congressmen were inside.
“So for me, it’s personal,” he said. “It’s a debt I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay. Because among the many lives that were saved by their selfless courage, they might well have saved my own life that day 16 years ago.”
Terry Butler of Somerset said he volunteers at the Flight 93 memorial and attends the ceremony every year because of where he was that morning. Working at Stoystown Auto Wreckers on Route 30, about a five-minute drive from the crash site, he saw the plane overhead and heard the crash.
“It just went by and …,” he said, his voice trailing off. “It was too low for around here.”
The crash was followed by “explosion after explosion” and then a mushroom cloud. “When it hit the ground, it just shook me. I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “It was unbelievable. It was terrible.”
Butler said he copes with the trauma of that day by staying involved at the memorial and talking to visitors. On Monday, he wore a Flight 93 T-shirt and pin. His tattooed arms tell the story of that day.
“I like to keep people informed of what happened. It’s tough, but I get through it. I do what I can,” he said.
Linda Musitano of Philadelphia said she brought three of her children — ages 6, 7 and 9 — because they’re old enough to grasp at least some of what happened. Her husband works for the National Park Service, which oversees the memorial.
Asked what he learned Monday, 9-year-old Matthew Musitano said, “Some bad people on the airplane wanted to take over the plane.”
The memorial is to the people who died, he said.
Gordon Felt, brother of Flight 93 passenger Edward Felt and president of the Families of Flight 93, said the remembrance of 9/11 should have a unifying effect on Americans — especially at a time of profound political divisions.
“They didn’t fight for their religion, their ethnicity, their nationality or their political ideology. They instinctually fought for what was important — to get home to their loved ones,” Felt said. “And just as important, they fought because giving in to evil should never be an option.”
Felt, a member of the Flight 93 Federal Advisory Commission, said the final piece of the memorial — the 93-foot Tower of Voices with 40 wind chimes — will be completed in time for next year’s 9/11 ceremony.
“Our loved ones never gave up, and neither should we, the people,” he said. “We must remember that by standing together as individuals, just as our loved ones did, we become stronger, more focused on our objectives, less likely to be driven by depersonalized ideology, and more likely to do what is right in the face of evil and uncertainty.”