SHANKSVILLE -- Reverend Paul Britton lost his sister, Marion, on United Flight 93, yet he derived meaning from an optimistic Albert Einstein quote as he spoke at the 18th annual Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville on Wednesday.
“One [way to view life] is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle,” Britton said. “Today, we celebrate a miracle.”
After the passengers on United Flight 93 became aware of the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — and that their plane was also hijacked and headed for the nation's capital — they made the decision to fight back against the terrorists and crashed the plane in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, ending their own lives.
The memorial service packed the field with families, community members, veterans and others who traveled to honor the lives lost 18 years ago on Flight 93.
Among those in attendance included Vice President Mike Pence, his wife, Karen, and the President of Guinea, Alpha Conde. The two sat alongside the families who lost a loved one on the flight.
As Pence addressed the audience, he said that remembering the passengers and crew on Flight 93 was a personal experience for him and his family. The terrorists likely intended to crash into the Capitol in Washington, D.C. — which is where Pence at the time the plane would have crashed, had the passengers not taken over.
“I say from my heart, I will always believe that I, and many others in our nation's capital, were able to go home that day and hug our families because of the courage and selflessness of your families,” he said, looking directly to the section of Flight 93 families as he spoke.
“You honor us with your presence and America stands with you,” Pence said to the families.
He also took a moment to honor the memories of those whose lives were lost at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on the same day — almost 3,000 people.
Pence then highlighted some of the individuals aboard the flight. Deora Bodley — the youngest passenger on the flight at just 20 years old — was a student at Santa Clara University, volunteered at her local animal shelter and aspired to one day work as a child psychologist.
Wanda Green was a flight attendant on board. She was the mother of two children and had worked at United Airlines for 29 years. She was described as “the beacon of her church” and dreamed of one day opening her own real estate business after retiring from United Airlines.
“They were ordinary Americans,” Pence said, “but their heroism would inspire the nation.”
Ed Shaffer, a retired veteran from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, was one of the many people in the audience at the memorial. He said he felt a sense of “pride” hearing the speakers talk about the people on Flight 93.
“I’m a veteran, so I wanted to come and pay my respects,” Shaffer said. “I think [Flight 93] is the first battle we’ve won on the War on Terror, to not let them hit that Capitol.”
Pence also spoke of the time he visited the memorial two years ago, and saw a book that belonged to passenger Todd Beamer entitled “A Life of Integrity” by Dr. Howard Hendricks.
He was so struck by the symbolism of the book and what it represented about its owner that he decided to purchase a copy for himself, and has kept it on board with him on Air Force 2 ever since.
“[It] perfectly represented what the men and women of Flight 93 demonstrated on that day,” Pence said.
The memorial was led mainly by Flight 93 National Museum Superintendent Stephen Clark, who spoke on behalf of the National Park Service to say he was “honored” and “humbled” to host a memorial for the 40 people on board who lost their lives.
Many of the distinguished speakers at the memorial expressed their admiration of those boarded on the flight, and the unity they displayed.
“When they boarded that flight in Newark, New Jersey, they came from an array of ethnic and racial backgrounds,” Mitchell Zuckoff, an author and professor of journalism at Boston University, said. “They practiced a variety of religions. They held a range of political views, and then at 9:28 a.m., when confronted by terrorist hijackers, these 40 strangers set aside individual interests.”
History recounts that one passenger, Jeremy Glick, told his wife on the phone that the passengers and crew members aboard the flight decided to take a vote on whether or not to raid the cockpit.
“How American is that?” Zuckoff said about the vote. “Facing an existential crisis, they decided to vote on a response.”
Zuckoff said those passengers and crew members were “a glimmer of hope at a terrible moment.” He added that the residents of Somerset County at the time of the crash were, as well.
“They didn't ask who was on board the plane or where they were from or how they prayed,” Zuckoff said. “They only asked: ‘How can we help?”’
Secretary of the Department of the Interior David Bernhardt also spoke at the event prior to the speech from Pence.
“This year, young Americans who are born after the attacks have enrolled in college, where they will join many peers have no direct memory of what transpired,” Bernhard said. “For them, 9/11 is a historical event, a date like so few others that is permanently ingrained in our own memory.”
As audience members wiped tears from their eyes, the speakers left them with a message of hope, perseverance and unity.
“For the story of Flight 93, some details will be forever lost to history, lost when the plane struck the ground. I've made my peace with that — more than that — I've embraced it. And I urge you to do so, as well,” Zuckoff said. “The result is that we are compelled to celebrate every man and every woman aboard that plane equally and collectively.”