The 40 passengers and crew who fought back against their hijackers aboard Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, 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 in the future.
The hijackers likely intended to crash the plane into the U.S. 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 who knew they were going to die. 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 Capitol 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, a Democrat, 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 after the ceremony.
"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.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. said it's possible the bipartisan support could result in special legislation to fund the memorial, though Neil Mulholland, president and chief executive officer of the National Parks Foundation, said it's more likely the effort will result in an influx of money from corporations and other private sources to finish the memorial and then, hopefully, create an endowment to sustain it.
"Today we got a huge lift," Mulholland said of the agreement he said was 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, also announced a $2 million matching grant to spur donations.
The remarks by Bush and Clinton, in particular, drew standing ovations and loud cheers from the ceremony, which drew about 5,000 people: 4,000 invited guests including the crash victims' families, and about 1,000 other people who sat or stood on the surrounding grounds.
Biden, on hand to unveil the Wall of Names at the memorial — a set of 40 marble slabs, each inscribed with the name of a passenger or crew member who died — said those victims quickly realized they were involved in more than a hijacking, but rather the opening battle of a new war. Biden said the "citizen patriots" echoed the sentiments of Revolutionary War Capt. John Parker who said in April 1775 that if war is what they want, "then let it begin here."
Bush also seized on the citizen patriot theme, referring to the group's decision to hold a vote to decide to try to overpower the hijackers.
"The moment America's democracy was under attack our citizens defied their captors by holding a vote," he said. "The choice they made would cost them their lives."
The Rev. Daniel Coughlin, who was the U.S. House chaplain at the time of the attacks, gave the invocation and called the sacrifices made by the passengers and crew "willing seed for freedom's harvest."
Coughlin's invocation was followed by a long moment of silence as the U.S. flag was brought in, then a singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." The names of the victims were also read as bells tolled, and Grammy Award-winning musician Sarah McLachlan performed the song, "I Will Remember You."
Ahead of the dedication, crowds getting there were slowed by weather-related traffic jams as heavy overnight rains turned temporary parking facilities into mud bogs, and tight security rules but remained undeterred.
Among them was Butch Stevens, 69, of Carlyle, Ill., who stopped on his way back from a visit to Washington, D.C.
Stevens said he had no connection to anyone aboard the flight, except, as he said, as an American.
"This kind of makes you realize where you live," Stevens said.
Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93, whose brother Edward participated in the revolt by passengers and crew, afterward called the memorial, "a huge accomplishment. It's one that brings so much comfort to the families knowing, finally, that the sacred ground, the site where the flight came down and our loved ones rest in perpetuity, is finally protected and under the stewardship and care of the National Park Service."